Cold War Conspiracies
Writer/ Artist Martin Stiff spoke to Tripwire’s editor-in-chief Joel Meadows about his graphic novel Tiny Acts Of Violence…
TW: What was the genesis of Tiny Acts of Violence?
MARTIN STIFF: It doesn’t come from one single idea – it’s a melting pot of ideas and theories and images that I’ve been storing away. For example, I never used to be particularly interested in politics; it always felt like a soap opera full of ridiculous and baffling tradition and cast with bad actors. Ever since the rise of the right and this disturbing new populism that seems to be infecting the west – Brexit and Trump especially – and also thanks mainly to social media, I’ve found myself much more engaged. And much more angry. I wanted to try and make sense of it all to myself and began to think a lot about the accusations of ‘fake news’ and the disinformation we’re all subjected to. Also, just creatively, my last book The Absence was set in England so I wanted to push myself a little more and set the new one in an area I wasn’t quite so familiar with.
TW: What would you say are the biggest influences on the book?
MS: Well, as I’ve said – the general political climate was a huge influence, but as I start researching the edges of a subject I find books and films that help light the path. Stuff like John Lewis Gaddis’ The Cold War, and John Le Carre’s fiction were particularly inspiring. Visually I wanted to try and capture the cold, bland aesthetics of Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy which I love. The book is a hybrid of two different genres.
TW: What made you decide to cross the two genres?
MS: To be honest, I see loads of genres in there – horror, science fiction, conspiracy spy caper, historical thriller, family drama, and even fairy tales. As with The Absence – which was also a mash of different genres – I didn’t really sit down and decide which genre to work in. My own interests are pretty varied so it all gets thrown into the mixing pot. Tiny Acts of Violence is self-published but you could have gone down the company published route.
TW: What have been the advantages and disadvantages of publishing this yourself?
MS: I was always very nervous about self-publishing. I love creating the books but I absolutely hate the promotional and marketing side of things. I’m no good at all at selling myself or my work so I’m not built for self-publishing at all. I had originally intended to Kickstart the book but that filled me with terror – what if I had put all that work in and no one wanted to fund it? I think I would’ve been crushed. Luckily, having designed Simon Furman and Geoff Senior’s excellent comic To the Death I got to know Adrian Clarke and the guys at Comic Toolbox. Adrian asked to read TAoV, and liked it enough to ask if I wanted to put it out through them. That seemed like the best of both worlds to me – I got the book out there and I had someone else help with the marketing and distribution. And it’s worked well – Comic Toolbox and GetMyComics have been fantastic.
TW: It has been a very strange year with the coronavirus throwing a spanner in the works. How much has this thrown obstacles in your path?
MS: I actually finished the book at the tail end of 2019 so the creation of the book was pretty unaffected (although it did feel weirdly serendipitous that my book about a terrible virus hits the same year as a global pandemic…) I guess it would’ve been nice to do some in-store book signings and whatnot but I feel like that’s the least of anyone’s concern right now. I’m just happy I got it out there. There is a strong fairy tale element to the project.
TW: Are these stories you have always had a fascination in and how difficult was it to weave them into the story as a whole?
MS: It’s a very ambitious book. I have two kids and so have read the same bloody fairy tales time and time again and I’ve really learnt how those stories are basically immortal. They’ve helped to form the moral compass for many, many generations so when I discovered how the allies had banned the Brothers Grimm stories from Berlin after WWII because they feared the stories had attributed to Nazism I was fascinated. It seemed a plot device that was almost too perfect, especially when applied to today’s notion of ‘fake news’ and political manipulation by nefarious media operators. I could examine today’s world through the prism of these ancient folk tales and what they mean.
TW: How long did it take you to plot, script and draw it?
MS: It’s a continuous process for me – rather than completely write it and then completely draw it I wrote it in ‘chapters’ and then while I was drawing that chapter I was writing the next. It helped me keep interested in it as there was always a different muscle to flex. It also allowed the story to grow over time. Although I had the basic plot mapped out at the beginning, working on it over the four years meant it could develop and evolve quite organically. There was a lot of stuff in there by the end that I hadn’t even thought of at the beginning, but somehow it all hangs together (I think)! Also, The Absence was in black and white so I decided from the start that I would do TAoV in colour – which was a learning curve and probably doubled the time I had to spend on every page. The Cold War is a subject that’s very well-mined in fiction. What is it about this era that makes it ripe for writing fiction set in it? It’s such a rich area to explore. There’s so many facets to it, and so much moral complexity which always makes for interesting fiction. On a personal level, as a child of the seventies I was brought up during the Cold War so it’s always been a period which has fascinated me.
TW: The book must have taken a lot of research to get details correct. How much do you enjoy research for a project and do you know when to stop the research process?
MS: The research process never stops! The Absence is a period piece set in the aftermath of WWII so that required a lot of research as well and I’ve become used to trawling the internet looking for images of 50 year old cars, buildings or police and military uniforms. Right at the beginning of the book I actually went to Berlin, which helped as well. I quite enjoy the research aspect – it somehow makes the whole process feel more worthwhile if I have to dredge up a load of reference material. That said, there’s probably a lot of factual errors in there but I figure, as long as the story is entertaining you can probably get away with a few bloopers!
TW: Tiny Acts of Violence is a book that you have written and drawn. What are the pros and cons of writing and drawing your own work?
MS: Being the sole creator on a book is a real double edged sword. On one hand you get to have complete ownership over your idea – there’s no one pushing their opinion and no debates – it’s just you. It all stands or falls on your own terms. But on the other hand, that can also make it very hard to muster the motivation to continue working on a book you’ve been plugging away with for so long. When I made The Absence I put it out as six print-on-demand issues which meant there was a certain amount of momentum and an (albeit small) readership that were compelling me to reach the finish line, but I finished all 224 pages of TAoV before anyone had read any of it. Working in isolation can be pretty difficult but there’s a tipping point where, once you’re past halfway, you realize that if you give up you’ll have basically invalidated all that time you’ve already spent on it. All those days, weeks, even years would’ve been wasted and so suddenly the most important thing is to finish no matter what.
TW: What are you working on next?
MS: After nearly ten years of working on The Absence and Tiny Acts of Violence in my spare time, I’ve given a lot of consideration to taking an extended break! My design company, Amazing15, is very busy and that scratches a lot of creative itches and I have a family which obviously brings a lot of responsibility so spare time isn’t something I have a lot of these days. But the comic-making itch is proving difficult to leave alone and I’ve recently found myself working on my first collaborative project. I’m just drawing this time and it’s proving an interesting experience working with someone else but luckily for me the writer is a pro so at least one of us knows what we’re doing! It’s all a bit top secret at the moment but I’m sure we’ll start banging on about it soon. Once I’ve wrapped that, I fully intend to return to a novel that I’ve had sitting half-written for about a year.
Tiny Acts Of Violence is available to order from here