After the successful release of “Umbral” with Chris Mitten, perennial Multiversity favorite Antony Johnston is not even slowing down slightly. As such, November saw the announcement of a new book between Johnston and Justin Greenwood, “the Fuse,” a sci-fi procedural thriller set on a massive space station in Earth’s orbit.
Even with the colossal work on “Wasteland” as well as a run with Andy Diggle on “Daredevil,” Johnston seems poised to begin his systematic take over in comics in 2014. As such, we sat down with Johnston to discuss “the Fuse,” science fiction and more.
First of all: since we last spoke, Umbral has been released to acclaim and you’re about to release your next big original series at Image Comics. So Antony, how are things going?
Antony Johnston: I’m good! Actually, since we last spoke most of my time has been spent working on SHADOW OF MORDOR, the new LORD OF THE RINGS game. Luckily, I knew that was coming up and made sure I had plenty of comic scripts in hand before I started work.
Now my work there is pretty much done, so I’m back on WASTELAND, UMBRAL, and THE FUSE.
You’ve worked with sci-fi before, certainly, so what is it in The Fuse that you are looking to explore in the genre this time? Or was there anything you’d seen in a previous comic or film that you saw and said, “Oh, I’d like to do a spin on that!”
AJ: Most of the time in sci-fi we see not only extraordinary settings, but extraordinary, world-changing circumstances; war, global threat, invasion, the collapse of civilization, whatever. We rarely see normal life, regular people trying to get along.
And while there isn’t any one particular work I could point to above the others, I’m a big fan of murder mysteries, detective stories, and cop procedurals. It struck me that would be a really good way of looking at the “normal life” of a sci-fi society.
The society itself is extraordinary, being inside a giant space station. And murder is itself an extraordinary crime. But these things are extraordinary and dramatic on a human scale, not a Michael Bay oh-god-the-universe-is-exploding-at-a-million-polygons-per-second scale.
The Fuse itself is a space station orbiting Earth, meaning that whoever commits the crime couldn’t really “escape.” In terms of exploring why someone would even commit crime at all, do you find it a challenge to delve into the behavior of a person who could commit murder and know they can’t run away?
AJ: People do come and go from the Fuse surreptitiously; smuggling, of both goods and people, is a rampant black market. But yeah, it’s not like you can just get in a car and drive into the mountains to escape the cops.
If you’re doing murder mysteries, diving into the psyche of a killer is pretty much Writing 101. Most people can understand the urge to kill. But 99% of us never act on it because we fear the consequences, either to our conscience or our person. It’s taking that extra step into the mind of the 1%, the people who do it anyway, that’s the challenge.
So obviously the Fuse starts with a murder case, but at its onset, would you consider the Fuse station to be a utopian ideal? Similar to Elysium from the film of the same name, for example.
AJ: Oh god, no. No, the Fuse — and Midway, the proto-city that’s grown out from the the core of the station — is a shithole. Well, depending on how much money you have. The upper levels, where the wealthy live, and Level Zero, where City Hall spends its tourism budget, are fine and dandy. But outside of that, Midway is in disrepair, jury-rigged, cramped, prone to blackouts, antisocial, and even violent.
So why would anyone go there? Because it’s a frontier. What I’ve just described applied to most of the Old West frontier settlements, too. That freedom is attractive. A place where you’re beyond the reach of the old earth authorities, where you can make a new life, a new fortune, and live without a hundred security cameras watching you every day? Hell, there are people reading this very article who’d sign up for that in a heartbeat.Continued below
The title of the first arc, “The Russia Shift,” makes me curious as to if the book will not only be a sci-fi crime series, but also feature some politics as well. Will we see The Fuse interact with the Earth (or what’s left of it, I suppose), or is that relationship not something you’re too keen on divulging at this time?
AJ: That relationship will develop over time, yes. And the first arc will indeed feature the politics of the Fuse, as well as good old-fashioned murder.
Also, that title probably doesn’t mean what you think it does. That’s OK — Dietrich can’t get his head round it at first, either.
The lead character, Klem Ristovych, is described by you as “a dinosaur, the oldest cop working the Fuse.” What is it about an older, angrier cop that’s used to the hard life that you find interesting to explore here?
AJ: We all love a cynical old dinosaur authority figure, right? Lennie Briscoe from LAW & ORDER; Al Giardello from HOMICIDE; Paul Crocker from QUEEN & COUNTRY; JUDGE DREDD himself; and hell, just about every character Clint Eastwood ever played. Every man hopes he’ll be even half as tough as Gunny Highway when he reaches that age…!
So there’s something about the grizzled, world-weary dinosaur that appeals to us as a fantasy figure. But they’re always men, and I just thought, what if it wasn’t? How would the traditional role of “bitter old asshole” work with a woman in the role? We just don’t see that very often (although things have gotten better in recent years thanks to sterling actors like Glenn Close and Katey Sagal).
There’s more to Klem than just being the wizened old veteran, of course. But that’s a story that will come out through the series.
And what can you tell us about her new partner, Ralph Dietrich, who we have yet to meet at all? Is he Klem’s antithesis, or someone she can relate to?
AJ: Ralph and Klem are chalk and cheese in many respects, sure. She’s ready to retire; he’s the youngest Homicide cop ever to transfer to Midway City PD. She expects nothing from people; he can’t understand why there are no witnesses to a murder in broad daylight. She’s used to working with no staff, no budget, no backup; he comes from a German force with every possible resource at his fingertips.
But this isn’t a farcical buddy-cop movie. Despite their differences, Klem and Ralph have a mutual respect for the work, the job, the case. It’s all about getting to the truth, and that’s one thing they can always agree on.
The real question with Ralph is why he volunteered for a transfer to MPCD Homicide. Nobody volunteers.
I think now more than ever we’re seeing an interest in procedural drama, both in TV and in movies, but comics too. What is it about the procedural that you find fascinating as a storytelling tool?
AJ: First, procedurals are plot-driven. Call me old-fashioned, but I like stories where things happen. Character is revealed by adversity and conflict, not by standing around talking about your goddamn feelings for a hundred pages.
Second — and I mention this in the issue #1 essay — procedurals, especially murder mysteries, allow you to move freely through a society, and examine all aspects of it. From the lowest bum in the gutter to the highest office of state, a detective can go anywhere, ask any question, accuse anyone.
So the format gives you unparalleled opportunities to put society under a lens, but using a familiar frame of reference to highlight its interesting sections.
So, like with Umbral (also at Image) which you’re doing with Wasteland co-creator Chris Mitten, Fuse brings in Justin Greenwood, who took over Wasteland at #33. What made it the right time to end Wasteland and begin a new series with Justin?
AJ: Well, WASTELAND hasn’t quite ended yet! We always said we’d finish around #60, which is exactly what we’re doing. And Chris is actually returning to the book to draw the final story arc and epilogue, so it’s all come full circle.
I knew when Justin finished his second run on WASTELAND that I’d want to work with him again. He’s an amazing young talent, a skillful storyteller and great character designer, with a real dynamic kineticism to his art. And I love artists with an instantly identifiable style, which Justin definitely has.Continued below
Luckily for me, Justin wanted to work on something new, too. So then it was a matter of finding the right series to work on, and when I ran a few ideas by him, he jumped at THE FUSE. Having now seen his art start to come in, I can see why — he’s having a blast doing all the sci-fi design.
Seeing as Fuse will feature an entirely different landscape than Wasteland (no pun inherently intended), do you find that your working relationship with Justin has changed at all? Are you actively challenging each other with the new setting?
AJ: The challenge is there, definitely. As anyone who reads WASTELAND or UMBRAL knows, I’m big on worldbuilding, and THE FUSE is a world I’ve been quietly piecing together for nearly ten years.
Even so, a fresh pair of eyes will always spot things you’ve missed. I’m pushing Justin to draw and design things he’s never done before, but at the same time he’s asking me questions about the world that I hadn’t considered.
That’s more of a progression than a change, though. Justin and I have now made around 300 pages of comics together, so there’s a lot of trust there. In fact, our relationship has developed into something close to what I have with Chris Mitten; a mutual sense that we know what the other expects of us, and an instinct for when to push at the limits of those expectations.
How much of the series do you find goes to design between you and Justin, given that this is a sci-fi/future cop series? Or are you trying to keep most of the technology in the series grounded?
AJ: Most of the tech is grounded; we’re extrapolating a lot from the direction of present-day technology, with touch tech, 3D printing, advances in polymer formulation, AI, “big data” processing, and so on. I’m a bit of a tech nerd, so that stuff interests me anyway.
But new tech still needs to be designed, and that’s generally a back-and-forth process; I’ll suggest something, Justin will work from that, then if necessary we’ll discuss it.
For example, all motorized transport on the Fuse is electric maglev. So in issue #1, we see an ambulance for the first time, and Justin worked from my notes to come up with a great, compact design. Then it occurred to me that, as there’s no weather, maybe the driver’s cab didn’t need to be enclosed, giving greater visibility; and so the final design has elements from both of us, and is better for it.
The book also features Ed Brisson and Shari Chankhamma on the book, who fans may know as two of the “Sheltered” team (also at Image). How did Shari and Ed get involved with the series, and what is it about their work that you felt perfect for this team?
AJ: Ed was my first choice for letterer. He did a great job on my graphic novel THE COLDEST CITY, at Oni, and he and Justin are friends anyway. These days, Ed’s better known as a great writer than for his lettering, so we’re grabbing him while we still can!
The colorist role was up in the air for a while, but then Justin suggested Shari, and naturally Ed vouched for her. Her work on THE FUSE is quite different to SHELTERED, but just as good. Shari’s using a bold palette to go with Justin’s confident line, and the result is a very distinctive style that really focuses on storytelling. I think people are going to like it, it brings a whole new dimension to Justin’s art.
One last thing I was curious about: the teaser for the book that you released featuring Klem breaking the fourth wall and talking to the reader. Is this a narrative device you plan to keep throughout the series, or was this done special for the tease?
AJ: That was just for the trailer, to give readers an idea of Klem’s personality and an introduction to Midway itself. Never say never — I wouldn’t rule out using it as a device in a future case — but we won’t see it in the first arc.Continued below