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First, you demanded we interview him. Then we let you ask the questions. Now we have the answers you’ve been waiting for. Comic Foundry proudly presents our very first reader interview, with acclaimed writer Antony Johnston as the inaugural star.
With the release of The Long Haul, (Brian) Azzarello’s upcoming Loveless, and Beckett’s surprise hit, The Ballad of Sleeping Beauty, do you think comic readers are once again ready to accept Westerns the way they re-embraced the horror genre a few years ago?
Perhaps, although we’re a long way off of having a Western hit on the scale of 30 Days Of Night or The Walking Dead. If that happens, then by definition people will have accepted it, but you could say that about any genre.
The recent popularity of horror comics is because of great books that everyone wanted to read, not the other way around. You can’t predict what comics people will go nuts over, whatever the genre. Apart from romantic comedies, of course. No one buys those.
You’ve been getting a lot of praise from established names in the industry, like Warren Ellis and Alan Moore. If you could write your own ticket, would you be interested in scripting an established monthly title, or would do you have a special project you’re preparing for us?
Why can’t I do both? Seriously.
Taking over an established monthly title isn’t something I’m especially chasing (although I was in the running to take over a DC book recently – no, I didn’t get it), but there are a few books out there I could do interesting things with. So if I had complete carte blanche and control, sure, I’d do one. Although with my sense of humor, I’d probably decide to take over X-Men just so I could get a rise out of the fans by killing every last one of them. (The X-Men, not the fans.)
As for “special projects,” I have a ton. Every one of my graphic novels is a special project to me, and there’s a load more where they came from. There is one thing I’d like to do that requires complete control and lots of money: a swords-and-sorcery book I’ve been working on for a few years now. But to do it properly would take at least five years of monthly issues, full color and a single brilliant fantasy artist for the entire run, which is pretty much a pipe dream, especially in that genre. So it’s probably going to have to be a novel instead.
How has your friend Alan Moore influenced you?
Alan’s influenced me in ways I can’t even begin to measure, but most of it was years before I got to know him. He and Grant Morrison were the two biggest influences I had from comics when I was younger, and they helped shape my attitude and approach to writing. Since getting to know him – and I can’t emphasize enough that Alan really is the nicest bloke you could ever hope to meet – Alan’s influenced me in a more direct and practical sense, helping me look at things in a different light and encouraging me to simply think more about what and how I’m writing.
But it’s important to remember that influences are only that, and ultimately we must all make our own decisions. Much as I respect Alan, for instance, I don’t always agree with him. Keeping that kind of perspective and sense of your own veracity is vital. Otherwise, faced with someone of Alan’s stature, intellect and presence, you could easily succumb to idle mimicry. That doesn’t serve anyone, least of all yourself.
(And if you’re wondering, the single best piece of advice Alan ever gave me was this: “When I was starting out, whatever job I took on, I always tried to do it in a way that would make it fun for me to write.” I’m paraphrasing, and it’s a very simple thing, but sometimes the simplest things are the ones we overlook and so bear repeating. For anyone looking to earn their living as a writer, I think that one certainly does.)
How do you write a comic set in the past while keeping it applicable for readers? Are there universal themes you try to stick with?
In a sense, yes. Those themes tend to come out of the story without needing to be imposed by The Author, though, because the human experience is ultimately universal.
We’re all people. We all need shelter, food and water. We all have the urge to procreate and protect our young. And we all need the means to obtain those things. If that makes us all sound like animals, well, that’s because we are. It’s not so long ago, on the evolutionary scale, that we were lolloping around on all fours and grunting at one another. Humans still have strong natural instincts, and those don’t change.
Which means that The Long Haul may be set 140 years ago, but all that’s really different is the details. The outfits, the technology, the day-to-day lifestyles. But people still had the same base concerns; shelter, food, procreation and the means to obtain them. In the case of Cody Plummer, that means robbing a train full of money so he can buy shelter and food to raise a family. If that were a modern scenario, it might be breaking into a bank vault to do the same thing. But nothing about Cody’s base nature would be different: only the details.
Don’t sweat the themes. People haven’t changed that much in the last thousand years, let alone a hundred. The details are what make a period piece, and if you concentrate on them and your characters’ motives, you’ll come out the other side with a story as relevant to a modern audience as one set 10 minutes ago.
Queen & Country is one of, if not my favorite, comic. Greg Rucka is my favorite writer. What are you bringing to the book/what are you going to do to keep fans of Q&C coming back? Also, why is Rucka leaving? And will he be back?
Let’s make a few things absolutely clear: Greg is not leaving Queen & Country, and I am not taking over the regular series. I’m writing a single Q&C: Declassified miniseries, featuring Nick Poole in his previous career as an SAS trooper. The regular series of Q&C will continue, just as it always has, with Greg at the helm. So on that score, you have nothing to worry about.
Now, with that out of the way … I don’t want to give too much away about the series because it’s coming out fairly soon anyway. What I can say about my approach is that I bring my own particular style, and a certain amount of authenticity regarding Britain and Ireland (where the miniseries is set) to the book. This Declassified is a lot more straight-up and action-oriented than the previous ones, mainly due to the subject matter. I had a great time writing it; Chris had a great time drawing it, Greg loves the result, and I hope everyone else does too. Expect violence.
How much of a challenge will a book like “Queen and Country” pose?
It actually posed a very big challenge, or rather several. One: I’m a huge fan of the book, which made me concerned about living up to its high standards. Two: Greg is a good friend, so I was worried that the situation might be awkward if he didn’t like what I produced. Three: Greg is also a large part of why I’m actually here right now because Whiteout was one of the books that made me get off my arse five years ago and start writing comics. Again, this made me nervous of living up to what I regard as a very high standard.
But you can’t let things like that stop you. Sometimes you have to swallow your fears and dive in, doing the absolute best you can, and trust that the people around you – editors, colleagues, and so on – will tell you if you fuck up. If you let your fears and insecurities stop you even attempting to write something, then you’re in the wrong business.
The horrid truth is that no one believes they can live up to other people’s (or evern their own) expectations. Sure, there are moments where you chuckle to yourself with glee because you’ve written a few great lines, but those times are rare and fleeting. I don’t know any writer – not me, not Alan Moore or anyone in between – who truly, honestly believes they’re utterly brilliant. And that’s healthy, because as soon as you think you’re perfect, you’ve lost. You’ve stopped growing, stopped learning, and you’ll stagnate for the rest of your career.
So when faced with a challenge, you do your best to ignore it and just pound that keyboard. It’s the only way the work gets done.
Do you ever feel stifled when going through the process of scripting a story you’ve already written in your head? A problem I have is that I’ll have everything down exactly as I want it, mentally, but it bogs me down as I type it out because it feels re-treaded. How would you deal with this?
I get this sometimes, yes. There are tricks you can pull on yourself to stop it happening, depending on how you write. For example, one of my favorite areas is dialogue, so I’ll often forbid myself from writing any dialogue at all until I’m actually at the script stage. It keeps me wanting to get to the script, wanting to bash through it so I can get to the dialogue. Sounds corny, but it works.
You should also be absolutely sure that this is the story you want to write. Sometimes, I’ve had this problem because I just don’t find a scene that interesting, so it isn’t very interesting for me to write. And if you ever suspect that’s why you’re feeling stifled, stop and fix it immediately. Don’t find your own story very interesting? Then why on earth would anyone else? Look at it again, find a more interesting way of doing the scene, and write that instead.
Occasionally, though, there’s nothing wrong per se, you’re just exhausted by this particular story. But when you have a deadline to meet, that’s not much of an excuse. In these cases, and this ties in with the previous question, you just have to suck it up and battle through. Get back to that keyboard. Hit those keys, one after the other, and by such artifice a line is written. Now do it again.
Writing is work, and hard work at that. I always know when I’ve had a really productive day because even though I’ve barely moved from my desk, I’m knackered by the evening.
How has your previous magazine design experience helped you?
It’s allowed me to design all my own creator-owned books, which is nice! But mainly, working in periodical publishing gave me a healthy respect for deadlines. I spent five years working for a national UK publisher, producing 13 issues a year, with over 100 pages of editorial content in each one. I never had more than two designers working for me, and the standard deadline was just 19 days from blank page to finished, print-ready magazine. Then, after day 19 was done, we had to do it all over again, and again and again.
Under those circumstances, being late simply isn’t an option. Quite apart from the knock-on effect it would have on the staff’s schedules, there are several enormous, outrageously expensive machines waiting to print that magazine. One of those machines standing idle for a day costs tens of thousands of pounds in lost print time, so the magazine absolutely has to be there on deadline – and obviously, you can’t send blank pages. So the work just has to be done. No excuses.
Being a graphic designer helps me think visually, which is an advantage in comics, but that’s not specific to magazine work. The main thing I took from it was punctuality, and I’m pleased to say that since I started writing comics I’ve only ever missed one deadline – and that was because I bought a house and had to take two months off work just to make it habitable!
Look for Antony’s new miniseries, Queen & Country: Declassified Vol. 3, when it debuts May 11. In the meantime you can visit his Web site at www.mostlyblack.com.
—Interview by the Comic Foundry readers