Antony Johnston recently shared a couple enlightening posts about his experience writing ongoing series for Image Comics over the past couple of years. Familiar with his work in a variety of mediums, from comics to video games to his wonderful podcast Unjustly Maligned, I was curious about what keeps bringing him back to the medium that this site covers, along with how concerned he is with appealing to the masses with his work. We also discussed his newest series with Image, Codename Babushka, illustrated by Shari Chankhamma. Read his answers to questions about those subjects and more below.
You write in a number of mediums. Despite the industry’s unpredictability, what keeps bringing you back to comics?
That unpredictability is actually a large part of the appeal; who could have predicted manga would go through such a massive boom and bust in the mid-2000s? Who could have foreseen Image finally tip over 10% market share, thanks in large part to a zombie comic, of all things? Who could have predicted Raina Telgemeier would become the most popular graphic novelist in America, selling to millions of people who wouldn’t touch what we laughingly call “mainstream comics” with a ten-foot pole?
You can’t pin comics down, and that’s enormously exciting.
(To be fair, videogames is fairly unpredictable too, and again, that’s one of the things I love about it. To work in any medium that you can’t predict more than a few months out is exhilarating.)
A police procedural, even one set on a space station, might have been a hard sell to the typical comics fan. Do you agree with that, and did it cause any hesitation to pitch/publish The Fuse?
I do agree, but I figure that’s their problem, not mine.
It’s true I hesitated to pitch THE FUSE for a while, because I feared nobody else would want to read “cops in space” that didn’t also feature laser guns, aliens, starship battles — all things THE FUSE does not, and never will, do.
But *I* wanted to read this story, and nobody else was writing it. And over the years, the books that come about like that often turn out to be my best and most popular work. So the idea was never going to stay locked away forever.
And, of course, what irony; by the time I finally got round to doing it, “cops in space” had become a full-on genre that it seems everyone is now having a go at.
In the meantime, police procedurals are very popular on television. Did you consider opportunities in other media when coming up with The Fuse?
First truth: of course I had the notion that we might be able to sell the TV rights in the back of my mind.
Second truth: that has never once influenced how we make the comic. Klem alone should be proof of that.
And we have had TV interest in THE FUSE, though nothing’s yet come of it. Partly because, as I mentioned above, everyone and their aunt is apparently doing “cops in space” now. Chris Boucher must be kicking himself.
Fantasy seems, at least on a surface level, like a less risky genre than police procedurals in comics. Why do you think The Fuse survived when Umbral didn’t?
I have no idea, because you’re absolutely right — fantasy is a much more popular comics genre than sci-fi, as a rule.
That said, UMBRAL was hardly a typical fantasy, and we asked a considerable amount from our readers in terms of close reading, figuring out motives, the blurred line between reality and the Umbral, and so on. Maybe it was too much.
Do you think it’s harder to sustain a series now than when Wasteland launched?
If you think WASTELAND was easy to sustain, I’ve got a bridge to sell you…!
I don’t think it ever gets harder or easier, it’s just a matter of will. Many creators, and especially many publishers, simply don’t have the desire or will to see a long series like that through.
What are you doing differently with Codename: Baboushka?
Well, for one thing we’re publishing in self-contained miniseries, rather than a long ongoing. The first five issues are Baboushka’s first ‘mission’, then some time in 2016 we’ll do her second mission, and so on. And while of course they’re linked, they’ll stand alone as stories. It’ll be like getting a new spy movie every year.
In terms of the story, this is the first time I’ve really done a modern pulp book, which is exciting. It’s more freewheeling, and much faster-moving, than many of my other books.
Finally, there’s Shari Chankhamma’s art, which makes CODENAME BABOUSHKA look unlike anything else I’ve ever done, and naturally has an influence on how I write the story.
What are the risks and benefits of Image as the publisher for it?
The same as for any book with Image; if it succeeds, we “win” bigger than we would with just about any other publisher. But if it flops, there’s no publisher safety net to break its fall and save it.
Or if, as happens with most Image books, it’s neither a hit nor a flop, then our gains will be equally modest.
But that ignores the biggest benefit, which is being able to make the book we want to make, exactly as we want to make it, with the support and visibility of a major publisher. That’s enormously valuable.
Your three Image comics have been in three different genres. Do you think that expands your reach or inhibits your readers from following you from project to project?
Oh, I’m sure it inhibits. I’ve been doing that my entire career; my first novel was horror, and won an award — so naturally I followed it up with a YA adventure and a rom-com.
I’ve done comedies, tragedies, Westerns, horror, fantasy, sci-fi, espionage, murder mystery, crime thrillers… and yes, even a bit of superheroes. If I had any sense, I’d have found one genre and stuck to it to develop my braaaaaand. But I’d have also bored myself to death years ago.
One thing that is a pattern is strong female leads (or co-leads). Was that intentional or a happy accident?
Absolutely intentional, because it’s 2015 and people are still asking me that question.
You admit that all your stories don’t necessarily have mass market appeal. Do you worry that publishers and/or readers be less receptive to your work because of that?
That depends what you mean by worry. Would I like more people to buy and read my books? Sure, of course I would.
But I’m not going to change how I write stories, or write stories I’m not really interested in, to do that. What would be the point?