SDCC ’15: John Barrowman, Erika Lewis, And J.K. Woodward Talk About Heavy Metal’s 49th Key

John JK Erika
John Barrowman, J.K. Woodward, Erika Lewis, and Cameron Hatheway at the Heavy Metal booth.

There are big things happening over at Heavy Metal Magazine, and not just with Grant Morrison becoming the Editor-in-Chief. The 49th Key by Erika Lewis and J.K. Woodward which debuted in Heavy Metal Magazine #273 will be adapted into a miniseries for television, with Torchwood & Arrow’s John Barrowman starring and executive producing. The story is based on a 16th century legend of Enochian magic and the secret language of angels. A young mute and autistic boy is the key between our world and the magical society that exist below the surface filled with fantasy creatures and advanced humans. Barrowman, Lewis, and Woodward were kind enough to take a few minutes from the anarchy that is Comic-Con to answer a few of my questions about the series.

Cameron Hatheway: You’re a real Renaissance man; writing, singing, acting, producing, sex god; what was the main draw to Heavy Metal for you? I assume you were a fan and avid reader of the magazine growing up?

John Barrowman: Well I’ll be totally honest with you, I’ve known of the magazine, and I’ve known of all the different stories they include. When I worked with Erika years back when she was the boss at G4 and we were doing Attack of the Show, we talked about working together, and then there was a lull. And then she sent me the stuff and I was like, “The lull has stopped!” This is where it continues. I love the idea of the story, I love the idea of finding the 49th key, the key that will bring us to the nirvana, the calm, the peace, the place that we all want to live. Whether that happens or not, who knows, but the whole idea, the concept of the creating of a new world—I don’t want to say a part of a new genre, but yeah a new world, a new land where things are going to happen. This new world where people can come in and be part of it, and that’s what I loved about it. And that’s why I got hooked on it, and that’s why I love the project.

CH: So the Heavy Metal story you’re basing the mini-series on, the 49th Key by Erika Lewis & JK Woodward, is based on the legend of Enochian magic. You have the voice of an angel, do you know the language of angels as well?

JB: Well what’s interesting in the comic art—and we were just talking about this, how the voice of the angels, how the angels sound, you don’t really hear it because you’re seeing it, and that was one thing that I loved; the fact that it’s musical notes. Because anybody who looks at that can interpret it any way that they devise what music is soothing to them. For me there was more of an ethereal sound to it, but someone else might have a different tune in their head. We were talking about at one point, and this is not set in stone, we were talking about maybe writing something out that it was kind of a music type thing. I just love the idea of music bringing calm to the world, or peace. That’s the whole point of it.

Erika Lewis: The way they communicate is through those vibrations, through music.

JB: And vibration is music, music is vibration. Like with the tuning forks; as a kid I used to love doing that, hitting a tuning fork, and then putting it on your bones and feeling the vibration. And how [Queen] Elizabeth was so dumb that she didn’t get that…[Laughter] Come on! I’m going, “No, come on, you’re so stupid, girl!” [Laughter]

HM273_coverCH: When the 49th Key is a success, does Barrowman Barker Productions plan on staying-on and helping produce more miniseries? Or perhaps another Heavy Metal movie?

JB: Well Erika and I, with my sister Carole, we have a pilot at the moment that we are trying to finish and push. And I have to say that Erika and Carole are the ones who are doing the Heavy Metal work on it, [Laughter] and I’m funding a lot of ideas and discussing that way. But of course Barrowman Barker would be involved along with whoever we collaborate with, with Erika. I would love to do more, but let’s get the first one off the ground. Let’s get 49th Key off the ground before we start looking at others, that’s in the future. I think the vibe that [Erika] gave me about the 49th Key when she first presented it was like…I mean, you tell it, what excited you about it?

EL: Well it goes a lot to working with J.K. Woodward, and the greatest thing was idea—I think right now, we live in a world of a massive amount of violence. And the tie to that is if you look at Queen Elizabeth I, her life was nothing but violence. And her life is sort of woven into the story through her own voice, in a very non-intrusive way—it’s a modern day story. But in the story itself, when she walks into this other world and saw that the world could be in complete peace, she brought back to her world the sense of, “How can I make my world a better place?” And in the end it’s really interesting because it’s about a kid from that world, who has been raised in our world of violence, and is trying to get home. And what will happen to that world when this kid who’s been shot at, returns to the world?

JB: Because he uses the earthquakes, which is vibrations, and not everybody feels them, but he’s using a violent thing in order to get attention. And J.K., tell us, how do you draw an earthquake?! [Laughter]

HM273_49th_KeyJ.K. Woodward: Actually that was the thing that scared me most when I read the script, I was like, “How am I going to do this? How do you draw vibrations?” I actually did a lot of research, and by research I mean Google—I don’t know exactly what it was but it was sort of like a magnetic resonance scanner or something like that, which would actually photograph sound vibrations. And I started looking at some of these pictures that they were getting back, and I kind of used that in the panels for when Bodie has a tuning fork and it has these waves coming off of him. And that was the way I came up with developing what sound would look like; I actually looked at photographs of sound. But the earthquake, that was a little harder. Basically, I’ve been in enough of them, I live in Southern California, and the only thing I remember seeing in earthquakes is stuff falling off the walls, and that’s pretty much what you do. I also do like a tilted camera, those Dutch angles, so that really helps.

JB: That’s really great also because one of the things I do—I’m a nerd, I’m a geek, I read graphic novels, I do all sorts of stuff. And for me, some graphic novels move quite slowly, and there are bits that J.K. has really captured along with Erika—writing a graphic novel, writing a comic is very different from writing a script or writing a book. It has to be done in what I call it, “Bites,” in little snippets. But what’s great is you have these sort of calm sections, then the earthquake, then all of a sudden you have to move very quickly with running and getting out of a situation. And literally when you’re looking at it, you literally flip really quickly because you’re able to scan and you get everything in one. And then what I found myself doing is going back, and looking. So for those of you who have not seen the story yet, and most of you probably will, but if you haven’t, you have to find a way to get it because I think you’ll really enjoy it if you like kind of the action-adventure, fantasy feel of that kind of stuff. Because a lot of fantasy doesn’t have as much action-adventure as you’d want, this moves really quickly.

JKW: A lot of sweet chase scenes.

JB: Yeah, well done! [Laughter]

CH: This ain’t your first Comic-Con, I’ve seen you a few times on different panels over the years. What’s the one thing you have to do every time you’re in San Diego for the convention?

JB: The one thing that we have to do when I’m here for the con is I have to shop. I get all of the gear that I want, and for instance I’ve got my Iron Man statue, that was from two years ago. This year I’ve got to preorder because I’m now a retailer with DC, believe it or not. But for instance, Neil Gaiman did a Sandman chess set, and I got the chess set before he did! But the one thing that I have to do; I love walking the floor. I don’t like to call myself a celebrity, but I know I am, I like walking the floor down here because this is what I am, and before I was put in the limelight I was this too, so I don’t want to lose it. And what’s really great is you can see that the fans let me walk around because they know I enjoy doing this. And like I said, I was an 8 or 9-year-old bullied little boy who loved superheroes, loved comic books. My best friend Ross Vonhoff who I knew as a kid lives in Portland, he comes here and we always hook-up and talk—because he got me involved in [Comic-Con], and that’s what I love about it. I love just being that geek. Bring out the inner-geek. That’s what it’s all about.

Editor-in-Chief Grant Morrison and John Barrowman at the Heavy Metal booth.
Editor-in-Chief Grant Morrison and John Barrowman at the Heavy Metal booth.

Special thanks to John, Erika, and J.K. for taking time out of their busy schedules, and Jeremy Atkins for helping set this up.

Cameron Hatheway is a reviewer and the host of Cammy’s Comic Corner, an audio podcast. You can help him find keys 1-48 on Twitter @CamComicCorner.