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Darker Shadows

by James Lejeune


The project started as a more factual piece based on oppressive governments and the crimes committed against populations. The piece slowly evolved into dystopian fantasy and sci-fi horror. The final outcome – a graphic novel - captures the imagination and uses symbolism, satire and metaphors to make a philosophical or political statement. A key focus of the work is a consideration of how people can resist oppression. In layering this dialogue within a story and setting it in the future I could potentially give some a wider perspective and exaggerated similarities to our own struggles for social justice. By exploring these subjects, I want to create a narrative that uses fiction in a way that discusses these themes within the dialogue by creating a wider perspective on different viewpoints and awareness of the importance for human solidarity against corruption and oppression.


Originally, I considered a short film as well as a graphic novel, however, time restraints have made me focus more on the novel. The graphic novel will be displayed as a web comic as well as a physical book that is aimed towards adults due to the dialogue and fans of science fiction, horror, dystopian fantasy and conspiracy theories. Using my own creative writing was a bonus, however, the future is not an easy thing to predict. I dreamt of a point in time when the lack of resources drives humanity to the brink of extinction, but no matter how dark we think the future can be there can always be “Darker Shadows” hidden among them. History seems to have a habit of repeating itself no matter how civilised we think we are.


I started to create my original narrative and built upon a dream I had when I started to imagine a world in future controlled by an evil power. I have been influenced by many films such as the widely renowned ‘Alien’ (Ridley Scott, 1979) and ‘The Thing’ (John Carpenters, 1982) these directors were very successful in the sci-fi horror genre and proved to be useful to learn from. As well as cult classics that had a more earthy dystopian or political theme, particularly ‘Land of the Blind’ (Robert Edwards, 2006) as it really shows the complexities of powers and how there is human suffering on both ends of the spectrum between left and right wings governments. Maus (Art Spiegelman, 1980-1991) is one of the most renowned graphic novels depicting the holocaust events in using a dark satirical narrative. This made me consider how I may adapt my narrative when it is also trying to display a more sinister side of civilisation. How centralised power can become too controlling and motives for that can lead to dire consequences and suffering if not properly exposed.


A key example of this in history, (Experiments – UNIT 731, n.d.). As stated, ‘

Unit 731 and Unit 100 were the two biological warfare research centres set up in spite of the Geneva Protocol of 1925 banning biological and chemical warfare. Led by Lieutenant-General Ishii Shiro, 3,000 Japanese researchers working at Unit 731’s headquarters in Harbin infected live human beings with diseases such as the plague and anthrax and then eviscerated them without anaesthesia to see how the diseases infected human organs. Because of the Unit’s secret nature, there is no complete list of the experiments that were undertaken by Unit 731.


I wanted to use a mix of fact and fiction like George Orwell did in 1984, (1949) and Animal Farm, (1945) the novels touch on subjects of inequalities between class and leadership. Thinking of the plots of classic science fiction like Orwell’s and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World lead me to seek out more examples of current totalitarian or oppressive governments as well as questionable and proxy wars. The Troubles in Northern Ireland (BBC One - Spotlight on the Troubles: A Secret History, n.d.) highlighted how these conflicts are not just in less developed countries but are part of complex historical factors.


As part of my dissertation, I studied the art propaganda and cultural revolution of chairman Mau, 1949-1976 and how it affected the population he repressed. The more I researched these examples of how governments use their own people against each other the more important I felt it was to highlight this. Such oppressive governments like North Korea use propaganda and censorship of information to keep their populations in the dark and control the standard of living whilst only a small group have the benefits.

Inspired by the darker side of history I started to absorb countless other graphic novels and relevant films. Looking at previous works with similar themes to inspire my own script and narrative. Stanislaw Szukalski, stated (Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski, 2017) 'most western artists reproduce what they see their art says nothing to no one’.  Although this may seem like a harsh comment it is important that we do strive to send a message through art and illustration, these allow the storyteller to express philosophies and political opinions without directly attacking the audience.


I had started working more with digital illustration, but I did not want to lose my more traditional ink and wash methods.  Practicing on different coloured paper and using different mediums helped me to develop the graphic novel identity but whilst doing it all traditionally is impressive there are far too many advantages for speed and effects on the computer so started to use them both in combination for the best result.  The old and new with my painterly approach gives my work a unique look that is different from hyperrealism and traditional popular comics styles. One of the key elements I wanted to bring was a cinematic quality to the graphic novel hoping to create a unique style.


Audience testing this year has been difficult due to restrictions during the Covid lockdowns, but on reflection, I believe that it has been a great success for me as I really pushed the limits of my skills beyond being a good artist to a skilled illustrator and storyteller. 


BBC One - Spotlight on the Troubles: A Secret History. (n.d.). [Video]. BBC.

Experiments – UNIT 731. (n.d.).

Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski. (2017). [Video]. Netflix.

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