When we can open our eyes and see the connections between people, places, and things as more than just coincidence, but rather as a web stretching across the universe and back home to Earth, great discoveries happen on a spiritual level. Metal band The Sword thinks about these ethereal associations and tapped modern comic book maestro J.H. Williams III (Batwoman, Promethea, Chase) to create the artwork for Apocryphon. Following a sold out show at The Middle East Downstairs last week, we talked to the artist about his craft and the collaboration that brought the band back to Earth after spending some time in outer space.
DIGBOSTON: Thanks for taking the time with us, J.H.! Can you let us know what kind of direction you were given by the band for the artwork? We’ve been listening to Apocryphon by The Sword non-stop since their show last week.
J.H. WILLIAMS III: It was kind of an organic process. Ultimately it was born of having conversations with the singer John [D. Cronise]. For something like this to be really successful from my point of view, as someone who is creating visuals for someone else’s artistic endeavors, I feel like I need to get inside their head a little bit. We started talking about what the new music sounds like and they had sent me over some demos. We started talking about what some of the lyrical content was going to be like and what the overall feeling of the album would be. When he told me the meaning of the title, that word means secret writing. This led into a whole esoteric conversation about mysticism, a little bit about the occult, and more esoteric ideas. As we would talk, different things would come into my head, and I would sketch or think about some ideas and send those things over.
The biggest thing we were wanting to convey was a lot of symbolic imagery without it typically being just symbols. We ended up using some rune-like symbols, and overall the rest of the imagery needed to feel symbolic of different things. Some were purposeful, others were random and organic, more metaphoric in a sense.
That definitely fits into what I know of your art in the comics. You can get into some abstract symbols and symbolism. I was thinking about the runes and I meant to ask because everyone goes back to the Led Zeppelin IV — where everybody ‘has their own symbol.’ I feel like what the band was trying to do with the record and the overall look of your awesome artwork was that there are symbols people can relate to, but don’t exactly know why. I also know from their website that John did a lot of research on his own to get inspired for this new record. It is a great fit.
I think so, too; one of the things I was trying to convey visually was that with their previous albums, there is a great sense of story to their stuff. I wanted to keep that going, so that when you look at the artwork there is a great sense of story to it. A lot of it is more metaphoric, symbolic images that represent other things. The sense of story comes out through the use of those images.
The idea of the runes is like creating a sense of story that has mystery to it.
You aren’t going to get necessarily all of the answers concretely, or some of the stuff might make you feel something in particular, or make you think of something subliminally so that it becomes more interpretational.
When you are listening to the record and letting the art wash over you, you are filling in the gaps with your imagination, like in between pages or panels in a comic book, in a way.
Yeah, exactly. The only thing I was really concrete about wanting to convey was that the previous album, Warp Riders, was a far out, space, sci-fi fantasy epic thing. This record, the first thing that came to my mind when John was talking to me was that even though the lyrics are metaphorical, this is a much more personal record for him than Warp Riders was. When you look at the first image, I wanted you to have a sense of the cosmic-ness at the top, but [also the sense that] you are returning to a planetary body. In doing so, we wanted to show that a planetary body at first seems like a dead-looking planet. But there is a piece carved out, where there is still fire inside of it.
So the band is returning to a personal place to rebirth this fuel inside themselves, therefore re-birthing vitality in a way.
The whole symbol of the planet being dead there, and then you turn the cover over to the back and you see life growing from death. This becomes rich, and has almost a summer kind of feel to it or a spring kind of feel. At the bottom you can see the skulls and the sunflowers rising up from that. To me that was symbolizing the idea of being out in space and returning to someplace deeper and personal.
I see the contrast of reaching out to a big fantasy world of spaceships and sci-fi mysteries out there with the mysteries grounded by bringing it back to the Earth on a personal level best illustrated by your image of a sword cracking though the crust of the Earth on the back of the jewel case.
By returning to Earth and getting more personal, you are invigorating new life, and seeing things from a different point of view than you were before. That’s why we used the diagram aspect of the sword penetrating the planet. We wanted to follow through with another diagram of the human cell. That round shape of the human cell correlates to the round shape of the planet.
The planet itself is a symbol of life in a way, and the basic biology of small cell life builds up us, just as the planets build up the cosmos.
What I think is great about this is that other bands might be trying to go for this type of thing, but this is a whole package. A lot of thought and care went into this. And it is not just that they hired an illustrator to draw something cool for the record cover.
I was super stoked to do it, I was a huge fan of the band prior to getting to know them a little bit. At the same time, I was trepidatious because John was telling me he was a huge fan of my work. The first thing I thought of was “Please don’t tell me you want something that looks like Batwoman on the cover”. (Laughs)
John said such a nice thing, that they were coming to you because of what they saw in my comics work. My comics work hits them at such a level that they trusted me to do whatever I wanted as far as visuals I could bring to the table as far as open and far reaching.
I think it’s also very cool that you guys are super big fans of each other! That’s the best.
Ha ha, yeah, they’re a killer band!
Coming back to the runes, and the idea of secret writing having to do with metaphysics, there is a metaphysical bent to some of John’s lyrics and the name of the album, Apocryphon, when I did my research on what that word meant, I found two things. One was secret writings, two was about how things were very personal.
Even though they are conveying music to an audience, personal can also mean very personal secrets or privacy.
I was thinking about this thing called the alphabet of desire. This is a ritualistic technique developed by occultist Austin Osman Spare. You think of something you desire to have in your life, a personal mantra about how you want to live or something you need to accomplish in your life. You write down a sentence on what that is, and you take the first letter of each word and create a sigil from that. Then you would meditate on the idea.
There are a couple of different interpretations. In one, you would burn the original sentence, or you would burn the sigil for yourself. No one else knows what this means. This becomes highly personal. When I explained this to John, he loved that idea.
Since he loved it, I insisted his band to do it, and just tell me the letters and I would design sigils for the band. By just telling me the letters, that retains the power of the secret message.
We created those, and I thought it would be interesting to make runes out of the titles of the songs as well.
For that, did you reach for comic book letterer Todd Klein’s assistance?
No, I designed all the runes and the book myself, where Todd comes in, was figuring out some of the technical aspects. We were under the gun to get this done in time and I couldn’t do all the lettering myself. So I went to the best guy there is! He designed all the text lettering for the credits and the song lyrics.
Another cool element that was very concrete in the artwork was the use of the winged serpent, an interpretation of Quetzalcoatl. Here the band was returning to a personal place in the year 2012, looking for renewal and change.
Everyone is talking about how the world and society needs to renew and change as well. The Mayan 2012 stuff is a bunch of junk, but it got me thinking about the real meaning of apocalypse isn’t destruction, it is change from what we know.
Musicians constantly need to be reinventing themselves, selling records, but also bands don’t want to be stuck in the same place. Some bands get ethereally abstract about that, but Kyle (Shutt, guitar) was saying “We’re Not Making a Conscious Decision To Do Anything But Be Awesome”. The sound on this record is not a huge departure but it is more grounded as you said, so thank you for sharing this with us!
It was super exciting to do, and it seems like we enjoyed the collaboration enough that I’m hoping that we will be able to do more things in the future. I’ve expressed interest to them that I’d be game to be involved in other releases or however else they would like to join forces.
J.H. was awesome enough to let me keep him on the phone to talk about Batwoman, The New 52, his upcoming Sandman book with Neil Gaiman. Stay tuned for Part Two of our interview next week! EDIT: Here it is!
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