Johnston Explores the Darkness with "Umbral"

Wed, October 2nd, 2013 at 7:58am PDT

Comic Books
Casey Gilly, Staff Writer

Antony Johnston and Christopher Mitten created an elaborate, engaging world with their 30-issue run on "Wasteland" and now the dynamic pair has met again to create "Umbral," a mysterious, magical series from Image Comics on November 13.

Described as dark fantasy, "Umbral" follows Rascal, a street-smart thief raised by smugglers, who has her jewel heist interrupted when she witnesses the murder of the king and queen. The royal deaths are just the beginning of the chaos Rascal will face as her world undergoes an invasion of shadow creatures -- the Umbral -- who are determined to take over. With art by Mitten and a rich gossamer-and-nightshade colour pallet by John Rauch, "Umbral" will unveil ancient legends, mythology and more.

Although there hasn't been much revealed about "Umbral," CBR News spoke with series writer Antony Johnston to discover more about the mysterious world of thieves and monsters.

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CBR News: Antony, details are sparse so far about the specifics of "Umbral" What sort of a story is it and who are the key players?

Antony Johnston: "Umbral" is a new dark fantasy series from Chris Mitten, my "Wasteland" co-creator, and myself. It's the story of Rascal, a young thief who breaks into the royal palace to steal a precious jewel but ends up witnessing the horrific murder of the king and queen in a dark magic ritual!

Rascal has stumbled upon a stealth invasion by the Umbral, shadow creatures that everyone thought were just a legend. But the Umbral are very real, very dangerous and now Rascal holds the key to stopping them.

EXCLUSIVE: A first look at one of Christopher Mitten's panels for "Umbral."

Beyond Rascal, who else plays a major role in the series?

Our two main characters are Rascal and Dalone. Rascal is a young orphan, and one of the best thieves in the city. She was raised by smugglers and mentored by the head of the Thieves' Guild. She's independent, strong-willed, streetwise, and takes absolutely no shit from anyone. She also has a wicked streak of sarcastic humour, which she'll need to get through the events that are about to unfold.

Dalone is pretty much Rascal's opposite. Not only is he an adult, well spoken, educated and generally law abiding, he's also destitute, living in the gutter. How on earth could someone like that be involved in all this? We don't know. But Rascal quickly figures out there's more to Dalone than meets the eye, and no doubt readers will, too. Our hirsute hobo is a mysterious one.

What is the world of "Umbral" like and how does it differ from other fantasy worlds?

"Umbral" is set in the Kingdom of Fendin, a dark fantasyland where terrible things with sharp teeth lurk in the shadows, and anyone with a lick of sense stays well away from the forest at night. Not that the cities are much better, what with all the thieves, smugglers, and assassins roaming about.

One thing makes Fendin unusual for a fantasy world; magic and religion are both outlawed. Centuries ago, the Fendish turned to science and education instead, led by their wise men, whom they call Profoss. It heralded an age of reason and learning… which is all very well, until you find yourself invaded by shadow creatures!

Why did they turn their back on magic and gods? It might have something to do with an eclipse that takes place every 500 years.

You've posted a tagline on Tumblr for the series: "The eclipse approaches..." and the word umbral refers to the darkest part of a shadow -- a definite theme. How dark is this story going to be? What is the major threat?

It's pretty dark. Paranoid, even. The major threat is the Umbral themselves -- shadow creatures, determined to take the world of humans for themselves. How? Why? You'll have to read it to find out.

You and Chris did an amazing job with building a full world in "Wasteland." How did that experience carry over to "Umbral?"

World building has kind of become my speciality. It's one of the things videogame developers often hire me to do, for example. Why fight it?

"Umbral" definitely has a broader appeal than "Wasteland." There's humour, and characters like Rascal and Dalone are quite likeable. Anyone who reads "Wasteland" already knows those aspects alone make it quite different! But I'm confident "Wasteland" readers will enjoy "Umbral," too. It's still me and Chris making this, and no matter what we do our voices are going to show through in the work.

So, yes; I know a lot of "Wasteland" readers are big fans of all the detailed world building that goes into it, and "Umbral" doesn't disappoint on that score at all. The first issue has a map, for crying out loud.

(I confess; I did that partly to needle Warren Ellis because I know he hates maps in stories. I love them, though!)


"Umbral" features the same level of world building inherent in "Wasteland."

Is the map a good indicator that you intend the series to be a large, sprawling story?

When I got the sudden urge to work with Chris again last year, and make something new, we threw around a bunch of genre ideas, and quickly settled on a dark fantasy, because it gave us the scope to let loose our ideas.

What we've created is basically a big mash-up of our twin obsessions -- I love building huge, elaborate fantasy worlds, and Chris loves drawing weird, grotesque things that lurk in the shadows. That's "Umbral" in a nutshell.

Why was this the right time to launch this story?

It felt like it was time for Chris and I to create something new. We share a lot of opinions about comics, in terms of both craft and content. That's why we worked so well together on "Wasteland," and even after Chris left we stayed great friends.

Last year, I had a sudden urge to work with Chris again. Luckily, it turned out the urge was mutual, and that's when we started throwing around the ideas for what would become "Umbral." We've been working on it for about a year, now.

How did you come to work with colorist John Rauch and letterer Thomas Mauer?

Chris and I are both fans of John Rauch's work, and we'd come to know him through mutual friends. So we schmoozed him a little, and offered him a degree of freedom that colorists don't always get. When you see the results, you'll understand that it was obviously the right choice. His palette for "Umbral" looks like nothing else being published today, it's amazing.

Thomas Mauer has lettered some of Chris' work before, and their styles mesh together incredibly well. It's kind of how you imagine Chris' own lettering would look, if he could do it himself -- it's uncanny, really, and looks seamless.

The series has a hard start date, but how far ahead are you looking? Is there a set number of issues you have planned out?

We don't know exactly; this story and world have a lot of potential, so it all depends on how much support we get from readers. If enough people decide to join us on this weird, epic journey, then we could conceivably run for at least 40 issues, maybe even more. That would be pretty epic.

"Umbral" #1 releases November 13 from Image Comics.

TAGS:  image comics, antony johnston, christopher mitten, umbral, wasteland

 
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