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, 14 January 2011

a posse ad esse

Pencil of new cover.

       H - Readers of this blog will know by now that John Barleycorn Must Die is being constructed, phoenix-like, from the ashes of three other incomplete comics. Rex, when you came to me with your original storyline, your story was split into five individual comic books, with a sixth book to come. We have subsequently re-written it all into one complete graphic novel, correct?
R - Yes.
H - For this week’s blog post, I thought it would be interesting to look at the cover art that you drew for each of those individual books, if only to stop you from going on and on about how much of the artwork you drew is not being used. How do you approach making a cover for a comic? What criteria do you use?

Original cover: Book 1.

R – Cover art has to be dramatic, or have implied drama: actual action or implied action, something that is happening or about to happen. I like to focus on one central character, who is obviously from the story, and I like to imply something about what might be going on within the story, even if it's on a metaphoric level -- though it doesn’t have to be an actual reconstruction of a passage from the comic. The cover art is really important, as it's the first thing that people see -- and in a comic book shop, with thousands of comics on the walls and on racks, it needs to draw the eye. It needs to be different. 
H - When you draw the central characters, I’ve noticed that you give them almost a ‘cover’ expression. It’s like having actors pose for the camera. Is that deliberate?

Original cover: Book 2.

R – Yes. I'm free to use a lot of artistic license on the cover image. 
H - You mentioned in the 'Around the table' discussion we had with Didier last week that when you draw, you envision a movie-like sequence of events, and then you freeze it. Do you, in this case, see the characters posing quite deliberately for you? Because the second book cover looks like that. The attitude here is of people who know they are having their picture taken.
R - Hmm. I never thought of it that way.
H - Well, do you or don’t you...?
R - I do. I guess it's having 'character stills' taken for the promotion of a TV show.

Original cover: Book 3.

H - The third cover then.... it has a feel of mystery about it. So it seems in some ways different than the others: there is more action, more mystery. Perhaps this is similar to the process that book cover illustrators go through, where their job is to somehow capture the whole essence of a book in a single picture. 
R - Yes, maybe.
H - How do you decide on a specific cover image? Why do you choose that image, as opposed to a different one? Do you sketch several covers and then choose the best, or do you just know what it should look like before you start? 
R - Right from the conception I have an idea of how I want to portray the characters on the comic's cover, and my sketch doesn’t generally change very much from that initial idea. For instance, with the sketch of the new John Barleycorn cover, I wanted the central character to appear to be at the mercy of the elements, which is also a metaphor for the character's journey. I then stepped back, looked at the drawing and asked myself: If I saw that and knew nothing about the book, would I say, “What on earth is going on there?” Because once somebody says “What on earth is going on?”, they are likely to pick up the book to find out.
H - Are you always aware of the metaphoric level of your art, then? For example, what I see in the sketch for the new cover [see image at top of post] is John Barleycorn in a slightly Christ-like pose, and in many ways that is the character’s archetype within our story.
R - I was aware of that. The pose is deliberately meant to invoke the image of Christ.
H - So was that a conscious decision before you started drawing, or is it just that you naturally draw in a symbolic way? Is it that you know that there are these archetypes in our book, so when you draw they come out by accident, as it were -- or do you plan the underlying symbolism in the art in advance?
R - It’s a subconscious thing...and when the art is done, then I realise what I have done. At that point I can decide whether the metaphor works or doesn’t work.

Original cover: Book 4.

H - Talk me through the cover of book four, then -- which was, in its first incarnation, the cover art for the Wallpaper that Ate London story.
R - It is simply a big bold statement. He is a big character who is saying, “Look at me. Here I am.”
H - And the point of view is very definite in this one.
R - Yes, it is the worm’s eye view, which implies power. He is towering over you.
H - Which again came up in our conversation with Didier: the importance of point of view.
R – It's a technical thing in this instance. I have exaggerated the POV by using the picture rail and ceiling to draw ones eye to the character’s head, which gives emphasis to the overall power and majesty expressed by the character.

Original cover: Book 5.

H – And what about book five?
R - I wanted to imply motion and chaos. Although there is only one figure, I have drawn it several times, morphing into itself. I purposely didn’t want a focal point. I wanted the viewer's eye to roam around the picture chaotically. To express what was happening to the character, to bring the viewer into the experience of the character.
H - That idea of being aware of how a viewer experiences the art.... Hmm. It reminds me that sometimes in theatre one gets the audience to participate, for example, by having two actors on opposing sides of the stage having a quick-fire conversation. It makes the audience physically turn their heads in order to keep up, almost like a tennis match. It’s interesting that a still piece of art can also provoke movement from the viewer, pulling them into a kinetic experience of the piece. Involving them at a deeper level than just passively watching.
R - I see the parallel.
H - It makes me think of that painting of the skull....
R - The Ambassadors by Holbein. I have made a deep study of that painting.
H – That's it! And you have to move about to see the skull.
R - You have to be at a 45-degree angle at the right side of the painting. It is the lowest hung painting in the National Gallery, so that the skull can be viewed in its proper shape.
H – Wow, Rex, you actually do know a lot about art!
R - I know as much about art as you know about Commedia dell'Arte, my friend.  Can we play my favorite song now?
H - Sure, whatever....


  1. I love the art. And that song is insane.

  2. Would either of you be able (or willing!) to explain to a 'non artist': What is Inspiration? What is the process of 'being inspired'? Where does Inspiration come from, (for any creation - be it a graphic novel/book or cover illustration, as mentioned above, or a piece of creative writing, music, dramatic work, or film, as mentioned in a previous blog)?

    Does it seem to spring from your subconscious mind, for eg, or do you find this is a process that is largely unconscious, or even something different entirely, something 'other' and intangible that is hard to explain?

    Can you 'control' it, or is it elusive the moment you recognise it? Also, does it 'feel good' ie does it make you want to do it more?!

    Long question(s) I know! Could take a whole new blog to answer ...

  3. Anonymous -

    Thanks for posting you comment. Part of the raison d'etre of this blog is to discuss exactly the issues raised by your questions. They are the same ones that artists of all kinds have been exercised by for millenia. Different artists will find and experience inspiration in a multitude of ways, and, as a result, answer questions such as "where does inspiration come from?" in many different ways too.

    We will take some of these questions into our "Around the table with.." discussions in the future to see how our guests respond, but Rex and I can give you our own subjective answers to some of your questions now:

    Rex - No, I can't control the process of inspiration -- but it does feel good, which always makes me want more of it.

    Howard - Although the act of being inspired isn't entirely under an artist's control, I think the artist can find ways of making inspiration more likely to happen. Depending on the art form, there are various things one can do to encourage inspiration.

    On the whole, the rush of being inspired feels good, although there is often a cost involved: lack of sleep, obsession, almost an addiction to the feeling at times; and yes, the "high" that comes from feeling inspired does make you want to achieve this state more.

    Rex - I do find that the experience of inspiration can create a sense of isolation sometimes -- such as when I create a piece of art and feel something unique, but then believe that no one else will 'get it.'

    Again, these were deep and thoughtful questions, which we will explore in our future interviews and posts.