Welcome to the archive of the John Barleycorn blog, produced by Howard Gayton and Rex Van Ryn during the process of creating their graphic novel John Barleycorn Must Die. As part of that process, you'll find discussions of magic, of creativity, and 'Around the Table' discussions with a range of internationally known artists, writers and film makers. The graphic novel was printed in a limited edition, so if you managed to get one, good for you! Although this project is over now, we're leaving this blog online as an archive and as a snap shot in time.

Friday, 3 December 2010

in principio erat verbum...

The Kingdom Institute, exterior 11.59 PM Saturday 31st October

H - How shall we start? Let's put the book's Prologue art up first, without any text.
R - Yes, no text, so that people will have no idea what it's about....
H – Also, we haven’t actually got text yet.
R- Well yes, there is that.
H- Okay then, Rex, what are we hoping to achieve with the John Barleycorn blog?
R - Actually, thinking about it, shouldn’t we open with a bold and controversial statement?
H - Such as?
R - **** ******* was a ***. But don’t put that down.
H - Do we need a controversial statement? Wouldn’t we just be making it for the sake of making it?
R – Undeniably, yes.
H - Why don’t we allow some space then for people to make their own controversial statement, since we are too cowardly ourselves to say "***** was a *****,” for fear of retribution from ***** fundamentalist madmen.
R – Ok. So, Reader, make your own controversial statement here: ____________________ . 

H - But what relevance does all this have to our graphic novel, Rex?
R – Well, it’s all about God. And our book is about the sky gods.
H - Before we proceed further, I think you should explain the strange process by which this graphic novel came to be in its present form. 
R – Okay.  John Barleycorn Must Die is an amalgamation of the images from three separate graphic novels that I illustrated last year, none of which reached fruition. One was a book you were writing, called The Immortals; one was a book written by another friend, called Machines of God; and the third was a book I was writing myself, The Wallpaper that Ate London.
H – Yes, they all stalled in mid-creation. I imagine this is something other writers and artists can relate to: the projects that start off with great enthusiasm and then run out of steam part way through for one reason or another.

R – So, out of a desire not to waste the large amount of art I'd created for these projects, I decided to throw the pages from the three old stories together into a kind of smorgasbord, and to see if I could turn those pages into a single brand new story.  I found a common element linking The Immortals and  Machines of God in the form of the central protagonists; but The Wall Paper that Ate London, my own book, was harder to incorporate into the new story, and I wasn't entirely satisfied with the results. That's when you stepped into the project, to help with the writing of the new story: John Barleycorn Must Die. We've got three separate graphic novels worth of art that we're weaving together into a whole new tale. 
H - So here is where we are at the moment, as we start this blog: You and I have taken the smorgasbord of your new story, re-plotted it, and smoothed out some of its outrageously incomprehensible plots. We are writing what is effectively both a first and second draft: the first for me and the second for you.  This first/second draft state is a bit of a paradox, which I think mirrors the way the novel explores different levels of reality. Would you agree?
R - ……
H - Rex! Would you agree?
R - Sorry, I was musing for a moment.
H - On what?
R - I was considering the value of…money.
H – Oh?
R - I was thinking that whenever comics become really successful and the creators are interviewed about them, they are always asked: “Did you think that such-and-such would be such a phenomenal success when you were creating it?” And people inevitably answer: “No.” But when I'm asked that question, I'm going to answer: ”Yes!” So when we're on the Jonathan Ross show, and he inevitably asks the question, I shall refer him to this first blog entry….
H - If the book isn’t successful, no one will know you made this prediction; but if it is, you will appear to have had amazing foresight.
R – Yes, indeed.
H - Or else people will just think you are an arrogant git who got lucky.
R – Yes, indeed.
H - Okay, Rex, back to my question about levels of reality: When I read your first draft of John Barleycorn and managed to work my way through the fog of incomprehensibility… wait a minute, remind me, what were the comments you received about your manuscript from other readers?
R - They ranged from “this is unadulterated crap” to “this travels the line between genius and insanity, but no one is going to know which.” I hasten to add these were comments from friends.
H - So, as I said, when I saw through the fog, one of the things that struck me about the story was its potential for working on a number of levels: inner and outer, material and spiritual, etc.. Any others you can think of?
R - What do you mean?
H - Er, well, in my original story, The Immortals, there was an alternate reality called the mundus imaginalis, if you remember….
R – Yes, I do. What a great name! Where did it come from?
H - From my studies in Western Esotericism. It means the “World of the Imagination,” and I think it was Henri Corbin who coined it. The imagination is seen as an actual concrete realm by practitioners of the esoteric. The mundus in my story was a realm of the imagination that one could travel into in order to bring about change here in the material realm. So, by using art originally drawn for The Immortals, the images were already in place for at least one alternate level of reality in John Barleycorn; but in your original draft there were also different levels of narration, of fractured narrative….
R - The narration was fractured because that's the way I think! I don’t think in lines; my mind moves from subject to subject continuously.... 
H - Wasn't it actually just jumbled nonsense?
R – Well yes, Howard, maybe it was, but in the realm of the imagination it made perfect sense.
H - I would say in the realm of your imagination it made perfect sense, but not in anyone else’s! I do think, however, that an artist's movement through that place of jumbled thought and imagination is an important step towards making interesting and innovative art. When I'm directing theatre, for example, I refer to that place of jumbled thought as the Dark Forest -- a phrase I took from Spenser’s The Fairie Queene, I think. Those are the days when a perfectly good theatre project seems to have turned into crap overnight, and I am completely lost in the dark. The actors are too, and they are looking to me to get them out of that awful place. And yet I think we often need to go into the Dark Forest in order to discover something new and exciting about the work. In the Dark Forest stage of a project, we can no longer rely on past certainties or old tricks. So the jumbled nature of your first draft was your Dark Forest – and an important stage in order for us to get to where we are now in the creative process. We are taking the ideas, themes, and concepts you found in that forest and making them comprehensible and accessible to others. And it's highly unlikely that if we had entered the story in a more rational way that we would have come up with one even half so interesting.
R - I agree, a certain amount of stumbling through the dark seems to be necessary.
H - Before we end for the day, let's talk a little about the Prologue art, which we have posted here. Why did you chose this particular sequence of drawings for the Prologue?
R - It was the only relatively short and self-contained sequence of images that I had; and I liked beginning with that dynamic intro with the car, which is almost cinematic.
H - Yes, when I first read your Prologue, I saw its filmic quality. I loved your idea of the narration [which we have not posted here yet] running over the top of it like a film's voice-over. So when you first put that sequence of images in place, did you already know what the rest of the story would be?
R - No. Genuinely no.
H – So…. 
R - But I liked the idea of a Fraternity of men plotting together, and conjuring some strange creature from their own psyches.... And the rest of the story grew from there.


  1. I like your description of the Dark Forest, which is something I go through with every writing and painting project.

    Delia Sherman has a good post up on her blog right now about writing first drafts. What you call the Dark Forest, she calls the Dark Night of the Soul. It is, she says, "the moment that ultimately divides Writers Who Will Finish A Novel from Writers Who Won't. You just have to figure out how to get through it."

    Here's a link to the post: http://www.sff.net/people/kushnerSherman/Sherman/blog.htm

    Congratulations on your new blog, H & R. I'm looking forward to reading more.

  2. Fantastic! Bravo and three hearty cheers for beginning this blogging lark :) I want to read the book already... I think it'll be a winner :)

  3. I love the artwork, it's got a sort of woodcut feeling to it (I know nerrthing about artwork, so I suppose maybe they actually ARE woodcuts...?) and look forward to finding out more about the story!

  4. I shall be along for the ride, it sounds too weirdly fascinating to pass up and I love the idea of the Mundus Imaginalis! I also like your analogy of the Dark Forest, but for me it has a wider, more universal application, not just for artists and creative people, but for humankind in general. I have long wondered whether regular periods of going into darkness, or a withdrawal of some kind is actually a necessary part of growing and learning and renewing. A little like leaving a field fallow to allow it to regain its fertility. A chance to slough off the old and see clearly with an inner sight, what we need for the next part of our journey. I think of it rather like a journey into the underworld, like that of Innana, or perhaps Theseus searching for the Minotaur, to bring back insight and new knowledge. Or the vision quest of a shaman, who 'dies' and is reborn. And being 'fallow' for a time is something we are under increasing pressure not to do in this world of always on, always open, always ready, always doing, always happy. Oh dear, I've wandered off on a tangent again...better find those white pebbles I dropped............! :)

  5. Thank you all for your kind encouragement.