Bullets, High Kicks And Humanity: Antony Johnston Talks ‘Codename Baboushka’ [Interview]
Last year brought us a whole lot of great new titles from Image, and Codename Baboushka was no exception. Launched in October by Antony Johnston, Shari Chankhamma and Simon Bowland, the series focuses on Contessa Annika Malikova, a former boss in the Russian Mafiya who defected to America --- and was blackmailed in to running missions for the CIA.
It's a bombastic take on espionage, and for more classified information, I spoke to Johnston about the development of the idea, his approach to high action, and the essays from writers like Leigh Alexander and Danielle Henderson included in each issue.
ComicsAlliance: In the first issue of Codename Baboushka, you mentioned that the seed of the idea came from watching a James Bond film and wondering what the story would look like from the point of view of the "Bond Girl." Where did you go from there to build out the idea?
Antony Johnston: That’s right; I was watching From Russia With Love, one of my favourite Bond movies, and suddenly thought that I’d love to see a version of this from Tatiana Romanova’s point of view. Or, better yet; what if she was the hero? What if this was her story, and Bond was just a side character?
That got me thinking about female spies, female action leads, and great historical characters like Modesty Blaise and Mrs. Peel from The Avengers. They were groundbreaking characters in their time, and it’s pretty shameful that 50 years --- half a century! --- later, female action characters like them are still regarded as unusual and risky.
There’s also a serious dearth of leading female action characters in comics, outside the superhero universes. It’s only really in the last several years that a few creators, many of whom I’m proud to count amongst my friends, have begun to redress that balance. We’re still nowhere near any kind of equilibrium.
I wanted to create a character who could be that leading female action hero, a fighter and survivor who was in charge of her own destiny. A character that could endure, and find herself in any number of stories and adventures. Someone with an iconic look, an interesting and shady history… and a very bad attitude.
Baboushka was born.
CA: You worked with Shari Chankhamma previously on The Fuse, but how did the design process for Baboushka go? I know there's a joke in #2 about how the red headband was chosen for casual cosplay purposes, but was the look there from the start?
AJ: Joking aside, that was half-true; I wanted the character to be someone cosplayers might be attracted to, and the headband was definitely a part of that — though it’s also a nod to the ’60s influences, and of course it serves to break up Baboushka’s pure-white hair.
I knew what I wanted, in a general sense of her appearance — athletic, white hair, "combat jumpsuit," and so on — but I left the specifics up to Shari. So the shape of Baboushka’s features, the design of her jumpsuit and weapons belt, etc., those were up to her. That’s partly helped by the fact that I already knew Shari loves to design clothes!
But in any case, we went back and forth several times, tweaking things here and there, and that was even more the case for the secondary characters like Gyorgy, Clay, and Stirling. With the crime lords, Shari did even more of the design on those characters herself, with only a small amount of input from me. And that’s not because those characters aren’t important, but just because I didn’t have a firm idea myself of how they should look. In cases like that, I always let artists take the lead.
CA: Why did you decide to make Baboushka a former crime boss rather than a spy herself?
AJ: That’s my homage to Modesty Blaise, the famous ex-villain-turned-secret-agent who starred in a UK newspaper comic strip for 40 years.
That was the root of it, anyway. But the Contessa developed into a very different character to Modesty — she’s more callous and violent, and the backstory of her life as a Russian mafiya boss is a fuller, more intrinsic part of her stories.
The more I thought about the character, the more I realised that criminal background was something I could really use to drive a conflict between her past life and new adventures under EON’s auspices. We’re only just scratching the surface of that in The Conclave of Death, but it’ll come more to the fore in future stories. Anyone familiar with my work knows I play the long game.
CA: That long-game plotting is one of the things that really attracted me to your work as a fan, and it made me curious as to where things could go from here in Baboushka. Do you plan on just going forward with new adventures, or is there a plan to fill out that history with flashback stories from before she was recruited by the CIA?
AJ: Right now, the plan is to do new missions, and fill in that history in the course of those adventures --- whether by having old allies and villains crop up, or by more directly using Baboushka’s history to influence events.
Never say never, as it were — at some point I may get the urge to write a story set entirely in the past. But there are no plans for that right now.
(And, here’s a scoop for you; Baboushka’s next mission, “Ghost Station Zero”, will feature plenty of Russian connections…)
CA: Well, since you brought it up, now I have to ask: What can we expect from Baboushka in her next adventure?
AJ: Me and my big mouth! I can’t give too much away. But secret underground bases, Cold War relics, mad Russian generals, and the Swiss Alps all have their part to play.
CA: I've really enjoyed seeing how you slip in references as foreshadowing. EON is probably the biggest one, but you also have Baboushka reading Nothing Lasts Forever, the novel that inspired Die Hard, right before she starts crawling around in vents dealing with a pirate attack that's actually a smokescreen for something else. Did you worry about tipping your hand with those?
AJ: Not really. Anyone smart enough to get those references is also probably smart enough to figure that nothing in the book is what it seems, so it wasn’t really giving much away.
(And even if they figured something was up, the details were still yet to be revealed. We all knew there was going to be a new Jedi in The Force Awakens, right? Of course there was. What was entertaining was finding out who, and how.)
CA: This isn't your first time writing a spy story, but previously, you've done much more realistic takes on espionage. Writing something that's based more around over-the-top action is obviously different, but is it easier to have things like explosive earrings in your back pocket to get your characters out of a jam, or is that balanced out by the demands of going bigger with every issue?
AJ: It’s exactly that kind of double-edged sword. This is the most all-out action story I’ve ever done, and not just in terms of spy thrillers; even my superhero work was less over-the-top than Codename Baboushka. That’s interesting, and liberating in the sense that you can solve a lot of problems by just having one character shoot another, or pull a gadget out of their handbag.
But at the same time, if you start too big, you risk slumping in the middle. So as you say, there’s definitely that pressure to build up to a big climax.
And on the, um, third hand, this is still me. And I seem to be incapable of writing a story that doesn’t have a deep backstory, twists and turns, and a fully-formed internal logic. I kind of admire writers who can go to such extremes that those things aren’t necessary, but it’s just not my style.
So, yes, Codename Baboushka is all-action and over-the-top, at least by my standards. But it also has a complex, multifaceted protagonist, a deep mystery at its core, and a kind of humanity that, through all the bullets and high-kicks, is really the soul of the book.
CA: Having done both takes on spy action, is there one that you prefer, or is it just like exercising a different part of your brain?
AJ: It’s really hard to quantify, because it truly is like exercising different muscles. I’d say Codename Baboushka has been a slightly more difficult process for me, but I think that’s precisely because it’s quite different to my usual fare. And even then, being difficult doesn’t make me prefer it, or not, to anything else. I like a challenge.
CA: Baboushka has a loyalty to Gyorgy, but she also specializes in a sort of casual betrayal of those around her --- every member of the Conclave, for example, has a good reason to want her dead. Was it difficult to blend the almost purely mercenary attitude that we see on display with the kind of internal conflict that makes her a more interesting character?
AJ: That’s actually not one of the things I’ve found difficult about writing Baboushka — possibly because of all the more traditional spy stuff I’ve done in the past, which of course regularly features this sort of pragmatic betrayal.
I can’t say too much here without giving away mysteries, but the Contessa’s background is what makes this all click, for me as a writer. Once you know where she’s come from, and what she’s been through, then writing that internal conflict — even when it causes her to do things that might seem out of character — becomes much easier.
That said, it’s important to emphasise that with this story, action really does rule everything around it. Whenever we have to toss a coin between complexity on the one hand, or blowing stuff up on the other… well, things go boom.
CA: How did the essays at the end of each issue come about?
AJ: That was something I always knew I wanted to do in this book. It was partly to help expose these critics and essayists to an audience they might not reach, but also because I want to hear their thoughts on this subject myself. I had no idea how I was going to go about it, but I’m fortunate enough to know some amazing --- and opinionated! --- female writers, and so I approached them to kick things off. It went so well that I immediately began asking other writers whose work I’ve enjoyed to join in.
That’s all there is to it, really. I find what these writers have to say about female heroes and women in fiction extremely interesting, and I want more people to read their work.
CA: When you were putting together the issues, did anything you read in the essays change the way you thought about something?
AJ: They haven’t had any effect on the story, because that was already written and finished long before I began commissioning the essays.
But in wider terms, absolutely — Danielle Henderson’s piece on everyday heroism gave me pause to consider a number of aspects of daily life, and Leigh Alexander’s essay hit close to home because videogames is my other main gig besides comics. We’ve got a great piece in issue #5 from J.A. Micheline, too, about how even role models in fiction are lopsided in gender, and for no good reason.
All of the essays have been above and beyond what even I expected, so I really hope people are enjoying them as much as me.