Antony Johnston Discusses Book One Of His Dark Fantasy Series, "Umbral: Out Of The Shadows"

Antony Johnston is an award-winning writer of comics, video games and book, including the recently [...]

Umbral Book One: Out of the Shadows

Antony Johnston is an award-winning writer of comics, video games and book, including the recently completed, post-apocalytic comic book series Wasteland, his new miniseries The Fuse, and the original Dead Space. He has reteamed with his Wasteland collaborator, Christopher Mitten, to create a new ongoing dark fantasy series at Image Comics, titled Umbral. Umbral follows a young thief named Rascal who breaks into the royal palace to steal a priceless artifact. While there, she witnesses the grisly death of the King and Queen at the hands and mysterious and monstrous shadow creatures called the Umbral. Now Rascal is on the run and only she and the few friends she still has left alive, including the mysterious beggar-wizard Dalone, know that the kingdom is about the experience a full-scale Umbral invasion. Umbral Book One: Out of the Shaodws, a trade paperback edition of the first six-issue arc of the series, arrives in stores tomorrow, May 28, and the first issue of the series is currently available for free through the Image Comics website and ComiXology. Johnston took some time to talk to us about the series. Like a lot of good fantasy, the world of Umbral feels fully formed. Very early on we hear of the great Strakan, hinting at the world's history, and get a map of the kingdom, giving us the sense that the world is much bigger than what we're seeing at any given moment. How much of this world and its history have you already planned out, versus what you're coming up with as the story progresses? Antony Johnston: Yeah, 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. Rascal is a young female lead at a time when comics diversity is a hot topic in the industry. Was creating a female led series the original motivator for creating Umbral, or was it a decision that was made later in the creative process? Antony Johnston: UMBRAL came about because Chris and I wanted to make something new, and after some discussion, we settled on dark fantasy as a genre we felt we could do well. Almost immediately, I knew I wanted our main character to be a young thief called Rascal — but at first, that character was a boy. What triggered the change was realizing that I'd imagined him as male just because it's the default option, especially in the fantasy genre. And I don't like defaults. That's one reason Prince Arthir is in there right at the start — to emphasize to readers that UMBRAL doesn't follow default patterns. This story is probably not what you're expecting. And yes, a certain amount of my motivation is wanting to change people's minds about what a female protagonist can be, and do. I write lots of books with female lead characters, and I'm going to continue doing it until people stop asking me why. Ironically, making Rascal a young girl opened up so many story opportunities, it's not even funny. UMBRAL would have been much less interesting with a male protagonist. And now I can't picture her any other way. Do you have a planned ending and/or rough idea of the series length already in mind? Yes, and yes. As with WASTELAND, I already knew the ending before I started writing the first issue. I find that essential for an epic tale like this, otherwise you don't really know what story you're telling. As for length, that all depends on harsh commercial reality. If we sell enough to keep going to the end, we should end at around 40 issues or so. I've got seven books in mind.

Umbral #7 Umbral feels like a very unique world with a very unique visual style. What were some of the things that inspired its creation? What were your goals when you were piecing the world together? Antony Johnston: Our goal was very simple — to create an epic dark fantasy adventure, full of myths and legends and scary monsters. The most obvious inspiration was THE DARK CRYSTAL, which Chris and I are both big fans of; and then more generally, stuff like FAFHRD AND THE GRAY MOUSER, ELRIC OF MELNIBONÉ, 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. At one point, Rascal says that this is the second worst day of her life. What day could possibly be worse than seeing your friend killed during an invasion of shadow creatures from a realm of darkness? Antony Johnston: Ha! I can't say, but that wasn't just an off-the-cuff remark. We'll deal with the *worst* day of Rascal's life in a future story, never fear. Powerful magical items play a large role in a lot of fantasy fiction and the Oculus seems to be one such item. Is the Oculus going to be the kind of item that empowers Rascal so that she can save the day, or is it more the kind of magical item that is best thrown into a volcano somewhere? Antony Johnston: Figuring that out will be a big part of Rascal's journey. There's plenty about the Oculus that nobody really understands, not even Dalone, and making those discoveries will drive Rascal's decisions throughout our story. I love the character of Dalone. In monomyth terms, he seems to be playing the role of the guide but it's as if he's not very good at it. He offers the call to adventure to Rascal and she basically tells him where he can shove it. What was the idea behind the creation of Dalone and where can we expect to see him lead (or at least try to lead) Rascal going forward? Antony Johnston: Dalone is the antithesis of a traditional guide/mentor; as you say, he's not actually very good at it, he's unsure of himself, and he smells of rat piss from living on the streets for god knows how long. There's a lot about the world he simply doesn't understand. But by the end of Book One, it became clear that Dalone isn't just a mad old hobo; he really does have knowledge that will be vital to his and Rascal's survival, and hopefully success, on their quest. I also love how you and Christopher Mitten decided to depict magic. It's a uniquely visual way to show these words of power with an image rather than an actual word, something that would only really work in comics. How did you come up with that touch, and can we expect to learn more about the way magic functions in the world of Umbral? Antony Johnston: That's actually something I worked on with our letterer Thomas Mauer. I've always thought pictograms would be a cool way to show magic, and make the reader understand that it's an alien concept, not just a bunch of fake Latin words. Magic in this world is literally meaningless to the uninitiated. I was a professional graphic designer for many years, which means doing stuff like that is actually fairly simple for me. It's a bit of an advantage, I guess. Fair warning that this next question includes a SPOILER for the end of Umbral Book One: Out of the Shadows. Rascal runs into a mysterious figure during her first trip to the Umbral. At the end of issue #6, we discover that this character is Dalone. Can you shed any light on what Dalone was doing hanging out in the Umbral and what the nature of these two different forms are? Was the old man look simply a disguise he put on, or is there more at play? Antony Johnston: There's definitely more at play. Right at the start of Book Two, Dalone tells Rascal, "The soul of a Wizard lives on, here in the dark…" Now, what exactly that means, and how it will affect their journey together, is something that will be answered as the story unfolds, secrets are revealed, and the truth is discovered. I'm giving nothing away! Lastly, are there any other hints or teases you'd like to give to fans of the series about things to come. Antony 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 Wodelings and their fearsome beasts, the Silvar. 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? You can download the first issue of Umbral at the Image Comics website or through ComiXology. Umrbal Book One: Out of the Shadows arrives in comic shops tomorrow.