Tuesday, August 17, 2010

From the Archives: an interview with Antony Johnston

Before I landed the gig writing for the Pulse, I found - through Warren Ellis's late, lamented ENGINE - an upstart web presence dedicated to independent comics, called Independent Propaganda. I cut my teeth there, writing reviews of some of my favorite comics while also getting the opportunity to interview some great - and, at the time, little-known - creators. One of those was Antony Johnston, currently co-writing Daredevil as Matt Murdock goes through his first "event."

He was more than gracious, and far more patient, with me. Having started in journalism himself, Johnston kindly answered all of my questions (nearly twenty) and included a short note regarding the fact that, if one does an interview via email then the respondent must type out all their answers. It seems obvious, but was not from my writing desk here in Maine. I will be eternally grateful to Mr. Johnston for his kindness in imparting this lesson while also slogging through my many questions.

This would have run at some point in late 2006/early 2007. Please consider it in that context, and enjoy.


Antony Johnston has quietly made his mark in the comic industry as a writer who will provide intelligent and entertaining tales from companies such as Oni Press and Avatar Press. Refusing to be pigeon-holed, he has developed graphic novels in the western, horror, and international espionage genres – among others – with artists as varied as Eduardo Barreto and Brett Weldele. His latest creation with artist Christopher Mitten from Oni Press, WASTELAND, is a dystopian future epic that is also his first ongoing series. Like THE SANDMAN, TRANSMETROPOLITAN, and PREACHER before it, WASTELAND will have a definite ending, and judging by the first issue it will be a compelling journey for those lucky enough to seek it out. Mr. Johnston was kind enough to answer some questions via email for Independent Propaganda upon returning home to England from the San Diego Comic-Con and I want to thank him for his thoughtful responses and generous assistance with the following interview. I hope you enjoy.

- Can you tell us briefly how you broke into comics?

The short version is that I created an online serial, an illustrated prose story called FRIGHTENING CURVES with artist Aman Chauhary, that got picked up to be completed as a book by a small indie publisher. I then did a graphic novel, ROSEMARY'S BACKPACK, with the same publisher and shortly afterward was introduced to the guys at Oni Press.

- What do you feel is the most important factor from your personal history (education, family) that has allowed you to be successful in the comic industry?

I'm from a very normal working-class background, with an average education. I've seen the reality of working 'a real job', both in my family and my own early working life, and know that the only thing separating me from plenty of other people who grew up in the same situation is tenacity.

The fact that I get paid to sit at home and make up stories is still kind of amazing to me, and I know how fortunate I am to be doing it. That's what gives me that tenacity, it really is that simple.

- Many creators, especially when starting out, hold down a day job while creating their comics. What jobs, if any, did you have and did they provide anything for you with regards to your writing?

I was a graphic designer for many years, and spent the last four years of that period writing in my spare time - role playing game stuff to start with, then moving into comics. Being a designer gives me a certain visual literacy which is helpful for doing comics; and having worked in consumer newsstand magazines, an industry in which missing deadlines is simply not an option, gave me a respect for working to deadline that's also helpful.

- When they are first trying to break into comics, many writers have difficulty finding artists able to realize their story samples. What can they do to overcome this?

Keep trying, and realise that you're not going to get Jim Lee right out of the gate. There's not a lot else I can say that would be helpful. Yes, many aspiring artists will flake and let you down. But just as many aspiring writers flake and let artists down. You just have to keep going, keep looking for someone to work with. The day you give up and say it's not worth the hassle is the day you've proved yourself right. Just keep going.

- What do you feel aspiring creators can do in order to better their chances of becoming published?

Create good stories. Finish them (that's much more important, and rarer, than you might think). Get them published by any means necessary, including self-publishing, and don't expect to get paid for it. In fact, expect to lose money on it. Then use that finished comic as your calling card with other publishers.

That path used to be rarer, but now it's pretty much the de facto route into comics, and I think it works very well. Think of it like a band producing a demo tape, or performing small-time gigs. Being good is not good enough if no-one sees you in action. You have to prove to publishers that you're committed to comics, and there's no better way to do that than to do your first few stories for no money and possibly no gain.

- What creators, possibly more obscure ones and not necessarily within comics, would you recommend aspiring writers read and study?

I'm not going to name names. I could reel off five writers or movie directors whose work I regard as essential that would be useless to half of your audience. It's pointless. The important thing is to seek people out, and don't rely on the mainstream (in any media) to feed you the good stuff. You have to go out and find it for yourself.

Find people who produce the kind of stories you want to tell, or write about things you find interesting; and, from time to time, seek out the complete opposite. Sometimes it's very useful to read a book or watch a movie that you absolutely hate. Examine why you can't stand it. Work out what's wrong with it. These things will help you.

- Marvel and DC seem to be pushing sales through a series of crossover “events” and relaunches meant to feed off that hive mentality of needing the next new thing. Admittedly, they have to answer to shareholders, but what could they be doing differently in order to promote sales?

Honestly, I don't know. Within the direct market, there isn't much else the majors *could* be doing to push sales - it's what they do, month in, month out. And outside of the direct market, well, if anyone actually knew the catch-all answer to that one, they'd be sitting on a goldmine.

- This apparent need to utilize gimmicks in order to artificially inflate sales in the short-term almost begs the question, what is missing from mainstream comics today that has caused this sales drop- off? In your opinion, what do you feel is lacking in today’s mainstream comics?

Diversity. But was it homogeneity that killed direct market sales, or was it the direct market itself? We'll never know, because the audience doesn’t embrace diversity. Chicken, meet egg.

I don't work in mainstream comics, at least in the way comics defines the term, so I can't really speak to what is or isn't wrong with them. 90% of the comics mainstream is of very little interest to me. (And the other 10% is mostly Vertigo books.)

- For you, what are the advantages of working with Oni or Avatar rather than Marvel and DC?

Control and freedom. They're pretty much inversely proportionate to money and fame, of course, but I can live with that.

- Do you feel the recent push toward graphic novels – both collections and original works – and bookstore distribution has been good for the industry? Why, or why not?

Of course. I was one of the people pushing hardest for OGNs for many years. I would love to see an industry that is entirely OGN-based, and I think we'll get there eventually. But there are financial hurdles to overcome, not to mention problems of perception with the hardcore comic audience, before we can get there.

The OGN boom has both hurt and helped the industry (note: the industry, not the medium. They've done nothing but help the medium). It's undoubtedly one of the things that has helped the medium's perception among non-hardcore readers, who simply can't understand why anyone would read these weird, anemically thin chapters one at a time and have to go buy a new one every month.

On the other hand, the aforementioned financial hurdles have bitten at all publishers, large and small, because the OGN market and its sales patterns are completely different to that of serial comics. It's a testing time for everyone.

- From your position as an independent creator, what are some things you would like to see change with the current distribution system?

Almost everything. The direct market is completely fucked up, on every level. That it works very well for some publishers and retailers doesn't mean it's not, it just means those companies have worked the existing system to their advantage and done it well. There's nothing wrong with that. But if the direct market remains the primary means of distributing comics, it's going to implode within ten or twenty years.

Of course, by then I should be sipping cocktails on a Pacific island somewhere, so I don't really care.

- Your books have cut across a number of genres – from western to science fiction to horror. Was this a conscious decision on your part or did it just happen that way?

A bit of both. It's conscious in the sense that of course I'm aware of it, and every time I pitch a book I'm making a decision to work in whatever genre that book happens to be. But I don't deliberately set out to hop between genres, I just come up with story ideas and pitch them.

I don't care about genre, I don't care about classifications or pigeonholes or any of that rubbish. I just want to write good stories, and if I have a good idea for a story I'll do it, regardless of what genre label someone else wants to slap on it. A good story is a good story. If I ever stop myself writing something good just because it's the 'wrong' genre for me - or deliberately write something bad just because it will sell - then I may as well turn off the computer and go stack shelves in the local supermarket, because it wouldn't be fun any more.

- Did you find yourself writing any differently for a veteran such as Eduardo Barreto as compared to a relative newcomer such as Christopher Mitten?

If you looked at the scripts, you'd think not; but the mental process is very different, because with a master like Eduardo you know you're writing for someone who is a great storyteller, someone who can draw anything you want and make it look good. With someone less experienced, you find yourself pausing every so often to make sure that you're being clear in the script, check you're not taking too many shortcuts that they might not know how to deal with. But like I say, if you actually looked at the scripts you'd see there's very little different in style between them. It’s all just a mental process.

And of course, with Chris Mitten specifically it turns out he's *already* a storytelling wiz, with a clarity far beyond his years. So I lucked out there.

- Part of the writing process is the developmental stage – either hard research as with THE LONG HAUL or the development of characters, locales, plotlines, etc. as with WASTELAND. On average what percentage is given over to the developmental process?

Actually, you might be surprised just how much 'hard research' goes into WASTELAND as well... The amount of time devoted to it differs from book to book. SPOOKED didn't require much, because so much of the story grew out of my own knowledge and musings about magic and spirituality anyway. JULIUS took months, longer than the actual scripting, because I had to not only 'translate' the play to the modern age, but also then come up with situations in the new setting that would parallel the play without being slavish to it.

THE LONG HAUL also took months - an enormous amount of research into Old West methods of transport and communication. Not to mention Indian history, safe cracking, styles of wardrobe, suitable locations and so on. But that also took months to write, so it's about fifty- fifty.

And WASTELAND is ongoing; I'm still researching it as I write, because there's always something new to research in a world so changed from our own. The research and planning of WASTELAND takes far longer than the actual scripting.

- Along those same lines, during this development process do you ever feel like you are not getting enough actual writing done and how do you reconcile yourself to that?

Always, without exception. But then when I'm writing, I always wish I’d done that little bit of extra research. It's the bane of just about every writer I know. You want to arm yourself with as much information as possible, but eventually you have to say "enough" and get writing. It's way too easy to convince yourself you need to read *just* one more book and *then* you'll be ready, honest...

- Your new series WASTELAND is your first ongoing series. What has been the biggest challenge with this thus far?

Plotting. My stories are normally self-contained, generally the equivalent of about a six-issue miniseries. So planning the story beats of something so large in scope and long in format is a very new and strange experience for me. But it keeps me on my toes, and I like it. Challenges like that stop me from getting stale.

- With WASTELAND, is it a concern of yours to make each issue accessible to new readers? And if so, how will you achieve this?

To an extent. Each issue has a "story so far" recap on the inside front page, and I think that suffices. I assume my readers are intelligent. I'm certainly not going to start introducing each character with "Hello, Bob, my old friend of twenty years whose wife left him to raise their only son by himself and suffers from gout! How are you today?"

- Finally, what would you like to say about your upcoming project WASTELAND?

I'd like to say it's the best and most personal thing I've ever written, that Chris Mitten is producing the best work of his career, that Ben Templesmith is doing an awesome job on the covers, and that every single person reading this should go out and buy it right now so that I can go buy that Pacific island. And a cocktail.


Antony Johnston

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