Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Detuned Comics - An interview with Antony Johnston

Antony Johnston is a UK comics writer whose profile has been on the ascendant for some time now. Since unleashing his finely crafted post-apocalyptic sci-fi series Wasteland, he’s blazed a trail across the wilderness of the independent comics scene, and shows no apparent signs of slowing down. He’s collaborated with comics legend Alan Moore, reinvented Marvel's Wolverine for manga and has scripted video games for Electronic Arts.

In short, Antony’s been a very busy man.
He kindly took the time to talk to me about Wasteland, adapting Alan Moore’s Light of Thy Countenance and his love of music.

I hope you’ve recovered from San Diego Comic Con. How was the show?

It was good, thanks. The show as a whole was manic as ever, and I did my usual trick whenever I had to walk more than four aisles to get somewhere — I went outside, made my way down the sidewalk, then went back in. If you've never been to SDCC, this may sound like it would take longer than just walking across the floor; but you would be wrong.

I had a successful show, though; we sold all of the limited edition black cloth WASTELAND hardcovers in two days (the regular edition will have red cloth), the lines for the DEAD SPACE: EXTRACTION comic signings were pretty much infinite, and I got to hang out with all the people I only ever see once a year, in San Diego.

So yes, good all round.

Prior to embarking on a career as a comics writer, you spent some time working in the games industry writing role playing games. I’ve always seen role playing as an exercise in world building and shared storytelling. Have those skills helped you in your work as a comics writer?

Without a doubt, yes. I spent almost 15 years playing RPGs day in, day out, and most of that time was spent as the referee. I mostly designed my own scenarios, too. As you say, the world building aspects of it — not to mention seeing how others immerse themselves in and interpret your stories — was invaluable. And then writing games, and about games, just added another layer of knowledge on top, because once you start down that path you have to get into the theory of it all.

I think all writing, not just comics, is enhanced by the sort of experience you get from role-playing. And considering how many writers I know who used to, or still do, play RPGs, I doubt I'm alone in that belief.

Have you always had an interest in comics? Was there a certain book or creator that first sparked your interest in the medium?

I've been reading comics since I could read at all. One of my earliest memories is of my father reading a copy of THE BEANO to me when I was four years old. They've been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.

Without a doubt, it was the boys' adventure comics in Britain — titles like 2000AD, BATTLE and SCREAM — that got me interested in making my own comic stories. Those comics, and the stories in them, continue to exert an influence on me to this day.

I’d like to talk about your adaptation of Alan Moore’s Light of Thy Countenance, which you tackled together with artist Felipe Massafera. How did you approach the adaptation? Was it difficult bridging the gap between a pure prose piece and the final intended format, i.e. comics?

It was difficult in that particular case. I've written quite a few adaptations now, and feel pretty confident about my ability to do them well. But LIGHT is such an unusual piece to start with, so full of symbolism and stream-of-consciousness imagery, that it was tough breaking it all down into a formal script. I had to inject a lot of supposition into it, and assume that I could read well enough between the lines to see what Alan was getting at. It was mostly a staging exercise, taking the visuals referenced in the text, then adding even more of my own inferences, then making sure it could all sit together comfortably.

The book’s narrative flow is very dense and poetic. Like all good poetry, it practically begs to read out loud, in fact, it reminded me a great deal of Alan’s performance pieces like Snakes & Ladders and The Highbury Working. Did you have these performance pieces in the back of your mind when adapting the material?

Definitely, yes. I love those pieces — I have all of Alan's CDs — and LIGHT struck me very early on as a kind of proto-spoken word piece. I'm almost surprised Alan hasn't recorded it, actually.

In a very literal sense, Felipe Massafera’s art provides a frame for the events of Light of Thy Countenance; a glossy photorealistic screen from behind which Moore’s voice emanates. There’s a televisual sheen to his art, which makes it feel like a series of snapshots from TV history. His illustrations seem intentionally static, as if frozen in time, acting as an extended metaphor for Moore’s scathing commentary on television.

Was this approach an intentional creative choice or am I searching for symbolism that simply isn’t there?

A bit of both, I think. Felipe's style is very photorealistic, as you say, but the subject matter, and all that staging I mentioned earlier, kind of dictated that most of the book had to be moments in time. It moves through subjects so fast that we only get one, maybe two at the most, images to accompany any one point in the text. When you're compressing that heavily, it's inevitable that you'll end up with iconic imagery that summarises everything you're trying to say in a single image.

Light of Thy Countenance focuses on both the history of television and its overarching social implications. Moore seems concerned with people trading real experiences for those experienced by proxy. The book also addresses addiction and our unhealthy obsession with fictional figures beamed into our homes via the magic of Television. What are your own personal views on TV and to what extent do you agree with what Moore has to say?

By and large, I agree completely. I watch TV, sure, and some of that includes experiences that I know I'll never have the opportunity to undertake myself — much as I might want to, the chances of me ever being able to go on a 50km husky ride across Lapland, for example, are pretty slim!

But I'm a big proponent of moderation. I only watch one or two hours of TV a night, on average, and the vast majority of my watching is BBC. Stuff on other channels I tend to record, and just zap through the commercial breaks. And, of course, it's all just television. It doesn't take much media savvy to learn about how TV is made, and to know that everything you watch, even documentaries and so-called 'reality' shows, is scripted and edited to present you with a narrative that may have been very different at the time it was filmed.

I actually lived without a TV for a couple of years some time ago, and it's something I'd recommend people do, just for the experience. It's only when you don't have one that you realise just how much of our daily conversation is about TV shows, and that kind of realisation is exactly the sort of wake-up call Alan delivered with LIGHT.

Did Alan have any input on the finished product?

He approved everything, at every stage, and I spoke to him a few times about imagery and for clarification. That was about it, but when you have a text as dense as LIGHT there isn't really much else he could have done short of writing the script himself. I know he was very, very happy with the result, which is the most important thing to me. He even said he thought it was better than the original, which — while I don't presume to agree for a moment! — is a lovely thing to say.

Moving on to your own creator owned work, your ongoing post-apocalyptic comic Wasteland seems to have gathered a loyal following, garnering praise from fellow creators and the comics press. Were you surprised at the warm reception the book received and are you happy with the way the series is progressing?

We didn't actually get a very warm reception at all, at first. It's taken some time for us to find our audience, and I'm thankful that Oni gave us the time to do that, because it's worked out well. When we started, WASTELAND seemed doomed to be a "comic person's comic" — we got loads of compliments from other creators and some of the indie-friendly critics, but most readers were more than a little confused, I think. It took time for us to prove we weren't bullshitting about doing something different, and that we really did know what we were doing. It's all about trust, really, and in the modern market, I can't blame anyone for making us earn that trust before jumping fully on board.

As for how it's progressing, I'm delighted. I think the book's stronger now than it's ever been, and I've learnt so much by doing an ongoing series it's not even funny. It's a kind of quantum leap of experience that you simply can't get writing GNs and miniseries.

Do you have a clearly defined beginning, middle and end in mind for Wasteland, or is it something that evolves naturally as you go?

The beginning and end were always planned in a lot of detail. Obviously the beginning is now done, and that came out (almost) exactly how I imagined it. The end is planned, and the last story arc is already plotted. I know exactly how the last issues will play out.

How we get from A to B to C, though, is more malleable. I do have an outline, but it's intentionally sparse. I like being able to change my mind, and focus on something that I might not have even considered when I first outlined the series. So the journey is evolving, but within a definite structure. And the end is basically set in stone.

Wasteland has a very strong identity, especially in term of its environments, cultures and languages. The book’s dialogue has its own distinct rhythm and inflections that are unique to Wasteland. How important is world building to you as a writer? Do you place as much value in your setting as you do the plot and characters?

Absolutely. The world of WASTELAND is just as much a character as the people who populate it. That's why I write the Walking The Dust text pieces in the back of the issues; there's so much to the world that you won't even see in the main story, but it all informs how the series plays out. And, being an ex-roleplayer, world-building is one of my favourite things to do. It's dangerous, really, it would be very easy to spend all my time building the world instead of writing the story. I'm getting better at spotting and avoiding those rabbit holes when they appear, but I'm not always successful.

Apart from the obvious post-apocalyptic influences, Wasteland has a strong ‘frontier fiction’ vibe to it, which puts me in mind of the same gritty, broken down aesthetic as TV shows like Firefly and Deadwood. What were your main sources of inspiration when creating Wasteland?

Well, this is more about influences than inspirations, and DEADWOOD was definitely one. I loved that show. Quite a bit of TV had an influence on the book, actually. LOST, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, INVASION, even THE WIRE. Good, quality serial storytelling. Then from comics, books like PREACHER, Y: THE LAST MAN and various 2000AD strips were all in my mind.

But in terms of actual inspiration, it's mostly music...

I noticed you tend to name Wasteland story arcs after albums or songs. You also write and record ‘Wasteland songs’ to compliment the comic. You’re clearly a bit music buff. Does music influence your writing at all?

It's no secret I'm a big fan of heavy metal and goth music, and the genesis of WASTELAND is very much rooted in that late '80s Sisters/Nephilim imagery. Then there's the doom metal bands like Paradise Lost, My Dying Bride, Type O Negative… they all provided a soundtrack to the sort of thing I was trying to create, with that detuned slow melancholy and bleak atmospherics.

Naming issues and collections after songs is something I nicked from Grant Morrison — I think he was the first one to do it consistently, I remember every episode of ZENITH was named after a song. Plus, I like to think it gives fans something to look out for. If someone likes WASTELAND enough to go and find Siouxsie and the Banshees' CITIES IN DUST, or listen to a Paradise Lost album for the first time, that's a great thing.

The soundtrack songs I do are about paying homage to some of that inspiration. I do them for several reasons — they're a nice bonus for the fans, they're a bit unusual, and obviously it's good PR. But mainly it's just something I like doing anyway. I'd be recording this sort of stuff even if there was no book for them to accompany, you know? I like writing songs, I know I can write them fairly well, and I have the capacity to record tracks and release them as MP3s. So why not?

You could probably call WASTELAND the first 'detuned comic'. Maybe that would give people a better idea of what it's all about. Or maybe not.

You’re also currently writing Wolverine: Prodigal Son, a Manga for Del Rey that chronicles the character’s adolescence. Could you tell us a how you became involved with the book?

Dallas Middaugh at Del Rey asked me if I wanted to do it. It was that simple, really. He knew my work, and thought I'd be a good fit, so I worked up some ideas, we went over them and honed what we thought was the best one, then presented it to Marvel. They said yes, and off we went.

The pacing of Manga tends to differ a great deal to that of western comics, as does the overall visual approach. When writing Prodigal Son were you very aware of the difference in conventions? How did you adjust your overall approach to suit the Manga format?

I was very aware of the difference, yes, but it's not entirely new to me. There are some manga conventions, especially with regard to pacing, that I use in my 'normal' work all the time. Several reviewers have commented on how WASTELAND almost feels like a manga in places, especially during the quieter, character-focused moments.

So I didn't need to adjust all that much, really. It was more about using manga tropes, but written in my own style.

Do you have an interest in Manga outside of your work for Del Rey? Are there any particular titles that you enjoy?

I'm a big fan of some of the classics, certainly. LONE WOLF & CUB and AKIRA remain two of my favourite comics, manga or otherwise. NARUTO is fun, of course, though I confess I don't follow it all that closely because there's just so damn much of it. Anything by Junjo Ito gets a look, he's as gifted as he is twisted. And I really like AIR GEAR, that book's just full of mad, frenetic energy.

You also worked on Dead Space and the forthcoming Dead Space: Extraction for EA Games, writing all the games dialogue. How have you found working in the video games industry and is it something you’d like to do more of?

I've been playing video games since the days of Space Invaders, so writing them is something I'd always wanted to do, and yes, definitely something I plan to do more of in the future.

Games is a very different industry to comics — different to just about everything else, in fact, because of the unique interactive nature of the form — and I've enjoyed the challenge of learning to work in a new field. On the one hand, it's all still writing a script, but on the other, the way the script is then produced and presented is very unique, and that means you have to approach the work in an equally unique way. It's also not for the faint-hearted, because the deadlines are insane!

I’m a firm believer in comics you can hold in your hands but it would appear that that an increasing number of serialised comics are being published digitally, mostly in conjunction with hard copy collections.

How do you feel about emerging digital distribution initiatives and do you envision serialised pamphlet format comics suffering the same fate as music, whereby everything is available digitally at a lower price.

I envision exactly that, yes. I was talking about the need for an 'iTunes for comics' as far back as 2004, and I think it's simply inevitable that comics will go entirely digital in the years to come. I also believe, though, that the physical book object will still be around, as a deluxe object. This isn't entirely speculation, either — you only have to look at comics like FINDER, PvP, and even DC's Zuda experiment, to see that there are people already following this model and making it work.

We simply have to take this route if we're to avoid the same terrible mistakes the movie and music industries made. They buried their heads in the sand, and now they're suffering for it. You can already get an illegal digital copy of pretty much any comic you want (yes, even WASTELAND) within a day of its release. The fact that torrenting comics is so widespread and popular proves that people want to read them digitally. We have to take advantage of that, not try and pretend it isn't happening.

What was the last comic book you read that left a lasting impression on you?

Ooh, tough one. Not because there are so few, but because there are so many! I'll go with CRIMINAL, I think. It's so great to see Brubaker back on the genre he was born to write, and you just know from reading it that he's really getting stuck in. What makes an impression is just the sheer level of skill both he and Philips exhibit on the book. I mean, it's pretty much perfectly executed, and you can't ask for more than that.

Do you have any new projects in the pipeline? What’s on the cards for you in the coming year?

Right now I'm writing a graphic novel called COLD CITY. It's a cold war spy thriller, very noir and full of twists, and I'm having a blast with it. There's always more WASTELAND, of course. Publishing-wise, the next couple of months will see the release of SKELETON KEY, the third Alex Rider graphic novel, and the DEAD SPACE: EXTRACTION game, along with the accompanying comic, which is once again drawn by the inestimable Ben Templesmith.

Beyond that, there's nothing I can talk about, I'm afraid. I have a pitch for a manga series doing the rounds, there's a YA fantasy novel that I need to get round to finishing, and various other bits and bobs in the works. But nothing I can announce just yet!

Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me, is there anything you’d like to add?

I'd like to say a hearty "Well done!" to anyone who's actually read this far, and suggest they really should pick up WASTELAND, if only to feel like there was some point to reading my interminable ramblings. LOL, as they say on the internet.

Interview by Matthew Dick.

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