Image Watch – Talking Umbral And 'Playing With Magic Words' With Antony Johnston

By David Dissanayake

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Antony Johnston and Christopher Mitten's fantastic series Umbral from Image Comics begins its second arc in today's issue #7.  I've been a big supporter of this creative duo since Wasteland, one of the first ongoing series I started following on a regular basis.

Worldbuilders of the highest order, the Johnston/Mitten duo bring that rare kind of brilliant collaborative lightening that creates unique and vibrant universes wherever it strikes. Umbral is no exception.

Antony and I had a nice chat about Umbral, working with Mitten, and what awaits us in the upcoming arc:

David Dissanayake: So now that we're about to dive into the second arc, what can you tell us about what we might see in the coming issues?  From what I've read in the (hilarious) solicits it sounds like we're going to see a good deal more of the world outside the kingdom. 

Antony Johnston: Every story arc is set somewhere different, so yes, we'll see more of the world outside Strakhelm. We're still in Fendin, though, so not actually outside the Kingdom as a whole.

Book Two is called 'The Dark Path', and most of it takes place in the Bulaswode; a dark, misty, spooky place where normal Fendish laws and customs don't really apply. It's home to the Wodelings, an outlaw people who ride their huge silvar beasts through the fog-filled forest without a sound.

Rascal and the others are forced into the Bulaswode to escape the Redguard chasing them. Meanwhile, Rascal's being haunted by Umbral in her dreams, Dalone's got his own nightmares to deal with, and as for Shayim and Munty… well, do we really know if they can be trusted?

DD: I was hoping you could tell us a little bit about your approach to world building. A lot of your books -and Umbral is no exception- are very intricate and painstakingly designed.  When you go into a project like this, how do you begin to construct those worlds and balance it within the smaller character stories you want to tell?

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AJ: It always starts with the characters, and figuring out what kind of world they might inhabit. So with Rascal, I knew she was going to be a thief in a "low fantasy" world, who stole something magical and dangerous. But from that point on, I normally turn to the world and environment, and begin to flesh out the society that such a place might bring about.

It all sort of tumbles out of my brain at once. I sit there for days, weeks, just making notes on everything from the world to the weather, from magic to the monarchy… character ideas, plot ideas, visual ideas, it all goes down in the notes, and eventually a more solid idea begins to coalesce, with the stronger ideas staying at the forefront and the weaker ideas fading away.

It's hard to quantify, because I've been doing this sort of worldbuilding ever since I was a kid playing role-playing games. I always preferred making up my own settings, rather than using ones from manuals and sourcebooks. And now that I do the same kind of thing for videogame companies, as well as my comics, it's become an almost instinctive process, second nature. It's probably harder for me now to *not* think about worldbuilding as I'm planning a story.

DD: You and Chris Mitten have been working together for such a long time now, I'm curious what your creative working relationship is like.  Is he involved in the story bible/world building side of things as well?  How detailed of a script do you give him? 

AJ: My scripts aren't as spartan as Ennis or Wagner, but they're not as detailed as Moore or Gaiman. They have about the same level of detail as a script from Ellis or Rucka — which is probably no coincidence, given those guys are both old friends, and not coincidentally two of my favourite writers.

But it all depends on context. There are times when I'll just write, "ON Rascal, looking ANNOYED", because I know that's all Chris needs to turn out a great panel. And then other times I'll write half a page of description for something, because it's new and I'm trying to get across what I see in my mind's eye. With characters, I'll often be specific about things like clothing style and physical features, for example. Occasionally I'll ask for a specific panel layout, or a POV, or something.

But even these are almost always just suggestions, details and ideas for Chris to riff on. I know he'll take them, work them up in his own style, and come back with something that's always what I asked for, and tells the same story — though in a way I'd never have considered myself. That's even more true with Umbral, because I'm deliberately creating a story full of things I know Chris loves to draw.

So it all comes down to trust, I think. As you say, we've been working together now for a long time, and we both just want to make the best comics we can. That's always at the heart of it.

DD: I saw that Chris is also rejoining you over at Oni on the finale of Wasteland (which I am very excited for).  I'm curious though, does that mean he may be taking a break from Umbral?

AJ: We're doing both books at once. We've been planning this for a long time, and made sure the schedules work. I won't deny it's occasionally difficult, especially for Chris! But it's all figured out. And there are only four issues of Wasteland left to go, anyway.

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DD: One thing that immediately jumped out to me when I first read Umbral was its color palette.  How involved are you and Chris with the color design with John Rauch and Jordan Boyd? Do you give overt color direction in scripting?

AJ: I give directions for story-specific things, but the original palette was pretty much all down to John Rauch. I chose our 'brand purple' to represent magic, and we asked for things like the Umbral's eyes and mouths to be fiery red/orange, details like that. But mostly we gave John carte blanche, and told him we valued "moody and atmospheric" over "painstakingly realistic". And boy, did he give us mood and atmosphere!

Then when Jordan picked up the baton, he barely skipped a beat. He fell right into the same groove, and our colour notes for each issue now are barely even worth mentioning. Chris, especially, absolutely loves how Jordan colours his work.

Umbral looks utterly unlike anything else on the stands, and I love that.

DD: I absolutely loved the use of graphic design elements in the word balloons when characters are using magic.  Who's idea was that, and who designs them?  Will you be playing with that more as we get deeper into the series?

AJ: I wanted to make the magic in this world something completely unique and supernatural, not just a bunch of faux-latin words strung together or whatever. And because this is comics, we can do something purely visual that wouldn't be possible in other media.

So I hit on the idea of using pure symbolic pictograms, almost like mandala or fractals. Magic in Umbral is *literally* incomprehensible to anyone not trained in the art.

I did some tryout initial designs of the "magic words", then consulted with our letterer Thomas Mauer, who gave some great suggestions and made them work on the page. Now I design them and give Thomas a set for each issue.

We will indeed be playing with the magic words in Book Two; in fact, you can already see some evolution in issue #6, when Rascal takes her first novice steps towards learning magic.

DD: How far out do you have Umbral's story planned? 

AJ: In detail, I know it all to the end of the current story arc. In rough form, I have the whole thing — which is seven books, about 40 issues.

DD: Finally, what are you reading/listening to/watching these days? What has you really excited?

AJ: Like all right-headed people, I'm excited about the sheer range of new comics coming out right now. Lazarus, Sheltered, Seconds, Pretty Deadly, Rocket Girl, Sex Criminals, Letter 44, Fatale, Trees, Six-Gun Gorilla, Breaks, The Wicked + The Divine, Princess Ugg, The Auteur

This is an absolute golden age of diversity in comics, and it's being driven by creators making original books they love. It's what many of us have been striving towards for the past 15 years, and it feels like it's finally happening. That's awesome.

And it probably won't surprise anyone to know that, outside of comics, I love much the same kind of stuff.

My two favourite bands, Paradise Lost and My Dying Bride, are both recording new albums, which are instant buys for me. I thought True Detective was great, if flawed, and can't wait to see the impact that kind of short-form creator-driven success has on TV. My friend Cherie Priest is starting a new series of novels with Maplecroft, a story I know she's really passionate about. And I can't wait to see the Fullbright Company's next project, or Jordan Thomas' new game The Magic Circle, or new indie title The Little Acre, by a group of developers I met at a game jam in Dublin.

All these things make me happy. It's an amazing time to see great people make new things they love, and push the boundaries ever outward.

The first trade paperback of Umbral is available in stores now. 

Umbral's second arc starts with issue #7, on sale today.

Issue #8 is on sale August 20th. Pre-order it with Diamond ID: JUN140585

You can buy Umbral digitally (DRM free) here.

David Dissanayake is a Senior San Francisco Correspondent at Bleeding Cool.  Give him a shout on Twitter @dwdissanayake or come say hello to him at Mission: Comics & Art in San Francisco.