With their critically acclaimed series wrapping up with latest issue, “Finale”, Beast Wagon creators Owen Michael Johnson and John Pearson discuss their unique vision and inspirations…
Like a stampede running rampant in a public zoo, the arrival of Beast Wagon two years ago took comic fans with surprise – and it’s one they won’t soon forget. Surreal, demented, peppered with dark humour and layered with social commentary, Changeling Studios’ bonkers odyssey is not only original, but it’s reflective of the troubling times we’ve faced in recent years – as well as the possible dark period ahead. An effective piece art, Beast Wagon taps into collective fears, anxieties and frustrations felt in the current socio-political climate, while, at the same time, manages to lure us into a world unlike anything else. Bold, thought provoking and wholly original, it’s a must have for any serious comic aficionados collection. Recently, Flickering Myth caught up with writer Owen Michael Johnson and illustrator John Pearson to discuss their celebrated series.
How did you come up with the idea for Beast Wagon?
Owen: I’d always harboured a desire to write a talking animals book but it was just one of many project ideas I had been mulling over. It needed a less classically ‘comics’ artist in order to work with the kind of voice I thought the series should have. The alchemy of the base, almost slang dialogue I wanted to use would have been too much without accurate wildlife artwork. Originally it was going to be entirely focused on a group of travelling circus animals. Then I met John at a shared art show at Orbital Comics in central London and we really clicked. I knew he would be the right guy for the book. The reaction to the series has been very positive so far.
Were you ever worried that it’d be a little bit too “out there’’ for people?
Owen: I’m of the opinion that art, any art, should be about something, even if it looks like a pop artefact and the message codified in entertainment. Beast Wagon needed to have that black humour. It had to be funny or the really nasty stuff would never have been embraced by the reader. We needed masturbating gibbons to get a chuckle before diving in with the arachnid body horror.
Not every comic I write is as uncompromising as Beast Wagon. We were simply heightening and exaggerating and making into metaphor what was happening around us. As artists it’s our responsibility and privilege to reflect the world as we see it.
We possibly paid the price for that. Although we haven’t heard much, I’m sure some of our themes and subject matter have put off those publishers we’ve been in talks with. But we and the readers know that everything serviced only the story.
The story has so much depth rooted in real world problems. What informed you when you were writing it? Is there anything in particular you hope readers take from it?
Owen: Beast Wagon was taking shape in the climate of increasing xenophobia and fear cultivated, mainly by the media, in the run-up to Brexit here in the UK (we put the final issue to print on the day the UK Prime Minister triggered Article 50 to leave the European Union), and similarly in the US presidential election. Although I try to spend increasingly less time on social media, it’s impossible not to feel the anger and dissatisfaction out there.
At the same time, there seemed to be a strange increase in animal attacks and zoo-related news stories emerging (or maybe just myself and John were more attuned to noticing them when we were creating the comic. Harambe, Cecil the Lion. Various crocodile maulings, and the long-running and horrendous scandals of the South Lakes Safari Park in the Lake District (the county I grew up in). One particular thread in Beast Wagon was informed by a serious incident there which I couldn’t stop thinking about.
All of these uncomfortable and painful things were absorbed and mixed with the kind of Monty Python-esque absurdity and silliness that, as Brits, comes naturally.
While I would never presume to tell a reader what to take from Beast Wagon – in fact, one of the singular pleasures in this journey has been in hearing what readers take from it, often wildly different – I will say that for me the book, when viewed in whole and trying to separate myself from it as the writer, is about what happens to those who feel they have no control. Feel trapped and powerless. How we cope with that, and the choices we make depending on our personality is, I think, the heart of Beast Wagon.
Who are some of your main influences?
Owen: In comics I would say I’m young enough to absorb the Vertigo British invasion, while having the generational distance to recognise not all of it was great. Alan Moore and Grant Morrison remain the shining lights I think. Moore’s Swamp Thing run was a huge influence on Beast Wagon, along with The Puma Blues. Currently Jason Aaron and Jonathan Hickman are among the strongest voices out there. I’ve just been reading Black Monday Murders and hugely impressed by that. UK comic peers that really inspire me include Mark Penman, Ram V, Dan Watters, Tillie Walden.
Mainly my influences are filmmakers and novelists. Edgar Wright. Michael Chabon. David Fincher. Michael Ende. Salman Rushdie. Roald Dahl. John Carpenter. Beast Wagon is, to me, a fusion of Ken Russell and Ken Loach, with a splash of Ben Wheatley.
John: Artistic influence comes from the widest possible frame of reference I’ve found, a mixture of illustrators, artists, filmmakers and writers, none of which really taking more precedence than others. I’ve got a love for figurative artists that take things into subconscious, abstract and often unnerving territory, Bill Sienkiewicz and Dave McKean being obvious choices but also the work of Phil Hale, Jason Shawn Alexander, Ashley Wood and so on. Gerhard Richter is a big influence on the use of texture and colour, as well as the collage work of John Stezaker for the power of abstracted composition.
Cinema is one of my main influences, Mario Bava’s use of colour, as well as a lot of Italian Giallo. Japanese Pinku aesthetics and insane storytelling, the work of Seijun Suzuki in creating powerful and abstract set pieces through boundaries imposed on him, all feeds into what I create. Kenneth Anger, the colour and multiple exposures in Invocation of My Demon Brother are very much seen in Beast Wagon. Writers such as Hunter S. Thompson and William Burroughs are a huge influence, storytelling in a tactile sense, very psychical, and I mean that in both a literal way in the process but also in the imagery concocted. You can feel the images in your mind; they have weight and impact, something that all great art should do. I think that for me when I set out to create, that is one of the main aspects, the work should be felt in some sense, not just functioning to illustrate an idea but acting to implant it firmly in the brain of the viewer. It should be a very physical experience, something that gets revisited long after being seen.
John, can you tell us a little about your artistic background?
John: I’ve come from a varied creative background to get to this stage, all of which has fed into both my style and attitude towards creating. I’m very much routed in an early Fine Art practice, which is seeping into my current illustration work. I used to create huge performative abstract paintings, which in turn led me to do some hilarious performance art pieces, which have now taken shape in on-going live paintings I do with Leeds based illustrators Bobbi Abbey and Mike Winnard. That early fine art influence gave me a “fuck it and do it” attitude to the creative process, it removed that sense of preciousness about my work which can paralyse a lot of people, whilst informing a real DIY ethos. I grew up with punk and hardcore as well, which only strengthened the DIY nature of my creative output. From screen-printing t-shirts, to pressing vinyl records, and designing everything at every stage, that punk sensibility is exactly what we’ve done with Beast Wagon, both visually and thematically.
Art has always been integral to me as a person, but I lost sight of that during my early 20’s feeling a sense of disillusionment after my degree course. It took me a while to realise what fuelled my passion in the first place, and through a combination of circumstance and situation I revisited drawing for the sheer love of it. Rekindling that childhood passion for creating, something that is so easy to loose, has changed everything for me. Over the last five years I feel like I’ve my own preconceived ideas about my artistic and illustrative practice, and what I’m capable of. I’m truly excited to see what happens next, it’s been a wild ride so far and it feel like it’s only just started.
I personally find the style in this series to be disorientating in the best possible way. What’s the collaboration project like between you and Owen? Does he let you cut loose and do your thing, or did you both establish how it had to look from the outset?
John: From the get go we’ve had a hands on, almost gonzo approach for Beast Wagon, and it’s really been about pouring ourselves into this book on an experiential level and hopefully that comes through in what we’ve made. Our collaborative process from the start has been very open, but we knew we wanted it to have a certain flavour from the beginning. We knew the art would mutate, grow and develop, not only because of the nature of the story and the visuals reflecting the often hallucinogenic plot, but also through my own personal development as an artist and with this series being my first, and it being a very dramatic learning curve in a creative sense. After the first chapter, we really got to work at honing how we go from script to finished sequentials, Understanding the writers vision of the pages really determines the parameters that I can work within and push against. We would talk through each chapter, page by page, panel by panel, and go in deep on essential elements and potential additions, and voice our own opinions on the book as a whole. Owen’s perfect at establishing what he wants from a scene whilst giving creative control to an artist, and then adjusting elements based on the artwork. It’s that understanding of collaboration, and placing trust in what I do as an artist, that really made this work.
What advice would you give to aspiring artists to help them stand out from the pack?
John: Don’t try to stand out, don’t try to find your voice, don’t look for validation from others. That obviously sounds counter-intuitive, but if you actively seek a style you run the risk of getting stuck in plagiarism and imitation, style is something that finds you rather than you discovering it. Everyone does it though, myself included, you love an artwork so you draw in a certain style of a contemporary, which is great for deconstructing and figuring out their process, but in this society it can lead to popular recognition from others for the wrong reasons and can sway the reasoning behind what you do. Draw and work all day every day for the passion alone, meet people and make connections, be yourself, love what you do. Have fun; always be aware of why you want to create.
The biggest thing for me I’ve found is collaboration and critique, working with and for others and understanding how your work develops and grows through criticism is invaluable. There’s nothing more destructive than blind praise, nobody’s work is perfect and the first step is recognising how you can develop from piece to piece, and having someone to discuss that process with makes you not only more self critical, but gives you the foundation of being a strong collaborator. Strengthen your own opinions and your own voice, do it for yourself. Don’t cater to the crowds.
I can’t wait to see what you come up with in future. What’s next for you?
Owen: Thank you! I have a very exciting announcement coming in a few weeks about a personal project. There’s a couple of projects upcoming which are super POP comics. Really bright and light and accessible. The polar opposite of Beast Wagon.Hopefully by the end of the year they will be announced. I’m also working on a long-gestating science-fiction story which is somewhere between Michael Moorcock’s Dancers At The End Of Time, Mad Max: Fury Road and The Truman Show with an incredible artist from the states. Sorry I can’t be more specific just now!
John: In terms of comics, I’ve got a project being announced soon for the summer hopefully, a music and sequential fusion which has been in development for a while now. I’m also working with PM Buchan and Martin Simmonds on the folk horror series HERETICS, and also some work coming up with Titan Comics. There’s a few exhibitions in the works, the first of which is at Creature Features in Burbank for The Thing 35th Anniversary Art Show this month. Other than that, there’s mural work and art direction for a number of festivals over the summer, some interesting experimental comics research outside of the printed page, plus I’m in the early stages of writing and illustrating my Burroughsian dream journal comic book, and then looking at future projects with Owen. I’m clearly never sleeping again.
Many thanks to Owen Michael Johnson and John Pearson for taking the time for this interview.