Beyond the Wire
Beyond the Wire is a series of illustrations, linked by a poetic set of narratives that manages to capture with the care and imagination, the terrible tragedy that were the trenches on the western front in the First World War.
The book itself is a real artefact; it feels special as soon as you pick it up, the brown light cardboard cover feels of the time and the unusual size means that it feels like someone’s personal book, of photos or sketchs.
The narrative is poignant, and deeply respectful of the history, while there is a sadly sinister element played out, as one sees images of good and bad officers, and Tommies treated very poorly.
Added to this, there is an ingenious artistic element that really adds to the work; there are holes in the pages, which allow previous images to continue into a new scene or setting. The holes create a consistency and select images are chosen, faces and eyes especially looking through and yet the context surrounding these suddenly familiar elements are drastically altered, each telling it’s own story.
There is a sequence to the images, one leads to another, while the opposing pages depict complementary images but are distinct. There is a pleasure in exploring this work yet there is a harsh reality, as the privations of the trench soldier are put in sharp contrast with the excesses of some officers. The inking is clever too, with two differing tones in use.
The poetry style narrative, with characters speaking is partial, yet clearly explains the situation, less words allowing the striking imagery to take greater hold of the reader.
I was so impressed with this work that I sought out the artist Alys Jones and interviewed her, as I felt that this work must be reflective of the artist and there is more here than a simple illustrated book.
(all art here by and (c) Alys Jones)
James: The book begins with a poem by David Jones, but you created the narrative yourself, how did you go about that, and what were you trying to do here?
Alys: I was attempting to articulate my own response to the poetry and art of World War One, rather than inform or educate, neither of which I feel qualified (or have any desire) to do. It is set within an unfinished poem, the landscapes composed from many different sources, so there is no attempt to depict real historical events as fact. However, I did feel a responsibility, out of respect to the subject matter, to try and give the book as much accuracy of detail as I possibly could. I couldn’t have produced it without carrying out quite a bit of research, although I’m sure it still has plenty of inaccuracies! The central character in the book is an Officer poet, and strongly inspired by those famous figures such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves.
So I wanted the text to echo the cadence of a poem without seeming like a parody (the imagery is as much an attempt to achieve this as the text). David Jones’s In Parenthesis is incredibly rich with detail and description that influenced both my writing and artwork hugely. The passage of text I chose is very atmospheric, and felt like it led perfectly into the story I wanted to tell.
James: Do you have any connections yourself to the First World War?
Alys: My Grandfather fought in World War One, but I never met him and know next to nothing about his experiences. I don’t feel at all that this qualifies me to comment on or plunder unimaginable experiences. Despite book’s setting, it is most definitely a contemporary work, dealing with my own modern day engagement with literature, history and imagination.
James: What was the motivation to look at the First World War?
Alys: When I started my Masters (in Illustration: Authorial Practice at Falmouth University) I felt quite lost and stuck for ideas. I was making little sketches and strips featuring recognisable, archetypal characters from literature, who had been left unwritten, edited out, or were out of print. They were lost in a sort of narrative limbo, some were quite resentful towards their authors!
Beyond the Wire started as one of these quick little doodles, but after discussing it with tutors it seemed like it had some potential to develop it further. Once I had decided to base the story in World War One, the research became central to the project, and it felt important to show respect to the subject in my representation of it.
James: What do you find interesting about it during your research, and how did you feel, and was this important as a message in your work?
Alys: I found photographs from the War very moving, actually pretty hard to look at a lot of the time. I really wanted to try and recreate the closed, ambiguous facial expressions of the (now anonymous) soldiers within them. Quite often a character will take on an expression quite different from the one I originally intended, and far more interesting. Sometimes I would incorporate this and allow it to dictate and alter the rest of the drawing. It is overtly a piece of fiction, and quite personal, so I don’t see any need for it to be neutral or unbiased.
However I wouldn’t say I had an intended message or point to make, but it’s impossible for my responses to my research not to inform the narrative and overall tone. I made several visits to the Imperial War Museum to look in detail at things like uniforms, equipment and signage, but was also influenced by the work of painters like Otto Dix and Paul Nash. The more I looked at and read, the more aware I became of the need to avoid any sense of glorification or nostalgia, I realised I would need to depict horrible things if I really wanted to tell a story in this setting.
James: Can you tell me what media you used? The mix of black and sepia is interesting, and I wondered what you used to get that effect?
Alys: I used quink ink for the black pages, and my own mixture of black and brown calligraphy inks for the sepia. I wanted the colours to bring to mind old photographs and newspaper cuttings, and I like the variation in tone you can achieve with calligraphy inks. I also find it a nice medium for creating subtle and interesting brush marks, and it reacts nicely against different types of paper.
In a way the illustrations more closely resemble a series of static snapshots in an album, than cells in a comic (which often form a more fluid sequential narrative). This is probably because my research involved looking at so much photographic material. The two separate colours allow for two parallel narratives to occur and overlap both simultaneously, and in a separate time and place.
James: I understand you drew these images as A2 originally, was that the stage that you did the cutting?
Alys: Yes the holes were part of the original drawings. So there is a full A2 version of the book, made up of the original artworks. When it came to reproducing the book for publication, I had to make sure everything was nicely lined up and add templates to cut around. It was quite a fiddly process! It works nicely on a smaller scale, I think, as it is easier to handle and looks more like a notebook or photograph album of the time.
James: How did the idea of cutting holes come about?
Alys: In the very early stages of the project I made a mistake in a drawing, which had been going quite well, so I cut part of it out. I then began to experiment with laying images over each other in various formations, to see how that could be used as a narrative device. Because of the setting and subject matter, the holes began to take on an unexpected significance and became quite central to my project.
They started to raise all kinds of questions relating to missing memories and trauma, injury and amputation, and a blasted landscape. They also began to reflect the unfinished nature of the poem in which the story takes place, as well as allowing an unusual way to progress the narrative and create unusual shifts and jumps from place to place. They can take you through a series of events, allow you to see through a dugout into the trench, and shift the viewer’s position within the narrative.
James: It works very well, changing the perspective and interpretation with the turn of a page, and it feels like the idea developed during the process, did it?
Alys: It definitely developed alongside the two major strands of my research, which were concerned with meta-fiction and ‘author conscious narratives’ and the First World War. Each time I produced a new page I was forced to incorporate the shape of the holes on both sides, this was quite challenging and frustrating at times but it actually forced me to come up with new ideas and images that I wouldn’t have come up with otherwise. I also think the sense of chaos and confusion created by the layering of some of the pages, is in keeping with the setting of the book.
James: Is this a machine or hand cut process?
Alys: It’s all hand cut, so each copy has had quite a lot of time and attention. I had lots of help cutting out before the launch last year at Daunt Books, but I think I will be making them for quite some time!
James: The photographs at the end, are they fictitious or based on real images?
Alys: I looked at a lot of photographs, and sometimes borrowed clothing, backgrounds, and compositions. As much as possible I made changes, or made the faces up completely because it felt somehow prurient and exploitative to copy them exactly. I would say they are visual historical fiction, there are strong elements of both real sources, and imagination combined.
James: I understand you drew a life size mural, and it is incredible looking, can you tell me a bit about that please?
Alys: I made a life-sized painting of characters from the book, on the wall of my M.A. exhibition space, it was intended to act as an extension of the book itself. I wanted the viewer to really feel like they were part of the narrative, inside one of the pages. I placed a copy of the book on a plinth painted to look like a crate, with one of the painted figures looking at it. Throughout the book, one of the characters speaks out of the page, directly to the reader, in order to bring them into the narrative. So the mural was an attempt to take the idea one step further.
It’s also quite rare for an illustrator to get the opportunity to make paintings on that scale and I really wanted my show to have impact, and draw visitors in to look at the book. Sadly I had to paint over it after a couple of weeks, but it was nice while it lasted, and I’d love to do more work on that scale! Alongside the mural I had a wall of paintings, drawings and etchings, which was a nice way to show the development of the project and create a sense of atmosphere.
As you can see from the review and interview above, there is indeed a depth to the creation of the work here that is staggering. There must be something about the First World War that sparks the creative spirit in a terribly respectful and honest way. Despite a number of inaccurate works that miss the mark, pieces like Charley’s War by Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun and It Was the War of the Trenches – C’était la guerre des tranchées by Jaques Tardi stand out as true tales of the trenches. While examples in other media are less rare, these comics are brilliant in the way that The Blue Max, All Quiet on the Western Front, War Horse, Black Adder goes Forth and Gallipoli are, also telling their own story of the First World War.
It is amongst works of that calibre that I would put Beyond the Wire, it has a unique way of showing the story of the trenches and is quite superb, in a very unique way.