From Hub_134, February 2011.
Most folk will know the name Antony Johnston from his recent work on the Marvel comic series Daredevil but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. From post-apocalyptic wastes to undead horror in space to romantic comedies in Europe, from video games to novels to comics; Antony Johnston has tackled them all to critical acclaim.
He also sparked me off listening to Paradise Lost again after I’d not dabbled for years!
Anyway, understandably all this work keeps him extremely busy but he’s also a bloody nice chap and agreed to answer a few questions for us at Hub.
Hub Magazine: Your work has covered many genres. Have you a favourite genre from the ones you’ve worked in or have you yet to cover your favourite?
Antony Johnston: I’d say my favourite genre to write is “thriller”, but that encompasses a whole swathe of sub-genres, too; I’ve done spy thrillers, superhero thrillers, paranormal thrillers, sci-fi thrillers… And I don’t really have a favourite of those. All I care about is a good story, genre doesn’t concern me much. Which is why I’ve written such a variety of them — if I have an idea for a good story, I’ll write it, regardless of what genre it might be in.
HM: You’ve also worked across different media including novels, comics and video games. Which medium do you prefer working in most?
AJ: Comics will always be my first love. There’s something very special and unique about the medium, both to create and to read. The way you can play with time, visual subtext, pacing… I love it. But I really enjoy working in games, too, because it’s an even younger medium than comics, and there’s so much still to be figured out. It’s great to be involved in helping define how a medium evolves.
HM: You’ve worked on the sci-fi/horror game series Dead Space as well as the comic book tie-ins. Dead Space Ignition, the latest game in the series, was released a couple of months ago. How does writing for video games differ from comics or standard prose? Do you have as much creative input into the game world or do you have strict guidelines to play within?
AJ: It varies from game to game, even within the same universe like on Dead Space. Sometimes the basic story is already worked out before I come on board, and it’s my job to stitch it all together with a script; sometimes the high concept is all that’s in place, and I get involved in the narrative design, i.e. how the game story plays out; and most of the time it’s somewhere between the two.
One of the good things about working on Dead Space specifically is that, given it’s an original property and still quite young, there’s a lot of room to come up with stuff that defines the game world. Like, with the first comic, almost nothing had been decided about the planetside colony before I came on board, so a lot of that — the characters, their jobs and lives, the organisation of the mining effort, even the slang — was left up to me. And that’s had a knock-on effect throughout the series, which is very fulfilling creatively.
HM: Sega have recently unveiled work on a new futuristic sci-fi shooter, Binary Domain. From reading your blog it appears you have had a hand in its development, are you allowed to elaborate on that at this stage?
AJ: I can’t say too much about Binary Domain right now, other than to confirm that yes, I’m involved in writing it, and have been working with Sega in Tokyo. It’s the first time Sega Japan have ever used a Western writer for a Japanese-developed game, so it’s all unexplored territory, and rather exciting.
HM: You have a few novels under your belt (including Stealing Life, published by Hub Magazine sponsor Abaddon), are there any plans for more novels in the future?
AJ: Definitely, yes. As I said before, comics is my first love. But writing a novel is a completely different challenge, not least in terms of how much time it takes. So I don’t think I’ll ever be someone who bangs out a novel per year, but I do have plans for more. I’m hoping my next will be a series of YA dark fantasy novels, but I won’t swear to that; things always change!
HM: From speaking with you before, I gather that Wasteland has a definite endpoint. Was this something you had always planned or was it ever considered to run it as a continuing on-going series?
AJ: Wasteland has always been planned as a finite story. My favourite stories, in any medium, are those which have a definite end. The end helps define the story itself, and with something like Wasteland that’s important, because the whole thing is really one long story, from start to finish, with a big mystery at the centre. If you’re going to have an overarching mystery, you have to reveal it at some point, and so that’s the natural place for it to end. The ending was planned before I even wrote the first issue.
HM: In Wasteland, the character of Abi comes across as important as that of Michael, if not more so, in terms of the development of the story. Will we see Abi move to even greater prominence as Wasteland progresses?
AJ: Abi and Michael are equals; Michael gets more “cover time” because he’s the more iconic of the two, and more like a traditional anti-hero, but in terms of story importance there’s nothing between them. And that will continue, right through to the end.
HM: Is A-Ree-Yass-I (fabled location of the beginning of the events that led to the downfall of mankind in Wasteland) actually Area51??
AJ: My lips are sealed.
HM: In Spooked, Closer and Wasteland you write convincingly female lead characters. Do you find this easy to achieve?
AJ: I don’t know if I’d say it’s easy as such, because it’s never easy to create any good character, male or female. But there’s no great mystery to writing “great female characters”; they’re just “great characters” who happen to be women. I always try to have a diverse cast, but I never use gender (or race, or sexual orientation, or religion) as a substitute for characterisation. Life is diverse, and I like to reflect that.
HM: Have you ever considered re-visiting the worlds of some of your older graphic novels? Spooked, for example, which I felt was left open for further exploration and development.
AJ: Spooked was very much left open; it was planned as a three-volume series, but unfortunately immediately after the first book Ross and I both increased our paying workloads, and moved on to other things. I have sequel ideas for a couple of other older works, like Three Days In Europe and The Long Haul, but whether I’ll get round to them, I don’t know. I like creating new things.
HM: It’s noticeable that in the art for the works noted above that the female characters are drawn to be more ‘real-life’, i.e. although the characters all have their own special ‘look’, they aren’t of the usual “cheesecake” variety… Do you have a great deal of input into the art and character sketches and if so, do you find that the artists respond well to being able to draw interesting women in a way that still appeals visually?
AJ: I tend to give my artists copious notes and character descriptions up front, but then largely leave them to it; after all, they’re the artist, not me. But it’s true, those notes do often include things like “not built like a superhero!”
I also tend to choose artists who are a little unusual anyway, and most of them have no interest in cheesecake to start with. So maybe they do respond well to female characters who aren’t defined by their bra size.
HM: You also do some design work on your graphic novels, how important do you feel being able to control some of the look and feel of your books helps the story telling process, if at all?
AJ: I think it helps insofar as all book design is geared towards priming the reader for the kind of story they’re about to read. And, obviously, I like to think I have a pretty good idea what that story is and how to present it well. So where I think it’s important, and where I’m in a position to make that decision, I’ll handle it myself.
But I’m scaling that back, to be honest; Wasteland is the only book where I still do the design work as well as write, and once that’s finished I may bow out entirely. The quality of comics design has come a long way since I first got into the industry. And that’s not a rip on the designers; we’ve been blessed with many great designers for a long time. It’s more to do with publishers finally recognising that design decisions matter, and just slamming everything on the page in the biggest and boldest type possible isn’t always the right solution.
HM: You’ve created a soundtrack to accompany the Wasteland series. This adds to the growing amount of “backmatter” that is sometimes included with comic work nowadays. We see lots of it in certain projects by Warren Ellis, for example. How important to your work, and comic books/graphic novels in general, do you feel add-ons such as this are?
AJ: It’s very important to Wasteland, because it’s an outgrowth of the same sensibilities that inform the story in the first place. The “Walking The Dust” pieces, the original soundtrack, and even the website, are all geared towards building the same mood and feel. I think when backmatter’s done like that, as a way of helping the reader get deeper into the creator’s mindset, it’s invaluable. Warren’s very good at that, as is Ed Brubaker with the Criminal essays, and Matt Fraction’s Casanova backmatter has always been stellar.
The best backmatter is like ambient music; if you pay attention to it, it’s brilliant and will engage you. But you don’t have to; you can ignore it just as easily. There’s nothing in the Wasteland “extras” that readers absolutely need to know. But if they want to get into them, they’re rewarded with an even deeper experience.
HM: Devin Grayson once commented on how she would work up a musical soundtrack before beginning a writing project (to get a feel for tone/mood etc). You’ve mentioned online how important music is to your creative process, also. Do you have a different soundtrack per project?
AJ: Not as such, but I’ll often restrict my listening to a certain genre, or artist, to get me in the mood. I couldn’t bear to listen to a single mix CD over and over again while writing, I’d be sick of it by the end.
So, for example, I have a “Dooooooooooooom” playlist in iTunes which I’ll often set going on shuffle while working on Wasteland. I tend to play the “Metal” genre list for Dead Space. While I was writing The Coldest City, it was mostly classical CDs and movie soundtracks. And so on.
HM: You’ve recently been working on mainstream Marvel Comics property Daredevil, including the Shadowland event which saw you write the excellent tie-in mini series Blood on the Streets. Are there further plans to work with more ‘mainstream’ properties that you can tell us about?
AJ: Yes, there are plans, but no, I can’t tell you about them, sorry!
HM: As a talented British writer, how did you come to walk down the road less travelled and skip doing any writing for 2000AD? Was it something that never appealed to you or have you plans for working on it in the future?
AJ: I owe 2000AD a huge debt; I grew up reading it, and it informed my own work in a huge way. Still does; Wasteland is definitely born of that same stable. But I was lucky; I came on the comics scene just as the Internet was starting to matter, and online collaboration was becoming viable, which blew open the “established routes” that had existed before. Suddenly, British creators didn’t have to go through 2000AD, as was once the norm.
I’d write for 2000AD if they asked me, sure, but when I was starting out I had no intention of submitting dozens of Future Shocks (the done-in-one, six-pagers-with-a-twist that they run as filler) just to try and get a break — mostly because I find those kinds of stories very difficult, and rather boring, to write. It’s the same reason I never submitted spec backup stories for superhero titles; it didn’t strike me as a useful expenditure of effort, when instead I could be writing stories that I actually cared about for other publishers.
HM: In the past, you have worked with Alan Moore to adapt some of his work outside of comics into comic book form. Moore is undeniably a big name in the world of comics so how did it feel to work with him on those projects?
AJ: It was pretty awe-inspiring, literally. I was nervous as hell, not least because Alan’s work was some of my favourite in 2000AD when I was a kid, and I have nothing but respect for the man.
But eventually I just steeled myself and went for it; I figured, Alan wouldn’t have approved my involvement unless he had confidence in me. I mean, it’s not like he’s known for a reluctance to speak his mind. And it turned out really well, partly because Alan’s actually a really nice bloke. Of course, it may also have helped that I’m a Brummie…
HM: What else does 2011 have in store for you that you’re allowed, and willing, to mention? 🙂
AJ: My Cold War spy thriller, The Coldest City, will be out from Oni sometime this year; Wasteland will continue, of course; there’s more video game work in the pipeline; and I’m talking to Marvel about doing another series with them. That’s about as specific as I can be, I’m afraid, which is very frustrating, but that’s NDAs for you. Suffice to say, it’s looking like a busy one, with lots of interesting stuff coming up!
Antony can be found online at http://www.antonyjohnston.com
Wasteland issue 1 is available free from http://www.onipress.com/thebigwet/downloads/freeissue1.php DEAD LINK Dead Space: Salvage went on sale January 18th from IDW and is also available digitally for ipad here; http://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/dead-space-salvage/id409395496?mt=8 DEAD LINK