Writer Antony Johnston and artist Christopher Mitten’s dark fantasy series “Umbral” follows a young thief, Rascal, who has uncovered a secret evil lurking in the shadows of Strakhelm — shape-shifting monsters known as the Umbral, named for the darkest parts of darkness itself, who are infiltrating the royal family one murder at a time. But the Umbral aren’t just interested in taking the throne; what they really want is a mystical object, an ancient Oculus that Rascal just happens to have in her possession, and they aren’t going to take “No” for an answer. Using her wits and instincts, Rascal manages to survive their attacks, but she’s just one girl, and the Umbral are very powerful. As the first arc wraps up, Rascal has made unlikely allies with a surly smuggler, a tramp wizard and a motley professor who have agreed to help her learn to wield forbidden magic and defeat the Umbral.
Johnston’s world building is as legendary as the monsters and myths in his stories — he is able to create places that are both familiar and mysterious, while hinting at a larger scale of characters, lands and creatures just waiting to have their turn. Paired with the emotive art of Mitten and atmospheric coloring of Jon Rauch, “Umbral” delivers a beautiful, exciting story.
With the first arc now available in a trade titled “Out of the Shadows,” and the second slated to debut in July, Johnston shares his thoughts on the closing of “Umbral’s” opening act, his plans for the future of Rascal and how he keeps track of the various beasties and legends in his worlds.
CBR News: The first arc of “Umbral” just ended — the first six issues were so well-paced, with plenty of time to develop the present day story as well as digging into the history of the world, and yet there are still plenty of mysteries. Will you continue with the same sort of pacing in the next arc?
Antony Johnston: Generally, yes, because I like to keep things moving. Book Two is called “The Dark Path,” and it’ll feel a bit less frantic, but that’s because we’re following Rascal and her companions as a group, rather than gathering the team as we were in Book One.
That doesn’t mean everything is safe and settled, not by a long shot. There are more big changes coming for our unlikely heroes, and by the end of Book Two things will look very, very different. Again.
When Ron Moore was developing “Battlestar Galactica” one of the guiding principles was, “No status quo.” I loved that aspect of BSG, and it’s a mantra I try to follow with “Umbral,” too. Nothing is set in stone; nothing is safe.
Rascal has seen quite a fascinating character arc in just six issues — while she is still in essentially the same position she was in a the beginning of the series, she’s now finding herself immersed in a world she wanted nothing to do with: magic. Where is she emotionally at the end of Issue #6? And what are you most looking forward to developing in her character in the next arc?
Part of Book Two is about how Rascal deals with everything she’s learned so far, and the realization that all this shit has just been dropped on her. She’s literally carrying the fate of the world around her neck, and that’s not a good place to be for anyone — let alone a young girl who’s never left her hometown before.
It’ll lead to some dark times, and dark places, for Rascal. But at the same time, she’s a character who thrives on adversity. Events will inevitably change her, and that change is something I’m really looking forward to dealing with — not to mention readers’ reactions to it.
There was some foreshadowing in Issue #6, where Rascal talks about how doing the unexpected changes people — will this theme be essential in the next arc?
Yes, that philosophy will be a big part of the next arc. To be honest, it’s in all my work. Forcing characters into situations where the only viable option is to do something they’d normally never consider is the heart of drama. That’s where you find out what someone is really made of.
“Wasteland” readers will have seen that over the past couple of years with Abi’s character, for example. And in “Umbral,” Rascal’s unexpected (but completely understandable) drastic action in #6 changed everything in her life, forever.
One of the things I find so well done about “Umbral” is how you mix language. Not only do you combine modern and classic fantasy-style language, but you’ve made up your own magical language. How do you blend these different voices?
It simply feels right. I wanted Rascal, and all the ‘regular’ people of Fendin, to have a modern lilt to their speech; it didn’t feel natural for a young girl to be talking in ‘high fantasy’ style dialogue, all thees and thous and “good morrow, fine yeoman.”
I have nothing against that stuff, and I love a bit of Tolkien as much as anyone, but it just didn’t feel right for “Umbral.” Because we’re seeing this world through the eyes of a young person, it felt appropriate that she’d talk without airs and graces.
As for the rest of the characters, the variety of speech patterns kind of comes naturally. It’s in “Wasteland,” too, and even “The Fuse” to a lesser extent — I think about how a character will speak according to their station and personality, occasionally making notes with guidelines for their mannerisms, and then I just sort of crack on and write it.
Honestly, dialogue is a weird area for me. It just comes naturally; I know I’m quite good at it, but I can’t actually tell you why or how in any detail.
Thinking about different voices — I keep looking at the map, thinking of all the places we haven’t seen yet. How far will our characters travel in the next arc?
“The Dark Path” will take our unlikely heroes through the ‘Bulaswode’ — a strange, misty forest full of dangers and weird creatures, including the deadly Silvali riders, called Wodelings.
Beyond that, I don’t want to say too much; just knowing their route could give away parts of the story. Suffice to say that throughout the book we’ll visit several different areas of Fendin, as Rascal and her companions flee the Umbral. And we’ll visit at least one other country, too.
Do you have any plans to introduce new villains and monsters? Not that the Umbral aren’t scary enough on their own —
Oh, Fendin is full of villains. And by an amazing coincidence, Rascal will encounter quite a few of them.
The Umbral will always be our main monsters. The book’s not called “Goblin,” you know? But there’ll be some others along the way, too. The aforementioned Silvali, a chattering jack or two, a real live Fadreki, maybe even some sea monsters — and then there’s the Mistwalker, of course. Villain, hero, or something else entirely? We just don’t know.
Well, you don’t know. I do, but I’m not telling. Yet.
Much like your past work, including your other current project “The Fuse,” the way that you build worlds is exquisitely detailed. How do you keep track of the scope of the stories you write?
I make a world bible for each of my ongoing books. That sounds much grander than it actually is; they’re just collections of notes and reference that I can go to when I need to look something up.
For example, the “Umbral” bible consists of a world map, character biographies, the Umbral mythology and legends, and a big encyclopedia document of anything notable in the world, like the history of Black Rojyr the ghost pirate, or who the Kin of the Whispered Blade are, or what the hell is a Silvali, anyway?
And yes, it’s in alphabetical order!
What have been some of your favorite moments from the past six issues?
Too many to count, honestly. I’m having so much fun writing “Umbral,” and part of that is simply because of who I’m working with; I know I can throw just about anything at Chris, Jordan, and Thomas, and I’ll get back everything I asked for times ten.
There are times writing “Umbral,” or when I get art from Chris, when I just sit there with a big grin on my face. You can’t ask for much more than that.
The digital version of “Umbral” #1 is available for free at Image Comics’ website and on