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, 31 December 2010

novus annus.

"Let's see what the cards tell of your future, John Barleycorn...

H - Here we are, then, on the cusp of the New Year. I thought this would be a good time to reflect on where we are in our graphic novel, and where we see it going in 2011. Is that fine with you?
R - It is. But I'd like to begin by thanking everybody who got me to this place. It sounds like an Oscar speech, but it's not! These are people whose encouragement and practical help enabled me to produce the first draft of the novel: Steve, Terri, Marko, Shany, Jackie, and Marcia. Without whom there wouldn’t have been a first draft of John Barleycorn, and I thank them with all my heart.
H - Wow, it sounds like you had a bit of a Scrooge-like redemption over Christmas there, Rex!
R - I’ll just wipe a tear from my eye....

R - That’s it. I'm done. Please, carry on. 
H - A retrospective of where we are now, then?
R - This past month we continued to dismantle my original story. Or rather you did, which is why I haven't listed you among the people who have brought me this far.
H - Ah, now that's the old Rex I know and love! I knew the Spirit of Christmas wouldn't haunt you for very long! Yes, our final act of 2010 was a piece of creative destruction. As readers might (or might not) recall: John Barleycorn Must Die consists of art that you created for three other comics projects that were never completed. We're taking all that art and weaving it together into a brand new story. One of those incomplete projects was a comic that you were writing as well as drawing: The Wallpaper That Ate London. In John Barleycorn Must Die, we are using the Wallpaper characters as a metaphor for the subconscious inner world. It seemed to me this part of the novel was a sacred cow that couldn’t be touched, even though it wasn't meshing with the rest of the book. When I finally brought it up, you agreed that the Wallpaper section of the book just wasn't working....
R - Yes.
H - And to your credit, you were true to your maxim that if something isn't working, then it has to change -- even if it's something you're particularly fond of. So we have spent the best part of the last fortnight pulling apart, rearranging, and retelling that inner story, and now it fits into the rest of the graphic novel much better. Would you agree?
First, the roughs...
R - I do . . . and I think that I came out on top after all, as I will now get to design a set of tarot cards for that part of the book, which I have always wanted to do.
H - Yeah, there is a scene where John Barleycorn, the magician, goes to a fortune teller to get a tarot reading. Every time we've looked at that scene, I’ve had a niggling doubt about it – and when I finally voiced that doubt, you came up with a brilliant idea for using that spread of art in a brand new way, integrating the inner and outer worlds of our story. It was the perfect solution, and added an important new dimension to the book. It's funny, isn't it, how seemingly insurmountable problems can suddenly resolve themselves, and how some of ones best creative ideas come out of problem-solving.
R - Yes, I remember leaving here on the day the problem first reared its ugly head. I really didn’t know if we could use the Wallpaper sequence of drawings at all. 
H - As I recall, we had a big discussion about it and agreed that if we couldn’t come up with a better way to integrate those drawings into the rest of the story, they would have to go completely. But at the same time, we were worried that removing the art would leave the rest of the novel, the concept even, rather flat. 
R - When I left here, I undertook a 'walking meditation'.
H - Which was...?
R - Well, it was just me walking home, really.
H - And...?
R - And I remembered that we had once discussed the Wallpaper characters as archetypal figures. So I thought: Why not turn them into actual archetypes and create a tarot deck out of them? 
H - I was blown away by the idea. It was really exciting to see our plotting problem solved in such an ingenious…
R - ...and elegant...
H - ...and elegant way. I had been struggling with the problem of the Wallpaper story all night, and then you solved it and integrated the tarot reading scene in one fell swoop! It’s interesting to me that the creative process sometimes involves a certain amount of blind trust and...hmmm...let me see how to explain it..... That tarot scene had been bugging me, but not quite enough to speak up about...so I left it alone and never mentioned my doubts prior to that moment. 
Next, the drawings...
R - Which is interesting, and strange, because we work together in a very honest way.
H - You mean: Why didn’t I mention my doubts before?
R - Yes, that's exactly what I mean. But perhaps the scene was just waiting for the right time for its problems to become conscious to us both…? Or is that just a load of bollocks?!
H - Well, you can dismiss it as bollocks, but in the interview that we're going to be posting on this blog next week, our conversation with the French illustrator Didier Graffet, Didier talks about 'art as magic.' And I think this is one of those instances where one can almost see the 'magic' of creativity at work: the 'magic' that brings up the right idea at just the right time. Creating a graphic novel, or any other form of art, is such a strange and mysterious process at times, pulling imagery and ideas out of the imagination through a mixture of determination, skill, luck, chance... 
R - …inspiration...
H - …and inspiration, yes, and fateful decisions, and happy accidents…
R - ...and serendipity. Oh, that is 'happy accidents,' isn’t it?
H - Uh, yes. So it's possible to view a creative epiphany--like the tarot scene suddenly finding its purpose--as a form of magic. It is also possible to view it as just….
R - Pot luck.
H - Quite! And so, Rex, that's where we find ourselves at the end of 2010. Now let's look at our plans for the year ahead of us. As I've just mentioned, we have an 'Around the Table' discussion with Didier Graffet scheduled for Friday 7th January, and discussions with other artists and writers coming up in the months ahead. But what's next for John Barleycorn?
R - It's going to be finished. In the summer.
H - So our next step towards finishing is to write the next draft of the book. When we talked about this, you thought we should plunge in immediately and start writing the word balloons over the art.
R - Yes. Well, it is the next logical step.
H - But is it, Rex? Is it? I've suggested that we first go through the graphic novel scene by scene, working out each character's objectives and motivations. When I proposed this to you, however, I noticed you were somewhat taken aback.
Finally, the inks.
R - I was! But I do appreciate that, as a writer and theatre director, you are coming to the comic from a different angle than me, the artist. I like the techniques you are using to tell the story, and I've agreed to try this approach -- but I'm still going to complain about it behind your back, and tell people that you are painfully slow as a creative force. Which is the kind of thing I do.
H - Yeah, okay. Ignoring that and moving swiftly on: I worry because our plot is quite complicated, and I feel that we need to be able to keep a tight grip on it as we write. If we just blunder in and start writing the dialogue now, without knowing what each scene needs to communicate, we'd soon find ourselves lost in the complexity of our interwoven plot threads. My hope is that by working out the underlying structure of the novel first, including the character arcs and ambiance of each scene, and exactly how much of the plot needs to be delivered at each stage, then when we do finally write the word balloons, it will flow much more easily and organically.
R - I am already lost in the complexity of what you just said.
H - Which I think proves my point.
R - Am I coming across as a bit of heathen in all this?
H - In what way?
R - I seem to be trying to drive a bus through the subtleties of the creative process... but I put that down to my conditioning.
H - Your condition?
H - What conditioning?
R - Conditioning as a commercial artist, working in an industry in which there is never time for subtlety or nuance. The best one can achieve is to be a very good hack. Which I am proud to be, by the way; I'm a very good hack indeed. But in creating this book, I have the time and scope to work as a proper artist, develop my own ideas and shine in my own right...which is why I want to thank all the people who have helped me get here. With all my heart, I want to say a big thank you to everyone who believed in me, who saw the potential, and gave me their…
H - Calm down, Rex. You’ve thanked everyone already. I think it must something about this time of year that is getting to you! The Spirit of Christmas will be gone by next week and everything will be back to normal. 
R - Jacob Marley is dead. That’s an indisputable fact.
H - Well, you say indisputable….

...they speak of danger, deceit, death and destruction!"

               Don't miss next week: 
      Around the table with Didier Graffet.


  1. I love the Tarot deck! Will you create an actual full deck -- and will people be able to buy the deck as well as the comic? Or will it just exist in the world of the story?

  2. I will not write a novel, I will not write a novel, I will not....oh, stuff it! Yes, saw those first two images and thought "Cool, Tarot!" The 'art as magic' idea is one that's been playing in my mind for a long time now. The more I think about it, the more obvious it seems that throughout most of human history, art has had that mystery about it. Art is the means by which the unreal becomes real, the imaginary is brought into the physical world. If you think about it, every single human made 'thing' has come through the 'portal' of art, beginning as a perhaps crazy idea in someone's head, communicated to others through the medium of art , and only then being created as a 'real' object. You'd have a hard time building a skyscraper, or a car, or pretty much anything, without conceptual sketches, architectural drawings, technical illustrations and so on. And the actual process by which ideas come together, ideas are rejected and new ones form, is magical in itself. OK, I could go on forever as this is a pet subject of mine...but I'll be good and shut up now! ;-)

  3. Morning chaps & good music last night! Thought struck me about working out your approach so that the interwoven plot strands don't get muddled etc etc. For me I use 'plans' sometimes on big white boards sometimes on large A1 sheets of paper and use this to draw out all the characters names and then use arrows to connect it all and visually display the story. Hope that makes sense; its like a big visual map of the film, or in this case comic. I then find it very easy to see where areas of the story seem overly complicated or muddled. In a way it actually looks like the timeline in avid or final cut. Anyway Happy New Year and much success in 2011!


  4. Mermaid in the attic -

    The concept of a realm of the ‘Ideas’, of imagination as a powerful creative tool is a fairly fundamental theme in esoteric thought, especially during the Renaissance. When I studied Giordano Bruno, and his use of talisman as focuses for meditation, it struck me that perhaps the Renaissance view of magic, where a conscious mind can act upon matter by the use of intense focus on symbols, might not have actually worked. We can see echoes of this belief in some of the theories on the Quantum nature of our universe.

    I wondered: Is it possible that the amazing scientific advances that occurred so soon after the Renaissance, were in some way ‘imagined’ into being? I came to the conclusion that perhaps they were. As you point out, nothing that we take for granted and use in everyday life; from cars, to houses, to the processes involved to bring food to our tables, would exist if it hadn’t first existed in someone’s mind, in their imagination. The idea of the metaphysical Planes of Ideas goes back at least as far as Plato’s philosophy. Today, there are Quantum Physicist who are comfortable with the belief that quantum theory can be interpreted as: if a consciousness looks upon an event, it will collapse that quantum event into something that appears solid, but without a consciousness there to look at it, there is no ‘thing’ there at all. This is perhaps rather similar to ‘metaphysical solipsism’. In other words, if a tree falls in a forest and their is no one to hear it, it doesn’t make a sound, as it is not, in actuality, ‘there’ in the first place. Crazy stuff!

    The Esoteric, and especially Kabbalic versions of creation take this idea into account as well. The ‘un-namable, un-knowable supreme ultimate,’ began the process of creation by having a thought. Then it ‘spoke’, and thus the world was created. As artists, we deal in this traffic between the world of form, and the world of essence, or spirit, all the time. The Romans and Greeks thought not that someone was a genius, but that genius descended upon them.

    Terri -

    Yes, there will be an entire Tarot pack. Rex has become very excited by the idea, and spends most of his free time now locked away creating it. On the rare occasions I see him, he mumbles incoherently in a weird, ‘tarotic’ language about the latest drawings. (I wonder if he is back on the absinth!) We will post the finished cards on the blog.

    Billy -

    Thanks for the advice, we'll give it a try.

  5. Just reading back and discovered your reply! I believe absolutely that scientific advances are imagined into being, I suspect Jules Verne and H.G. Wells have helped to shape our modern lives far more than we could imagine, and possibly even Star Trek and the like have influenced what kind of technologies we use today. They come up with the outlandish/futuristic idea, and some scientist somewhere thinks 'hey, what a great idea...I reckon I could build one of those"! Not sure about the 'tree falling' theory myself, there's a kind of arrogance in it, the danger of being too human-centric (everything revolves around us again!), but if we don't limit the observing consciousness to a human consciousness it might make sense. What about the consciousness of the tree itself?! (I'm reading one of Terri's recommendations, "The Spell of the Sensuous", so have been thinking a lot about non-human awareness!)