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- Books , Illustration

Martin Stark: Frankenstein reborn

The book illustrations for »Professor Unrat« by Offenbach-based illustrator Martin Stark met with acclaim and were awarded the Gestalterpreis (Design Prize). The same publishers, Büchergilde Gutenberg, have now brought out a new edition of »Frankenstein« … and the response to the black-and-white worlds created for it by Martin Stark has been if anything more enthusiastic still. We interviewed the creative about his approach to his work.


So you chose black-and-white throughout for the new »Frankenstein« …

Yes, I actually made my mind up about that quite early on. One reason was that I reckoned the harshness of contrast was suited to capturing the ?novel’s mood of foreboding – dark scenes, suddenly drenched in lurid light, as if by a lightning strike. And then also I saw it as a way of paying homage to the famous »Frankenstein« films with Boris Karloff, Mel Brooks’ »Young Frankenstein«, and »The Munsters« television series – all of those were shot in black-and-white, and I think they are great. I was strongly influenced, both this time and with »Professor Unrat«, by the Robert Wiene film »The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari« and German Expressionist cinema – those windblown painted backdrops – and by the first horror film I ever saw as a child. Its atmosphere made a deep impression on me, still with me today.
How did you approach the book and decide where your illustrations should go to support the text?

I start by reading the book through and listing possible scenes as I go, also compiling an index to the descriptions of landscapes and people. The next stage is to do some scribbles to try to establish a rhythmical sequence of moments – exciting and peaceful, complicated and simple, evenly distributed through the novel.
The publishers proposed that the chapters in which the creature recounts its experiences from its own point of view should also be illustrated from its perspective. And that soon prompted the idea of illustrating all the rest of the book likewise from the perspective of the other narrators, Victor Frankenstein and Walton, the Arctic explorer. However, I didn’t want to confine myself to scenes from the printed book. My idea was to add some things that appear in the films. I also wanted to capture the story’s atmosphere and present the landscapes it describes in such detail – the glaciers on Mont Blanc, the Rhine Valley, the Orkneys, the framework action set at the North Pole.


Frankenstein, visually, is so firmly stereotyped already – how on earth is a new illustrator to go about making it a thing of his own?

That was a challenge, indeed. I was soon clear in my mind that I would not ever show the creature complete, only a shadow or various details, just enough to give an idea of its monstrous nature. That would also give the reader sufficient scope to build up his or her own creature from different illustrations. While researching the job I came across an illustration by Theodor von Holst, used as frontispiece to an edition of 1831, showing Victor Frankenstein as he escapes from the laboratory. For the bicentenary edition I thought it appropriate to re-interpret this and use it as frontispiece again, so as to set up a link back to the early history of the »Frankenstein« novel. And there also had to be a tribute to Füssli’s »Nightmare«, as the inspiration for one of the scenes in Mary Shelley’s book.

You do show a clear general preference for drawing in monochrome. What is the attraction for you?

I like creating an atmosphere full of contrast by simple means, reducing visual information – as in a pictogram – to essentials, more or less abstract but graphically clear geometrical shapes that still produce a recognisable image. If you do the illustrations in fineliner pen and take the light away, it produces a woodcut-like effect, and this comes off best in black-and-white. Another point is that black-and-white prompts the reader’s imagination to supply the colours. However, that’s not to say I might not use colours in other projects that come along. My way of working thus resembles analogue vectorisation – the illustrations are a mix of structure and spontaneity. The pencil allows me more freedom and faster working than other tools, and one can actually quite often get surprising results.


You illustrate for magazines as well as books. Which do you prefer?

I enjoy both – either way you get the freshness of reading something for the first time and the spontaneous reactions that prompt one to illustrate. The only real difference is time available: mostly, when it’s a magazine, you have to make up your mind fast. When it’s a novel, you will have time to immerse yourself in the story and reflect on it; you get time to research more thoroughly, and to decide how you can produce a coherent concept for illustrating the characters and settings and generate tension.
And then again, as a rule, a handsome book has greater life expectancy – ideally it will be on your shelves for years to come. So the illustrations I do for a book have to be ones that I personally will want to live with.
Interview: Bettina Schulz

»Frankenstein« was published by Büchergilde Gutenberg,
This article was first published in novum 02.19 (n+ Black&White); single copies:
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