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.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Happy Holidays!

Holiday greetings from John Barleycorn and friends!

H - So, Rex, you've drawn a holiday greetings card.

R - Yes.

H - I have to admit, I am a little surprised.

R - Why?

H - Well, you're normally such a curmudgeon around this time of year.

R - Yes.

H - So, it was a pleasant surprise to see you engaging in the holiday spirit.

R - Merry Christmas one and all!

Friday, 17 December 2010

Around the table with...Billy O'Brien.

Born in Cork, Ireland in 1970, Billy studied art and film in Ireland before doing an MA at the Royal College of Art in London. He began work in the film industry while still a student, designing short films and music promos. He also worked as a storyboard artist for Hugh Hudson (Chariots Of Fire). After college Billy began directing TV commercials and, in 2000, was nominated for a BAFTA for his short film The Tale Of The Rat That Wrote. He went on to direct the dark horror feature film Isolation in 2005, and since then has worked as both a screenwriter and director on several projects. Billy lives on the edge of Dartmoor with his wife Philippa and their two small children, Brendan and recent arrival Ebba.

From left to right - Howard, Billy and Rex.

H - Today we have the first in our series of 'Around the table with...' interviews. And we are very pleased to have our friend and fellow villager, writer/film director Billy O'Brien. So, first of all, Billy, thanks for coming...
B - Pleasure. This is a slightly odd way to be ‘interviewed.’
H - We like to think of it as more like a chat.
R - I like to think of it as an interrogation.
B - I’ve actually done a lot of interviews lately, and the interviewers nearly always ask you questions like 'How much does a pint of milk cost?' To see if you live in the real world.
R – While the croissants are warming up, let me ask you first: What did you feel about your conveyancing over here with me?
B – Well, it's a beautiful morning. I was worried about ice on the hill up to the house, but it was fine.
H – And was Rex polite to you? I worry about that.
B -  Polite, yes, but slightly unsettling. He uses words like 'conveyancing,' and I have to guess what that means. I was half-expecting him to appear with a balaclava and a silencer, like the Hot Fuzz neighbourhood watch committee.
H - Yes, I worry about that with Rex too! 
R – Hmm....
H - So, Billy, let’s begin. As I think about the graphic novel we're creating, and the odd way that it has developed, being arse-about-face....
R - Whose fault is that?
H - Quite, whose fault was that, Rex? Anyway, Billy, ignoring Rex and getting back to the question…
B – But what was the question?
H - I was wondering how you begin your film projects, and if your approach is different if you are working from one of your own ideas, as opposed to when you're hired to direct someone else’s story. Take, for example, your film The Tale of the Rat that Wrote....

B - I co-wrote that film with a young Brazilian writer, Murilo Pasta. I had just come out of art college, and writing a script was daunting to me. I had worked on storyboards for films, but the idea of writing a filmscript was, at that point, a little worrying. It was also the first time I had to do research for a story. I had meetings with the anti-vivisection campaign, BUAV, and at one point in my script the film devolved into a propaganda rant against animal testing. When I started working with the rat puppets, though, they brought the story back into focus, which was very important, as story should always come first.
R - What about the allegation that the puppets were cruelly treated?
B - Is this off the record?
H - No.
B - Then there is no truth to those allegations! In fact, the puppets saved the day, as did the whole visual side of the filmmaking process. Todd Jones, a Henson puppeteer, came on board the film as the chief puppeteer. One amazing thing that happened as result is that Todd trained up our animators as puppeteers. Animators are solitary people, but puppeteers have to work closely with one another, with maybe three of them controlling a single puppet. On Day Two, one of the  animators got up and walked off set and disappeared! He couldn’t deal with working so closely in a group.
R - It is quite a remarkable film.
Storyboard drawing for 'Creeping Zero' - Billy O'Brien
B - I think it's still the best thing that I’ve done. And that was in 1999.
H – So, back to my question….
B - Which was?
R – Wait, I’ll get the croissants out before they burn.
H - Use an oven glove....
R - I’ll use a puppet!
H – Okay, was that among the allegations of puppet cruelty?
R & B - …….
H – So, back to my question, which was: What is the difference between working with your own  story as opposed to being hired to direct someone else's story? For example, the film you’ve just finished for The Syfy Channel...
B - After my first feature film,  Isolation, I was sent a lot of filmscripts by my terrifyingly powerful L.A. agent. It's such an industry over there -- like in Glengary Glenn Ross. They send you  leads (ie, scripts), and a lot of them are old, etc.. They have stock-piles of scripts -- but for those scripts to become 'alive', and to have any chance of getting made, the scripts need ‘elements’ (a director, actors, etc.) attached to them. If the project can attach a director, the hope is that it will be also attract actors, etc. -- so they send a lot of stuff to new directors like me. At first I turned down everything, because I found it weird to be sent stuff, and because I didn’t know how to get into other people’s work. To be honest, there was also a certain amount of fear...and also, frankly, a feeling that some of the scripts just weren't good enough. Because filmmaking had always been intensely personal for me, I found it hard to understand the language of how to work on someone else’s project. But film is money, filmmaking is business. I didn’t know where my job began and ended. Cut to five years later, and I end up working for Syfy! 
H – Why the change?
B - Because I was broke! I had a second child on the way, and I needed the money. It turned out, though, to be one of the best experiences I could have had. The necessity of working in a fast, focused way cut through all my insecurities. Also, I always wondered if I could actually do a film in 15 days. Whenever I'd pitched low budget ideas to producers in the past, there was always a niggling doubt: Could I really do a film that quickly and cheaply? Now I know that I can, and that was a big break through for me. But to get back to your question: Working on other people's ideas requires a totally different mind-set than working on your own project. When it is your own idea and story, it can be easy to get very self-indulgent.
H – That's interesting. Rex and I have talked about this in relation to comics….
Storyboard drawing for 'Creeping Zero' - Billy O'Brien
R – Yes, it's a problem in comics too. When it's your own story, it can be hard to know when you've crossed the line into self-indulgence. Take my first version of John Barleycorn Must Die, for example. I thought it was brilliant, but no one who read it could understand it!
B – In that sense it's easier to work on someone else's story. You have more distance from it, you can see what it needs. As a director, I have the freedom to change things. Script writers don't always like that, of course, but for a film to work hard decisions have to be made throughout the process, the story has to work not just on paper but as a film. The difference between writing a filmscript and a book is that a book is an end product in itself, but a script is a blueprint; it's the film that's the end product. So as director, your priority isn't following the script religiously, but making the film work. This is true of every film project; whether you're a writer, director, or both, you have to live with this reality. 
H – So as a director, your obligation is to the film not the script. It's the film you have your name on, not the script.
B – Yes. When you're working on someone else’s project, it does give you a kind of freedom. It's easier to say: 'This is a mundane scene, let’s take it out, or make it better.' That's harder to do with your own story; it’s harder to be distant enough from the tale to see it as objectively.
H – Rex and I have been talking about that subject, both within our own project and in regards to film.
R – Yes. But I think some directors have too much power.
H – Oh god, Rex, don’t start talking about Ridley Scott again!
B - Ridley Scott...?
H - Ignore him, Billy. It's interesting what you're saying here, as I would have thought it would be the other way around: easier to change your own work, because you created it and because you don’t have to clash with another writer's ideas.
B – In an ideal world, of course, the other writer always agrees with you! I mean, if it were David Mammet, or someone of that stature, it would be different; I wouldn’t dare change a word. But sadly, in five years of having scripts sent to me – and these are ones already vetted by the agency - I have to say that in most cases they are pretty dull. It doesn’t mean they will make bad films, necessarily. In some cases, because of the collaborative nature of filmmaking, weak scripts can be turned into good films.
H -  Another question then: How do you imagine your work? I mean, in film there are so many different constituent parts: editing, compositing, special effects, etc.. In your films, there are a lot of visual monsters and gore and there must be lots of post production. How do you imagine that before you start filming?
B - Because I come from a drawing tradition, I always do my own storyboards. Many producers expect you to storyboard only the action sequences, as a technical exercise, but I do my own narration storyboards for the whole of the film. One has to be careful not to over-plan. I find that if you plan a film too much it can kill the energy on set, especially with actors; but for me creating a storyboard is the way that I get all my ideas down on paper. For example, people think a dialogue scene is a simple collection of close ups, but actually it is like a collection of photographs. Look at Rex sitting in a chair there: the way he sits reveals as much about him as what he says. If a portrait photographer was to photograph him, they would find a way to convey Rex's personality through the framing, the lighting, and the angle of shot. So there is much more to a simple scene of dialogue than the words the actors are speaking. By storyboarding the scene, I have a sense of what I want to convey visually while the actors speak. 
Storyboard drawing for 'Creeping Zero' - Billy O'Brien
H - I see.
B - The classic example of this idea is Rosemary’s Baby. The cameraman lined up a shot with Mia Farrow perfectly framed, on the telephone, and then called Polanski over. Polanski moved the camera over a few feet. Now all you could see of Mia Farrow was her back and the door frame. The cameraman was confused, but Polanski, with a little smile, said: 'Shoot it.' At the premier, the cameraman said he looked around at the audience at that moment in the film, and people were physically leaning, trying to peer round the door! What is film, after all, but a series of cut-up pictures?
H - Like a comic?
B - Exactly. A director needs to know two things: what to say to the actors, and where to put the camera. 
H – It's interesting to hear you talk about the process of directing, because I've spent most of my life directing too, although in my case for the stage. I come out of the theatrical tradition of Commedia dell'Arte -- which is similar to film, I think, in that Commedia works best if the director conceives the piece as a series of moving images, or tableaux.
B – That's interesting.
R - There was one shot in your latest film, Billy, where the senator was walking towards the camera, approaching an actress, and just as the senator's head was in shot, a soldier’s head came into view.
B - The only interesting shot in that five minute scene!
R - Where did the idea for that shot come from?
B - The two key actors in that scene are the senator and a woman scientist. They are like two contestants. I imagined their connection like a chord between their eyes -- and the soldier breaks that. The idea came originally from the script, which made me think of the scene in picture terms -- and so it was storyboarded, and it worked on the day of the shoot.  
R - In some of the shots of the senator, it seems as if there is a knowing nod to the camera….
B - I think that's because John Reese Davies is an a very good actor, but quite big. He was improvising, off the cuff, out the side of his mouth. All that was improvised. It was great.
R - It's a shot that I use a lot in comics, an ironic side stare.
B - There is an Alan Moore comics technique that I really love, where he uses the same panel over again, exactly the same. In the first panel some devastating news is delivered, and in the second panel it is like the character is frozen by the news. There was a moment in The Killing Joke, for example, where the Joker hears that his wife is dead. It is a wonderful device, it is like time has stopped still.
R - That was Brian Bolland. The artist for that comic.
B - Yes, it might have been, but I've read Alan Moore’s scripts and he is anally precise in his instruction to the illustrator. He's like: 'Draw exactly five buttons on a shirt based on this pattern.'
Storyboard drawing for 'Creeping Zero' - Billy O'Brien
R - He is quite a technician, Bolland, and has good narrative technique too.
B - It's an incredible comic. When the Joker comes in and shoots the police commissioner’s daughter in the stomach, there is no dialogue on the page. It is a classic Eissenstein montage.
R  - You know, I'd forgotten that almost everyone that we plan to interview for this blog, no matter what their particular field, also has some interest in comics.
H - Billy, had you ever considered going into comics yourself?
B - When I was in art college (in Limerick, Ireland) in the 1980s, there wasn’t much of a career path in comics. So I went on to film school instead. But I’ve always loved comics. 
H - If it had been possible, would you have liked being a comics artist?
B - My drawing isn't good enough for that -- but back then I didn’t know you could be a comics writer. Now I'm on a different path, but it would be interesting to write a comic.
H – Have you been influenced in your directing by comics?
B - Um, it's different to that. My brain works in a sequential way, because I always doodle the storyboard when thinking of a film. It's a kind of safety net; it’s instinctive for me that if I want to picture a scene I draw it. I now find that I also ‘post’ storyboard, to make sure that I have all the shots I need at the end of the day. It is obviously ingrained in me that this is the way I need to work. If I am having a bad day on the set, a storyboard will perk me up, let me know which way to go with the scene, even if everything else has gone to hell. When I went to art school, in Limerick, it was at the dawn of the great graphic novels: The Watchmen, V for Vendeta, Arkham Asylum, The Sandman, and Electra Assassin by Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz (which is still one the most post-modern uses of narrative in a comic). Books like these are what got me into sequential story telling. Narratively, in Electra Assassin, you have up to nine speech bubbles, with different colours, to distinguish between each character. It was like a post-punk way of cutting things up. Since I was in art college, learning about bauhaus and pop art etc, it really spoke to me.
R - Howard would very much like to have John Barleycorn published in colour, and to use colour as a narrative tool. 
H - I want to have the inner realm world in a flat colour, like that used in old comics, like the ‘Beano'  -- and then the other realms coloured with more 3D effects, giving depth to these scenes and showing the different levels of reality.
B - Here’s an idea for you: You could print out of a page of the comic, and put props like a coffee cup on it, then photograph it, so that it becomes an image of an image. Frank Miller does that, in Electra Assassin, Bill Sienkiewicz draws creases in the paper for example.
R - I was wondering on a personal level: I know you have a small child, and a newborn baby. Congratulations, by the way.
H - Yes, congratulations.
B - Thank you.
R - It must have been tough for you to be away on a film set for four months.
B - Seven months, in total this year. Yes, this is something that Phillipa, my wife, and I are facing regarding my career. It is rare to have a film shot where you live. It’s like the circus. It travels. I am always going to be going away to work. It is lovely to be home in the village now, with my wife and my children.
H - One final question.
B- Yes?
H - How much is a pint of milk?
B - 42 pence? It varies, depending on whether you go to the Spar or the Dairy….

Billy O'Brien - The camera never lies.

Friday, 10 December 2010

alea iacta est...

I enter the mundus imaginalis; every thought, word and deed engulfs my very being.

H - Today, let’s talk about how we re-plotted the…
R - Reconstructed.
H - ...reconstructed the book from your first draft, which was a jumble of abstract threads. 
R - First, we established the fundamental plot lines, and found that there were three of them.
H - Which were...?
R - The mission of John Barleycorn, the interventions of the sky-gods, and the story of the inner world.
H - But before that, Rex, we ran through the whole manuscript page by page, with me asking you questions about the story -- about the plot, yes, but also about character motivation, and the tale's chronology. For example, in your original story there was a 'rain of gold' at one point...
R - There was.
Watch carefully...
H - ...which, I remember pointing out, couldn’t have happened chronologically where it was placed in your original fractured narrative.

R - Which reminds me:  A reader of my original draft said, “This doesn’t have a 'fractured' narrative, it doesn’t have a narrative at all!”
H - Who was that?
R - The same person who said it was unadulterated crap.
H - Quite. So, getting back to our discussion of creative process: We started out with me asking you questions, and as I did so it became apparent that we needed to break the book back down into its constituent parts in order to make sure each part was working individually, with the idea of reintroducing the fractured narrative at a later date. 
R - At that time, we pulled out a good third of the plot in order to simplify the overall story.
H - How did you feel about that? Was it hard to have me tear your story apart like that?
R - Actually, no. I was grateful that you were taking it seriously, that someone was giving my book the time of day.
H - And yet I distinctly remember that one day you seemed quite taken aback by what I was doing.
Is it real gold?
R - Hmm. I'm trying to remember what I was feeling then.... Gosh, yes, I remember that I did feel rather despondent on the day that we physically took my pages of art and text apart. It felt as though all my careful construction had been blown up, like you had come into the room in a suicide vest.
H - It’s always hard, I think, to have someone critique your work, or pull stuff out of a story that isn't serving the plot. Inevitably there are scenes and ideas you really like that end up on the cutting room floor. We've been talking about putting some of the deleted scenes up on this blog at some point....
R - Yes.
H - Will that make you feel better, if they at least appear here?
R - Yes!
H - Being able to edit and reject ones own work is an important part of the creative process, I feel. I was talking with another artist in our village, Steve Dooley, about this very subject last night. We agreed that creativity always involves an initial spewing out of ‘stuff,' of raw material...but that the Art is knowing how to work with that mess, throwing bits out even if they are good but don't serve the overall piece.
R - Yes, if they don't serve the greater good, they have to be rejected, however good they may be individually. Once I had come to terms with the notion that my past year's work was simply me going through a cathartic process of ‘spewing out the ideas,’ I felt better about your reconstruction of the book. There was a point where I could either be offended by your critique or, instead, see the silver lining in it, which was to recognise the value of the previous year’s work as a personal journey for me. We spoke last week about how the process of going through the Dark Forest is essential to creation.
H - Oh, yes. I found Christina Cairn's (Memaid in the Attic) comment on last week's post very pertinent to that topic: to art-making as a personal journey. I'm fascinated by how the artistic process is often mirrored in ones own life -- which is a subject that I'd like to discuss in greater depth in future blog posts. But getting back to your feelings about our reconstruction of your manuscript: As an artist, one has to be willing to try things out, accepting the possibility that some of the things you try to do may not succeed. And that this is okay. When you start out as an artist (or writer, or theatre director, etc.), you look at other people’s finished work and wonder how they achieved it, and of course you don’t see all the work behind it: the mistakes and blind alleys, the erasures and failed ideas, that are always part of the process.
R - You don’t see the under-painting that Rembrandt did, for example. His paintings have been x-rayed, and the x-rays show all the changes that he made before a piece was complete.
H - Rex, that makes me think of a song....

R - Umm, right....
H - Rembrandt is a bit of a hero of yours, isn't he?
R - Yes.
H -Do you want to discuss this further...?
R - No, Howard, I don’t think so; I don’t really want to talk about Rembrandt...
H - Okay.
R - ...except to say that he was a bloody good artist and knew how to treat a female impersonator.
H - Okay! So do you feel you share these qualities, Rex?
R - I’d rather get back to talking about the book. 'Sorry to appear defensive.
H - But you are defensive!
R - Yes.
H - Okay then, forget Rembrandt, he was crap.
R - Oi!!
H - Did that hit a nerve? 
R - Move on.
H - Where were we? Yes, right, we were discussing the idea that creativity involves the ability to not get too attached to individual elements of your work. It’s something I had to learn quite early on in my career as a theatre director. You need to be able to be detached from your work -- whilst also, paradoxically, being very intimately involved with it  -- so that you have the ability to jettison aspects of it that just aren’t working.
R -  I don’t think you can do both at once. You have to be totally committed to an idea whilst it is in motion. It is afterwards that you repent, and look at it from 180 degrees.
H -  Yes, you’re right. You do have to believe in what you're doing fully at the time of creation.
R - Otherwise there is no passion.

Ophaboom theatre in action.
H - There is an element to the work that is subjective, but there must be an objective element too: that moment when you step back from your work and view it from a distance. When I teach theatre, for example, I like students to work physically at first, without allowing their minds to think too much, in order to generate material. It is only after that step that I encourage them to use a retrospective thought process in order to refine the work they've generated. If you attempt to do it the other way 'round, you tend to find that no work gets done at all -- the students just sit around talking for hours on end, and nothing happens. Both approaches are important to creating art, but one has to get them in the right order….
R - Yes, I agree. When drawing too it's important to start out by taking action - even if, in retrospect, it turns out to be the wrong action.  
H - Changing the subject slightly: You enjoy watching DVD extras, don’t you? As a way of looking at the story-telling process?
R - Yes, I do. I like listening to writers and directors discuss their work, and watching scenes that were subsequently deleted in order to see where the stories might have gone. I like to see what the characters were doing when they weren’t in the story as we know it.
H - It can sometimes seem that the film editor actually shapes the story even more than the director.
R - Absolutely. Which is why you shouldn’t give total control to any one person, especially the director. Ridley Scott, for example, who produces what I consider to be self-indulgent shite. Wait a minute, Howard, don’t write that down! We don’t want to upset him. What if he ends up making the film of this book?
H - He probably won't now, Rex, not after what you just said about him! Did you not like Gladiator, then?
R - Elements of it, yes, but it could have done with a proper edit.

H - To relate all this back to our comic: In some ways I came into the John Barleycorn project as an editor.
R - Oh, I hadn’t thought of that before. I am, in fact, a good example of why you shouldn’t give total control of a visual story to one person. Look at the mess I ended up with before you came to help me sort it all out!
Maggie in action!
H - Let's get back to that now, to the book's deconstruction. Once we'd pulled the story into its constituent parts, we realised that it would work better, and would be more comprehensible, without a fractured narrative. At first we considered dividing John Barleycorn into five short comic books, with a sixth book on the way, but we then decided that the story would work best in the form of one long graphic novel.
R - Yes, a three hundred page novel. Although you did like the way each of the shorter books ended on a cliff-hanger, which pulled you from one book to the next.
H - Yes, there were ways in which you'd placed the images and divided up the story that I thought worked rather well, even though the story didn't yet work as a whole. The cliff-hangers, for example, were hard to give up when we agreed to make it one long novel instead.
R - Which completely changed our approach to the story.
H - Can you explain how?
R - God, Howard, do I have to remember everything?! How? It changed our whole perception of the central protagonist, Maggie. She became much more important.
H - I think that once we had the story in a more linear form, it started to write itself in many ways. The ending, for example...
R - I have to give you credit there. The moment you came up with your amazing idea for an ending was life-changing for me. I found I was able to walk again. It was a fucking miracle.
H - Okay, don’t take the piss! I do remember we both felt very ‘buzzy’ when that ending came together. It just seemed to make sense; it was almost as if Maggie was telling me the ending.
R - It is the only possible way the story can end. It is really beautiful.
H - That part of the creative process is a real mystery to me: when the book, or character, or plot takes on a life of its own, and kind of tells you what needs to happen next. My theatre partner, Geoff Beale, who is also a writer, once emailed me to say that a character he was trying to kill off refused to die. And I knew exactly what he meant! ...Okay, on that note shall we end?

R - ………
H - What is it? Is there something more you need to say?
R - Yes. Why didn’t Maggie tell me how the book needed to end? Why did she tell you and not me?
H - Are you jealous?
R - Yes, damn you!
H - Of a fictional character?
R - Yes!
Are you talking about me?

Don't miss next week's post:
We begin our "Around the table with..." interviews with film director Billy O'Brien.

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.