It’s no surprise that a skilled writer like Antony Johnston was able to tell a compelling, accurate and emotionally engaging police procedural story in just six issues. In fact, he’s known for the dynamic world building he’s done on his other projects like “Wasteland” and “Umbral.” What makes his Image Comics space cops series “The Fuse” special are the partners at the front and center of the story: a salty Russian who’ll die before she retires and a mysterious, handsome new agent with a past. Like all good cop stories, this one starts with an unlikely pair coming together to solve unexpected crimes — except these crimes are hovering 22,000 feet above earth in the floating space metropolis known as Midway City.
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“The Fuse” begins with Klementina Ristovych meeting her new partner, the young, good-looking Ralph Dietrich. Ralph is a newcomer to The Fuse, voluntarily joining MCPD’s homicide division in an act of either desperation or insanity. Klem’s been around a long time and knows the Fuse better than just about anyone, which makes her the perfect person to ease Ralph into their first case: a double murder with leads that travel all the way to the top of Midway City’s government. Not bad for his first day on the job.
With Johnston’s carefully crafted story and the expertly matched art/coloring by Justin Greenwood and Shari Chankhamma, “The Fuse” delivered a powerful first arc in “The Russia Shift.” With the first trade paperback on sale now and the second arc underway, Johnston spoke with CBR News about the next case his detectives will pursue, the massive physical layout of the titular space ship and his perfectly nasty, whip-smart leading woman Klem who will continue to steal the show in upcoming issues.
CBR News: Antony, the first question I’m dying to ask — I know what a detailed writer you are, and how thoroughly you see to all of the bits of the worlds you create. The Fuse is huge. I keep trying to follow street directions to orient myself and so I’m wondering — do you have a map that you use for reference?
Antony Johnston: You can’t see me, but I’m laughing right now, because literally yesterday I had to draw a “level map” for Justin [Greenwood] to help him keep it straight!
Midway City has spent more than forty years growing in a haphazard, almost organic fashion, with little urban planning and zero thought for the future. It started, as we saw in #5, from just a few living quarters at the centre of the Fuse. Since then it’s been built, rebuilt, demolished and rebuilt again into the sprawling city we now see.
Add to this the complication of compass points, which are arbitrary because of its position in orbit, plus the station’s cylindrical shape, and… well, the numbering system is just as haphazard.
So: Level 1 is the first level above Zero. Level 2, the next to be built, is the first below Zero. And they radiate outward, following that same pattern… until you reach Level 44, which is the lowest level in the station, because it (like Zero and 50) is much taller than the others to accommodate the grav tanks and Earthlight, the viewing bubble. Consequently, Levels 45-50 are all at the top of the city. That’s why Klem could see stars through the Level 50 glass ceiling.
Every level has a First Avenue running down its entire center length. Other Avenues are numbered, radiating outward again, this time alternating between earth side and moon side. The number of Avenues on each level is arbitrary according to its layout and width — lower and higher levels are much narrower than Zero, because of that cylindrical shape again, and not all Avenues run the entire length of their level.
Cross streets have names, not numbers, and their amount and layout is entirely arbitrary (some of the more cynical city Residents would say “random”).
Now imagine if physical mail still existed in space, and weep for the poor hypothetical mailman…
In the first arc, the main parts of The Fuse that we saw were Level 2, Level 0, some of the upper levels and some homes — what do you have planned for the next arc? How much more of the station will you be revealing?
“Gridlock” will take us further afield, sure. We’ll get to see Level 44, which houses the grav tanks; the enormous solar array dishes at the top of the station; we’ll make a return to Level 50; and more.
We’ll even cross “the wall”, which divides Midway city from the I-SEEC energy collection and processing areas. If you look at the big title page image in issue #1, those are the “clean” parts at each end of the station, which the city hasn’t yet sprawled over.
One of the best reveals in these first issues was the bond between Ralph and Klem. At first glance they seem so different, but the longer we read the more similarities we see. What was important to you about building their relationship? Will they continue as partners into the next arc?
They’ll continue as partners for some time. Klem and Ralph are the central characters of this book, and that won’t change without something drastic happening.
That’s why building their relationship is important. Readers will be spending a lot of time with these two characters, so it’s important they remain interesting — not just to us, but also to each other.
As you say, they differ in so many ways, but they also have some striking similarities if you dig deeper. And one of those similarities is their interest in people. So they both want to dig deeper, and figure out what makes the other tick, even if neither of them would ever admit it out loud. Which is another similarity, of course…
Klem isn’t a character we see a lot of in comics, and she’s one of my favorites. I love that she’s experienced and mature and a little bit nasty — we’ve had a small glimpse into her past and to her deep connection with the Fuse, but what makes her so well respected? And what’s next for her?
It’s kind of sad that Klem is such a unique character in comics. I wish she wasn’t, but “older, competent woman” appears to be some kind of mind-blowing iconoclastic decision for a lead character, which I find baffling.
Klem isn’t so much well-respected as grudgingly respected by most people. She gets automatic respect for being an FGU, the “First Guys Up” who literally built The Fuse. Without them there’d be no Midway City, and there are precious few FGUs left on station.
But Klem is also a long-serving police officer — she signed up for the MCPD pretty much immediately when it was formed — and everyone knows she’s the longest-serving Detective still working The Fuse.
So that gets her a certain amount of grudging respect, even though most of her colleagues don’t like her, think she should have taken a pension on Mars years ago, and aren’t afraid to voice both of those opinions to her face.
I love that her coloring stands out so much from the rest of the book– she’s almost ghostlike. Was that something you’d come up with?
Kind of a happy accident, actually. Shari’s first coloring pass on Klem was a little rosy-cheeked, and I gave a note to remember that she has that “pale Russian quality” to her. Shari took that and ran with it, and now Klem has this wonderfully striking visual. I love it.
When you were developing “The Fuse,” did you have a clear point of view on how you wanted her to be? She definitely opens up in these first six issues and practically vibrates off the page — especially with Justin’s artwork making her so unique. Were you surprised by any of the directions her character took?
Probably the twinkle in her eye. In my first notes and drafts of “The Fuse,” there was a lot less humor, and Klem was even more brusque than she is now. I think it was the addition of Ralph, and the idea to make Klem’s partner a young and handsome man, that changed things. Suddenly there was an area where Klem could be playful without turning her into a comedy character, and it came naturally.
It also serves as a nice “see how you like it” reversal of the way men often speak to young female colleagues, of course. I’ve actually had a few comments from male readers saying that Klem flirting with Ralph is “creepy,” and I’m like, side eyes to camera “Mmmm-hmm.”
And to get back to Ralph a bit — there was a bit of a cliffhanger at the end of issue #6. What can you tell me about that?
I can tell you that “Joseph Hartmann” will be making further appearances in later stories, and that this is all tied in to Ralph’s backstory. The rest is classified.
I think you previously said that each arc would be a new case — will it be with this same cast? Can you tell me about any of the new characters that will join in?
Every arc will be at least one new case. I’ve an idea to make at least one future arc feature several ongoing cases at once, if we can pull it off.
Klem and Ralph will definitely stick around for “Gridlock”, as will Lt. Brachyinov, Dr. Assam and Bianca in the supporting cast. We’re also going to meet some cops from Vice, and of course a whole host of new suspects from different walks of life around The Fuse — not all of whom are Residents.
While “The Fuse” is definitely procedural, the relationships between the characters anchor this story and felt so authentic so quickly. Are there characters in the first arc that you’re looking forward to spending more time with?
All of the main cast, really. Plus we’ve barely scratched the surface with Klem’s son Leonid, and his relationship with Latoyah, the ADA; or Klem’s own relationship with Lou Temple, the paramedic; or Lt Bower, whom we saw briefly in the first arc. She oversees the Homicide shift after Brachyinov’s, currently the America shift.
(And we haven’t even met Lt. Chang, currently overseeing the Pacific shift, yet; or DA Weissberg; or Chief of Police Conway himself…)
So, yes — there are a lot of characters, both from the first arc and ones we haven’t yet seen, that I’m looking forward to spending more time with.
What has been the best fan response that you’ve received so far?
I think maybe the best individual response was the letter we got from an actual cop, complimenting us on how authentic it felt. Of course there are many things about “The Fuse” which are unrealistic or fictionalized — hello, it’s in space — but we want to make Klem, Ralph and the rest of the MCPD at least feel and act like real cops.
On a wider level, though, we’ve been amazed at the response to Klem from female readers. Like I said, it’s kind of amazing that she’s so unique in modern comics. So hearing from so many women that Klem is the kind of character they’ve wanted for a long time, and how real she feels to them, is really gratifying. That’s the sort of thing that keeps us going.
“The Fuse” trade paperback is on sale now; issue #7 arrives November 5.