Antony Johnston talks "Dead Space," "Wasteland"

Mon, February 4th, 2008 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Alex Dueben, Staff Writer

"Dead Space" #1 on sale in March
Antony Johnston is best known to CBR readers for his acclaimed work on Oni Press' "Wasteland," as well as for the numerous graphic novels and miniseries he's written including "Julius," "Three Days In Europe" and adaptations of Anthony Horowitz's Alex Rider novels "Stormbreaker" and "Point Blanc." Additionally, Johnston's co-written (with Dan Evans) the all ages Western/Fantasy title "Texas Strangers" for Image Comics, and is the only other writer besides creator Greg Rucka to have scribed a "Queen & Country" story.

If you're expecting him to be a member of the band Antony and the Johnsons, however, you are reading the wrong interview.

Johnston's newest project is the upcoming Image miniseries "Dead Space," based on the forthcoming Electronic Arts video game and illustrated by "Wasteland" cover artist and "30 Days of Night" co-creator Ben Templesmith. The writer was kind enough to take some time to talk with CBR News about the miniseries and his many other projects.

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"Dead Space" finds you, Ben Templesmith, EA Games and Image Comics all working together. How did this project begin? It seems to have come out of nowhere.

It came out of nowhere for me, too! The short of it is that I was recommended for the job by Warren Ellis, whose media agent then contacted me and asked if I'd like to do it -- to which I, being a freelancer and therefore congenitally incapable of turning down work, said yes. EA looked at some of my work, and then we had a few conversations about the direction they wanted to pursue with the book, which to my delight was pretty much how I wanted to do it anyway. Before I knew it I had a contract in my hands. It's all been a bit of a whirlwind, to be honest.

"Dead Space" #2
How much can you say about "Dead Space" besides the fact it's a prequel to the upcoming EA science fiction/horror game?

Not a great deal, unfortunately, because I'm under [a non-disclosure agreement]. What I can say is that it looks fantastic; the demos I've seen are very creepy, and the book itself is a good fit for both Ben and I. "Intelligent horror" is how we've been labeling it from the off, and hopefully we can live up to that.

Do you get to play the game before the rest of us?

No, but I do get sneak previews at the gameplay, monster designs, and so on. Which is nice.

How did you end up grabbing Ben Templesmith?

That was mainly down to me. EA had a style in mind for the book, and it was clear to me that they were after someone like Ben. I don't think they knew at that point that Ben and I were acquainted - not just from his "Wasteland" covers, we did an experimental webcomic together back in 2000 - so I suggested we contact him about doing the book (and I talked it up to him a little on the side). Luckily, he said yes. So then we put the preview issue together for [Comic-Con International], which went really well. Everybody's delighted to have him on board. His art is instantly recognizable, and he brings a sizeable audience with him, which is great.

To switch gears a little, you have two ongoing series right now, "Wasteland" and "Texas Strangers," both in some ways about the west and the landscape of it. Are you a fan of westerns?

I've always loved western stories, yes, but the weird thing is that until a few years ago it had never occurred to me to write one. I've always said I'll write anything so long as I have a good idea for a story, but there are still certain genres where I hesitate just because I'm not sure it's up my alley. In other words, I may be willing, but would I be any good? Comedy, for example, was something I never even considered, until a friend told me he thought I could probably do it well. The result of that was "Three Days in Europe" and "F-Stop."

Much the same thing happened with Westerns - I was chatting to James Lucas Jones at Oni one day, and out of the blue he asked if I'd considered writing a Western. I said no, for the reasons above - I liked them, but didn't think I had one in me. He said, "I bet you do", and two weeks later I was sending him the pitch for "The Long Haul," which I subsequently really enjoyed writing. The Old West is a fascinating period, and produces stories with a very distinctive flavor.

I should point out, however, that the original idea for "Texas Strangers" was all Dan Evans, my co-writer. "Wasteland," though? Guilty as hell.

"Wasteland" volume 2 on sale now
Speaking of "Wasteland," the second trade paperback is just out. For those of us who are trade readers, what can we look forward to in this volume?

Ooh, lots. The Providence survivors are trying to deal with their enslavement in the city, the city council is in the grip of a power struggle, a religious war is brewing, and as if all that wasn't enough there's an army of Sand-eaters marching to besiege the city.

All your favorite characters are back - including Michael, and the answer to where he disappeared to at the end of Book 1 - and we let slip a few answers to some of the series' biggest mysteries. And there's the usual cocktail of betrayal, death, lies, escape, more betrayal, more lies, and new secrets.

Basically, it's like Book 1, but more so.

"Texas Strangers" has been beset by some delays. What's the status of the title, presently?

Well, the first thing I must do is apologize for those delays. The future of "Texas Strangers" is in a state of flux at the moment, sadly. We're not giving up - everyone who's read the book loves it, especially kids. We know there's an audience out there. We just have to find it, and decide on the best way to get the story into their hands. So we're working on that, and we'll make an announcement when we know anything more concrete.

The book came about as a result of two ideologies, basically - Dan has spent most of his career working in kids' television, so he's always brimming with ideas for all-ages stories. And I'd just finished work on the first Alex Rider graphic novel, which served to remind me how much I enjoy writing for kids. So when Dan mentioned the initial idea that became "Texas Strangers," I leapt on it.

"Texas Strangers" #1
The great thing about writing for kids is that they have no cynicism - you can give them the most outrageous, fantastical story, mixing humor and drama, and they don't care, so long as it's good. Which is the other thing that I love about an audience of kids - they have no agenda, so their feedback is brutally honest. If they don't like something, they'll tell you without hesitation. By the same token, if they like it then you know it's a genuine enjoyment, unfettered by preconception or ulterior motive. That's priceless.

You used to be a graphic designer. How has that background affected the way you think about a comics page, because you're not looking at it like an artist might, but I'm wondering if you think about the page in a way that others don't, necessarily?

I don't know, because I don't know how other people think about it! But I guess it must have some influence. I'm very aware of how panels can be used to effect - the shape, the amount on a page, the contrasts between dark and light - and of composition, both for panels and the page as a whole. I don't do thumbnail layouts, but I do imagine how a page will look in my head as I'm writing it. And I've been known to do a quick thumbnail if an artist isn't quite getting across what I feel the image needs.

Of course, I have to be careful to rein that in, and not railroad the artist. But I don't think I've made any mortal enemies or caused any embolisms yet, so I must be doing okay.

You wrote graphic novels and miniseries for so long, and now you're working on two ongoing series. Is it a different process writing a long form book or is it just more pages between the beginning and the end?

"Wasteland" volume 1 on sale now
No, it's very different. And I knew it would be different going in, but it still surprises me just *how* different it is, even now. They're really completely different disciplines, like the difference between writing short stories and novels. Ask any prose author and they'll tell you that being good at one doesn't necessarily make you good at the other, and I think it's very much like that with graphic novels and serial comics.

For one thing, in a graphic novel there are no true cliffhangers. Sure, you can have a chapter break or whatever, but the reader can just turn the page. Whereas a good serial needs a good ending to each piece, something that compels the reader to want more, and will stick in their brain enough that they'll pick up the next issue when they see it on the shelves.

There are also huge differences in pacing, and structure. "Wasteland" isn't as thoroughly plotted out in advance as one of my graphic novels would be, because it doesn't need to be - I have the room to breathe and evolve the story from issue to issue if I want to. On the other hand, it needs more planning and back-story than a graphic novel for exactly the same reason - because I can never be 100% sure about what will happen in the future, I need to know much more about the world, the characters and so on in order to maintain consistency over a longer period of story time.

Of course, that's just me. Other writers may not get so hung up on that stuff, I don't know. But for me, the two types of story exercise completely different writing muscles.

And in the midst of all this comics work, you're writing a novel. Your debut, "Frightening Curves," won the 2002 American Independent Publishing Award for Best Horror. What's the difference in how you approach writing prose versus comics and what compelled you to tell that story in prose?

"Frightening Curves"
I like to work to a medium's strengths, and "Frightening Curves" simply couldn't be done as a comic, at least not in the way I wanted to. It featured shifts in tense, from first-person to third-person and present to past, and even style and format - from hard-boiled quasi-noir, to Victorian purple prose, to hallucinations and dream sequences, to screenplay format. The effect was (hopefully!) unsettling, and couldn't have been achieved as easily, or effectively, in comics. Of course, there were still moments where a picture told a thousand words, which is why it featured Aman Chaudhary's beautiful plate illustrations throughout, to complement the text. But as an actual comic, it just wouldn't have been the same.

As for how I approach prose, well, despite "Frightening Curves" and this year's "Stealing Life," I'm still very much a novice at this novel-writing lark, so the short answer is "with trepidation." The sheer amount of notes and plotting I've done for "Blackguard," the young adult novel I'm currently writing, puts anything short of an ongoing series like "Wasteland" to shame. I know some novelists write with very little plot to guide them, but I just can't work like that. I've tried in the past, and it all goes horribly wrong.

So it's kind of overwhelming, and quite scary, because it's just me - no artwork to hide behind, no way to visually distract the reader for a few pages. It's all just words, naked and blinking in the cold light of day. But it's also exhilarating, and hopefully worth it in the end.

You talked about the differences between graphic novels and ongoing series and compared them to the differences between short stories and novels. Every writer has one form they prefer, which tends to be the one they think they're best at, so what about you - graphic novels or ongoings?

I'm honestly not sure. I think you'll have to wait till "Wasteland" is finished before I can decide whether I think I'm "better" at ongoings than graphic novels. I get more ideas for GNs or limited series than ongoings, but is that because I prefer them? Or is it just because the sort of ideas I have lend themselves to that format?

"Stealing Life"
For prose, I definitely prefer writing novels over short stories. But for comics, I really can't say. It's not something I think about much - I just go wherever the idea takes me.

Has adapting the Alex Rider books piqued your interest about serializing a long form story as a series of graphic novels as opposed to in singles?

That's actually something I've wanted to do for years, since I first got serious about writing comics. It's a format that makes a lot of sense to me; giving a good length of story in each installment, but also letting you use all the unique advantages of the serial format.

The problem has always been a business one, not creative. In the short term, a series of original graphic novels is much more expensive to produce than an ongoing series, even more so if the publisher is paying a working page rate. And it's always hard to maintain an audience's interest during the long periods between installments. That's why most "GN series" that you see are either from indie publishers, or using already-established properties - like manga tankubon, or the Alex Rider adaptations - to ensure that the financial risk isn't too great.

Creatively, I think they're a fantastic idea. I'd love to do more. But the opportunities are limited because of the financial risk.

You're a fairly high profile creator despite never having any work published in "mainstream comics." No Marvel, no DC, no superheroes.

I just didn't grow up with superheroes, like so many other comics writers did, and don't have any nostalgic affection for them. I grew up with British and European adventure comics, so naturally that's what I most strongly associate the form with. "Wasteland" is the ultimate expression of that, I think.

I have nothing against the superhero genre, it's just not something I think about much. I have pitched a couple of mainstream books in the past, because the editors invited me to. I'd happily write one if I was asked. But I don't get asked very often.

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