Illusory Fantasy: Johnston talks Alan Moore's "The Hypothetical Lizard"

Back in 1988 Alan Moore wrote the short story "The Hypothetical Lizard," published as part of a shared-world fantasy anthology called "Liavek: Wizard's Row." The story was very well received, winning the 1988 World Fantasy Award for Best Novella. The story was later reprinted in "Words Without Pictures," a 1990 book of prose stories by comics writers edited by a young Steve Niles, but since then the book has languished in the "out-of-print" world.

That all changes this December when Avatar Press brings the novella to comics with writer Antony Johnston and artists Lorenzo Lorente and Sebastian Fiumara. CBR News caught up with Johnston to learn more about the story and what it takes to bring a story like "The Hypothetical Lizard" to comics.


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"'The Hypothetical Lizard' is about Som-Som, a very special prostitute in the fabled House Without Clocks, who's undergone radical surgery in order to serve her clients," Johnston told CBR News. "Specifically, she's had the membrane that connects the two halves of her brain severed, and with it the connections between thought and action. She can see and hear, but not speak or act - at least, not of any conscious volition. Som-Som, you see, is a whore of wizards - a paranoid bunch at the best of times - and in this way, any secrets her clients may inadvertently reveal in the throes of their passion are completely safe. Som-Som is simply incapable of passing on anything she learns.

"But here's the thing, and one of the reasons it's such a good story - it's not actually about that at all. Sure, Som-Som is the narrator, and the principal character. But at its heart, 'The Hypothetical Lizard' is actually about relationships, love and betrayal. It's about what happens when you have a close friend blindly enter into a self-destructive, abusive relationship - and there's nothing you can say to convince them that it's wrong, that they need to get out of that relationship before they're lost inside their own guilt and self-pity.

"The friend in question is another young prostitute called Rawra Chin, a homosexual transvestite who left the House five years ago to pursue Her dreams of acting on the stage. And by all accounts, She's become enormously successful. But when She left, Rawra Chin broke the heart of Her lover, Foral Yatt. For five years, he's been inconsolable at Rawra Chin's departure. And now, at last, Rawra Chin is back, and wants to resume their relationship.


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"But you can never go back, as Rawra Chin is about to find out... And Som-Som watches it all unfold. She knows it's bad, knows the pain and guilt is going to destroy the person Rawra Chin once was, but she can't say anything. She can't do anything. All she can do is watch."

In the original publication, "Liavek: Wizard's Row," the stories were connected by a common location and theme, although you might not expect Alan Moore to adhere to such rules. Johnston tells us that, in fact, the story has very little to do with Liavek or any fantasy world.

"It's a story about relationships, not tropes," said Johnston. "Som-Som's surgery, the presence of magic and so on, they're all tied to a fantasy milieu. But you can tell that this is Alan taking a few tiny bits of the setting (the eponymous Wizard's Row, where Som-Som's surgery is carried out, and the House Without Clocks itself) and then bouncing off of them with a tale entirely his own, devoid of anything a 'traditional' fantasy reader might expect. Which, of course, is almost certainly why the story also won the World Fantasy Award.

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"The title is more literal than you'd think. I'd never read the story before I was asked to adapt it and, like most people, I expected the title to be metaphorical or purely symbolic. But no, there really is a hypothetical lizard in there. And it's central to the story."

Adapting a master writer like Alan Moore may seem daunting to some, but not to Johnston who has already brought to comics numerous Moore stories. Johnston's worked with Moore on bringing stories like "Yuggoth Cultures" (which gave way to "Yuggoth Creatures") and "Nightjar" to comics. "The Hypothetical Lizard" is just the latest Moore story for Johnston. The writer notes that with this adaptation, nothing significant has changed from the original story to the one you'll find in the finished comic.

"Of all the adaptations of Alan's I've done, this is probably the one where I made the most changes, but even then it's not much. Some dialogue had to be abbreviated, and in some places I've had to abridge the original prose where I've used it as caption text, but the flavour, mood and meaning are all there. The story unfolds in the same way as in the novella, and the scenes are in the same order.

"Probably the biggest change is actually one of addition - one of the great things you can do in comics, but is very difficult in prose, is subtle visual symbolism. So my main contributions to this version have been in the way the story's told and paced visually, and a certain amount of leitmotif and visual pathos. Reflections, for example, often refer to Som-Som's own asymmetrical condition, and the ways in which all of us are asymmetrical in some way or another, albeit emotionally. Readers should also look out for birds and doorknockers, but as for their meaning, I'll leave that up to you..."

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Johnston said that the biggest challenge for any writer adapting a story is getting to the heart of what the original author intended.

"I'm lucky in that sense, because Alan is always very open and willing to discuss what his intentions were, or what a specific motif represents," said Johnston. "By contrast, he's also very generous and understands that a successful adaptation must have some input from the adaptor, some personal stamp on the finished product, which ties in to that extra layer of visual symbolism I mentioned.

"Beyond that it's a matter of deciding what will work in a comic, or what won't translate, and modifying accordingly. But Alan's a very visual storyteller, even when writing prose, which makes that part less troublesome than it might otherwise be."

While the fantasy genre is experiencing its highest level of interest ever due to the success of the "Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter" films, as you can tell from the description above "The Hypothetical Lizard" isn't your typical fantasy story. In fact, it has little to do with fantasy fiction as we generally expect, although it uses many fantasy trappings to tell the story.

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"The way the story is told, and the fantasy tropes that are used, are essential to telling this particular story. I suppose it might bring a certain awareness of emotional realism to people who'd normally only associate fantasy with macho sword-wielding adventurers, but I really couldn't say. There are no swords in 'The Hypothetical Lizard,' by the way, though there are a few knives. And lots of tea, come to think of it. More people should drink tea in fantasy stories."

Over the past couple of years Johnston's tackled numerous genres, whether it be horror, magic, fantasy, romantic comedy or westerns, and it appears he's comfortable with all of them. Playing in all these different sand boxes, does Johnston have to put himself into a certain mode or place to tackle writing in these disparate genres?

"To an extent, yes, but I don't think it's any more than I have to do when writing any new story, in any genre. Even if all I did was write one genre, I'd still strive to get into a different place for each story, because otherwise it's just boring - boring for the reader, and certainly boring for me. Look at 'Closer,' 'Spooked,' 'Frightening Curves,' 'Nightjar,' 'Yuggoth Creatures'... they're all horror, but I hope anyone who's read them all would agree they're very different ways of writing horror. They certainly all feel different to me when I'm writing them.

"I get a lot of comments - most of them complimentary, thank goodness - from people about my tendency to hop between different genres, and they often ask if it's deliberate, or imagine how much extra work it must be. But to me it doesn't feel like a conscious thing, or an especially peculiar path to take. I do a lot of research for everything I write, even if it's in a genre I've tackled before, because every story is unique. It's no more or less difficult to do that research in a new genre than in one I'm familiar with."

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Art for the first issue of "The Hypothetical Lizard" is provided by Lorenzo Lorente, while Sebastian Fiumara will handle the art on the next three issues.

"The style [Lorenzo] chose for 'The Hypothetical Lizard' was a deliberate one, something to make the book look and feel unique," said Johnston. "He doesn't draw like that all the time. I remember in my initial notes, I mentioned that I wanted the story to look like 'A Rodney Matthews painting come to life,' and Loren seized on that. So we have this lovely baroque atmosphere to the book, almost painterly.

"Unfortunately, working in this style seemed to slow Loren down a lot, and it took him a year to draw the first issue. He's a great artist, and a nice bloke, but nobody wanted to wait another four years for the book to even hit the stands...! So Loren left us after #1, and Sebastian Fiumara has taken over.

"Sebastian (who's the brother of Max, my collaborator on 'Nightjar') really impressed [Avatar Press Publisher William Christiansen] and I with the dream sequences he drew for his pieces in 'Yuggoth Creatures,' and I'm happy to say that what he's doing with 'The Hypothetical Lizard' is even better. He's not aping Loren's style especially, but their styles are very complementary anyway, and just to make sure Seba's adopting some of the techniques Loren used. I don't think most readers will even notice until they put the issues side by side - Seba really "gets" the story, what I've tried to do with it visually, and has completely immersed himself in it. I was sad to see Loren go, but I feel like we've replaced a great artist with an even better one, and the book can only benefit from it."

(NOTE: We originally labeled the interior pages as from issue #1. These pages are actually from issue #2, by Sebastian Fiumara.)

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