London-based and Leceister-born comic artist and author John Cei Douglas has released his first full length book All the Places in Between with publishing house Liminal 11. The arresting, emotional, and finely-crafted sequential narrative deals with the trials and tribulations of anxiety and depression through stunning visual metaphors, such as a tsunami. “I tend to make a lot of work geared towards mental health, or small personal moments, and try to explore those kinds of feelings through my work,” John tells It’s Nice That. John is open about his own mental health history, telling us he’s struggled a lot with severe anxiety and chronic fatigue over the years, which at times eclipsed work. Now, John has managed to transmute those dark and looming feelings into something beautiful in this new book.
Not a word of dialogue takes up the page, instead only the illustrations guide the reader through an epic – albeit minimalist – odyssey. “I work a lot with silent comics as I feel they offer really interesting opportunities as a creator, as well as engaging readers in unique ways that leave a lot of space for empathy and personal interpretation”.
A stunning feature-length book to be proud of, All the Places in Between dates as far back as 2013 when John first toyed with the premise. “The idea originally came together as an unsuccessful application to a comics making residency in Finland,” he says. “I wanted to really try and put across how it actually feels when you’re struggling with anxiety and depression on a more emotional level.” Carrying this moving imperative with him across the years, John revisited the idea when coming across illustrator and author Tove Jansson’s exhibition at Dulwich gallery in 2018. “After seeing her work I felt inspired to start creating something which took the original idea in really different directions to what I’d first imagined,” he explains. The story began to flow out of him, and soon John was completely surrendering himself to the book. “It sounds a bit corny but at some points I really did feel like it was telling me what the story was, and my job was to try and articulate that and put it into the world,” he says. “I take slight comfort in David Lynch saying that’s how it works with his ideas too”.
In John’s book, characters are intentionally depicted very simply with very basic features. This was a purposeful choice by John, who crafts a distance between the reader and the characters. By opening up space for interpretation, John’s illustrations grant the reader a greater chance to project themselves into the story and therefore empathise with the emotions. “The eyes are just dots, so there’s a certain blankness there, and we can interpret different things from subtle little changes but really it lets us see what we want to some degree,” he tells us.
“It’s sort of similar to Link in the Legend of Zelda games - he never talks, he’s a cipher for the player to be put into the story, thus the name, and that’s a concept I really like”. The great tsunami that washes over the characters midway through the story was also an important part of the process for John. “One thing that never changed even from my original idea was the tsunami,” he tells us. “There’s lots of instances of things building up, being overwhelmed and then everything comes crashing down and we’re left adrift after the fact”.
Throughout the book, motifs such as the tsunami loop and mirror each other like different waves of anxiety. “Sort of musical refrain, always humming along in the background,” John adds. “The tsunami is a big moment for this, and it was probably the hardest part of the book to get right, in that it’s something like a 12 page sequence which is the culmination of the entire first half of the book”. It’s a triumphant emotionally and visually stunning part of the story, and as the tsunami sweeps up its characters, so too does it sweep up the readers. It’s especially impressive considering the simple black and white style John uses for the book.
“I drew the whole thing primarily with one dip pen (a maru nib) because the drawings are all fairly small and it’s quite a fine mapping pen,” he explains. “The emotion should be more complicated than the art, and it’s the space that leaves the room for thought”. Various details are added throughout, such as an ink wash texture at the beginning, or bits of dry brush, or other parts blended together like the section of the book set underwater. Specific feelings are evoked by the most minimal yet effective of drawing techniques.
Overall, John hopes that “anyone who reads the book can take something from it, or find something hopeful, relatable, or inspiring” within. As something which began so deeply personal to him, John now releases these feelings and thoughts out into the world for many to interpret as they wish. “I’ve always hoped it could be a book that people could sit with from time to time and think about, maybe about themselves, or about the story and maybe enjoy a nice little quiet peaceful moment or two,” he says. “I’d really like to carry on making more in this series”.
John Cei Douglas: All the Places in Between (© John Cei Douglas, 2021)
About the Author
Joey is a freelance design, arts and culture writer based in London. He was part of the It’s Nice That team as editorial assistant in 2021, after graduating from King’s College, London. Previously, Joey worked as a writer for numerous fashion and art publications, such as HERO Magazine, Dazed, and Candy Transversal.