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Promethea site, 2004
Interview by Eroom Nala

"At its far edge, horror shades into beauty, and it is far beyond that edge that Coulthart takes us, into terrible magnificence."
Alan Moore

John Coulthart has produced artwork for the following Alan Moore productions:

Angel Passage CD cover

The Highbury Working CD cover

Snakes and Ladders CD cover

The Mindscape of Alan Moore film poster

In addition he produced the Sephiroth map published in Promethea #14.

He also provided a semiotic diversion entitled '32 Short Lucubrations concerning Alan Moore on the occasion of his 50th Birthday' which can be found on pgs. 209-213 of Alan Moore: Portrait of an Extraordinary Gentleman.

His website can be found at Atelier Coulthart and someone recently created a new fanlist about him about a month before I conducted this interview in early November 2003.


• Could you explain some of the words used on your website: {retinacula} {pleonasm} {pantechnicon} {oniomania} {decalcomania} {catenation} {bibliopoesy}? Are they in Latin or did you just make some of them up?

These are all real words as perusal of a large dictionary will show. This was simply my attempt to do something different with the usual presentation of an artist's website. A lot of sites you see adopt variations on a very similar format: lots of black backgrounds and the same, rather inevitable, page titles: "Gallery", "Interviews", "Links", etc. Magazines have different names for sections that are similar to other magazines; I thought I'd try something a bit less obvious.

All the words relate obliquely to the section content: for the section of miscellaneous pictures I used "Pantechnicon", a word which is generally used for a furniture mover (!) but which originally meant (in Greek) "all art" and was a name for ancient bazaars. "Pleonasm" seems appropriate for an interview section since it means using more words than are strictly necessary! All the section links have explanatory tags on them so you can see where you're going to go rather than having to guess.

• What's your background and training in the graphic arts? What are your main tools of the trade? Do you prefer working with pen and paper and other traditional artists tools or is most of your work done on computer?

I don't have any training apart from the rudiments you get at school, most of which I knew anyway like the rules of perspective, which colours are complimentary and so on. People often make a big deal of this, referring to "self-taught artists" as though great mysteries are revealed by having attended a college. The implication is that if you don't attend an art college for a couple of years there must be enormous obstacles to be overcome en route to developing into a creative person; this is obviously nonsense. Nobody ever talks about "self-taught writers" in the same way, even though that's what the majority of writers are. Alan Moore certainly is.

All my early work has been pen and ink and paint (gouache and acrylic). In the late '90s I moved to using a computer which I enjoy enormously. I still use drawn or painted elements in the computer work. People seem to regard the two worlds as being in opposition but there can be a very fluid exchange between them if you allow it. Working up a sketch, for instance, can be made a lot quicker simply by scanning the drawing, printing it out in a grey tone then drawing over the print. There have been other occasions where I've printed out a Photoshop collage at photo quality then put paint onto the print and then scanned the result. Both areas have their pros and cons and I don't have a preference for one over the other, it depends what you're aiming at with the final work. When it's done loosely, painting contains a lot of accident that a computer doesn't allow, even with the natural media programs.

• Who have been the major influences on your artwork? What other artists (classic and contemporary) do you admire? What authors, musicians and architects?

This is something people ask a lot but it's often difficult to answer briefly. It's possible to admire a huge number of different artists – like Michelangelo, say – without them necessarily being an influence. The Surrealist painters were a big influence early on, especially Dali and Max Ernst. Later I backtracked to their influences, looking at the Symbolist artists of the late 19th century. When I was doing a lot of ink drawing certain illustrators like Gustave Doré and Aubrey Beardsley were an influence on that. Then there's been more contemporary artists like HR Giger, Mati Klarwein and Francis Bacon and photographer Joel-Peter Witkin. Architecture is something I've always been interested in and the renderings of Piranesi and Hugh Ferris remain an abiding influence.

With design work, Neville Brody has been a considerable influence, not so much because of his typography but because his layouts are usually unimpeachable.

• You seem to like to quote extensively from other artists (ie: you use photographs, signatures, tarot cards and images of other peoples' artwork) and then manipulate these images by juxtaposing them with one another for artistic effect. Do you like collage art and do you have a favourite piece of collage art? Do you enjoy juxtaposing different forms of art (eg: Surrealism vs Realism) and playing around with perspective and background/foreground effects.

Collage in its strict definition – cutting figures out of printed works then juxtaposing them – gained prominence with the Surrealists (especially Max Ernst) but there's an argument to be made that a lot of the world's great paintings are collages of a kind. The old concept of "the masterpiece", the big dramatic scene, was of a work created slowly with each element being worked out in a series of separate figure studies, all the separate elements being then "collaged" together in the final composition. Even that masterpiece of high Modernism, Picasso's Guernica, was created in this way. The thing with paper collage, of course, is you can't change the material you're working with very much, which is part of the challenge.

I discovered Max Ernst's collage works (from Victorian magazine illustrations) very early on and was struck by the way he'd brought a dreamlike irrationality to these staid Victorian scenes. Shortly after I discovered Wilfried Sätty, a German artist resident in San Francisco during the late '60s, who took Ernst's methods and extended them using printing techniques to alter the collage material. My favourite collage works remain the Max Ernst ones, especially in his collage "novel" Une Semaine de Bonté, a book which works very much like a wordless comic since the reader is supposed to read the series of pictures as though they're telling a story.

Some other collagists who should probably be added to the influence list above are the Hipgnosis studio who designed a large number of album covers during the 1970s, including all the Pink Floyd ones. In the days before Photoshop they'd developed a very sophisticated approach to collaging staged photographs in order to create unreal or dreamlike images. This has far less impact now that anyone can do something similar with a computer but at the time many of the things they were doing were quite unique.

• How long have you known Alan Moore and what was the first work you did for him?

I first met Alan in 1988 and got to know him properly in the early nineties. The first work for him was the painting for what would have been the cover of Yuggoth Cultures in 1994.

Creation recently reissued their Starry Wisdom collection (where The Courtyard and my Call of Cthulhu adaptation were first published) and used this painting as the cover. It looks okay but I wish they'd let me do the typography as well.

• Your latest book cover is for The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases which contains a piece by Alan. What are some of the favourite book covers you have designed?

Probably the ones for the Savoy editions of Zenith the Albino and A Voyage to Arcturus.

Zenith because it's all about red, black and white, arranged in a Mondrian-derived pattern, and is more bold than the baroque things I usually do. And Arcturus because it was an exercise in choosing a third-party picture to go with a given text, in the classic manner established by Penguin Books. The painting in question is The Treasures of Satan by the Belgian Symbolist Jean Delville, a picture that suits David Lindsay's philosophical allegory a lot better than the terrible fantasy art that book usually gets landed with. Other people seem to agree since the latest paperback edition of Arcturus in the (Millennium Books) Fantasy Masterworks series has used the Delville painting as well, something they did after seeing our edition.

• What are some of your favourite music/CD covers? Is there much difference in producing an album/CD cover as opposed to a book cover, a poster or any other form of art you have done?

The favourites among my own work are probably the two most recent ones, the Snakes and Ladders CD by Alan Moore and Tim Perkins and Damnation and a Day by Cradle of Filth.

Favourites by other people would include anything by Neville Brody who did many of the covers for Cabaret Voltaire and 23 Skidoo in the early '80s and Russell Mills, an artist/designer who's worked a lot with Brian Eno and David Sylvian, as well as producing some great book covers.

The CD format is very small even in comparison to most books, which tends to be a constant aggravation for anyone wanting to create an impact with their work. Since most of the CD work I do is pictorial this means whatever you create is shrunk to a size where detail is lost. With two of the Moon and Serpent releases we circumvented this by having booklets that fold out to reveal larger areas of artwork. With books you're usually presenting a single edition in the long life of a given book. Music works are different in that the original art tends to remain attached to that album permanently; nobody would dream of trying to release Sgt Pepper without Peter Blake's cover art yet books rarely have a definitive cover design.

"The horror. The horror." Joseph Conrad

• Which of your artworks are you proudest of? Which would have been seen by the most people?

Probably the Lovecraft adaptations and the Lord Horror comics. In the Lord Horror series Reverbstorm especially, I felt we managed to push the comics medium into a few places it had never been before.

I'm fairly certain the Cradle of Filth covers are the ones seen by the most people, the last album particularly is on sale in record stores all over the world. This visibility aspect is important to me. Working with a popular band you get an immediate sense of connecting with a large audience, many of whom encounter your work indirectly via t-shirts or posters. The first Cradle of Filth album I did was promoted with huge art displays in a window of Tower Records in Piccadilly, London. By contrast, most of the comics world seems completely ghettoised and irrelevant to the world at large, with occasional exceptions that escape into the mainstream like Maus or Chris Ware's books. This is especially ironic given how much comics have affected Hollywood in recent years. The Lord Horror comics have been invisible even within the comics world itself (due to lack of distribution and plain old censorship) so that must make them about as obscure as you can get for a supposedly popular medium.

• What are some of your favourite images from Promethea?

I couldn't really pick out anything in particular, I think the whole series is a quite incredible work of art. JH Williams' has done a phenomenal job at keeping up with the scale of Alan's ambition, especially in the more experimental sections.

• Have you done much work in film and or animation and do you have any plans for such work in future?

Well, I designed a title sequence for a student film years ago but that's about it in the film world so far. However, I've been talking to some people recently about work on a major feature film, something I'm keen on so long as the project is right. I can't really say what this is just yet as everything's at a very rudimentary stage. I'd never try animation myself, although I love the medium, it's far too time consuming. But some kind of design work wouldn't be out of the question.

• Are there any future collaborations with Alan you can tell us about? For example a quote from an old Previews magazine "John Coulthart, who will be doing a decadent, partly computer-generated occult strip called "The Soul." The Soul is an occult investigatress who operates in or around 1910 – but it's a very strange 1910, a very beautiful, Art Nouveau world." Can you tell us any more about The Soul? Do you know when and by whom it will be published when it is finished?

There's not much to tell at the moment since the whole idea remains at a very early stage of development. There are several distinct spheres of influence that it should bring together: early 20th century occultism of the kind seen in many of the "psychic detective" stories of the '20s and '30s, lush and exotic post-Decadence Art Nouveau and the cosmic horror of the early pulp magazines, especially Weird Tales.

• Joel Biroco stated that "The Moon and Serpent Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels does not actually exist, and so it doesn't have members. I am not a member. Alan Moore is not a member. Steve Moore isn't a member either. Nor is John Coulthart. Nor is… " Journal, Sep 16, 2003.

I think he was trying to dissuade fanatics and would-be magicians from asking how to join it but the conglomerate of people who put on theatrical performances under the Aegis of TMaSGEToM obviously does exist at least for the hour or so that it puts on a stage performance. How many actual performances by the Moon and Serpent have there been and do you have any information about any future ones?

One thing Joel and Alan have in common is wanting to look at the whole business of magic in terms that go beyond the Dennis Wheatley model of donning robes and offering sacrifices to Beelzebub in a smoky basement. Moon and Serpent is one proposed solution. I usually tell people that the Moon and Serpent is like Borges' Fearful Sphere of Pascal, being a circle whose circumference is everywhere and whose centre is nowhere.

There have been five performances to date: the first was at the Bridewell Theatre, London in 1994. 'The Birth Caul' took place in Newcastle in 1995. 'The Highbury Working' was in London again in 1997, 'Snakes and Ladders' in Red Lion Square, London in 1999, and 'Angel Passage', the William Blake event, at the Purcell Room, London in 2001.

• Do you see this kind of one-off performance art with music, dancing, special effects, fire breathing and snake-wrangling with an eventual CD being produced as the sort of thing Alan will spend a lot of time doing once he stops writing mainstream comics in the near future?

There's been some vague discussion of a future event of this sort but what form it would take is unclear right now. There was a feeling after the Blake event that the whole "performance on a stage with Alan reading" arrangement had reached a kind of critical mass that couldn't be exceeded without adding performing elephants or something. A future event, then, might be more a sort of unholy mix of cabaret and art installation but it's anyone's guess how that would appear. There's also a problem of logistics; everyone who's involved with the Moon and Serpent performance side has other creative commitments. A more "open plan" event would need a lot of prior organisation and there isn't anyone around who can do that just now. The Blake evening was "organised" by people from the Tate Gallery but they seemed out of their depth with the whole event. It's very easy for events of this kind to become unmanageable without lots of planning and rehearsal.

• Are there any plans for future CD releases or reissues of the earlier harder to find CDs such as The Birth Caul?

There's been talk of this but it depends on the status of contracts with earlier record companies, so far as I know.

An earlier note from JC: "Steve Severin has decided to discontinue RE: which means the Moon and Serpent CDs are currently homeless. I think the latest talk has been for the operation to move over to Chris Staros who was making a better job of selling them than RE: were anyway."

I'd be happy to do a new cover for the first CD. Birth Caul seems to me to be fine as it is, it was pretty much the group's cover idea anyway since the birth caul in question is the cover. I thought the Moon and Serpent cover was a bit dull actually, despite having that spooky ghost picture and a mad photo of the three artistes inside. You could keep all those elements and just decorate it a bit more.

• Can you tell us anything about the new Mindscape of Alan Moore film? When is it expected to have a general release or will it just play at special film festivals before coming out on video/DVD?

People are going to be knocked out by the documentary, as it's the best thing that's been done to date about Alan and his work/life. A lot of the TV stuff he's been involved with has been cheap and amateurish, this is leagues beyond them all, with great sensitivity and intelligence shown towards his comics and his philosophies. Good music as well. And you get to hear how Rorshach speaks when Alan reads the opening lines from Watchmen at one point.

I'm sure Dez (Vylenz), the director, would love it to have a general release but these things are subject to the whims of distributors. It's a documentary for a start, and one that doesn't have the "freak" value of Crumb. Any release is liable to be restricted to arthouse cinemas in major cities. Films of this nature are never allowed near a multiplex.

(Note: The Mindscape of Alan Moore is produced by Shadowsnake Films. Here is an interview with Dez Vylenz conducted by Smoky Man.)

• For people like myself who unfortunately don't have a copy of The Haunter of the Dark yet, could you describe the contents in a little detail and describe Alan's contribution 'The Great Old Ones'?

The book is a collection of my Lovecraft comic strips and some related drawings. Alan's 'Great Old Ones' piece is a kind of evocation of Lovecraft's god figures mapped across the Tree of Life, with the energies descending from Kether, represented by the dark planet Yuggoth, to Lovecraft himself at Malkuth. I produced a portrait of each god/entity for the individual entries.

• Could you describe what it is about Lovecraft's writing that appeals to you?

Baldly stated, he's the man who single-handedly brought horror fiction into the 20th century, which makes him one of the most important writers of the period. Prior to Lovecraft – and even in his own early works – horror fiction dealt with localised terrors: a ghost, a vampire, haunted houses, etc. Lovecraft began under the influence of Poe but by blending horror and science fiction evolved a new form that we now call "cosmic horror" where the sources of fear in the story can span the universe and even other dimensions, making them impossible to escape from in any way. He said of his later work: "… all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large."

This oppressive sense of insignificance causes his characters to enter a kind of paranoid delirium that often tips over into insanity. His fiction dwells on the insignificance of human beings and human concerns when set against the cosmic scale; it's this that, for me, makes him a pulp equivalent of Kafka. They were both writing at the same period (Kafka slightly earlier) and both fixed a sense of the fear and unease of modern life through the creation of new metaphors. Both were also largely ignored during their lives. Lovecraft had a wide readership but only in Weird Tales magazine, no decent book collections of his stories appeared during his lifetime. He's often criticised for being a technically poor writer but the fact is that more proficient writers of the time such as John Dos Passos are little read these days, whereas Lovecraft's influence continues to grow. He's received praise from authors of the stature of William Burroughs, Angela Carter and Jorge Luis Borges (who dedicated a story to him); I don't see Stephen King ever achieving that level of respect after he's dead.

• Do you have a list of forgotten/neglected/obscure writers and books that you would like to illustrate covers for?

Not especially. There are still plans to do an edition of The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson with Savoy. I'd be illustrating that, as well as designing the book.

• In one of your interviews you say that mostly people contact you for work rather than vice-versa. Can you think of any work you would like to do that nobody has asked you to do yet? For example movies and 3 dimensional art?

There is the potential for film work as mentioned above. 3D graphics I find hard to get interested in beyond a rather superficial level. I've used some in my pictures but these usually get buried in the backgrounds. The more user-friendly 3D programs are useful for generating skies or water or certain kinds of shapes. The trouble with them is they lack the texture of real objects, even with increasing improvements in surface detailing. With 3D models it's still the case that the closer they get to the real world the more artificial they often seem; an animated sketch often has more apparent "life" in it than a tremendously detailed 3D model. This is partly because the brain accepts the immediate limitations of the animated sketch and "sees" the metaphor it presents for, say, a talking duck. With more detailed models and figures, the brain looks continually for all the moments that don't register as being representative of a real person or creature. 3D is great for rendering scenes and buildings in films but the whole area of virtual life has a long way to go.

• A note about the image at the start of this interview from John Coulthart:

I did this at Alan's request when Promethea had just started, ostensibly as a promo piece although there was talk of it being a poster of some sort as well. For various reasons it didn't get used for anything (!) and we started talking about doing The Soul at more or less the same time so I didn't bother forcing the issue. It's still one of my favourite works of recent years and was pretty much my first full-on piece of Photoshop art.




Original interview with artwork.