Siku is a graphic artist, responsible for the dramatic artwork in books such as the Manga Bible. We asked graphic designer, illustrator and author Ben Mears to find out more.
Who are your inspirers? Who has influenced your creativity and the way your artistry has developed?
I have had the same crop of visual art influencers for all of my professional life, right from the days of art college till now. They tend to serve specific dimensions of visual art for me: Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, although I am really a Michelangelo-acolyte rather than a ‘Da vinci-ite’. I go for Michelangelo for power; he is a muscular painter and sculptor.
Secondly, Moebius (Jean Giraud); conversely, Moebius is not a power but finesse artist. [He’s] the consummate designer with a rare awareness of his artistic sensibility which stretches beyond visual storytelling into what I would describe as ‘total story telling’ (in the sense of ‘total football’).
Thirdly, Simon Bisley. He was a fellow 2000 AD stablemate, but of the generation before mine. He has Michelangelo’s primal energy and transfers that into comic-books with a razor-sharp cutting-edge mental approach… he is mental! And finally, Frank Frazetta, who is again of the Michelangelo school. I would gaze at Frazetta’s paintings endlessly as a teenager.
Of all four geniuses, I consider Moebius to be the greatest. I think Moebius might be the greatest visual artist of all time… in my humble opinion.
And who or what is 2000AD?
2000AD is Britain’s leading comic book anthology, in the last 40 years. Its headliner, Judge Dredd, has been portrayed in Hollywood films starring Sylvester Stallone and more recently, Karl Urban.
From a creative’s or designer’s point of view, what drives you? Where do you find motivation for your work?
Easy: self-expression. In actual terms… self-actualisation. It’s like breathing, talking, laughing, loving, giving, saving, helping, procreating, eating, suffering, worshipping and so on. We do these things to actualise ourselves in our world; to imprint our consciousness on our civilisation. We don’t need to think about to do… we simply do it because we have to. In some way, we really don’t have a choice unless we have chosen to check out. Many people do that, you know, checking out of meaningful existence. I tend not to need to be driven; I am driven as a response to a sense of who, what and why I am. In my case, this is entirely (almost entirely) a spiritual thing.
You’ve worked on some projects that could be deemed religious or spiritual. How did you feel about them and where do you stand on religion or faith?
I think ‘everyone’ has faith and religion. I think faith is intrinsic to self-actualisation; very few people actually think of themselves as procedurally manufactured biological machines without essence, purpose or an end goal; except if one is nihilist… in that case, they fall into the ‘checking out’ category. Now, I did say, ‘everyone has faith’… that extends to having ‘faith in no faith’. We all have a ‘jumping-off-point’, and that largely reflects a ‘step of faith’. Faith doesn’t have to be ‘blind’ to be faith. But faith has to acknowledge an absence of some relevant key information. Anyone who can’t admit to that has a problem; a cultural blind-spot masquerading as intelligence.
Regarding my ‘spiritual’ work (although I regard all my work as spiritual), I started doing religious content in 2006. This resulted in the bestselling Manga Bible and several other projects, including The Hero Bible, Manga Jesus, Drink It! and Apocalypse. Doing this sort of work was a natural evolution from my work on video games and 2000AD’s Judge Dredd. It’s like breathing and walking; as you get older, your ideas about the things that hold value changes. I felt I needed to deploy my most powerful gifts into the service of Jesus Christ and humanity. That particular enterprise has morphed out of all recognition since 2006.
Did you find these projects affected you in any way? If so, how? And were they satisfying?
There is a philosophical antipathy between artists, art and the Christian institution; one formed in the last two hundred years. It is into this context that I reluctantly injected myself, creating The Manga Bible with Ed Chatellier. With great reluctance (under the strong prodding of Ed), we approached the then editor of Hodder Faith who happened to be a comic book fan and follower of my work on 2000AD! All that enthusiasm and good faith got our work off the line with the big wigs. Some of the best years of my professional career were in those days; every editor and salesperson bought into the vision and the public bought into too.
Our mandate was to tell the story… not to pollute the pool with advocacy or preaching. We felt if we allowed the discipline of storytelling its primary function, we would win. The Manga Bible proved our theory and gave me confidence to develop our ideas further. The culmination of all that work are my current book projects, Drink It! and Apocalypse.
Do you ever do projects that you feel are exactly what you want to do with your life, and do you sometimes take work purely to get by?
Sometimes I do work purely to get by, but that rarely happens these days. I did more of that many years ago. These days, I tend to do more of what I really want to do.
What has been your favourite project to date?
Do you have a process or routine that prepares you to get into the creative zone, and a special place that is set aside for your work?
I have a studio at the back of the house. It’s my bat cave and cut off from the rest of the house. Everything I need to be creative is here… including dead silence or eardrum blasting music! No one to complain about my taste in music or uncivilised volumes.
Routine: maybe by sheer force of practice over several years, I have trained myself to allow a brief (work description and objective) to settle in the unconscious part of my mind. I leave it there to percolate while I get on with other stuff like research or even play. I like to saturate my mind with stuff and allow inspiration to rise like bubbles in a beer glass. It tends to rise as I rise from bed… like the end of a waking dream. If the extraordinary does not occur (LOL), I do the hard graft of good old-fashioned research.
At what age did you realise you had creative/artistic talents and how did you discover that?
When I was three years old: watching Dr Who (the third Doctor, Jon Pertwee). I saw it and thought to myself, ‘I want to do that!’ What I meant was, whatever was responsible for the aliens, monsters, ray guns, special effects and so on. At the time (as you would expect from the average three-year-old), I didn’t know what a concept artist was. I was always a fantasist. As a child, I played alone a lot, creating foes and conflict out of my imagination! My mum would ask why I didn’t want to play outside. I found the question curious. What was wrong with the creatures and players I concocted out of my head? They seemed more interesting than the kids outside. The fact that I fantasised my way through school probably explains my bad report cards throughout secondary school. I was good at almost all the arts… including the humanities like literature, history, theology, economics and then martial arts, dancing and the like. I liked studying people. And when it comes down to the brass tacks… I like drawing people. That’s why I ended up doing comic books.
You’ve recently completed illustrations for an incredible work, Apocalypse: The Book of Revelations. Most people are probably intimidated by the thought of reading Revelation because it is so deep, complex and involved – but you’ve illustrated the entire thing! Was this a forbidding task to take on? And where did you begin?
We talked about doing Revelation (Apocalypse) for 15 years! We tried getting it off the ground with several publishers. Eventually, Ed and I decided to get it done on our own. I had been told by several friends and professionals that Revelation was a project I was born to do. So, this is my first stab at it, and it is my most visually stunning work yet. One of the reasons I grappled with Apocalypse was for the reason you cited; it is intimidating. The hope is that an illustrated version might coax readers into venturing into the book.
I am also a trained theologian, in biblical texts. One of the modules I took was in Apocalyptic literature. I must also note that I am an anime and manga fan, so Apocalypse isn’t as intimidating as you might expect. Having said that, the amount of work required to decipher the blocks of motifs, Hebraic and prophetic visuals and categories is mind-numbing! I spent two weeks studying the candlesticks (the menorah) verse describing the candle stand that surrounded Jesus as he announced himself to John. Getting an accurate theological, contextual and historical design of the candles took some doing, and that was just candles! Not to talk of specific types of beasts and locusts and dragons and women clothed in the sun… Every item is precise. Every plot planned with precision and placed at precise plot points. As a theologian, I had a duty to ensure I got it right… as much as humanly possible.
The greatest fun was getting to do Jesus in a totally fresh perspective. Just rendering him in a non-religious way (hooded and menacing) was a cherry on the icing for me. Correcting long held assumptions (like angels having wings), transposing the whole narrative into a superhero contemporary timeline… drawing what I am reading without interpreting… at least as much as I could.
There are many budding artists and designers out there. If there was one piece of advice you could impart to them, what would that be?
See… That was the best advice I ever got from another genius. See… see the world around you. Look! Listen! Know yourself. Study, learn, practise, then know yourself. From that know and pick your heroes carefully for they will represent something about your make up. That’s why I say, ‘Know yourself.’ Be honest and know what your base talents are; and then hone them.
The best way to learn is to copy. It is in copying that you become acquainted (and this is a shocker) with how complex the original is. The work of the master is the sublime, but the subtlety in the sublime masks the hours and toil behind the work. But then, what work should you copy? This is why I say, know yourself. It’s no use Michael Jackson copying Barry White! Better off Michael Jackson copies James Brown as he learns the trade (which was what he did) and then veers off as a master in his own right. Know who you are. There are all sorts of artists, not all can be da Vinci and not all can be Quincy Jones. You will know what you need to be because you will find yourself enmeshed in it. From that, hive off the superfluous… things that you are rubbish at and find the things that you are both good at and enjoy profoundly. Do this in concert with your studies and with the influencers of choice.
If you get good, you will get opportunities. Make yourself available to others. Help without expecting anything in return. Help sacrificially. Listen to others; hear them with compassion and speak with compassion. The journey of the artist is a journey of being. It isn’t what you do… it is what you are. When you offer up yourself, you cultivate humility which creates self-awareness which makes you a good and highly proficient artist. Remember; if you get good, you will have opportunities. Don’t panic. Be creative; not just with the art, but with how you apply yourself to art and opportunities. Be flexible. Humility is flexibility. Be adaptable. Be gentle. Be kind.