The Sabertooth Vampire is a small vamp with two very big problems: his enormous fangs, which are longer than he is tall. Mike Russell has been posting the frustrated adventures of the cursed count online, but soon the Sabertooth Vampire will be appearing in the pages of Dark Horse Presents — where he'll battle a popular Dark Horse character. We talk to Russell about the origins of the long-toothed vamp and his leap into color.
Russell has been running The Sabertooth Vampire on his website, where he's just launched the third season of the silent webcomic. Soon, though, he'll be making his print debut in Dark Horse Presents issues #12 and #14, out May 23rd and July 18th. This will also be the vampire's first set of adventures in color, thanks to colorist Bill Mudron.
So where exactly did the Sabertooth Vampire come from in the first place?
Mike Russell: The Sabertooth Vampire came about because I was bored waiting for a movie to start.
It was January 2011. I was at a preview screening of that Jason Statham The Mechanic remake, which I was reviewing for The Oregonian. The film publicists don't like us to bring cellphones to the screenings — like, every time Apple gives the iPhone a better camera and more processing power, the studios give the security guards better night-vision gear to use in the aisles during the screenings. So I'd started leaving my phone at home and carrying around a tiny Moleskine notebook to doodle in while I was waiting for the movies to start. One of those little 3.5 x 5.5 unlined jobs.
One of the doodles was a tiny vampire with oversized fangs — an undead Napoleon complex, basically. I posted the sketch to my Twitter feed with a caption along the lines of: "My attempt to find a new angle for the young-adult vampire-fiction market." (That sketch is the cover of the Season One minicomic, BTW.)
A week or so later, I was at this thing where local comics folk go to Portland Opera dress rehearsals and sketch the shows. My pal Dylan Meconis — a cartoonist I REALLY fear and respect, and good Lord, everyone read Bite Me! and Family Man and Outfoxed forever — told me I should do more with that sketch. So I decided to draw Sabertooth Vampire webcomics and link them off my Twitter feed until I ran out of ideas. Which, seriously, could be any day now.
What was the response from Twitter?
Well, what's been really fun is that I've gotten a few pieces of fan art, and a disproportionate amount of it for some reason is textiles-based. I've gotten a life-size stuffed plush Sabertooth Vampire from my friend Bobbie, and reader Joseph Vaughan (@DethMunky1978 on Twitter) commissioned Diane Koss of cutesybutnotcutesy.com to make two real-live versions of the Sabertooth Vampire hoodie from this comic. And then he mailed me one of them. Insane.
(When you wear it with the hood down, with the fangs casually draped down your shoulders, it sort of looks like what Kraven the Hunter would wear if he hunted sabertooth vampires instead of lions. I have a photo of this that I will send you.)
So you have actually parodied a lot of vampire media — Dracula, Abbott and Costello, those B-movie monster team-ups, and, of course, Twilight — any other vampires you're looking to skewer?
Well, the other day my stepdaughter pointed out that I hadn't done Interview with the Sabertooth Vampire yet. Am hard at work developing a Christian Slater caricature.
The Sabertooth Vampire might have to grow out his hair for that one.
And sweep stuff off tables with his arms in assorted fits of rage. And while I've put Renfield in the comic as a sort of pointy-haired valet, I have yet to figure out what to do with Van Helsing. I mean, the vampire pop-culture rabbit-hole is kind of bottomless these days, isn't it? And there's the Hammer Films stuff, F.W. Murnau.... Plus we need to get him into that bright-red swirly armor Gary Oldman was wearing. [Note: Russell actually posted his take on Van Helsing just last night]
Will he have a mouthguard?
Sure. Maybe I'll have him hanging out with Parker Posey in "Blade III." (Seriously — has a set of fangs ever looked more awkward in someone's mouth in a big-budget vampire movie than Posey's choppers in that flick? She sounded like she was at the orthodontist half the time.)
Why did you decide to make him silent?
Well, I really enjoy drawing it BECAUSE it's almost totally nonverbal. Mostly before now I've drawn these nonfiction pop-journalism comics for The Oregonian that involve lots of labor-intensive transcription and distillation and verbiage. Basically, the Sabertooth Vampire has become an antidote to that. Or therapy, maybe.
(I also still draw the webcomic in those teeny Moleskines. The original drawings are way smaller than the final print and web versions.)
Poor little guy can't even vent his frustrations. The silence does make it feel more like a roadrunner cartoon
I wish! Man. Chuck Jones. I'm sure he's somewhere in the back of my mind, maybe rolling in his grave, every time I draw one of these. My two favorite Termite Terrace cartoons of all time are "Robin Hood Daffy" and "Deduce, You Say" — the ones where the best comedy is all in Daffy and Porky's tiny sideways glances while something big and violent happens. (Also, simple/abstract Maurice Noble backgrounds. Accept no substitutes.)
Are the Dark Horse Presents comics going to be in the style of the previous "Sabertooth Vampire" comics, or will it be at all different for DHP?
Well, a couple of key differences came up as we were porting the strip over to DHP.
The first big difference was that, prior to February, I'd drawn and thought about the comic exclusively in black and white. Drawing in black and white meant I got to do things like NOT worry about how to color the night sky so it didn't compete with the sound effects and little facial expressions. I tend to think the color has to be pretty light-touch on gag comics, or at least on mine. Bill Mudron was super-cool and froody while I worried myself sick over that issue. I was sending him stuff like watercolor-y "Winnie the Pooh" animation stills for inspiration.
The second big difference is that I, um, drew the comic slightly more carefully because, you know, Dark Horse. And I had (very cool) editors. And size/length parameters. It was really good discipline.
And we're going to see a special guest star? Any hints as to who it is?
It's a LOT more fun not to reveal that. But here's the backstory if you want it:
Dark Horse gave me a shot at drawing three one-page strips for them, and frankly, like any sane nobody, I was a little daunted. Like I said in the press release, Dark Horse Presents was this HUGE formative book for me — if memory serves, it was one of the first comics I was buying with regularity at Emerald City Comics in the early '90s in Eugene, Oregon, when I was first getting into comics at U of O. Somewhere in my basement I'm pretty sure I could dig up DHP #62, the one that wrapped up the first Sin City series.
(Man. Emerald City Comics. I also picked up the first Madman series there. Wish I'd grabbed the copies of Grafik Muzik that were on the shelves while I was at it. Once saw Mike Allred at the Kinko's down on 13th in Eugene, Xeroxing a promo for what eventually became Madman. Fun time and town to get into comics.)
Anyway. So one way to deal with feeling daunted was to just ask for something ridiculous, have them say no, and then relax. This is Dark Horse, right? What crossover would I dream of doing? So I drew a fairly detailed thumbnail script of a comic along those lines, and sent it to the editors with a note that basically read, "I know you have to run this by the creator, and I know the answer is probably going to be no, but that's okay, I have backup ideas." Two hours later, Scott Allie wrote back and said the creator had signed off on it. Which more or less made my year.
I've also heard that you've been doing live readings. How does that work with a mostly non-verbal comic?
I had to figure that out when they asked me to do a reading at this event called Comics Underground last November. I had to follow Meconis at that, actually, so no pressure. Basically, I choreographed this slide show that was timed to the musical beats of songs I had in my head when I drew the strips.
What songs are in your head when you're drawing?
A surprising number of them are my friend Fatboy Roberts' movie-score remix/mashups, actually, which you can download free of charge at geekremixed.com — "Fistful of Rupees" and "Three Panel Philosophies" immediately come to mind. There might also be an embarrassing amount of Yacht Rock.
Do I dare ask about Yacht Rock's influence on the strips?
I WISH I could be that smooth.