Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Five Wounds: The Making of

[The following was originally posted on Spike, the Meanjin blog.]

Jonathan Walker is the author of Pistols! Treason! Murder! The Rise and Fall of a Master Spy. His next book, published this month by Allen & Unwin, is Five Wounds: An Illuminated Novel – ‘illuminated’ because each element (text, design and illustration) have been executed collaboratively, with a view to serving the story as a whole. Here, Jonathan takes us through the making of Five Wounds.

Dan and I met in Cambridge in 2001. I was a postdoctoral researcher at Cambridge University. Dan was studying for a degree in illustration, and was working in a comic shop, where he took my order for a copy of Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Here are some other salient facts:

1) Our collaboration works entirely by e-mail correspondence. Since 2002, we have only been in the same place once: in London in 2006, when we spent most of the afternoon walking around trying to find a screening of Mirrormask by Dave McKean and Neil Gaiman. We failed.

2) Dan is probably the only person capable of interpreting my weird scripts. Scientific research has proven that they cause migraines and disorientation in other illustrators.

3) Dan created the illustrations for my first book, Pistols! Treason! Murder!, which is about a real-life Venetian spy, who was executed for perjury in 1622. These illustrations are all in the style of seventeenth-century allegorical woodcuts.

4) As a child, my bedroom was full of half-assembled model aeroplanes; Dan’s was full of insects in jars. This seems somehow significant.

Dan and I began with a shared interest in comics, which offered a set of guidelines for how it might be possible to work together. Mainstream comics companies operate by means of a highly specialised division of labour, not only between writer and artist, but between writer, penciller, inker, colourist and letterer, et al – a system that was probably inspired by the factory assembly lines of Henry Ford rather than by any sense of its creative potential. The goal was to maximise efficiency for an industry in which the turnover of product was very rapid (weekly or monthly), and insofar as there was a coherent creative vision involved, it was arguably that of the editor, whose role in the process was analogous to that of a Hollywood producer. Even so, one may adopt analogous, if rather less rigid, divisions of labour for reasons other than industrial efficiency: for example, a conviction that collaboration, if entered into in the right spirit, will inevitably increase a work’s range and power.

It was important that Dan was trained as an illustrator – that is, in a discipline that accepts collaboration as a sine qua non of its existence – because the goal for any collaborator should not be to protect the integrity of their individual contribution; rather, it should be to serve the story and the book as a whole. For me, faced with the task of writing a script for Dan to work from, the central question was, how do you describe a picture that doesn’t exist yet? And how do you relate that description meaningfully to other descriptions of other pictures that also don’t exist yet? The ancient rhetorical convention of ekphrasis suggests some historical answers to this question, but more recent practical help was available via several examples of published scripts for comics.

The earliest set of illustrations created for Five Wounds were the Plates, which are included in the printed book as a separate insert section, and are introduced in the video below (see here for more introductory videos).

I wrote hundreds of words of instructions to Dan for each of these eighteen plates. Below, for example, is the script for what is now Plate 1, which is entitled Initiation, and which concerns a character called Cur. Dan had of course already read the novel when he received this script, but for blog readers, some additional contextual information might be helpful.

In Initiation, then, Cur has been kidnapped by dogs, and is being introduced to their group in a quasi-magical ritual. Also of relevance is an earlier incident, in which chickens were killed by the dogs as one of them bit three fingers from the hand of Cur’s father. In my script, both the chickens and the fingers are transposed to the later scene, and the fingers also ‘stand for’ three of the other protagonists of the book, who are identifiable by coded references to heraldic colours superimposed on the different fingers. Hence this script instructs Dan to synthesise a number of scenes from the written narrative, and also to make certain ideas explicit visually that remain implicit in the text.


A straight down overhead shot and a ‘non-literal’ pic. A wailing, crying baby Cur is lying on his back at its centre (relatively small within the frame). Underneath him are the internal lines of a pentangle in white. It will be clear from another illustration that each of the points around the pentagram stands for one of the book’s five protagonists. The sequence (running clockwise and starting from the upper left) begins with Gabriella, then Cur (the subject of this image, whose nominal assigned place is at the apex of the pentagram), then Cuckoo, Magpie and Crow. The left arm of baby Cur is reaching out, grasping in the direction of Cuckoo’s point on the pentagram.

Around baby Cur, the pile of overlapping, slaughtered chickens will be laid in a circle along an implied outer circle, to convert the pentagram into a pentacle. Outside this circle are three severed fingers (the middle, the third and the little respectively). You should over-size them dramatically; that is, put them at a different scale to that used for Cur and the chickens (this is not apparent on my sketch). You’ll probably also need to exaggerate the nails and possibly the joints to make it clear what they are – maybe use a blood stain where they end too. The fingers are to be cross-hatched in the appropriate heraldic tones: checks for black Cuckoo, towards whose finger Cur’s left hand seems to be grasping, while his right hand lies open and passive in the direction of where Gabriella’s shield would implicitly be; a blank white third finger for Magpie, and a dotted little finger for Crow. Cur’s feet appear to be kicking against the latter two as he wails and cries. The severed fingers should be curled over and placed casually in roughly the right place, but not geometrically aligned or pointing inwards toward the centre.

Cur’s tears could be highlit as blank white trails to contrast with a full black trail of blood down his face that is placed at the central point in the shaving scene pic.

Outside the first circle of chickens that occupies the position of the pentacle circle is a second, looser circle of intertwined dogs, of different breeds and in different postures. They don’t all have to be huge and grim and black, but no Yorkshire terriers or Chihuahuas please. Their coats should be shaded using different ‘pasted on’ corruption effects (one for each dog). These two circles (the inner chicken one and the doggy outer one) foreshadow the two circles of the exploding palace illustration (which in turn reference Tintoretto’s Paradise in the ducal palace). Reduce the outer circle to four partial arcs, one in each corner. The dogs in the circle are not seen realistically from overhead, but from varying partial viewpoints, whatever is most useful to get an intertwining effect. Lots of emphasis on teeth and tongues please.

Fill any empty space with ‘effects’, which here should emphasize fluid, flowing, overlapping stains and discolourations: that is, they should resemble water damage, since Cur recalls this experience in later life by way of a dream of drowning.

I also drew a crude storyboard sketch to accompany this script, which I reproduce below (click to enlarge).

Storyboard Sketch for Plate 1

Since putrefaction and decay are major themes in the book, many of the Plates are marked with signs of their own physical degradation. The term ‘effects’ in the script therefore refers to these signs, which, in this case, Dan created using coffee and tea spilled on paper.

Can you predict what the finished image might look like on the basis of the script above and the sketch? This was Dan’s task: to first imagine that image, and then to create it. Below is the result.

Plate 1: Initiation
Above: Plate 1, Initiation, from Five Wounds (click to enlarge)

Some images went through several drafts, not because of any deficiencies in Dan's execution, but because I struggled to think clearly about what the proper relationship between image and text should be, or in what way precisely the image should embody broader themes from the book. Below, for example, are the initial instructions for what eventually became Plate 10, Magpie in the forest, followed by successive revisions of the image itself, the latter interspersed with selections from my e-mails to Dan.


A track through a forest (Goya trees and shadows around Magpie).). A bat above, foreshadowing the incident with the first daguerreotype. We are looking at Magpie from the side and in long shot. He is holding a mirror reflecting the moon, the same mirror that Cuckoo holds in Plate 6, Cuckoo’s reflection, but Magpie is much less dominant within the frame than Cuckoo is in Plate 6. Magpie is dwarfed within the skeletal, snowy landscape of trees, which are layered and compressed on different planes. He is almost lost or tangled up among the tree branches, which overlap in front of him and partially obscure him, but his head, cloak and mirror remain clearly visible, as do the sky, stars and moon in the upper third of the frame. He appears within a small break in the trees (see reference pix from Blankets and Black Hole for this effect). The moon should be absolutely realistic and as detailed as possible, but ‘solarized’ at its upper edge as the black sky bleeds off into ‘deteriorating daguerreotype’ effects. The moon in the mirror is miniaturized but clearly recognizable. The snow falling and in drifts between the bare tree outlines allows you to rhyme the dappled effect on Magpie’s face with black and white tonal variations in the landscape. Compare the Blankets pix for how to show snow, dark forest and highlit figures within. There are also various good dark forest shots in Black Hole (without snow). I attach a fantastic snow effect scene from Sin City, although note that a lot of Miller's effects rely on his omission of half-tones: i.e. everything is either pure black or pure white in each frame, which is a quite different technique to that I want for the Plates, where the tonal range is longer and flattens off towards the two extremes.

Try and keep some the textural detail of the folds of the cloak, but have the cloak down instead of up.

Plate 10 - Version 1
Plate 10: Version 1

E-mail dated 18 May 2006:

We need a daguerreotype version of the moon, not a drawn one. For the 'solarized' effect, you may need to create a smoother texture than is possible with pen and ink, using cloning in Photoshop with a dull metallic dark grey. Anyway, see what you can do.

Also, too chiaroscuro. Flatten out the midtones by adding a background layer of mid-tone grey in Photoshop.

Plate 10 - Version 2
Plate 10: Version 2

E-mail dated 2 June 2006:

Lose the bat and close up the cross-hatching where it currently is. Also, I think we need a bit more snow, especially in the central and lower areas, where it is more or less absent. You could have another go at getting an effect whereby the snow is both a distinct layer ‘on top of’ the picture space, but also continues inside the picture space and blends into a corrupt background, although I appreciate that this may not be possible. In addition, Magpie's left hand (the one not holding the mirror) needs greater definition of form. It is currently a bit amorphous and not very hand-like.

E-mail dated 2 June 2006:

It took me a while to register that your moon is rotated ninety degrees. The effect of this is actually rather interesting. It is completely 'wrong' from an astronomical point of view, since the moon is never lit from below but always runs through its phases along the vertical axis, and in your version its features are also all in the wrong place (for an astronomer, it will be like seeing the globe tilted ninety degrees on its axis). However, I think that perhaps it's a nice way of signalling on a subliminal level that there's something not quite right or logical about the world of FW. Everything is a bit skew-wiff - as the moon is - so in that sense it's 'right', and I'm inclined to leave it alone.

Plate 10 - Version 3
Plate 10: Version 3

E-mail dated 8 June 2006

The grey layer is (as I read it) 'behind' the black outlines of the trees and the sky above. Add some grain / white specks, etc. to it – another different representation of snow – but this should not interfere with the black ink that makes up the tree shapes and shadow outlines or with the black sky and the moon above. If we divide the picture up into blocks and layers of tone and completely ignore the perspective and recession, it breaks down into:

Foreground / top layer: drifting snow and moon
Midground / middle layer: sky, black outlines of trees and their shadows below,
Magpie in middle
Background / bottom layer: layer of amorphous grey tone 'underneath' the drawn outlines (most clearly visible as such in the space immediately surrounding Magpie) - to which add white specks / grainy interference.

Does this make sense? Hopefully it does.

There were some further adjustments to the moon in the top left. The final image therefore looks like this.

Plate 10: Magpie in the forest
Plate 10: Final Version

As a final twist in the production process, the written scene that originally inspired Plate 10 was actually removed from the manuscript during the structural edit. However, since I liked the image so much, I invented an entirely new scene, whose sole purpose was to provide a textual justification for the continued existence of this Plate. Indeed, I frequently rewrote sections of the novel in response to Dan’s work, because the illustrations often clarified ideas that were insufficiently developed in the text, or brought things to my attention that had not occurred to me during writing.

In retrospect, the level of detail in the scripts I wrote for the Plates, as sampled above, seems excessive, although the obsession with control betrayed by this accumulation of detail had interesting aesthetic consequences. All the Plates feel cramped and constrained, lacking in spontaneity (natural enough since many of them went through several drafts), but this feeling accurately reflects the world that they describe and the state of mind of the characters they depict. In later phases of our collaboration, however, when Dan and I had both gained confidence, my instructions were far less prescriptive. The feel of the later illustrations is therefore quite different from that of the Plates, which helps to vary the tone and rhythm of the book’s visual elements.

Some examples of these later scripts and illustrations can be found on Dan’s blog, where he discusses their creation from his own perspective: Jean in the Jar, The Black Dog, and The Bagatto.

I look forward to seeing where our collaboration will take us next.

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