Umbral: Johnston & Mitten’s Anti-Disney Princess Adventures Through A Deep And Dark Fantasy World [Interview]
Rascal, the savvy young heroine of Antony Johnston and Christopher Mitten’s Umbral, is a thief with both feet planted firmly in the muck. She lives by her dexterous fingers, her knowledge of the city’s side streets, and an arsenal of four-letter words for anyone who stands in her way. Whispers of myth and monsters at the fringes of her world fail to turn Rascal’s head—in fact, she fears and loathes magic and its practitioners. Too bad she’s the heroine of a fantasy story.
Over the course of its first volume from Image Comics, Umbral creates a world rich with ethnic conflict, class struggle, human emotion and totally wicked looking monsters. A cast of scholars, refugees, thieves, and magicians populates its pages, simmering with glimpsed backstories and murky intentions. At its heart is Rascal, staring down a grand destiny she never wanted. As the first volume hits the shelves, ComicsAlliance spoke with Johnston and Mitten about fantasy tropes, developing character voices, and the importance of The Dark Crystal.
ComicsAlliance: Rascal is a fantasy heroine unafraid to sling around some foul language in the face of monsters and magic. It sets her apart from everyone around her, and from more conventional fantasy protagonists. Was she always this way in your head, or did she change over the course of developing the story? Did you always intend for your protagonist to be someone who sees things from ‘below’, as an orphaned thief, as opposed to someone in a position of greater power, like the pluckier Disney princesses for example?
Antony Johnston: Rascal was always going to be a lowlife from the seedy underbelly of the city, for sure. She’s a thief — and not some kind of “gentleman thief”, either, but a proper crook who lives by stealing sh*t.
(Unlike the dilettante Prince Arthir, who’s just doing it for kicks. Bearing in mind his fate, take that as you will.)
I like high fantasy as much as the next guy, but I also like a bit of grit and grime with my faux-medieval trappings. And I always pictured Rascal as being full of that grit, having lived a life surrounded by thieves, smugglers, and ne’er-do-wells.
CA: The artwork of Umbral has a wonderfully cluttered look to it– it reminded me a lot of Japanese manga group CLAMP’s work, as well as Mike Mignola. How did you, together or separately, devise Umbral’s look? I particularly love how fluidly Rascal’s hair moves.
Christopher Mitten: Wow, thank you. Now I wish I had a better, or at least more interesting, answer. It really comes down to this is simply how I draw, and, more importantly, enjoy drawing. Antony’s scripts are fantastic, and the worlds so fully realized, that with this and Wasteland I’m just leaping into these places and drawing creatures and cultures that already exist. He makes it easy. But that’s what that level of thought and talent will do, I guess! I love working with Antony and hope we continue to work together on projects as long as we’re both able.
AJ: The “look and feel” of Umbral is almost entirely down to Chris. I suggest things, I make notes, occasionally I might insist on a detail here and there, but for the most part I say “dark, spooky, and spiky” and Chris delivers that beautiful opening splash page. When your artist is working at that kind of level, the best thing a writer can do is stand back and let them run.
CA: One thing I really enjoyed about Umbral is the distinct character voices — from Shayim’s broken speech to Dalone’s notably “fancy” talk, no one is interchangeable. Did these voices spring naturally from the characters, or did they take time to develop?
AJ: A little of both. I knew 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.
And then I’d made that decision, I realized I could be a lot more colloquial with each character’s mannerisms, dialogue style, vocal tics, and so on. That gives me a lot of freedom, and when coming up with our main characters, I used it as much as I could.
My process is kind of intuitive — 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.
CA: Fantasy can be a pretty well-worn genre — it’s easy to fall back into old tropes. Umbral embraces some, while subverting others (I know I did a double-take when the brave young prince dropped dead only a few pages in).
AJ: I’m glad you did that double-take, because that’s exactly the effect we were going for. It’s a jolt to the reader, something to make people realise this isn’t the kind of comic they might have been expecting; Umbral is not a story where a handsome young prince learns to be a hero and defends the girl. No, we’re a very different kind of book altogether.
CM: I made that first double-take, too, when I first read the script. I mean, I knew what was going to happen, but for some reason I hadn’t pictured it taking place quite as early as it did in the first issue. When it did, I had a big, goofy smile on my face. From an illustration standpoint, it’s fun to draw these types of stories, there’s simply so many places to let one’s imagination run wild.
CA: Have these tropes been on your mind as you created Umbral?
AJ: I don’t give much thought to whether we’re following tropes or not. Of course I’m aware of them — I’ve been reading F&SF pretty much my whole life — and when our story means I’m able to subvert them, that’s great. But if it’s appropriate for us to use them (like, um, a powerful artefact that needs to be destroyed in a distant mountain?) then I won’t hesitate.
CM: Like Antony, I don’t really think about the tropes one way or the other; at least not overly. I think it’s obvious we both love fantasy and science-fiction — tropes included — that’s why we wanted to do Umbral in the first place, but where it embraces or deviates from them is all just in service to the larger story at play.
CA: The world of Umbral is already rich in lore and history — we have corruption, magic vs. science, ethnic disputes, an unexpected degree of technology. Do you have grand statements about society and human nature in mind for Umbral? Did you go into this intending to send a message, or did it grow from other ideas you were developing? Are there any real-world conflicts or events you’re taking inspiration from?
AJ: I’m not a fan of didactic fiction, or analogies that are blatantly on-the-nose. If I want to have any effect — aside from simply entertaining people — it’s to persuade readers to think more carefully about something. I generally trust the audience’s intelligence. That’s why much of my work has a common theme of “anti-extremist, anti-dogma”. That may not qualify as a “message” per se, but it’s an ethos I strongly believe in, and think would benefit the world if it was more widely adopted.
As we were developing Umbral, and I was delving into the mythology and legends, I had a sudden realisation. Wasteland is about people who fervently believe new myths and legends, but they turn out to be false; whereas Umbral is about people who reject ancient myths and legends, but they turn out to be true…!
I don’t know if there’s a deeper meaning, there. I’m no psychologist. But I do think it’s interesting.
CA: What stories influenced you the most in creating Umbral? Were there any that served as examples of what not to do?
AJ: The thing that Chris and I bonded over long ago, and which made us think we could tackle dark fantasy ourselves, was The Dark Crystal. We both love that movie, and its influence on Umbral is undeniable.
Besides that, my influences are mostly similar “low fantasy” stuff. Fafhrd & The Gray Mouser, Game of Thrones (of course — we all live in Martin’s shadow, these days), Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play, Elric of Melniboné, even Battlestar Galactica… then there’s less obvious stuff like Sandman, the music of Devil Doll, Guillermo del Toro’s movies, Jan Švankmajer’s surreal animation. It all filters in there somewhere.
CM: Regardless of how successful their films may be in telling thier stories, I’m a sucker for the feel and look of that whole Burton/Gilliam/del Toro/Henson thing. And from the comics side, in my early-to-mid-teens I fell into the stuff by Ted McKeever, Mike Mignola, Dave McKean, Bill Sienkiewicz, Frank Miller, Kent Williams, Walt Simonson, Chris Bachalo, and innumerable others in terms of storytelling and different ways to approach the page. Those guys really informed my early outlook on what comics can be. Everything seeps in.
CA: Umbral went to some places I didn’t expect it to go — the chao-dak comes to mind. If you can divulge, are there any other places, themes or objects Umbral will tackle that the reader might not expect?
AJ: I don’t want to give anything away. Half the fun in a story like this is being surprised by unexpected magic, technology, or creatures. I will say there’s a bit of magic integral to the plot in Book Two which I particularly enjoyed coming up with — especially as we deal with it in a really mundane manner, but when you stop and think, and realize what’s actually happening, it’s creepy as hell.
Our series tagline is, “What if your greatest fear was your only hope?” I think that fits quite well.