Daniel Warren Johnson is both writer and artist on recent Image Comics books including the Eisner-nominated Extremity series and the current Murder Falcon series. We caught up with him at C2E2 ’19 in Chicago and talked about what inspires his comics, his craft, and his evolution as a writer and artist.
Hussein Wasiti: You’ve made it known that Extremity was inspired by your insecurities about your career, what inspired Murder Falcon?
Daniel Warren Johnson: My love for heavy metal. I really tried to have more fun with Murder Falcon and not take myself as seriously. Murder Falcon was me trying to do that and it still ended up quite emotionally heavy. I play guitar, and I tried to channel the way that I feel about playing guitar through the comic pages…
Wasiti: Which is hard to do because you can’t achieve music on a page…
Johnson: That’s true. There’s energy that you lose when you move something from real life to a two-dimensional page. There are ways that I try to energize my lines. I had a baby in February of last year, so I had to go quicker on my pages which is interesting because my lines are faster. I’m not thinking as much about the lines I’m putting on paper, it’s a lot more unintentional, like playing guitar. There’s more movement and speed.
Wasiti: You’re credited as a letterer on the book, how did that work out?
Johnson: When I started Murder Falcon, I told my editors that I really wanted to do hand-lettering for the book. So the first two and a half issues of the book I hand-lettered right on the board, traditionally. I drew my own word balloons and they were sent over. They really liked the way it looked but it just didn’t look consistent enough. It is really an art form, especially when you do it by hand. It’s something that I want to do again but I just need to get better at it first. Skybound said that we should do regular lettering. To Rus Wooton’s credit, the official letterer of the book, he designed new word balloons, digitally, that look like mine. And he designed a font that was as close to my font as possible, so thanks Rus!
Wasiti: Any interest in telling another person’s story, to draw someone else’s comic?
Johnson: To be completely honest, I don’t see myself drawing for a writer any time soon. I think maybe if I got a little older and I was able to retire, for lack of a better word. But that’s a long ways down the road. I really love writing and drawing my own things. People know me as a writer/artist and I don’t want to backpedal. I like working with writers but I don’t love it as much as working on my own scripts.
Wasiti: The stories you’ve written and drawn have been so personal and drawn from within yourself, are you eventually going to run out of things that you deeply care about to draw?
Johnson: Oh yeah, I’m sure that’s going to happen. It’s already kind of happened. With Murder Falcon and Extremity, which were really deep parts of myself that I’m putting onto the page. I have these ideas in my head, but you’re right. I don’t feel as excited as I did about those projects. There isn’t this crazy need to put story down on paper, and I want to be careful with the project that I pick next because it’s going to be a very different kind of project.
You’re not getting the same flavour as what you see on my pages right now because I’m a different person. I did have something to say with Extremity and Murder Falcon and I’m not sure what I want to say right now. I think a lot of it is time. As my life experiences continue I’m going to have more. You’re right, I do feel like the tank is a little low right now as far as that inspiration for my own self, but I have a kid. I’m experiencing new things every day. I’m experiencing new revelations every day. I’m not worried about it, is that I’m trying to say. It’s a give and take.
One thing I can promise is if I’m not feeling something, I won’t do it. I’ve come too far to burn myself out on something I’m not excited about. Whatever the project is that I’ll do next, it’ll be the right thing with the right feel. It may be different in tone and flavour but it’ll still be me. I do love drawing so many different things and my love is expanding. I used to hate drawing cars, now I love drawing them. I used to hate drawing backgrounds when I first started Space Mullet but now I love doing them. It’s one of my goals to instill as much creativity and personality into the backgrounds as much as I do into characters, and have them play an actual role in the story. It makes the experience so much fun for me. I have this spirit that I want to get out on the page, and whatever that may be, I think my love of drawing is what’s going to keep me going, not necessarily the content.
Wasiti: You have a very different style that’s unlike anything the Big Two is putting out. Was this natural or did you intentionally deviate from the formula?
Johnson: A big part of it for me was when I was drawing The Ghost Fleet with Donny Cates. It was a big deal for me to get at the time and I really wanted to do well. I was finding that I was really killing myself over these pages. I had to do a page a day, five days a week in order to make my deadlines. I could see what it was beginning to do to me, to my spirit and my body. I said if I wanted to do this long-term, I need to cater my art style to be able to produce pages at a rapid and stress-free rate. If a page takes me longer than eight hours now I consider that to be more or less a failure. I can’t afford to be sitting at a table for that long. I have a life, comics aren’t just sitting down and drawing. It’s writing, it’s emailing, it’s connecting with other artists, it’s getting inspiration, it’s taking time to recoup, it’s physical therapy sometimes. There’s multiple aspects to this job. It’s not just me sitting down and crushing a page for ten to twelve hours, it’s for me. I’m not speaking for any other artist. I don’t want to take too long on my pages because I’ll burn out. That was starting to happen on The Ghost Fleet. That was a learning process for me, being a professional comics artist, having to… cut corners sounds so negative.
Wasiti: Well, it is a craft. It’s a job.
Johnson: Yeah, it is. It’s figuring out what I can get away with. And how to make the most of my time, how to make the most of my lines, and still making something that people really wanna look at but not kill myself over. I feel like I’m starting to get really good at it with Murder Falcon. I have this visual shorthand that my readers are starting to associate with. Now that I have a baby, it’s really helping. Sometimes you really need to spend time on a page, but as a general rule it’s about self-preservation rather than blowing it all on one series. Because of that goal of going long term, it informed my style on its own. I’m not spending a long time on anybody’s utility belt. It’s gonna be squiggly lines. I have no desire to draw everything perfectly or absolutely representationally. That’s not my goal, my goal is to tell a story. My art is in the service to my stories.
Wasiti: What lessons in storytelling did you take away from Extremity and Murder Falcon?
Johnson: It’s a continual lesson in learning how just how hard it is to make something from nothing…
Wasiti: Like a god.
Johnson: [laughs] Sure! I think that might be a part of my calling, to follow along the path of a creator God, with me trying to create as well. I think that’s an important part of me as an artist. I don’t talk about it a lot but it’s something that I do believe in. When I say believe, I have many doubts. That being said, every project I start I think, “I can’t believe how hard this is. I should be better at this by now.” Every time I start a new project my wife needs to remind me, “This is what making stories is. It’s hitting your head against the wall forever until it finally cracks.” It’s really hard and you always wonder if things will turn out well. A lot of times when I’m making a story I can’t see the forest through the trees and I’m in this wasteland not knowing what’s going on, doing my best. After the project is done in around six months I turn around and I go, “I guess that was okay.” I wish I had a better way to make the new things, but it seems mostly it’s me scrounging around, trying to figure shit out. I guess I’ve learned to expect to not learn anything. Now I’m knowledgeable, I’m better at understanding what I’m getting into. When I make a new project, I forget how hard it is. But I didn’t forget as much as I forgot the last time.
Wasiti: How about on the writing side?
Johnson: One thing that I had to do to make Extremity really work was to insert part of myself into the story, which was my fear of losing my drawing hand. For Murder Falcon, I also had to do the same thing but I was trying to not put too much of myself into it. I feel like whenever I do a story I need to put part of my personhood in the story, it’s almost like it gives it fuel. Like a sacrifice, or something. There are problems with each book but I’m proud of them. I’m really happy with how they turned out. I’m not learning huge things, I’m learning little subtleties between each project.
Wasiti: What’s next for you? Is it Old Man Skywalker?
Johnson: That’ll be one of the things. I’ll be in between projects for a little bit, at least until I start writing the new thing. And Old Man Skywalker will be in the middle of that. For those who don’t know, Old Man Skywalker is another Star Wars minicomic that I’ll be doing, it’s going to be awesome. Disney didn’t coming after me when I made Green Leader. Maybe they’ll come after me after I insert full-frontal Luke nudity into the comic. It’ll be a twelve page thing that I’ll sell at shows.
Wasiti: So it’s a personal project.
Johnson: Oh yeah. Are you kidding me, Luke penis? They would never publish that. Why do you think I’m doing it?
Wasiti: Are you doing anything with Image?
Johnson: Oh definitely. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’ve been talking with a bunch of people and I’ll be diving into something, I just don’t know what it is yet. It’s kind of scary. At the end of each project I always try to have something lined up. How this life turned out, how much of a frenzy it was to finish each issue of Murder Falcon, how much more leeway I had with Extremity. I need just a little more gestation to figure out what the next thing is, whereas when I was done with Extremity I knew I was jumping straight into Murder Falcon. I had already written the first issue. When I’m thinking about what’s next, it feels like graduating college. It’s scary but it’s awesome. How often do I get to have this experience as an adult where I have no idea what’s next? I’m being cool about it now. I cry at night.