Wonderful World of Whipsnarl: In Conversation With the Creators of ‘Beast Wagon’
When a comics Kickstarter campaign is a success in less than 24 hours, and the launch party and gallery exhibition attracts creators from all over the country, it’s clear that something special is about to happen. Beast Wagon, described by its creators as “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with talking animals,” is the work of British Comic Award nominee Owen Michael Johnson (Raygun Roads, Reel Love) and illustrator and comics newcomer John Pearson, and it could well be be the UK comic of the year.
A black comedy about madness overtaking the animals --- and humans --- in a zoo, Beast Wagon is a stunningly beautiful work. ComicsAlliance sat down with the two young punk creators to find out where this madness came from, and just how far the contagion is going to spread…
ComicsAlliance: The Kickstarter launched on Tuesday and achieved full funding less than one day later, how are you guys feeling?
Owen Michael Johnson: I’ve been mainlining adrenaline for the last 48 hours. I really was not prepared for how thrilling and immediate the response was for this. Completely humbled and grateful to everyone who has supported this project thus far, be they proof-readers, our family and friends (of which there are many who came out for this) and backers. I’m positively feral!
John Pearson: It’s been overwhelming to say the least; the last few weeks of getting everything ready for the exhibition and Kickstarter has meant there’s been little time to actually take a step back and breathe it all in. Talking to people during the preview night of the exhibition was when it sunk in that we’d managed to pull something together that people were getting excited about, it’s a great feeling right now.
CA: Tell me what Beast Wagon is all about, and what backers and readers can expect to see?
OMJ: Beast Wagon is a jet black comedy set in a fictional zoo called Whipsnarl over the course of one business day during a summer heatwave. A new arrival, who seems to have some special significance, sets off a primal disturbance in the animal population. From there things get stranger…
Readers can expect a comic which functions on a couple of levels: a talking animals book that will amuse, and a social commentary about human nature and the way we interact with animals and each other. Maybe it’s John’s presence, but it feels lawless and challenging, with an edgy flavour. Like 90’s Vertigo stuff.
JP: The developing madness of the story is going to be played out in many ways with the narrative and visuals, and readers are going to be given options of what they take from it all. There’s definitely a subjectivity to what we’re presenting here; on one hand we’re giving people a black comedy about captive animals and their interactions, and on the other we’re presenting something that engages on a far deeper level. We want people to talk about it, for it to generate discussion.
CA: The Kickstarter is for the first issue of six; what are the long-term plans?
OMJ: We have a six-issue arc planned and locked. That’s our immediate goal. Having funded the project, we’d love to sell the debut issue and make enough money to create subsequent issues and so forth.
As you know, Laura, being such an early supporter of Raygun, consideration of format is key to my projects. I think the content and the presentation are entwined in delivering meaning. It’s important to us to create a comic that satisfies in single issues, and collects into a cohesive graphic novel. There are other exciting Beast Wagon stories floating around us, but every piece should be executed like it’s your last. We’re putting everything into this.
JP: It’s true that the focus right now is on this six-issue arc, and the important thing for us is making sure the entire run gets finished and in the hands of readers. The progression of the interweaving storylines and feverish build up of the artwork over the course of the six issues is something we’re pouring ourselves into, it’s a very intense and compact story that we’re hitting like an ayahuasca trip. It’s going to be a dark, hallucinogenic and spiritual journey.
CA: You've described the comic as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with talking animals; as an old school fan of Watership Down, Animals of Farthing Wood, and basically all things animal, mystic, and mental, I’m curious what influences are at play --- and the inevitable, always asked; why animals?
OMJ: Because there aren’t enough! Ha! It’s seemed to really connect with people, perhaps because it’s so broad --- everyone has had contact with one animal or another --- but also, crucially I think, because they can’t verbalize in a way we can understand, we constantly anthropomorphize them. They appear mystic because they remain silent and we communicate too much.
In terms of influences, we came across The Puma Blues published by Aardvark Press in the 80s. It’s more po-faced than our work, but cerebral and surreal --- features flying manta rays due to nuclear fallout --- and wonderful.
In terms of the One Flew Over reference, I’m pretty proud of inventing that line as a marketing hook, but that reflects one particular story thread rather than the narrative as a whole.
CA: The preview pages of Beast Wagon look truly incredible, with shades of Stephen Bissette’s Swamp Thing, but snarling a more brutal, hallucinogenic edge – I think it may be unparalleled work. Can you talk a little about the collaboration process behind the comic, and how much the writing and art influenced each other?
OMJ: We’ll begin at the start of the process. We shared a trip to the zoo as exploration research. I wrote an incantation, that I recited on. John took photographs. I recorded on a Dictaphone. That set the tone.
We talk about the story on a daily basis. John designed Whipsnarl, based on my enclosure titles. I’m using that to block out the character arcs for the series. Once John has the script, we discuss it at length. He brings his own layout ideas to the table that I build into the script. The collaboration is total and hugely satisfying.
JP: It’s a constant dialogue between myself and Owen about how the story, characters and environments are going to work together to create the atmosphere we want. It's always been central from the start that this thing is going to spiral into a hallucinatory visual journey, but the style of the artwork in this is intentionally fluid to express the different spiritual, physical and emotional journeys this wide cast of characters embarks on.
CA: John this is your first comic; as a successful illustrator how have you found the move into comics, and is the medium one you have always been drawn to?
JP: I grew up with a steady diet of late night cult movies and 2000 AD, which has meant my creative mindset has always been fixated on visual storytelling, especially when it is peppered with a gritty, edgy or downright vile flavor.
I’ve been on the fringes of working in comics for a while, so it’s felt like a natural progression getting involved in Beast Wagon.
I always tend to work best under pressure, so trying to crank out 28 pages of illustrations in such a short space of time is really pushing me into new creative ways of working compared to the more static work I do, especially when the images we’re playing around with are so wide ranging and wild.
CA: Owen, this is your first series. Your previous works, Raygun Roads and Reel Love, were both greeted by critical acclaim; has that built up your confidence, and what challenges did a longer-form project present?
OMJ: I recently had the pleasure of seeing the team from Southern Bastards do a Directors Commentary for the series. Jason Aaron said something that stuck with me, that all you need is confidence to do a series and trust yourself as a storyteller not to screw it up. Beast Wagon felt like a series from the get-go. I just knew it had the mileage.
It’s also about who you collaborate with, as each artist has a ‘core’ energy, completely individual to them, and certain strengths. I try and push myself and any artist I work with for every new project. John’s artwork is beautiful technically, but I needed to know if I could push him to excel in sequential storytelling. I did and he has.
CA: The Kickstarter rewards are pretty immense, featuring original work from artists at the top of the UK indie scene – Andy Bloor, Conor Boyle, Iain Laurie, Kev Mullins, Steve White – with a great spread of tiers. How did you go about designing the reward levels and bringing folk on-board?
OMJ: First and foremost they are our friends! People we’ve worked with in the past and trust can bring the goods. We’ve been lucky enough to work on projects with very talented people, both in comics and outside. It would be idiotic not to showcase their work.
The rewards became fun to devise as they’re natural extensions of the project. T-shirts, sketches --- everyone has a favorite animal --- a trip to the zoo with us. These all fit naturally with the project. Retailers are so important to independent creators. I pushed to have a retailer tier where you could buy in bulk at a discount and receive items like the store exclusive bookplate for showing your support. We’ve already had three fantastic stores sign up, and we’re looking for more.
CA: You had a huge launch party at the weekend, complete with not only an exhibition of comic pages and some of the amazing art rewards for backers, but live art, music, and spoken word performances. Not to mention a performance from Karl Snarl and the Animatones. Is audience engagement across multiple media something you see as integral to indie comics?
OMJ: The party was truly legendary, and certainly not what people were expecting from a comic book exhibition launch – which was great! The whole staff of the comic shop threw everything they had; hanging foliage, painting animal faces, making costumes. It was moving.
We wanted to challenge perceptions, and present something more experimental. There is certainly a desire for it in the comics community. As context, the performance was a theatrically-presented Shamanic journey that began with an Attenborough-esque documentary, slipped into a Ginsberg stream of consciousness following a narrative thread of a character in the series, and rounded out with a spirit guide preaching about the coming spiritual apocalypse – while wearing a Polynesian demon monkey mask and submerged in a John Carpenter/Vangelis infused soundtrack built from wild animal calls.
If it sounds overwhelming in writing, in practice it was positively insane. Nick Cave archivist Kirk Lake described it as, “Orbital Comics transformed into the Island of Doctor Moreau”. All that with drink, strange video projection and animal face-painting made for a pretty weird evening.
A recording of the whole performance will be available as a stretch goal to anyone backing a tier with the original soundtrack as an incentive.
JP: My perspective on it is that the performative elements really help to draw in a different audience.
We want to engage people, make them talk, make them think and entertain them at the same time, and hopefully that’s something we achieve through events like this.
You can pledge on the Kickstarter for Beast Wagon until Tuesday Mar 25, 2015, and follow the work of Johnson, Pearson, and letterer Colin Bell on Twitter.