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AICN COMICS Q&@: Humphrey Lee delves into the dark fantasies of UMBRAL with Writer Antony Johnston & Artist Christopher Mitten!

@@@ What the &#$% is AICN COMICS Q&@? @@@

Q’s by Humphrey Lee!

@’s by UMBRAL’s
Antony Johnston & Christopher Mitten!!!

Hello all, Humphrey Lee here. Y’know, the Internet is a funny little place. This is immediately apparent to me by the notion that people actually spend time on it reading what a schlub like me has to say about comic books -- in this particular case the first issue of UMBRAL, a dark fantasy comic published by Image Comics and created by the WASTELAND team of writer Antony Johnston and artist Christopher Mitten - on a website that a lot of you seem to visit. Then an @mention and some correspondence with the talented Mr. Johnston later and here we are, discussing UMBRAL with Misters Johnston and Mitten and getting an idea how their creative process works and the efforts and decisions that go into making a piece of fantasy like UMBRAL come to life, because I am a big “inside baseball” geek for such things. So, if you are a fan of these gentlemen and their work like I am, or are interested in a dark fantasy title like UMBRAL and/or the creative process behind such a thing, hopefully you found your way here to my probing inquiries about the book and how these guys do their work together. And here we go...

HUMPHREY LEE (HL): Okay, when we were setting this up, I swore I’d try to avoid typical questions but sometimes you have to lead in with one: After doing the post-apocalypse together via WASTELAND, why a “Dark Fantasy” title next? What was the allure of going mystical after developing something that played loose with landscape that was the “real world” gone to hell?

ANTONY JOHNSTON (AJ): First, I just love dark fantasy stories. I’ve loved fantasy and SF equally since I was a kid, I simply haven’t written as much fantasy. Maybe it’s because I spent so much time building fantasy worlds when I was younger, designing tabletop RPG games and scenarios for my friends. But I love the quite literal otherworldliness of fantasy, the idea that the reader is discovering everything anew, and nothing about the world can be taken for granted.

I knew Chris was a big fan of the genre as well (we’ve geeked out together over stuff like THE DARK CRYSTAL before), and of course I knew his art would be perfect for a dark fantasy atmosphere. So when we started talking about creating something new again, it made sense as a genre we should consider. And the more we talked about it, the more it felt like something we could really sink our teeth into.

CHRISTOPHER MITTEN (CM): Yeah, that’s basically it in a nutshell. It’s just a fun place to play. Here and there over the past year before starting we’d toss around these little idea-nuggets but nothing quite sparked like UMBRAL. Once we hit on it, it all came together quite quickly. I’m also a sucker for backroom scheming and chicanery — questionable people doing questionable things — and this, like WASTELAND, in addition to the genre tropes we love and attracted us in the first place, has plenty of it.

HL: Now, because I’m kind of an “inside baseball” nut about this stuff, I’ll move right into the creative process; that place that might as well be fairyland to me because I don’t understand how you creative types make it manifest. What does it take to build up a world like the one of UMBRAL before you really decide you’re ready to go forward with getting it published? Is there a certain point of “we’ve built this lore here, these characters here, and have this, this and this outlined so let’s get on with it!” that you reach and hope/assume your talents will take you through the rest as it comes? Or is it more of a super level of paranoid detail that takes place that won’t let you kick things off until you feel you’ve got the majority of this epic on lock-down, sans any organic changes that may come as scripts have been written and pages have been drawn?

AJ: Somewhere halfway between the two. For WASTELAND, almost everything was figured out and locked down beforehand. Who people were, their lives, the history of various locations, the paths characters would take… it was all worked out to quite a high degree before I started writing. And I don’t regret it at all; it was a story that needed that level of microscopic attention to detail.

UMBRAL, though, is somewhat looser. Partly that’s because I trust myself more, these days. I planned and started writing WASTELAND almost eight years ago. I’m frankly a better writer now (not to mention I now have enough self-confidence to know that’s true — eight years ago I wouldn’t have). Now, that doesn’t mean we’re making UMBRAL up as we go along. Chris can testify to the weeks of miserable emails I subjected him to as I wrestled with the world mythology, history, legends, how magic worked, and so on. If my dogs could talk, they’d no doubt have stories to tell you, too. But it was worth it — we’ve got a lot of that stuff down, now. We have a world, characters, plot, and most importantly, we have a plan. But at the same time, that plan is deliberately woolly in places, with little more than a few notes and lines to guide me. And it’s working — I’ve already completed the first six issues, and it was one of the most fun and rewarding writing experiences I’ve ever had.

CM: It’s the “woolly” nature of this book I find so fun. When a script hits my inbox I’m never quite sure what’s waiting for me. I love that I don’t know all the beats. Do you know how deadly dull that’d be? “Okay, this is going to happen, then this and this and this — go!” There’s no discovery in that, no creative wind to take you through those twenty-two pages. When I read a script for UMBRAL, or any project, really, I love that I don’t always know about every little twist or moment of humor or bit of character insight. That’s the magic of the writer. I get a charge out if it, it inspires me — “I get to draw THIS?!?” Hopefully some of that excitement translates to the page. And Antony makes all of this — from the broadest world building to the tiniest, most intimate moment — seem damned near effortless. He’s a ridiculously gifted creator and I consider myself extraordinarily lucky to have drawn the QUEEN & COUNTRY he wrote because that started this whole partnership rolling.

HL: With that bit of lengthiness in place, I’ll follow it up by asking how does the relationship you guys have after building WASTELAND together translate into erecting a world like UMBRAL? Where does one of you gentlemen begin and the other end in the collaboration as far as design and the back-story of the world of the Kingdom of Fendin goes?

AJ: I think we’re fairly traditional, aren’t we? I write, Chris draws. But *what* Chris draws influences what and how I write, and as I’ve said before, UMBRAL was designed to be a series where I’m deliberately writing the kind of stuff that I know Chris likes to draw. There are also aspects of design and character that goes back and forth, to the point where I genuinely don’t remember which of us came up with one thing or another.

CM: We’re pretty straight forward, yeah. But, like Antony said, it’s a creative spiral.

HL: That actually ties in well to my wanting to ask you about gentlemen about the proverbial “creative wall” and how you two help each other through it. Is it a pretty “well-oiled machine” between you gents now that if one of you is having a mental lapse of where you want a moment or whatever to go in the script that Christopher whips up a thumbnail that encapsulates it perfectly and the vice versa on the line work? Or have you found it’s sometimes best to leave one another up to your own devices because you know there’s a chance at something spectacular happening if you work it out yourself? I have to assume those bastard deadlines kind of force the issue though.

CM: In some form or another we’ve basically been working together since 2005, so a lot of pages have passed between us. There is a shorthand, sure, but one that isn’t all that different or more streamlined than when we started. Just more confident, I think; more secure in what we do and how we do it.

AJ: Again, we’re fairly traditional, and tend to leave one another to our own devices. That’s not to say we don’t talk — I give notes and feedback on Chris’ pencils, and Chris suggests things that I’ll use and incorporate into the story — but the only things we really consult at length over are new characters, new locations, that sort of thing. Even then, we both know what the other expects from us, so there aren’t many surprises. Rascal is a perfect example; I sent Chris a brief description, he sent back a page of character study, and I said “Yep.” We are, as you say, pretty well oiled.

HL: What genre sensibilities did you folks really feel like you wanted to channel with this book? I noted in my review that it was nice to see a fantasy comic kick off with something as simple as a good, old-fashioned map of the land, just like we get whenever you open up a prose novel. And it also really gives that feel of “we’re going to be here for a while exploring this world” and the first issue of UMBRAL alone oozed hidden histories and politics and plotting and whatnot. What tone and tropes do you guys feel like is imperative to channel and play with when it comes to this type of fiction?

AJ: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. The map, and the way people speak, all hints at larger things to come, at a wider world beyond the story we’re following. Rascal’s story may well be the most *important* one in our fantasy world (uh, spoilers?) but I always want people to feel like there are plenty of other *interesting* stories happening at the same time. That, to me, is the essence of fantasy. It’s not just about swords and magic and strange place names with too many apostrophes. It’s about visiting a weird and unique new place, and knowing you’ll never quite encompass all of it. That you could zoom in on any part of this world, and find a great story.

CM: I just like the apostrophes. I wanted an excuse to play in a punctuation-heavy universe. I’m not terribly deep. What Antony said is exactly it, though. Rascal’s story is exactly that: her story. This is a world filled with interesting characters and stories we could’ve explored, but we chose to tell Rascal’s. Every story of any genre should feel like there’s another tale worth telling just around the corner. Antony’s done this in WASTELAND, with his “Walking the Dust” prose pieces. We get to see parts of that world that don’t fit into the main storyline. In fact, I think it might be fun, down the road, after WASTELAND wraps at issue sixty, to revisit that world, maybe in mini-series form, in a sort of TALES OF THE WASTELAND sort of thing. Same holds with UMBRAL.

HL: I guess that does beg me to ask what do you feel like you gentlemen can do with an UMBRAL with the advantages that the comic book format brings with its serialized nature and visual style and whatnot to turn those tropes on their head and/or advance them? I mean, it does feel like fantasy in general is shifting now that we live in an era where, say, Bethesda will create a world like Skyrim where a video gamer can spend 200 hours in it or we’re getting these beautifully brought to life epics on our televisions like “Game of Thrones.” Fantasy feels familiar across these mediums and yet catered at the very same time based on what these entertainment outlets can do that the others can’t. Well, that and budgets. So what do you guys feel you get to do that those other folks don’t?

AJ: The serialisation in comics is more immediate than even TV. A single issue of a comic, averagely-paced, feels like 15 minutes of TV. By the same token, comics compress the story in that space, and use narrative shortcuts to put way more story in a single issue than you’d ever find in those 15 minutes. So all the stuff that serialisation does best — the cliffhangers, the revelations, the twists and turns — we simply get more of them in a single hit. We also have an unlimited budget. Even a well-funded show like GoT can’t show a 10,000-strong army of wildlings and giants attacking a mile-long stretch of the Wall in detail, you know? But we can. We could spend ten issues doing nothing but, and it wouldn’t cost us a penny more in terms of paper and ink. The only budget we have is an artist’s time.

Well, OK, and maybe the ink.

CM: Give me a heads-up on that 10,000-strong army-thing so I don’t have some sort of infarction when the script lands.

HL: What’s the appeal of a lead like Rascal? She seems perfectly formed in that roguish mold of being capable but also has a penchant for getting in over her head, as she does in a big way in this debut for her and the book. Why does this character play so well in a book where evil, shadowy looking bastards are crawling out of the dimensional woodwork?

AJ: You *need* someone who gets in way over their head. That’s the kind of person to whom adventures happen, and for whom we can all root. Who doesn’t love to see a character take on more than they can chew, and escape by the skin of their teeth? That’s pretty much the definition of all heroic fiction, and Rascal — unusual as she may seem, being a young girl with a thieves’ heart and a sailor’s mouth — is most definitely a hero.

HL: Now, I don’t want to accuse anyone of having an agenda, but was going with a female lead a conscious decision given that we, in this community, seem to currently have a problem with gender inclusion? Mind you, even if this is blatant “activism” in this vein I agree with you folks completely; to the point where I have even hijacked some reviews to soap box about just this very matter of the comics reading community somewhat shunning the influx of female readers that has picked up in recent years. But Rascal in UMBRAL seems to be the next in line of a creator wave of pushing the female lead following the likes of LAZARUS and VELVET and REVIVAL and on and on so it seems like genuine effort is being made to let the ladies know they have a place here with us. Or am I reading into this too much (as I am known to do) and it just so happens a “sorceress street-thief” was the perfect vehicle to tell this tale with in your minds?

AJ: It was absolutely a deliberate, political decision. And one that wasn’t even made immediately — as I mention in my writer’s notes to issue #1, the first image of UMBRAL I conceived was what became the first cover, and at that time our hero was a young boy. But then I realised the only reason for that was because it was the default, both in fantasy and our society generally. And fuck that noise. So I changed it. (The irony is, Rascal being a girl has turned out to make so much more sense, and opened up so many further story opportunities, that it’s not even funny. Changing my mind was the best decision I could have made.)

HL: Speaking of calculated decisions, the debut issue of the book does set a pretty mature standard for the term “Dark Fantasy” with some pretty brutal murders and a princely disarming. Throw in some f-bombs from plucky lead Rascal and this would definitely earn a “for mature readers” label, if the comics industry bothered with those anymore. Did you folks at any point feel like “reigning it in” so to speak to reach a younger audience that seems to really be picking up on fantasy series’ with some adult overtones? As you said before, you guys were into this type of material when you were much younger and in the era of digital marketplaces there’s probably going to be some adolescents left out of this experience because of a parental setting or whatever as they get their “Harry Potter” on, or whatever similar has risen as the next thing in the wake of those books, and this would be intriguing to them (and especially the young female audience). Or was it just decided from the get go that the audience is the audience and you can’t really cater like that in today’s marketplace?

AJ: Actually, we do have an M/Mature rating, right there above the barcode…! I write mainly for adults, or at least late teenagers who’ve heard every bad word I could ever tell them. I do write some books for children, like the ALEX RIDER adaptations, but most of my work is aimed at that elusive “mature readers” audience. So it really doesn’t concern me. And here’s two funny things to ponder:

1) If correspondence, tweets, reviews, and so on are anything to go by, then fully half of UMBRAL’s readers are women.

2) The (few) outright complaints we’ve had about the language and profanity in UMBRAL have all been from men.

I’m not exactly sure what that says about our audience, but it feels significant, you know?

CM: It’s all tone and context, it always is. Which I know sounds silly and overly simple, but it is. You’d be surprised at how many people seem to forget that, in every facet of entertainment—hell, life. Not everything is meant for everybody. This is the story we’re telling and this is how we’re telling it; you’ll know early on if it’s for you or not. But to try to cater something to everybody’s sensibilities doesn’t work and isn’t honest to the story or its characters; what it makes it is deadly dull. For the readers and for the creators; it’s a thing that just exists; there’s no purpose and no point of view.

The books on which I’ve tended to work have all skewed to that mature audience, but there are a couple of things I’ve been kicking around with for possible projects down the road--or even a things or two I may write myself--where these things wouldn’t be appropriate. It wouldn’t fit the story. Again, it’s just tone and context: what’s the best, most effective way to tell your story.

HL: Do you guys feel like that’s even an actual marketplace in the industry right now? Going with the gender commentary above, it seems we in the comic book community are always discussing the nature of the books being published these days and how most of the industry are icons and stories that should be catnip for young people but are being written by and for men old enough to drink. With the rise of fantasy and comics becoming more in the public eye due to the property films and “The Walking Dead” on AMC and whatnot, do you think we’re missing out by not having our own “Harry Potter” or “Hunger Games”? Sadly, I’m not even sure if there’s any numbers anywhere by anyone to show what’s being bought by whom - especially given how digital sales numbers are so nebulous - to show if there’s a youthful age bracket that’s either growing or being neglected or both.

AJ: I think that’s absolutely a marketplace. Everything I’ve seen in recent years leads me to believe more and more kids are reading comics right now, perhaps more than any time since the ‘80s. But they’ve grown up in a world where the Internet, and web comics, have always existed. Where if you want to watch cartoons or music videos, your first destination is YouTube. Where DVRs and catch-up online viewing are the normal, default way to watch TV. There’s probably already a HUNGER GAMES or HARRY POTTER or whatever out there in comics, somewhere online. But by the time old men like us hear about it, the kids will have already moved on. Look at TWILIGHT, or Amanda Hocking, or even HUNGER GAMES itself. 99% of us had no idea those things even existed until they’d already taken over kids’ minds.

CM: Yeah, it’s an incredibly hard section of the audience to target, and I think even by trying to target it you’ve lost, you’re playing catch-up to something that’s already passed. The best thing to do, with any story, is to come by it honestly. Tell your story, for whatever age group, because it’s a story you want to tell, not because titles X, Y, and Z have found success. People can spot a money-grab a mile away. If you make a book and then it happens to hit that four-quadrant audience, fantastic, but it’s not something that can be planned.

HL: Okay, I want to wrap this up on UMBRAL proper. Between last month’s debut and this week’s release of the second issue, do you guys feel like these early issues encapsulate the tone and the look and feel of the book you guys hope to keep pushing as UMBRAL progresses? Obviously some story arcs will call for different dramatic or adventurous notes and whatnot, but as far as the type of “dark fantasy” you are hoping to present and those genre tropes you are trying to encapsulate, do you feel your work here already is pretty indicative of what someone is getting themselves into if they end up trying UMBRAL and enjoy these two issues?

AJ: My rule of thumb when trying out a new series for myself is to give it 3 issues; that’s barely the price of a movie ticket, and I figure gives enough time to get on board. And that’s what I’ve been saying to those UMBRAL readers who’ve told me they’re on the fence; give us 3 issues to grab you. If it still hasn’t clicked by then, no harm, no foul; maybe it’s just not for you. But I have a suspicion readers will be jumping up and down going “WTFOMGBBQ111!!!!ONE!!!!” by the end of #3, so...

CM: Starting anything new, reader or creator, there’s always a bit of time needed to find one’s footing. But I think that three-issue rule is probably fair. By then you’ll know if we’re doing something you dig or not--you’d have given it an honest whirl and that’s all we as creators want.

HL: Anything else you gents want to promote about the book or other projects coming about? I figure Christopher is probably furiously plugging away at UMBRAL pages and covers, but I know that there’s this Image book called THE FUSE coming soon…

AJ: Well, and Chris is also plugging away at WASTELAND pages! He’s drawing the final story arc, which will begin publishing next year, and I’m halfway through writing it.

THE FUSE is drawn by another WASTELAND alumni, Justin Greenwood, and starts in February. You can read a trailer, and get more info, at

CM: UMBRAL and WASTELAND, yes; and it’s a joy to be back in that world again after being away. Knowing that we’re looking down the barrel at the end is starting to sink in a feel kind of odd: it’s something that’s been a part of my life in some way or another since 2006. I’ve also been getting a lot of cover-work of late, and that’s a ton of fun. It’s a chance to stretch some design muscles that one doesn’t get to stretch as much, or at least in the same manner, when working sequentially.

I’ll be doing THE DISCIPLES, a sci-fi/horror thing with Steve Niles, but that’s a little way off yet. Pretty much everything else falls under that always-frustrating I-can’t-yet-say-anything umbrella. I think one I may be able to talk about fairly soon, but we’re still figuring out its specific scheduling--seven pages have been completed and it’s an exciting, incredibly rewarding collaboration. Another one that’s down the road a way but is going to be a lot of fun is something that came about because I wanted to go a little lighter and this creator wanted to go a little darker, so look for that at some point in the future.

HL: Okay, some randomness to go with all this super introspective stuff I was slinging. It can’t all be market analysis and audience dissection can it? So here’s a nonsensical question for each of you: Antony, you’re a Brit and I’m a 32 year old male who grew up in blue-collar, rural Ohio, who spent most of his impressionable years reading all the revolutionary stuff he could in the comic book medium, mostly from guys “across the pond” like Gaiman’s THE SANDMAN, anything Alan Moore, Ennis’ HELLBLAZER run and PREACHER, any Warren Ellis, etc. As such, I adopted terms like “bloody hell” and “bollocks” because they were ways for me to “swear” around my parents without them slapping me, and I still say them occasionally and use “Cheers” a lot because I like it more than “goodbye” as a salutation. How much do you loathe me now as a human being?

AJ: On the contrary, you’re an excellent example of how the British are clearly cultural superiors in all respects. Now kiss my goddamn ring, Yanqui running dog.

CM: Oh, man, you have no idea how many times Antony’s made--or, as he insists, given me the privilege—of kissing that ring. It seems to work, however, so, yeah, have at it: only good fortune (and, perhaps, some low-grade lip-fungus) shall follow!

HL: And, Christopher, I met you once at a Wizard World Chicago and you are what I like to refer to as a “Graduate of the David Mack School of Being Incredibly Talented, Charming, and (if you don’t mind me saying) Handsome.” And yet, somehow, I don’t hate you or find myself (too) jealous of your windfall of genetic superiority. Are you also a Warlock?

Ha! Yes, how dare you give me compliments?!? You suck! Who do you think you are? Just for that I’m going to “give you the privilege” of kissing Antony’s crusty-yet-somehow-moist ring again. Warlock? Maybe. I’m like a twitchier, less dignified Radagast.

HL: Thanks for your time gentlemen, it’s been a real pleasure making your acquaintances and sucking up important time that should have been used creating things instead of conversing with me. Cheers and good luck with UMBRAL (second issue out this week!!) and all your other endeavors.

And there we have that ladies and gentlemen. As my review of UMBRAL’s sang the praises of and as the creators here confirmed, this is looking to be a book that really emphasizes all those things we have grown up with as the best parts of the fantasy genre; lore, world-building, emphasis on the adventurous nature of exploring such a land, etc. Plus the Umbral themselves look like a terrifying villainous force perfect for the “dark” part of “dark fantasy.” I know I am looking forward to more of this book and, now that you all have some more insight into it (and try the second printing of issue one and the brand new second issue both out this week!) UMBRAL will make its way to your fantasy loving hearts. Check out the UMBRAL website here. Your cold, black, fantasy-loving hearts. Cheers...

Humphrey Lee has been an avid comic book reader going on fifteen years now and a contributor to Ain't It Cool comics for quite a few as well. In fact, reading comics is about all he does in his free time and where all the money from his day job wages goes to - funding his comic book habit so he can talk about them to you, our loyal readers (lucky you). He's a bit of a social networking whore, so you can find him all over the Interwebs on sites like Twitter, The MySpaces, Facebookand a blog where he also mostly talks about comics with his free time because he hasn't the slightest semblance of a life. Sad but true, and he gladly encourages you to add, read, and comment as you will.

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Proofs, co-edits & common sense provided by Sleazy G

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