Owen further described the release as ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest with talking animals…’ and promises ‘an examination of systems and control’ with a preview released at last year’s Thought Bubble Sequential Art Festival giving a hint of the scale and what’s to come.
The new creative team offers an exciting dynamic with Owen already commenting that ‘John is an honest artist. We’re pushing each other creatively, into dark waters.’ Similarly Pearson, an illustrator heralding from Leeds and one of the contributors to the CULT exhibition at Orbital Comics, said ‘Beast Wagon will be a debauched tale of insanity. Owen has pulled out the stops to explore madness and frustration across many complex layers. I’ve been scooping out my mind to put together a collection of images that feeds into the vision of hell we’ve had. Madagascar this is not.’ The creative team is complete with letterer to the rich and famous Colin Bell who adds another title to his already impressive back catalogue.
I caught up with Owen & John and asked them some questions to see what more I could find out about the project:
What can we expect from Beast Wagon??
Owen – Expect a jet-black comedy about damage, systems, and the nature of human’s relationship with animals. An intense, feverish social satire. We are certain it will be the only comic you ever read containing the love confessions of a Hippopotamus.
John – It’s a tightly woven web of insanity, hopefully that will stand up to multiple readings and people will want to revisit. This isn’t a throw away story about friendship between animals; it’s a concentrated satirical reflection on the absurdity of existence and social interactions, hilarious and gut wrenching.
What are the long-term plans for Beast Wagon?
Owen – We’ll keep the wagon rolling as long as we can. It’s a fixed 6 issue series which is planned with a distinct end-point for these characters. Further than that, there are endless stories to tell in different places and times, but unless the book gets the support it needs we’re keeping zipped.
John – These 6 issues are our firstborn for this project, but the nature of what we’re doing gives us the option to develop this in a number of ways if we wish. The intensity of developing these 6 issues with the breadth of what we’re doing means we’re pouring everything into the current production, then we’ll see what happens after that.
The map of the zoo gives an idea of scale – is this going to be a big project for you & John?
Owen – Yeah, this is huge for me. I’ve never attempted a series before. John is working over-time to make this the highest quality possible. As far as the map goes, we’re honouring that geography as if this is a real environment. The time-scale is extremely rigid (the whole series takes place over the course of one business day) which is constricting but exciting. It was essentially to have a sense of claustrophobia. Plus, there is a large cast of characters, in various enclosures, whose plots intertwine and diverge at many points. It’s been surprisingly challenging to write something so dense and make it read smoothly.
John – It’s exactly the same with me, the depth of the project is enormous and has meant that a lot of time has been put into coming up with visuals that will compliment the web of characters Owen has developed. The map breaks down the main focal points of the various threads and there are a whole host of individuals interacting with one another, so developing such a large number of personalities has really pushed me creatively.
Beast Wagon conjures up thoughts of Orwell’s Animal farm, Brian K Vaughn’s Pride of Baghdad but what was the inspiration behind it?
Owen – All of those are in there. The Animals of Farthing Wood was big when I was a nipper. If you’re looking towards comics We3 is also there, as well as The Puma Blues. I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction about animals, ‘Why Look At Animals?’ by John Berger, ‘Beasts’ by Jeffrey Moussaieff Massion. There’s a touch of the absurd – Monty Python surrealism.
I’ve wanted to do a talking animals book for years, it was just a case of waiting for the right project, or the right collaborator. I did an animal rights short called ‘Tyger, Tyger’ with Garry Brown (The Massive) years ago. It was about a tiger receiving mecha-enhancements in a government facility. Looking back that was a proto-Beast Wagon story. Working with Accent UK in the early days I did another piece with a fantastic wildlife artist called Kev Mullins (who remains on the book as consultant along with Anna Vickerstaff). I originally planned to make this with Kev but the schedules didn’t line up.
Writer P M Buchan is to thank really. We were having a late-night projects phone-call (something we do semi-regularly) and I explained the idea to him as a flippant thing I’d put in a drawer. He rekindled the enthusiasm for it, made me feel it was worth working on again.
John – When I got the call from Owen to get involved he’d already done a lot of groundwork for what he wanted to achieve in the writing, and it was something that excited me straight away. Owen has delved deep into researching this with totems, symbolism and a mixture of scientific accuracy and mysticism. I would get messages alternating between being asking about anatomical details of a hippopotamus vagina one minute, and then shamanism and altered consciousness the next. We’ve both immersed ourselves into this world, we undertook a research trip to the zoo during the early stages of development, the details of which I cannot speak about, but ultimately helped to solidify a lot of how we wanted this thing to feel.
What made you choose talking animals for the release?
Owen – We chose talking animals because when we do we are inevitably writing about us. And I wanted to know what I had to say about us through that lens. Also because (as Colin Bell informs me) snarky animals are really funny. Beast Wagon is also about living in London. All the voices and chaos of sharing a home with a multitude of strangers. How simultaneously unifying and exhausting that can be.
John – At many points during our near daily discussions about Beast Wagon we’ve said various characters should be “kinda like us” with their personality traits. This whole thing is entwined with our respective personalities, but has a subjectivity that comes through in the story telling that will impact the reader in various ways. The animals and setting are perfect for exploring a variety of social interactions, alienation and claustrophobia, but to me it’s always acting as mirror for the reader and has the potential to create debate around a variety of topics, if you want it to. You can read it as simply a twisted and funny book with talking animals if you don’t want to delve any deeper, or it can be a far more intense experience if you want it to be, the layers that are in this thing are what will pull people in.
John’s artwork is suitably epic in scale – does it match what you had in mind when writing it?
Owen – John’s artwork hugely influenced the tone and mood. I met him through his involvement in last years CULT exhibition and I couldn’t help but recognise what a great talent he was. I hadn’t written anything at that point, just the concept. When John came on-board the series became clearer. He brings a darkness that was not present before but is essential in hindsight. His art shaped my vision. Knowing he was drawing it pushed me to go further. Uncompromising.
John– The artwork I knew had to capture the intricacies of the story, the depths of what was going on. I’m lucky to be in a position that Owen isn’t a writer that will dictate the look of everything, he knows my style and uses it to feed into the writing and help to shape the world we’re making. We really push each other, often with outlandish ideas that inevitably end up getting including in the narrative.
Did you both bounce ideas off each other to get the final style & feel you wanted?
The limited edition preview created for Thought Bubble last year was a great road test. It was a way of getting in the mood, watching how the alchemy shakes out. We continue to share ideas, talk about colour, and storytelling. Its coming together beautifully.
John – We always discuss possible developments in both the art and story, it’s a constantly evolving process between us. Whether it be sharing news stories which will spark ideas, or images that we’ll use for reference, we’ll always talk about what we’re trying to achieve which adds a fluidity to the creative process.
What can we expect from the opening night of the Exhibit?
Something wild. If you’ve attended any of the events we’ve had a hand in (CULT at Orbital, Gatecrash Stage in Leeds) you know we like to put on a special show. Creating something exciting for those who support our launches is really important to us. This time around we have spoken word in the world of Beast Wagon, John will be live-painting, and live music will be provided by Karl Snarl & The Animatones. We’ve heard a rough cut and John described it perfectly…..
John – I think I described the music as John Carpenter and Vangelis snorting coke from a sedated monkey while they take turns fucking it. It captures the mood perfectly for what we’re trying to do, it’s beautifully crafted and dreamlike with an underlying current of chaos and insanity. The music will work alongside the spoken word and live art to create something which transcends the comic book. Previous events we’ve done have always tried to add a different flavour to what you would get at other comic events, we want the opening night to be memorable and more than just an opportunity to meet the creators. It’ll be an experience.
Was it interesting seeing other artists contributions for the exhibit?
Yes! There are some fantastic contributions from guest artists – Conor Boyle from Disconnected Press, And Then Emily Was Gone artist Iain Lawrie, and Steve White. They’re all friends who we knew had an interest in the subject and would produce outstanding pieces. They have seen little of the comic proper so we’ve allowed them to cut loose and produce whatever they want involving animals.
John – It’s been very interesting seeing other people’s interpretations of these animals with limited context, everyone who’s contributed has made something which adds further texture to the characters. Adding identifiable personality to animals is a challenge and each artist has managed to do it in their own unique way, it’s been a pleasure to see different approaches to the subject.
What else are you working on now?
Reel Love Act Two. Delays were inevitable as the promotion of Beast Wagon has grown in scope. I’ll be writing the second issue of Beast Wagon and finishing Reel Love for Glasgow Comic Con in the Summer.
John – I’m a sucker for overworking myself, so I have a lot of projects currently in development which will come to light later in the year. Hopefully this includes a brief art tour of mainland Europe over the summer, something I picture will be a mixture of Easy Rider and Withnail & I, only with paint pens and canvas.
The Kickstarter launch party and opening night of the BEAST WAGON exhibition will take place on Saturday the 28th February at Orbital Comics in London. The opening night promises music, performance, spoken word, live art and madness featuring Karl Snarl and the Animatones – click the image below to check out the Orbital Comics site for more info or check the Facebook event for more details.
The title will be released under Johnson’s Changeling Studios imprint where you can get your hands on the preview now. You can also head over to John’s website to view his art from this & other projects.