For nearly two decades Mike Johnson has been doing the bulk of his comic book writing and illustrating, moving between bigger titles such as “Batman/Superman” and “Action Comics” at DC Comics and tie-in series for fan favorite sci-fi franchises like “Fringe,” “Warehouse 13,” a plethora of “Star Trek” titles, and now co-authoring some of his best work with “Blade Runner 2019” for Titan Comics.
While Mike may not be a household name for readers who aren’t looking for those specific books, his expansion of the canon within those franchises is growing and we can see his influence reaching new heights. His work is having lasting effects that will be referenced in the upcoming CBS All Access series, Star Trek: Picard and greater world of Blade Runner as the comics move forward and branch out to explore new aspects of that universe.
We sat down with Mike at New York Comic Con, as well as followed up with some additional questions over email. The conversations have been combined, edited and condensed for clarity.
So where does your fandom with Blade Runner start?
Mike Johnson: I was eight years old turning nine in 1982. Star Wars was the first movie I saw in the theater. And then my parents who were awesome took me to see Raiders of the Lost Ark. And that was my first conception that an actor could play — wasn’t the character. It was like, wait, that’s Han Solo, but he’s playing someone else. And then a year later Blade Runner came along. My parents wouldn’t take me to see it, because it just looked a little more adult. So it was this forbidden fruit that I wanted to see. I finally saw it on VHS as a kid, starting to grow up and getting into my teenage years. I just wore it out and then I saw it for the first time on screen in Chicago, It was a revival, they were screening previous movies. So I saw it on first on the big screen after I’d seen it on the small screen. And it just blew me away, like it does for everybody. It took a while for me to see it on the big screen, but it was worth it.
It’s absolutely one of my favorites, like top five of all time. So how did you get a chance to work on this book and how did it all come together?
MJ: The short answer is nepotism, which is really good way to get hired. Michael [Green] and I had worked on “Batman/Superman” together 10 years ago, which is crazy. We worked on “Supergirl” in the New 52. And then Michael is a very successful TV and film writer and he was hired to write the 2049 movie and did a brilliant job. And Alcon, the company that owns Blade Runner, approached him about doing a comic book series. And he called me up and said, “Do you want to work on a Blade Runner comic, and we’ll get the band back together?” And I’m not stupid. So I said, yeah.
That’s perfect. So as much of a fan as you are, how much of a dream come true is it to be working on this book?
MJ: Yeah, it’s pretty great story. It’s pretty great. I think all of us get kind of like buried and stressed out in whatever’s going on in our life at the time, but I’ve stopped and kind of slapped myself and said, “You’re working on a Blade Runner comic, like how cool is that?” I think it’s important to always remember how lucky you are in whatever you’re doing and appreciate it. Otherwise, why are you doing it? So it’s been really meaningful to come back to it, and also to come back to Blade Runner with fresh eyes, now that I’m older, going back and looking at the original book and then re-watching the movie a few times, and then re-watching the movie, and the sequel, and re-watching the original in the context of the sequel. So just diving into Blade Runner and just wrapping myself up in it and just trying to feel it down to my bones.Continued below
So speaking of 2049 briefly, that movie has a very different vibe to it than the original. It’s a little bit brighter. The scope of it is very, very different. So diving into these comics and being able to go back to the 2019 era, and having everything look that way – – darker, more noir-ish detective story – – is that something that really excited you? Or would you have been excited if it was something that was following 2049?
MJ: I thought it was great. Titan and Alcon wanted to take advantage of the fact that it was just too good an opportunity to pass up that you write a comic in our year, 2019, that was set in the year 2019. Like, that’s just fun. It’s a great marketing angle, to revisit the world of the movie, but not the characters in the same story. I like to talk about what was going on just off camera of what Ridley Scott showed us. Like, let’s go down another street and see what was going on there, and let’s meet a different Blade Runner. So yeah, it was definitely a plus to actually set it in that world. And we’d like to think that the events of our comic are taking place alongside the events of the original movie.
How was the experience of utilizing Blade Runner‘s version of Los Angeles in the far-off year of 2019 in this day and age? It’s been nearly forty years since Ridley Scott’s original film explored it.
MJ: We did our best to ignore our “real” 2019 and instead fully embrace the setting of the original film. It can be hazardous to try to draw real-world parallels when the point is to tell a thrilling story, so we let the characters and the plot speak for themselves. Issues of climate change and overcrowding are an already inherent part of Blade Runner’s milieu, so we didn’t want to shine more of a spotlight on them than was necessary.
While you guys are putting the story together and getting excited about new plot lines and the directions that can go, I know it can be it can be tempting to fall back on some fan service. I think in the wrong hands, we’d see Rick Deckard on page 2 of issue 1 just walking around. Do you ever have that urge to want to jump into something tied to the movie, or is it just so much more exciting to write a new story?
MJ: It’s more exciting to do a new one. The important thing is that it has the blessing of the people in charge of Blade Runner. So if you’re creating something that they feel is compelling and right for it, that’s really gratifying. It’s definitely an urge. I mean, who wouldn’t like to write the Rick Deckard character doing new stuff, right? But we don’t want our character Ash bumping into somebody on the street and we don’t call them Rick Deckard but it’s obviously Rick Deckard. We didn’t want to do that. It’s too easy to do something cheap because it takes the reader out of the story. And suddenly they’re thinking about Rick Deckard, and maybe even wanting to follow Rick Deckard and as opposed to our story.
So yeah, it’s very tempting, but there’s an excitement in just creating new things. And you have enough already with just the spinners. You’ve got the flying cars, you’ve got replicates. They’re just not the replicates you’ve seen before. We go to the Tyrell Corporation. Because those are things that exist in that world that many characters can interact with. So I think there’s enough there that fans are going to recognize the Blade Runner world without just retelling the same old stuff.
And you do have a little bit of crossover, like mentions of Bryant, things like that.
MJ: That’s right.
For me personally, and I’m sure for many people, that’s enough. It touches on the things that we’re familiar with. But yeah, there’s a huge city out there to explore.
MJ: I think in an early draft I actually had Bryant in it. Michael killed it, because he’s like, we’re not doing-Continued below
It’s too close.
MJ: It’s too close.
Aside from the original Blade Runner and related properties, what inspired this take on the franchise? Any other stories?
MJ: I’m a big film noir fan, so movies like Double Indemnity, The Third Man, and The Maltese Falcon were always on my mind. Michael and I were also determined to introduce a female Blade Runner, given that the two films are driven by male characters. But, given film noir tradition, we wanted her to be more complicated than your average “hero”.
I know that “Blade Runner 2019” is not going to be the only stop on this journey. There’s going to be some expansions in the comics. Are you able to talk about that at all? Are you working on a lot of that? Are they bringing other talent?
MJ: They better not! Michael and I are very protective of this, and especially of Ash. So yes, to answer your question, we’re telling the first year in three four-issue arcs. The first one is set in 2019. The second one is set in 2026 and takes place mostly off world. So we’re going to start seeing what those off world colonies look like and who lives there. And then the third arc will be yet another year and another setting. So we definitely want to expand the world, but we want to do it in a way that is focused. So it’s not blowing everything open and throwing all this stuff at the reader, it’s still focused on our character and the people around her and where she’s going and what she’s doing. So the parts of off world we’re going to see are only those that pertain to what Ash is going through. We’re excited about it.
Having spent so much time working in the Star Trek universe, which is inherently optimistic, it’s fun to get my laptop dirty and write scenes involving bribery, organ harvesting, dystopian orphan gangs, etc…I love Kirk and Spock, but I’m not sure they’d approve of Ash’s methods.
How did you approach this book with balancing the sci fi aspect of it, the world that we already know, and bringing in that noir detective story? There’s a lot of things that kind of fall into that neo-noir, cyberpunk phrase?
MJ: It’s an easy phrase to throw around.
Yeah, exactly. It gets thrown around a lot. But there’s nothing like Blade Runner. How did you want to get all those ingredients mixed together in the proper way?
MJ: That’s a great question. One of the things that helped was our decision early on, Ash would be narrating this in the style of the classic noir novels and movies. Plus it’s such a bone of contention, the version of Blade Runner with Harrison Ford narration, right? So we thought it was a fun little poke that in our book, Ash will be narrating it. But it makes sense for comics, because we’re able to convey information, we’re able to convey character, convey tone, using voiceover. So that was a noir convention that worked perfectly for our, for our purposes.
It’s a great point about mixing sci-fi with with noir. And we had the advantage of having two movies, but especially the first one, establishing the rules for what that would be. The sci-fi is limited. You don’t get discussions about how spinners work. And coming from a Star Trek background where there is a lot more science-y explanations for things, it was nice to work on something that just accepted certain things as given. There are off-world colonies. We’re not going to explain to you everything about them or where they are what you do. They don’t even name them in the first movie. Spinners we’re not going to explain, like how the traffic works with their flying cars. You just accept it as a given. So the sci-fi was there, but it’s limited.
And then for the noir, right away I knew we wanted to do a detective story. And I’d never really written a detective story before. They’re really hard, is what I discovered because first of all, you got to figure out the story. You have to step aside and figure out what’s the actual story. And then you have to mystery-ize it, which is a word, for sure. You have to figure out what are the clues that are going to reveal the story, what order you’re going to reveal the clues in, and how’s your detective going to find it? So embracing two things: the narration and then making sure we had a mystery at the core.Continued below
As a tie-in to the series, how accessible is this story for newcomers?
MJ: We made an effort to make it as new reader-friendly as possible. The classic elements of Blade Runner are there, but we worked to introduce them in a way that felt organic to this new story, without requiring a PhD in Replicants.
Conversely, are there any elements you feel Blade Runner veterans would notice more that you built into the narrative?
MJ: I hope longtime fans enjoy the way we have built out the world of Los Angeles, with things like the Canaan Corporation and the Santa Barbara Archipelago. Most of all, I hope they enjoy how we have tried to take familiar things and twist them just so to get a fresh perspective, rather than just replaying the hits.
Aside from all the Blade Runner stuff coming up, all the Star Trek stuff, do you have anything else that’s coming out that you can talk about?
MJ: I have my bottom desk drawer full of ideas that I want to get to. I really want to do a creator owned thing, and I have a couple ideas, working with somebody on one of those. But really, it’s all it’s all Star Trek and Blade Runner. The other day I was just like pinching myself, getting to work on Star Trek and Blade Runner. It’s really easy to get mired in deadlines, stress, all this stuff. And sometimes you just have to step back and be like, wow, that’s really lucky and cool to be working on those two things. So yeah, it’s all Blade Runner and Star Trek. There will not be a crossover. At least I won’t be writing it. Don’t cross the streams.
I’m not big on too many crossovers. Some are fun.
MJ: Some are fun that we did. “Star Trek/Green Lantern” was great. That was fun. But again, it needs to feel like they could coexist. Although they’ve been doing Looney Tunes/DC ones that are pretty fun. So sometimes you just need to be careful.
Some of those IDW ones are pretty fun.
MJ: We did “Transformers/Star Trek,” which was a lot of fun. So it’s just about making sure you have the right mix of peanut butter and chocolate.
It was a real pleasure.
MJ: A real pleasure! Thank you for the kind words, thank you for your support of the books. As you know, we don’t get to make them unless people are out there are reading them.
The first three issues of “Blade Runner 2019” are available wherever comic books are sold. The first arc of the story, encompassing the first four issues, encompassing the ‘Los Angeles’ arc, are available in trade paperback. “Blade Runner 2019” #5 releases on December 18, 2019.