Creating Comics: An Interview with writer John Reppion and artist MD Penman

When we heard that writer John Reppion and artist MD Penman were reprinting their version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, first released in a sell-out run to much acclaim in 2021, we decided to dispatch ace newshound (shurely some mistake! – Ed) Matt Badham to find out what was going down.

The following interview was the result. Enjoy!

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by John Reppion and MD Penman - Cover

The story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has been told and re-told, re-imagined many times. Why did the two of you decide to retell it and what are you bringing to this adaptation?

John: Mark and I have known each other since 2016, and we’d been looking for something to collaborate on for a good few years. Then the opportunity to do something together arose through Mark’s role at Leeds Arts University. 

I’ve done a fair few adaptation projects in the past (Dracula, Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass, M. R. James, H. P. Lovecraft, and so on), so I thought it would be great to do something like that together and bring something new to an existing story. We’re both very into fantasy stuff and all the giant swords and monsters and folklore and magick that goes with that, so the story of Sir Gawain just seemed to fit the bill.

Mark: As John says, this kind of came about from a new job I got at Leeds Arts University. I had started as a senior lecturer on their BA Hons Comic and Concept Art course, and they were looking for their tutors to undertake research projects. 

I’m a big fan of John’s spooky essays in stuff like HelleboreDaily Grail and Fortean Times and I had been itching to do something with him, so I reached out to see if he fancied doing a project together. We decided on an adaptation that would act as an introduction to a mythical tale, an accessible starting point for further academic study, and the project quite quickly took shape as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. 

John really took the lead on the story adaptation and direction choosing to maintain the poetic nature of it which freed me up to focus solely on the art. I’m a fan of medieval history and artworks so I wanted the book to have that kind of look but still feel decidedly modern. 

John, on Twitter you said you’re crowdfunding without it being a crowdfunder.  Could you guys please elaborate on that?

John: The original zine-sized edition and print run of the book which came out in 2021 was funded by Leeds Arts University and sold out really, really fast. Although we (and lots of readers) absolutely loved the zine format of that first edition, we always knew that a larger edition would showcase Mark’s art much better, as well as having less people reaching for their reading glasses. So, we thought we’d go big and deluxe with this new edition, but that doesn’t come cheap. Basically, we’re really hoping we can secure enough pre-orders to cover our costs and enable us to bring readers the very best edition we possibly can.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by John Reppion and MD Penman - Sample Art
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by John Reppion and MD Penman - Sample Art
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by John Reppion and MD Penman - Sample Art

Mark: It kind of kills me how quickly we sold out of the initial run. It felt that the book was gaining some real traction then all of a sudden, we had no copies left to sell! I think it took me around three weeks from launching the book to be fully sold out and not long after that John sold all his copies. We kind of ruminated on whether we wanted to do another print run and eventually decided that if we were to do one it should be a bit more special. 

The zine format worked for the original project pitch, a super accessible version of the book that we could sell (ideally to academic institutions) but for the second run we really wanted to push the boat out. 

Our printer, Rich from Comic Printing UK, has been a fan of the book since I sent the files over to him and was dying to do a hardback version so, we decided heck, why not do a large hardback copy!?! Something that felt a little more special than the previous version and really let the story and art sing.

In terms of why we are raising the money the way we are I have had a lot of friends undertake what we would think of as normal crowdfunding through platforms like Kickstarter. I guess there was something about the knowledge of the incredible amount of work and bureaucracy that goes into those types of crowdfunding that put us off of that process. We have decided to go a little more grassroots and basically just gather the amount we need for the print run through word-of-mouth pre-orders.

Could you give an overview of the story for those not familiar with it as well as its place within history?

John: So, Sir Gawain and The Green Knight is a bit of a funny one in a way because, even though it was written in the 14th century, it was deliberately done to sound/read like it was several hundred years or so older than that. What it did was to take something which looked and felt like a classic story, but then address things in what would have been a very contemporary way – examining the concept of Arthurian knightliness and chivalry in what would have been a very modern way. I think that lends the story a lot of its strength because, as a consequence of it’s pretending to be “a tale as old as time”, it actually included much more information and ended up a lot clearer than most of the actual stories from that time.

Basically, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a story all about how a gigantic, otherworldly green knight turns up at Camelot one Christmas and asks if anyone is brave enough to have a go at chopping his head off. The only catch is that he gets to return the blow afterwards. King Arthur almost has a go but then his young, handsome, virtuous nephew, Sir Gawain, steps forward to take a swing. Sure enough Gawain manages to absolutely decapitate the Green Knight but, unluckily for him, the knight just picks his head up and gives him an appointment a year and a day in the future. The story is all about Gawain’s journey to keep his bargain and what he finds waiting for him when he gets there.

The art looks fantastic. What approach did you take, Mark, in terms of decisions around your approach to the project?

Mark: I have done a fair few black and white/ greyscale comics, but I wanted this one to look a bit different. The yuletide setting and green man links made me want to use red and green as a limited colour palette. I was inspired by Artyom Trakhanov’s work, mainly the first book of his Slavic Nihilism series called Malicewhich has this lovely grungy texture to it and a striking use of red and green. 

I chatted a bit with Artyom about his approach with Malice and decided it would be fun to have all the worldly things done in red (Camelot, accents on Gawain’s outfit etc) and the more magical things represented with greens. I chatted with John about the general look of the designs of the people and places, and we decided to go on a more fantastical approach rather than historical. This let me lean into more flat, graphical and romantic qualities with the art which helped it capture a bit more of that illuminated manuscript/medieval artwork feel. 

There were subtle things I wanted to try as well. For example, a motif in medieval works is that size denotes importance so you will see instances where I balloon the size of characters to add more weight to them. By the end of the book the Green Knight is a huge towering presence and I think that helps sell the way that Gawian sees him. 

Another thing influencing the artwork was a dissatisfaction I had with how some of my previous comics had been turning out. I wasn’t really taking risks with the panelling or storytelling so the comics would tell the story fine, but I would be playing it fairly safe. This time I wanted to see if I could lean more abstract in places, push my layouts more and let some of the things be more interpretative. Working with John on this helped loads because I felt that if I had an idea, I felt that I needed to do solid realised thumbnails so I could pitch it to him. 

This led to a lot of decisions being really well thought out, before I got to the final artwork, which in turn meant that I could focus more on the quality.  John was very patient and accommodating with me playing with the layouts and story-beats so the whole project felt really collaborative.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by John Reppion and MD Penman - Sample Art

And, John, what’s your perspective on how Mark has chosen to interpret your words (was it full script, then art or some other method of creation)?

John: I wrote a full script (number of panels, layout suggestions, etc) but that was always on the understanding that Mark could do whatever he wanted if he had a better idea. And, lots of times, he really did. The incredible fox dream sequence (for instance) is all Mark. I mean, everything I suggested for those pages is still in there, of course, but he just took it up about 100 levels. Same for pretty much the whole book; I thought of something and then Mark did something 100% better than that basic idea. I’ve genuinely never been more excited to see new pages in my life.

How does the new edition differ in terms of content, if it does? (I notice you have an introduction from Alan Moore).

John: Yes, we have a truly lovely introduction from Alan. He absolutely loved the zine edition when he read it back in November last year, and had nothing but lovely things to say about it, except for the fact that it was a bit too small… and he lost his copy really quickly. So again, another vote for a larger edition. When we started putting the new edition together, I asked if he’d be interested in doing a little intro, and he was really into it. The intro ended up being about twice as long as we were expecting, but we’re certainly not complaining about that. It’s a wonderful addition to the book. A great way to open it. And, of course, it’s always nice when Alan Moore says nice things about your comic.

Mark: The main additions on my end were designing the new pages for Alan Moore’s intro and making the extra content that helped shift the format from A5 zine to A4 book. I needed to do some extra illustrations in the front and back and neaten up some of the elements like the author page, so the book feels a like a smarter product. There’s a whole conversation I had with John where every day or so I’d be like “Oh, wait, the pagination doesn’t quite work now! Quick, give me an awesome quote I can illustrate so this reads properly”. 

We resisted the urge to put in a full sketchbook/making of section as my sketch work for this was really rough and scrappy. It would have been a nightmare to process into something that was decipherable to other people!

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by John Reppion and MD Penman - Sample Art

Has Alan contextualised the material at all or simply talked about why he likes it?

John: Both, really. He’s not a man to do things by half. He really understood what we were trying to do with the book, and we were both delighted with how he’s articulated that in the intro. Full disclosure: Alan is also my father-in-law and every week he reads to his grandkids over the phone. That’s mine and Leah’s kids, and his other daughter, Amber’s son, my nephew. So, Alan is revisiting a few books he hasn’t read in a few decades and some of that has also informed the into. The way Victorian sensibilities about knightliness informed some children’s literature well into the 20th and 21st centuries.

What use might the book have for students of that period: historians and also students of literature?

John: So, not much of the original text appears in the graphic novel itself, because it’s an epic poem, written in quite a strange structure, and it would have been pretty much impossible to squeeze it into the pages in that form. However, we’ve tried to make our version as true as possible to the original. So, in terms of studying the story, it would definitely be a useful (and much easier to read and digest) companion piece to the full text. Much more fun than Spark Notes. Quite a few people who have studied the original, and know the text well, have been very complimentary about our version. And we even had a university get in touch about ordering copies of the first printing for their medieval literature course.

Where can people pre-order it?

John: If you go to www.moorereppion.com/greenknight there’s a pre-order link there.

John Reppion is a writer of prose fiction and non-fiction, who has worked for a diverse set of clients including The History Press, Fortean Times, Daily Grail Online, the Hellebore Zine. He has also written comics for DC Comics, 2000 AD, the Judge Dredd Megazine, and Heavy Metal Magazine. His comics work has often been produced in collaboration with his wife, Leah Moore, who is herself a renowned writer of note. John has recently been producing mixed media work combining prose and music, which has led to his collaboration with Library of the Occult Records. Twelve original short Horror stories written by John are being released by LOTO, each with its own bespoke soundtrack. On top of all this, he somehow finds time to write regular reviews of keyboards, tablets, and other writing tools, which can be found here. For more on John Reppion (and indeed Leah Moore), please visit their website.

Mark (MD) Penman is a tutor, a freelance illustrator and comic book writer/artist. His various online presences can be found here

Matt Badham is a freelance writer. His work has appeared in the Judge Dredd Megazine, 2000AD and Big Issue in the North.



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