May 27, 2014

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Interview: Antony Johnston Talks about Umbral Volume 1

Antony Johnston
A long, long time ago, I read a little spin-off series from a Greg Rucka creation, Queen and Country: Declassified, written by a man named Antony Johnston. I enjoyed it a lot, but I really hadn't thought about it in years.

Then I got a chance to start reading The Fuse, Johnston's near-sci fi crime book coming out monthly from Image Comics. I've written good things about that series, both here and on Newsarama, and once I put the connection together, I realized I had to start reading Umbral, Johnston's other new series from Image Comics, this time with a Dark Fantasy setting.

In a word? Wow.

Co-created with artist Christopher Mitten, Umbral is the story of Rascal, a young woman in the wrong place at the wrong time who ends up being one of a select few who realize that demons are at work taking over her city. Called Umbral, these nightmarish creatures threaten all humanity and Rascal might just be the only hope the world has got.

I sat down with Antony for an e-mail interview about Umbral, whose first trade paperback will be at your favorite local comic book shop or digital device tomorrow, May 28th. To celebrate, Image Comics has Issue 1 for free for a limited time as of this writing. On May 28th, Comixology will also have Issue 1 free in its store, for those of you who prefer the cloud service. Over the course of our electronic talk, Antony discusses Umbral, his lengthy history in comics, and working with frequent collaborator Christopher Mitten, the artist behind Umbral.

Rob McMonigal: For those who may be unfamiliar with you as a creator, tell them a little bit about your past work.

Antony Johnston: You may not be familiar with me, but you're almost certainly familiar with some of my work; like Daredevil, which I co-wrote with Andy Diggle during the Shadowland saga, or the original Dead Space videogame, for which I wrote the game and tie-in comics. So I guess it depends on your particular brand of geekdom.

I've been writing comics for 15 years, and my work includes Wasteland, the epic post-apocalypse series from Oni Press; Fashion Beast, the adaptation of Alan Moore's 'lost' screenplay; for Marvel I wrote Daredevil Season One, Shadowland: Blood on the Streets, and the Deadly Hands of Kung Fu tie-in during Spider Island; I wrote most of the Dead Space tie-in comics; and now at Image, besides Umbral, I also write The Fuse.

In games I've written quite a few Dead Space titles; I co-wrote ZombiU, in many people's opinion the only WiiU game worth a damn; I worked on Shadow of Mordor, the upcoming Lord of the Rings game; I wrote the CSR Racing and CSR Classics iOS games; and a bunch more besides.

I get around.

McMonigal: Hah! How would you describe Umbral to a potential reader?

Johnston: Umbral is a new dark fantasy by me and Chris Mitten, with whom I previously created "Wasteland." It's the story of Rascal, a young thief who breaks into the royal palace to steal a precious jewel but ends up witnessing the horrific murder of the king and queen in a dark magic ritual...!

Turns out that Rascal has stumbled upon a stealth invasion by the Umbral, shadow creatures that everyone thought were just a legend. But the Umbral are very real, very dangerous…and now Rascal holds the key to stopping them.

McMonigal: What gave you the idea for the series as a whole?

Johnston: Umbral came about simply because I wanted to make something new with Chris; and luckily for me, the feeling was mutual. So we talked around a few ideas, mainly thinking about genre, and what Chris enjoyed drawing.

As it happens, both Chris and I are big fans of The Dark Crystal, and dark fantasy stuff in general, and I knew it was an area where his imagination could run wild, as well as one I'd enjoy writing. So we figured we could do something good in the genre.

Then it was just a small matter of spending months sweating over building an entire world and mythology for the story to take place in...!

Rascal and her World.
McMonigal: The characters in Umbral immediately make a reader stand up and take notice. Can you talk a little bit about their creation and their personalities, from your perspective?

Johnston: Rascal is the closest thing in Umbral to a classic reluctant hero — she doesn't actually want to be a hero, or the centre of attention, and really wishes someone else had been saddled with this shit. But she's also selfish, cynical, and suspicious, which I think makes for an interesting lead character. Especially as she's a young girl, not a muscle-bound sword-fighter.

Dalone kind of fills the classic guide/mentor role, but again, not in the way you'd expect. He's not very good at it, for a start. He's unsure of himself, lacking in some fairly basic knowledge of the world, and he smells of rat piss from living on the streets for god knows how long. But by the end of Book One, it becomes clear there's a lot of more to this mad old hobo than a first glance would suggest.

Shayim is the group's warrior, the fighter capable of protecting the more intellectual members. She's the antithesis of Dalone; supremely self-confident, someone who knows and accepts her place and role in the world. And that's why she's a non-white woman; the last thing I wanted was for the most physically capable character to be some default square-jawed hero. That's not what Umbral is about.

Finally, Profoss Munty is our drunken academic, another archetype we're having fun with; and he was actually the character who surprised me the most during development. When I first created him, there was no suggestion of him being an ex-soldier. But as I dug further into the world history, and the idea of the eternal Azqari-Yuilangan war came to me, it made sense that Munty would have been forged in that particular fire and escaped to become an academic.

An Umbral confronts Rascal.
McMonigal: Relating to that question, one of the things I liked most about Umbral so far is that while it is very much steeped in its dark fantasy roots, the characters feel fresh and modern, particularly in their dialogue. How did you come up with the "voices" for the book, particularly Rascal and the Umbral?

Johnston: I wanted Rascal, and all the 'regular' characters, to have a modern lilt to their speech; it just didn't feel right for a young girl to be talking in 'high fantasy' style dialogue, all thees and thous and "good morrow, fine yeoman."

Honestly, I have nothing against that stuff, and I love a bit of Tolkien as much as anyone, but it didn't feel right for Umbral. Because we're seeing this world through the eyes of a young person, it felt right that she should talk without airs and graces.

The Umbral actually talk normally, like most of the other characters, and that again was deliberate; if they're going to imitate humans, it makes sense that they'd adopt human speech patterns as well.

They simply do it in purple balloons with a spiky typeface, which I guess you can trace back to my love of Sandman. That was the first comic where I saw a character consistently speak in a different colour, not just a different balloon shape. It's one of those lovely things unique to the comics form.

McMonigal: It's a really nice touch, too, especially when done right. Moving outwards a bit, I noticed that your comics work concentrates heavily on genre fiction, whether it's fantasy (like Umbral), science fiction (The Fuse), or the idea of a post-apocalyptic dystopia (Wasteland). What draws you to create these speculative worlds?

Johnston: I was talking to Katy King about this on End of the Universe the other day, and she floated an interesting theory; that it's a way for naturally insecure writers to exert control over something they can master, an orderly world where they're in charge. I don't know if that's 100% accurate, but it certainly makes a weird kind of sense, and so maybe that has something to do with it.

Psychoanalysis aside, though, I just think speculative worlds are really cool. I love building worlds, I've done it since I was a kid, so I guess it's natural that my fiction work would focus on that, too.

McMonigal: Related to that, who are some of your favorite authors that might influence your work?

Johnston: Oh, far too many, but it won't tell you anything about my work. I mean, three of my biggest influences are William Gibson, Jeff Noon, and Greg Rucka. But I defy anyone to find a direct indication of those influences anywhere in my work...! They're more influences on my mindset and approach.

With Umbral specifically, the most obvious inspiration was The Dark Crystal, as I mentioned earlier. And then more generally there's stuff like Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Elric of Melnibone, Battlestar Galactica (yes, really), the movies of Guillermo del Toro, the music of Devil Doll, and the animation of Jan Švankmajer; plus, of course, a little bit of Game of Thrones. We all live in Martin's shadow, these days.

But without wishing to protest too much, these are all general mood and atmosphere influences, more than anything. My greatest inspiration for Umbral is simply Chris' artwork. That's what gets me revved up when I sit down to write the next issue.

A page from Queen and Country: Declassified.
McMonigal: I believe this is your third collaboration with Christopher Mitten, if I did my research properly. What makes him someone you return to when working on a new project?

Johnston: You're correct; the first thing we did together was Queen & Country: Declassified Volume 3 back in 2005, and we "clicked." It was clear to us both that we shared a lot of opinions about comics, how to make them, what we expected from a story, and so on.

And that's still why I like working with him now, almost a decade later. It helps that he's a lovely guy and a complete professional, of course. But really, it's all about the art, and his crazy imagination. I regularly give Chris the weirdest things to draw, or ask for some crazy epic vista, and he goes above and beyond every time. I love it.

McMonigal: Are there any challenges involved in doing two series with the same artist at roughly the same time, as Wasteland wraps up and Umbral begins?

Johnston: The main challenge is scheduling, and figuring out our timetables, but this has been in the works for long enough that we figured all that out a long time ago. I don't mean to imply that it's easy! Far from it. But it's a known factor.

If you mean in terms of separating one story from the other, though, that's not an issue at all. Wasteland and Umbral are so different — in tone, style, even format and colour — that there's no 'bleed' between them. The only thing they have in common is me and Chris.

McMonigal: In your comics career, you've worked with many different notable artists, like Ross Campbell, Mike Norton, Eduardo Barreto, and Ben Templesmith, just to name a few. Their styles are all quite different. As a writer, how do you adapt your scripts to take advantage of the talents of your collaborative partner?

Johnston: I actually don't, not really. Sure, I'll give certain artists more leeway to do crazy splash page stuff, or ask others for more character work. But for me that comes naturally out of the story, so that's where I focus on ensuring the story fits the artist, or vice versa. Get that part right, and the script will naturally fit their style.

McMonigal: Let's wrap up with a bit more about Umbral. At this point in time, how fleshed out is the world of Umbral? Do you already know the places Rascal will visit in her quest to stop the Umbral, or is that something that comes to you over the course of writing, as you develop the story? How far do you plot ahead?

Johnston: It's pretty well planned out. Everything to do with the grand mythology of the Oculus, Luxan and Tenebros, and the Umbral themselves is all detailed. If I didn't have all that straight I wouldn't have been able to even start writing, because the mythology and legends wouldn't hang together.

The overall history of Fendin and the Shadow War is detailed, and I know enough about most of the places Rascal and her companions will be visiting to talk about them. That's why we were able to include the map in the first issue, because I know what's in those parts of the Kingdom. Fleshing out the day-to-day details of those regions is an ongoing process, though.

As for where they're headed, I don't want to say. Even knowing their route would give away some of the story. Suffice to say we'll visit several different areas of Fendin, as Rascal and her companions flee the Umbral. And yes, we'll visit at least one other country, too.

Intrigues and secrecy in Umbral.
McMonigal: Is there anything you can tell readers about the next arc of Umbral?

Johnston: We're working on Book Two, The Dark Path, right now. It takes our unlikely heroes through the 'Bulaswode': a strange, misty forest full of dangers and weird creatures, including the deadly Silvali riders, called Wodelings.

Rascal will have to face her past, and battle against a sense of hopelessness. Dalone's own past will return to literally haunt his nightmares. As for Shayim and Munty... well, they've got their own secrets to worry about.

By the end of it, none of them — especially Rascal — will ever be the same again. Would you expect anything less?

McMonigal: Of course not! Before I let you go, is there anything beyond The Fuse and finishing up Wasteland coming up soon that you'd like to mention?

Johnston: Nothing that I can talk about right now. I'm working on several videogames, and planning more comics, but everything's either under NDA or still in the early planning stages. Suffice to say, I have a busy year ahead of me...!


And for anyone who wants to keep up-to-date with my work, bookmark antonyjohnston.com. Everything I do, every appearance, announcement, and publication, appears there first.

McMonigal: Thanks again for taking the time to speak with me, Antony. I can't wait to see where Umbral goes from here as well as your other creative works. For fans of non-cape genre comics, your work is some of the best being created right now.

Umbral Volume 1 will be out May 28th from Image Comics. Digital singles are available now, either from Image or Comixology. The first issue is currently free on Image's site, and will also be free on Comixology on May 28th.

All images used in this interview belong to the creators and are drawn by Christopher Mitten.