It’s not often when fan-favourite television stars cross the lines of their usual medium and branch out into other forms of entertainment, but John Barrowman (Doctor Who, Torchwood, Arrow) recently just did that with the publication of Acursian, a new graphic novel from Legendary Comics, earlier last December.
If you’ve ever had the good fortune to meet John in person, he has a generosity of character. He shares himself so openly and unreservedly. Whether he is acting or lending his talents to a written tale, at heart he is a storyteller, and in order to share a good story, you need to share yourself.
“Before I begin, I have to say that I don’t do this alone,” John told me, referring to Acursian, when we proceeded to chat about it. “My sister and I have a collaborative history on comics and writing projects in the past. This time we collaborated with Erika Lewis, who is a great comic book writer herself. From that point, I don’t want the full credit!”
Co-written by his sister, Carole Barrowman (Hollow Earth Trilogy, The Dark Archer, Orion Chronicles) and Erika Lewis (Game of Shadows, Firebrand), Acursian features not only John’s conceptual contribution to the book but also his likeness as the protagonist, Charlie Stewart.
“And that’s the first time that’s ever been done!” he added enthusiastically.
Acursian is the story of Charlie Stewart, whose Scottish ancestor is none other than “Bonnie Prince Charley” himself: Charles Stewart who led the Jacobite Uprisings and was deftly defeated at the Battle of Culloden by the English forces. In this story, Prince Charles made a deal with the Celtic God of War and betrayed him, leaving a curse upon his lineage that manifests itself on Charlie Stewart’s 40th birthday, changing history. Only Charlie, with the help of the goddesses of fate and time, can lift the curse and change reality back to as it once was.
It’s a story with an abundance of rich and colourful themes [see my review], and I had to ask John what his favourite aspect of the book was.
“I’m reticent to pick favourites!” he said, laughing. “In my career, I’ve found that if I pick favourites, my fans don’t let me change my mind – ever! If you go back to the Torchwood comics that we did, I think the first one we did was about the Selkies, the motivation behind that was to tell more Torchwood stories, and to keep Captain Jack Harkness alive in the minds of Torchwood fans, but what’s really nice is to create other characters that get involved with Captain Jack. In Acursian, a lot was happening in the world and we wanted to create a world of characters that everyone could relate to; we wanted to incorporate characters based on who we knew.”
Along with this idea, the theme of family really stands out in this book; the relationship Charlie has with his father, the importance of his family the fact that it was his ancestor who causes the problem in the first place. John spoke about the importance of the family dynamic in the collaboration on this project, specifically with his sister, Carole:
“One of the things that Legendary said after the first draft we created for them was that Charlie needed to be tortured more. My sister and Erika saw me as the character, they had great pleasure in torturing John/Charlie in those first opening sequences of the book! [laughs]”
“My sister and I had the typical sibling relationship growing up,” he added. “She was very protective of her little brothers – as I have a middle brother also – but Carole was the older sister, so while we never hung out, I mean, I was the little brother she was forced to look after. When I worked in the UK, I was very close with her family and her husband, they are close with me and my husband and we spend time in each other’s homes for vacations. But when we travel, she goes on set with me and when we collaborated on my autobiography, I was living my dream at the time, and her dream was to become a published author. In comparison to my sister, I’m not gifted in the writing process. I can come up with settings, characters and story ideas, but I said that if I’m going to do this autobiography, my sister is going to help me. It was a best-seller in the Sunday Times’ Best-Seller list for thirteen weeks, so it made her and me a best-selling author and that was her dream. So, our dreams came true. The books we wrote together drew us closer together closer as adults and the relationship we have as brother and sister almost made us like kids again. However, she does enjoy punishing me in the book over and over again!”
The family theme is a source of motivation for Charley in this story. It’s clear that it was also a motivation to John and Carol in the storytelling process and that has to be one of the most evident strengths of the book.
I asked John about favourite comic character types. While, again, he was hesitant to state characters, he did mention that there were two characters in comics who stood out for him.
“Coming to the States when I was a young kid, my favourite characters growing up were Superman and Captain America. While there was the Americana aspect, it was also about [how] these were characters helping people. They were also characters whose powers represented their internal natures. I know Superman is an alien and Captain America had a serum injected in him, but their powers weren’t them; they were just what made them better. They weren’t heroes by accident, they were heroes by nature. It was always there to begin with. So those would be my favourite popular comic characters.”
Part of sharing yourself also involves personal stories behind the storytelling. Along with Carole and Erika enjoying their time to continuously punish John’s character, John also shared this anecdote behind the character.
“One of my personal things is that when people visit me, I have no problem letting them drive one of my cars. But I’m very particular about how to take care of the car, how it has to be driven, and so on. So, Erika and Carole made that one of Charlie’s things too! So, there’s one scene where a bird shits on Charlie’s car and then they say to me that they were going to wreck it! There was a playfulness in the creation of this book and then Erika would then come along and tell us that we had all this great stuff and that we had to save it! So, she was such a great balance between our enthusiasm and telling us to hold off and save it for later.”
Storytelling is such a personal act. It forces creators to reveal parts of themselves that they might be hesitant to reveal to the outside world, but at the same time, that personal act of revealment is what gives a story its sense of authenticity and makes it acceptable to the reading audience. I had to ask John about the choice to use his likeness in the story itself and if that placed a more than personal stamp on it.
“It was the first time it was ever done,” John reiterated. “It was a performance that I had a lot more control over. The thing with episodic television that I have found is that if you can put a bit of your own personality into the character, that’s what an audience grabs on to. So, you have this aspect of John in Jack Harkness and Malcolm Merlyn. It’s the same with this. Even in the writing, it had to have a certain amount of my personality in it. It was great that fans of the TV shows were buying it, but we also wanted it for fans of great storytelling. As much as I would have loved my ego to take over, I had to sit back and let others do things to him/me as the character and trust they were going in the right direction. It was also cool to see yourself as a comic character that you (I) have control over. It was a risk, but if there was a chance to continue this story elsewhere then it would be something that I would love to play, or to voice.”
Sharing a story and the enthusiasm a creator has to have in the telling of that story can only bring successful results. Acursian has a great foundation for success. Using family as a base highlights the sense of importance it has to Charlie. Relatable characters that readers could identify with, the use of John’s character and its personal nature also imparts a greater sense of authenticity in the storytelling. John’s enthusiasm of character gives this story fuel and it allows the story to be shared on a level that readers will respond to and, in a sense, gives him another unique venue for a performance that his fans, old and new alike, will undoubtably respond to with their own reciprocated enthusiasm.