Opening up a jar of horror: Antony Johnston talks 'Nightjar'

It's been a very long time coming for "Nightjar."

Back in 1980 writer Alan Moore and artist Bryan Talbot created the horror comic "Nightjar." The first 8-page chapter was scheduled to be published in the British magazine "Warrior," but it never actually saw print. A fallout with the publisher kept "Nightjar" from being published and possibly to be forgotten forever.

Fast forward to the present and the fortunes of "Nightjar" have changed considerably. Coming this March from Avatar Press is the first issue of an all-new four-issue "Nightjar" mini-series. This time out, though, Moore's handed the book over to another writer, Antony Johnston, who'll be writing the series based on Moore's original ideas, with art by Max Fuimara ("Thor," "T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents"). This will be the first of possibly many "Nightjar" mini-series. CBR News caught up with Johnston to find out what "Nightjar" is all about and how it came to be that this series saw a revival.

"It's 1981, and Mirrigan Demdyke is the last in a long line of sorcerers - a member of a magical community who call themselves Birds," Johnston told CBR News when asked to explain the series.

"Mirrigan's father, Harold Demdyke, was once Emperor Of All The Birds. But when Mirrigan was ten she watched Harold die in their back yard, killed in a psychic attack by rival sorcery. It's only eighteen years later, on her grandmother's deathbed, that Mirrigan learns the full truth - her father wasn't killed by one rival Bird, which is the proper custom, but by a gang of seven, led by Sir Eric Blason - a member of Parliament, and the new Emperor Of All The Birds.

"These Birds are stronger, wiser and more powerful than Mirrigan, but she's not going to let this crime go unpunished. So she swears vengeance on them, and vows to confront them one by one. What Mirrigan doesn't realise is that her father's assassination wasn't merely a grab for power. It was just one step in a potentially world-shattering plan which is now reaching its final stages, and this cabal of seven isn't going to let anything come between them and their destiny. Certainly not some wayward young Demdyke girl.

"The first arc is called 'As The Seasons Turn,' and finds Mirrigan preparing for this revenge quest. She's confident, of course, but knows that it may take some time. So she visits an old friend for the annual Halloween celebrations on Pendle Hill, in the area where she grew up, before leaving to do what she has to. But Sir Eric Blason is way ahead of her, and what should have been a pleasant au revoir to an old friend quickly descends into a nightmare scenario of death and fear..."

Now we know all about Mirrigan and her quest for vengeance, but who else will be joining her on this mission?

"Ah, that would be telling. Certainly, Mirrigan's alone at first - her father and grandmother are dead, her mother's unable to help, and she's never really socialized with other Birds - but she may meet others along the way who can help her. Or try to kill her. You never can tell."

Johnston's tells us that the sorcerers Mirrigan seeks are a varied bunch who all have in common their special status as Birds - "…born magicians, a bond strong enough to bring even the most disparate elements together if they have a common purpose," explained Johnston.

Johnston continued, "There's Hart Wentworth, the Heron - a decadent Crowley-like figure who reins from his London opium den; Gordon Geary, the Phoenix - a black-souled and violent steel worker from Sheffield; Inez Eastaugh, the Swan - a tragic widow living out her last days on the Yorkshire coast; Alice Softley, the Raven - a dominatrix of London's sex trade, cruel and seductive; Devabhai Manish, the Goshawk - a wealthy businessman whose Birmingham-based interests include organised crime; and a nameless spirit known only as the Cuckoo - now inhabiting the deformed body of a child in Liverpool, with the boy's parents enslaved to his will.

"Finally, there's the Emperor Of All The Birds - the Right Honourable Sir Eric Blason MP, a man as powerful as his title implies. Blason's a Member of Parliament in Thatcher's government, an ambitious and ruthless man both in politics and magic. And as you might expect, he's the most dangerous foe Mirrigan will face"

It's hard to pigeon hole "Nightjar" as a story that takes place in a specific genre of fiction. Is it horror? Yes. It's got magic, but does that mean it's a fantasy book? Not really. As Johnston explained, it's not simply defined.

"There are elements of magic, horror, mythology, politics, sex and violence... I think it's going to be a very difficult book to classify, and to be honest I like that. Hard-to-classify stories are generally my own favourites.

"But for the sake of an easy reference point, I've been telling people that if they like early 'Hellblazer' then they should check out 'Nightjar' - which is kind of appropriate, seeing as Alan created 'Nightjar' shortly before going on to create John Constantine."

Horror as a genre isn't the easiest one to define. There are those familiar stories that contain zombies, ghouls and lots of blood with horrific imagery. There are also those where the story itself drives the horror. Johnston says "Nightjar" falls into the latter category.

"There is blood and gore in 'Nightjar,' and I'm certainly not saying you won't see zombies at some point - because come on, who doesn't love zombies? - but broadly speaking, it's much more about psychological horror than ripping people's guts out. You don't need to be a magician to commit unspeakably horrific acts, after all. I think Peter Sutcliffe, Pol Pot and the like have proved that adequately. What I'm interested in is the horror normal people inflict on one another every day.

"Having said that, imagine how much more horrible it could be if those people had the power of a magician. It's a pretty chilling thought - imagine if the Washington D.C. sniper could have disappeared at will, or if Charlie Manson had been able to literally control people's minds through magic. Imagine the carnage, the horror. That's definitely something I'm interested in examining."

American's have popularized the horror genre and are arguably its biggest producer of material. In recent years the British have once-again seen a great deal of success in this arena. Alan Moore's own "From Hell" resulted in a big-budget Hollywood feature and 2003's "28 Days Later," a British horror film with a new spin on zombies, was a critical hit. Coupled with Avatar's offering of "Nightjar," as well as Johnston's own history with horror fiction, does this signal the beginnings of a British horror invasion? Johnston's not entirely sure he has an answer for that question, but he does have some opinions on why he thinks British writers are successful at it.

"I think that perhaps Brits are willing to go that little bit further, to take that extra step into depravity, than Americans, and maybe that makes our horror a bit more potent," explained Johnston. "We're not afraid to hold a mirror up to our own dark side, at the terrible things human beings are capable of.

"Americans have a tendency to try and sweep that stuff under the carpet, to wish that side of human nature didn't exist and believe that if we all just join hands and love another, it can be eradicated. But, you know, that's bollocks. Without ugliness beauty has no meaning, as they say. So maybe that's a factor."

That original 8-pager was finally finished by Bryan Talbot and published last year by Avatar Press as part of "Alan Moore's Yuggoth Cultures and Other Growths," but it's not included in the first issue of "Nightjar." The decision not to include the original chapter in this new series was a tough one for Johnston.

"This was something I wrestled with for a while, flip-flopping back and forth between whether or not to begin #1 with the original 8-pager. I eventually decided that no, it shouldn't be included - if you don't know the publishing history of the story you'll just be confused by its inclusion, and if you do know the history then you don't need to see it again.

"So instead I took it as a challenge, to recap the first chapter without boring the pants off anyone who'd already read it, and I think I managed. 'Nightjar' #1 starts almost immediately after the first chapter finishes, but the way the recap's done will still be a surprise to anyone familiar with that first chapter."

Earlier we mentioned that Johnston would be working off of Moore's original notes to form the story found in "Nightjar." While you might expect those notes to be extensive coming from the prolific Moore, the actual amount of plot specifics is limited, so the majority of the story you'll read in "Nightjar" belongs to Johnston.

"What you saw reprinted in 'Yuggoth Cultures' was literally it - the whole shebang. That's what I started with. If you've read them, you'll have noticed that beyond the basic revenge plot there really isn't much there in terms of plot, or background, or even character. But what Alan did go into at some length was the feel of the book, the atmosphere, and that's 'made it in' all the way.

"At first, I did think the lack of specifics in Alan's notes might be a problem, but I actually found it to be a great help. As I started thinking about the story, I realized that it meant I could use my own ideas, and my own research, more than I might otherwise have been able. And the end result is a story I'm enormously excited about, and that I feel very comfortable writing.

"I guess it's a little like taking over an ongoing book. Everything that came before - that was in that first chapter - is canon. But from here on it's all down to me, to the stories I want to tell, and the way I want to tell them."

Seeing as how this was once an Alan Moore story that's now being written by Johnston, one wonders if there was any hesitation on Johnston's part in taking on "Nightjar" due to possible expectations readers might have.

"Oh, unquestionably. That was my single biggest reservation when William [Christiansen, Avatar Press Editor-In-Chief] asked me if I'd take this job - I think it's obvious I have a lot of respect for Alan, so the prospect of trying to 'finish' something he started so long ago seemed at first preposterous.

"A few things changed my mind. First, I spent half an hour on the phone to William Christensen. I tried to convince him that this was a terrible idea, that everyone would hate us for doing it, that it was a complete lose-lose situation. He was having none of it. He had valid counter-arguments to every point I made, and by the time I put the phone down I was reassured that yes, this could be something really good.

"Second, Bryan Talbot gave me as much information and research material as anyone could ever need, and showed an enthusiasm for the book that I hadn't been expecting.

"Third, I started having some really good ideas. Which is always a pleasant surprise.

"And finally, I spoke to Alan. He basically told me to stop worrying, to do it my own way and that no, he wouldn't be coming round my house with a shotgun if I did things differently to how he might have."

When Johnston took on the job of writing "Nightjar," he explains he wanted to approach Moore for story ideas and/or approval on said story ideas, but Moore wanted this project to be Johnston's.

"[Alan] wanted me to go my own way, with his blessing, and gave me carte blanche. Basically, he trusts me to do a good job. Which is a pretty bloody scary thought, but there you go.

"Alan does see the scripts, and art, and as with the other Alan-connected work I've done with Avatar he has final veto over everything. But no, I don't go to him with ideas before I actually sit down to write a script."

CBR News asked Avatar's EIC William Christiansen about the choice of Johnston as writer of "Nightjar." He explained there was no other writer her had in mind for this series and heaped grand praise on the writer.

"Antony was both my first choice to take over the 'Nightjar' series,as well as Alan Moore's," said Christiansen. "The work Antony has done working with Alan to date has impressed both of us very much. But Antony is a superb writer on his own and his work has been getting progressively better with each project. Then he turned in the first >four issues of 'Nightjar.' They rock. He took that next leap, from being good to being great. I was totally blown away and I am delighted to be working with him now more than ever/ He really is going to be the next Warren Ellis, and I am thrilled to have him as part of the Avatar family."

And how did Johnston respond when told of Christiansen's comments and the comparison to fellow Brit Warren Ellis?

"With horror and despair...

"No, of course it's flattering, especially knowing how much respect William has for Warren. And it's natural to draw comparisons between new things and old, to help conceptualize them. But it's not something I can allow myself to think about, because that way lies madness. I just put my head down and get on with the job.

"Really, people can make all the comparisons they want, but all that matters to me is whether I can write a book I'm proud of and entertain people along the way. Anything else is just a bonus."

For details on Johnston's upcoming projects with Oni Press, "Spooked," "Julius" and "Closer," check out our August, 2003 interview with Johnston.

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