INTERVIEW: Antony Johnston Talks Umbral

With the first volume coming to print May 28th, Umbral tells the story of Rascal, a young female thief, and the dire, supernatural situation she finds herself in after unwittingly stealing a magical object that invading creatures desperately want. Writer Antony Johnston and artist Chris Mitten weave a story of striking visuals and rich, varied characters, all set against a fantasy world with a vast and rich history. With the first trade on shelves this week, and issue one free on both the Image site and Comixology, writer Antony Johnston was kind enough to talk a bit about female protagonists, world building, and what makes a creative team great.

Umbral Vol. 1 Cover

Geek Syndicate: Umbral’s principal character is a young girl named Rascal, who is as good at getting into trouble as she is at getting out of it. Women, and especially young women, are largely underrepresented in comics, so what made Rascal the right sort of character to carry Umbral?

Antony Johnston: As you say, female characters are very underrepresented in comics, and I’ve been trying to help change that for years. I write lots of books with female leads, and I’m going to keep on doing it until people stop asking me why.

UMBRAL came about because Chris and I wanted to make something new, and after some discussion, we settled on dark fantasy as a genre we felt we could do well.

Almost immediately, I knew I wanted our main character to be a young thief called Rascal — but at first, that character was a boy.

What triggered the change was realising that I’d imagined him as male just because it’s the default option, especially in the fantasy genre. And I don’t like defaults.

That’s one reason Prince Arthir is in there right at the start — to emphasise to readers that UMBRAL doesn’t follow default patterns. This story is probably not what you’re expecting.

Ironically, making Rascal a young girl opened up so many story opportunities, it’s not even funny. UMBRAL would have been much less interesting with a male protagonist. And now I can’t picture her any other way.

GS: Umbral and its world have a rich history and mythology, dating back hundreds or even thousands of years. While some of it has been explored in the first volume, can readers expect to delve further into it as the story progresses?

AJ: We’ll definitely be going deeper into the mythology and legends of Fendin. What’s the point of having a rich history and mythology if you don’t explore it properly? And while we deal with some of it in Book One, there’s still plenty more to tell.

GS: With history as rich as the world in Umbral, how much of it had you planned before writing out the main story and how much of it came along as a natural progression?

AJ: I always do a lot of early planning and worldbuilding, but for an epic fantasy like this, it was even more vital.

Everything to do with the grand mythology of the Oculus, Luxan and Tenebros, and the Umbral themselves is already known. If I didn’t have that stuff straight, I wouldn’t have been able to even start writing. It’s important that the mythology and legends hang together properly.

The overall history of Fendin and the Shadow War is detailed, and I know enough about most of the places Rascal and her companions will be visiting to talk about them. That’s how we were able to include the map in the first issue, because I already know what’s in those parts of the Kingdom. Fleshing out the day-to-day details of all the different regions, though, is an ongoing process.

Some of the smaller details in the mythology did come about because of things Chris did in the first couple of issues. I like to have things planned out, but leave myself just enough room to add detail if something in the art inspires me.

GS: Readers are treated to a map of Fendin in the beginning of the trade. The first arc takes place in Strakhelm, the capital city, but where else can we expect Rascal and her friends to travel in Fendin, or even to other lands?

AJ: I don’t really want to say, as just knowing their route will give away some of the story. Suffice to say we’ll visit several different areas of Fendin, as Rascal and her companions flee the Umbral. And yes, we’ll visit at least one other country, too.

GS: In your recent piece on Multiversity, you talk about some of the dangers of creator-owned books and what helps make them work and be worthwhile. One of your main points was “Make it with good people”. What makes your collaborators Christopher Mitten, John Rauch, Jordan Boyd, and Thomas Mauer such great people to work with?

AJ: Individually, they’re all enormously talented creators. But when we come together to make UMBRAL, it truly is more than the sum of its parts.

Chris takes my scripts, which are already pretty wild, and turns it up to 11; John took that art and gave us one of the craziest, most unique color palettes in today’s comics; Jordan picked up John’s baton and absolutely runs with it, bringing the art to life in ways even Chris himself never imagined; and Thomas is hands down one of the best letterers I’ve ever worked with, a superb craftsman who’s also unafraid to experiment and try new things.

Honestly, I think this is a really strong team. We all make each other look good!

GS: With the first arc all wrapped up, what can readers expect to be treated to in the second arc?

AJ: Book Two is called THE DARK PATH, and takes our unlikely heroes through the ‘Bulaswode’: a strange, misty forest full of dangers and weird creatures, including the deadly Wodelings and their fearsome beasts, the Silvar.

Rascal will have to face her past, and battle against a sense of hopelessness. Dalone’s own past will return to literally haunt his nightmares. As for Shayim and Munty… well, they’ve got their own secrets to worry about.

By the end of it, none of them — especially Rascal — will ever be the same again. Would you expect anything less?

Interviewer: Leo Johnson

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