Three's Not a Crowd: Johnston talks graphic novels at Oni in 2004

Writer Antony Johnston has made a name for himself over at Avatar Press adapting loads of Alan Moore work into comic form for the publisher. Last year he got together with Mike Hawthorne and Oni Press to produce "Three Days in Europe." 2004 is shaping up to be a very big year for Johnston, who will have three very different projects coming from Oni Press. CBR News caught up with the writer to learn more about his plans.

The fun for Johnston starts in February of next year with "Spooked," followed by "Julius" in March and "Closer" in May. All three original graphic novels will be 140 to 160 pages in Oni's 5½"x8" format. Johnston described the books for us.

"'Spooked' is about a girl who has a ghost living in her head," Johnston told CBR News. "Quite a few of them, at one time or another. They come and go, each leaving their mark on her. It's a pretty good arrangement, but of course she daren't tell anyone about what goes on in her head. Until the day a murder victim pops up in there - and he wants her help to find his killers.

"'Julius' is Julius Caesar, with London gangsters. Simple as that.

"'Closer' is a straight-up horror story. Six scientists are invited to the remote home of an enigmatic genius, to witness his attempt to change the world. It's only when they arrive that they realize this is the closing chapter of a story that started thirty years ago, with an experiment that went horribly wrong.

"As for themes... I don't really want to pre-judge them. It's often the case that a piece's theme doesn't become fully apparent to its writer until it's finished, and I'm still halfway through scripting two of these. None of them are particularly happy books, but that's about as close as I want to get to that answer."

Starting with "Spooked," as you read above it's about a girl, named Emily, whose got a few dead guests in her head, but she's not just another crazy person hearing voices. Of course the fact that she's not crazy doesn't make things any easier for her.

"You know, if I told you, right now, that there was a dead person living in my head, would you believe me? Or would you dismiss me as a fucking nutcase?

"Imagine knowing that you were telling the truth, but no-one would believe you. Imagine being the nine-year-old ball in a game of ping-pong between shrinks, because you're too young to keep your mouth shut. Imagine learning that lesson, and spending the rest of your life hiding the single most outstanding thing about you from everyone except the ghost inside your head.

"That's how they affect Emily.

"How do they get in there? That would be telling.

While there are horror aspects to the story in "Spooked," Johnston wouldn't want you to pigeon hole it with that label specifically.

"I guess it's closer to horror than anything else, but it's mostly psychological. There isn't any gore 'on-screen,' but yeah, some of the drama is pretty horrifying on an existential level," said Johnston. "If you'd class 'Psycho' as a horror, then yeah, 'Spooked' is a horror, too. I prefer to think of it as a psychodrama."

Who'll "Spooked" appeal to?

"Goths," said Johnston definitively, but then went on to clarify. "And a few other people, yeah. Hopefully anyone who likes a good story, with a complex central character and a nice ominous atmosphere - oh, plus a few good twists. But let's be honest, here - it's for the goths."

Art for the series will be handled by Ross Campbell.

"James [Lucas Jones, Oni editor] had known about Ross for a while, and sent me a link to his Web page when we were chatting about an artist for the book. He's a great artist - he's done a lot of work for White Wolf's 'Exalted' game, is currently drawing backups for 'Hopeless Savages' - and he's a goth. I mean, come on. No-brainer.

"So anyway, working with Ross is fun. He's very enthusiastic, and actually likes drawing emotional, conversational scenes. Which is pretty damn rare among young artists. Understand, 'Spooked' has a lot of scenes where Emily is essentially talking to herself. So it was vital we have an artist who loves drawing characters, and can handle emotional, expressive scenes. Ross fits that bill on all points."

Next up for Johnston is "Julius," his own take on the classic by Shakespeare, with art provided by Brett Weldele. For those who might not be up for sitting down to digest something written by the bard, Johnston's take on the story may be the perfect vehicle for you.

[Julius]"It's a reworking of the play - not verbatim, but pretty faithful.

"If there's one thing that always irks me, it's 'modernisations' of Shakespeare which are actually nothing of the sort. They're just the same play, with the same lines, spoken by actors in modern costumes. That's bollocks, and I've yet to see one that benefited from it.

"But Stratford Billy's plays haven't lasted centuries because of their flawless iambic pentameter - they've lasted because they're bloody good stories. So what we're doing with Julius is a genuine modernisation, where the dialogue, environment, actions, everything has changed to reflect the setting - except the actual story, because that's the point of it all.

"For example: the false letters which Cassius conspires to send Brutus, in order to convince Brutus the people of Rome are behind his decision to replace Caesar, clearly won't wash in the modern day. But anonymous text messaging will. Soothsayer? There are no soothsayers any more. But there are plenty of $29.95-an-hour high-street psychics. And so on. It's all there, in essence - anyone familiar with the play will see it unfolding - but it's all different, too. That's what makes it fun."

And for those familiar with the original play, there will still be a number of familiar faces gracing the pages of "Julius."

"We've compressed the cast list a little to preserve mine and Brett's sanity. There are something like fifty-odd characters in the play, and many of them are little more than one-line ciphers, shoehorned in for a bit of historical authenticity. But as we're not dealing with real history any more, we've trimmed it down to... twenty-one, I think it is. Still enough to give Brett nightmares."

Once again, James Lucas Jones brought the artist for "Julius" on this project.

"I actually first got to know Brett through his work on 'Couscous Express,' and met him shortly before the book was released. But it was Gary Phillips' 'Shot Callerz,' also from Oni, that really made me look again at his work. When I first pitched 'Julius,' James immediately suggested Brett as artist, and it plain made sense. I've found him very easy to work with, excellent at page design, panel composition and character design. Plus he's just as cynical, if not more so, than me. So we get on quite well."

Johnston finishes this trifecta with "Closer," a modern horror graphic novel with art from Mike Norton and Leanne Buckley.

[Closer]"It's the classic 'group of people trapped in a house, dropping like flies' story," Johnston said of "Closer." "You get them in, cut them off from the outside world, put something horrible in there with them, then sit back and watch them scream.

"But there's more to it than gore - although 'Closer' is pretty gory, much more so than 'Spooked' - and as the characters alternately fight, resign themselves to death, fight again and so on, old secrets and rivalries come to the fore. Defeating this horror is more about battling your own demons, and making a leap of understanding, than whacking it with a two-by-four.

"Also, Egyptian gods. They're always good for a laugh."

The roots of this story are based in Johnston's own fascination with science.

"I read a lot of popular science books and magazines. I'm no scientist, by any stretch of the imagination, but the stuff on the edge of research fascinates me - especially quantum mechanics, which is the seed that 'Closer' grew from.

"A couple of stories concerning quantum teleportation theory caught my eye, and I just found myself thinking, 'Hmmm, what if...?' It's pretty common among writers, I think. Something in the real world sparks your imagination, mixes up with something else lying dormant in your brainpan, and next thing you know you're pitching a story.

In the case of working with artist Mike Norton, Johnston had Norton in mind for the series even before Oni agreed to publish it. Norton's an artist with a varied background. From his work on "Voltron" to working with J. Torres on "Jason and the Argobots" Norton has a varied style which will show another side with this project. Norton will be joined by Leanne Buckley handling the art chores for "Closer," and Johnston feels the two are a perfect match for the book.

"Mike made his debut with Sean McKeever's 'The Waiting Place,' which was one of the first books I read when I got back into comics four or five years ago. Of course, he's now known as the big robot guy since drawing 'Jason and the Argobots' and working for Devil's Due on 'Voltron,' but before all that I just knew him as a cracking artist who was also a really nice guy. (And the first pro artist to actually approach me about working together, back at San Diego 2001, when 'Frightening Curves' was released. He's regretted it ever since...)

"So Mike and I worked on a short piece for the 'Artists Respond' 9-11 benefit book, and that got us talking about working together on something longer again. I originally had another artist in mind for 'Closer,' but they couldn't commit. So I strong-armed Mike into the job, and then we went looking for a publisher - which had its own ups and downs - until we finally landed at Oni.

"Leanne's another artist I've wanted to work with for a while - her linework and character design is stunning - and she's an old friend of Mike's, so they're comfortable working together. She brings a kind of grubby texture to Mike's art that really sinks it into the page, and the result is one of those collaborations where you're not quite sure where one artist ends and another begins. It looks lovely"

Johnston noted that Norton's an artist with great range with a recognizable style, tweaking it just so to apply it to each genre he works in.

"You have to remember that Mike's as versatile as all hell. Look at his stuff, from 'Waiting Place' to 'Argobots' to 'Voltron,' and you'll see that it's all the same style, but he makes it fit every time. He's like Dillon, or Cassaday - there isn't a genre he can't turn his hand to and still do a great job.

"Mike actually told me, when we first talked about 'Closer' that he'd wanted to do a darker book for some time to get away from the 'cartoony' tag a lot of people shoved on him. Now, he's done so much work since that conversation that I don't think that's really a worry any more. But yeah, you're definitely going to see a side to Mike you may not previously have realized was there."

For more from Johnston, check out his column at Ninth Art or visit his Web site, www.mostlyblack.com.

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