Last week Daniel Warren Johnson’s new comic Extremity from Skybound debuted to rave reviews and sellouts at comic shops across North America. It’s easy to see why: with bold and intense art and a rich and complex world created as the background for a compelling revenge story, Extremity is the kind of comic that grabs the reader from page one and just never lets up.
I had the chance to talk with Daniel about his new series, his influences and the amazing amount of work that went into creating his very specific world presented in this comic. It was a treat to hear the influences he brought to this project and why he decided to scrap a lot of his original first issue in favor of the version of the story that appeared on the stands.
Click here to download an mp3 of this interview.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: I’m here with Daniel Warren Johnson, the creator of Extremity from Image Comics/Skybound.
Daniel Warren Johnson: It’s a revenge story of a girl named Thea. She’s known as an artist in this science fiction world I’ve created. She draws with her right hand. Her hand is taken in war. She’s looking for her identity now. Her identity as an artist is gone and that begins her revenge quest.
CB: This is obviously something that’s got to have resonance with you as an artist.
Johnson: Yes. That was the main emotional push of the story, needing to infuse a story with some sort of personal kind of fear as a personal slant so it didn’t just come off as not just another revenge story without any sort of personal drive, like “you killed my mother or you killed my wife” or what have you. I wanted it to it to have significance with me as a person and then hopefully would translate more emotionally to the story. I think I did that.
CB: I was talking to your editor earlier. You had done a full or at least partial draft of the book but ended up redoing it for Skybound?
Johnson: I pitched the first eight pages to Image two years ago at ECCC. They were really excited about it. It was like these first eight people you see, more or less. The last stage of the pitch was …I know people can’t see it but it was the final spread of them approaching this castle floating in this world. They were basically really excited about it. What end up happening is it took so long for the process to get started because I would start writing it and then like four months later I actually started drawing it. I was unhappy with the way my original pages look now. Everything in here is new except for page one.
CB: You’re one of those dreaded perfectionists who likes everything to be just right.
CB: Obviously, that’s a lot of work. Your pages are complicated and there’s a lot going on in them. I’m sure it all has deep meaning, too. Is it a matter of just how the story refines as you think about it or were you not happy with your layouts?
Johnson: It was almost a panel for panel… not recreation because there were a few story elements that changed as the scripts progressed and I got a few notes. I was making the story stronger and putting in characters that maybe weren’t there before or changing their roles just to make sure everything was set up correctly so that we had a really strong foundation to finish the book out when the time came to end it.
CB: This thing that’s most striking to me — and it’s now my third or fourth time going through it. It’s how much detail and complexity seems to be implied by this. How much of this world did you work out and did you just literally just write in the script, or did you have sketchbooks full of all this work?
Johnson: How I usually start worldbuilding is I need an emotional and — I need an incentive to build the world so I can’t build a world and put characters in it. It’s the opposite for me. I developed Justia as a character. She’s a character that I develop like a white Matrix background, when all the guns show up in The Matrix and they’re just walking in that white background. As I developed Thea and her character and her personality, just what she would look like, just the visual aesthetic of her, I started to learn more about her personality and I created a world to fit her story the best, and that was more than you see now. I basically started with Thea, started with Rollo, started with Jerome, her father. I put them in a world that I thought work best and that would be most visually entertaining for the story to take place.
CB: She revealed her character to you, is what you’re implying. Which I always think is interesting in talking to creators. How did that happen? In the process of creating the story, did feel her personality come through?
Johnson: It’s a pretty natural progression. Initially Thea did not have her hand missing. I was still developing the story and things were not clicking and it was just her missing that arm that really gave it that emotional pull. Then she really started to speaking to me because it was I was infusing part of myself with her.
CB: You say in the back of the first issue that it took you three and a half years to work on this story.
Johnson: Part of it is that I didn’t have enough time to dedicate fully to worldbuilding and making it happen. What it basically turned into was at stoplights, that’s when I think about this stuff. Very slowly it comes out into sketchbooks, like you said. I have stacks of sketchbooks with random one-off characters that didn’t even make it into the book. Or locations, or like little pieces of tech. Or concepting out how even a scene that’s been in my head for years that doesn’t end up in the book until the very end. It’s that process of not being able to work on it fulltime.
Because I was working on Ghost Fleet, on Space-Mullet, all these other projects I’ve done, Extremity has always kind of been in the background. When I started working with Skybound on it, they gave the ability to really focus on it. From June of 2015 I was able to really start writing out a solid backbone of the story, like an outline. I started writing I started writing in August 2015 and it wasn’t until November/December 2015 that I started drawing issue one.
CB: You gave this project a long time to work itself out in your head and even then, you had to play with it.
Johnson: Yeah. Because it was a book that you can tell I’m critiquing myself pretty seriously on it. It’s scary and there’s a lot of self-doubt. I can’t hide behind the titles of, like Space-Mullet, because it’s like hey, what do you expect, it’s called Space-Mullet. People read this and it’s personal. It more or less puts me out there. It puts my feelings out there and that’s scary. I wanted it to be good and so there was significant gestation period that had to happen before I could really get it down on paper.
CB: You were home schooled. You’re used to kind of being in your own world. Yet you’re throwing yourself out there in lot of ways. How does it feel having your inner self kind of laid out on the page now for thousands of people to read?
Johnson: That’s one thing I like about fiction. The initial spark is that fear of losing my drawing hand. Who knows what will happen someday but this is allowing me to put myself in that shoe. That’s what I love about fiction. I take that initial spark which is very personal and I let my characters do the rest. Some of the characters are more like me than others but they’re all different, they’re all unique and they play out in ways I don’t even expect. I think the first issue is pretty personal just because of the setup.
But then when it starts going deeper and deeper it becomes its own story it happens to be me making it. I feel pretty comfortable putting out there being personal about stuff. But at the end of the day it’s a comic. There are some people are going to like it and there’s some that are going to hate it. I’m proud of it. I put it out in the world and that’s it.
CB: I think what you’re talking about is the essence of great storytelling where the characters come alive and start to shape the story. How much did you directly plot the story versus allowing it to play itself out? Did you have beats you were trying to hit, then give yourself freedom inside those beats?
Johnson: One thing that was awesome about working with Skybound is Sean Mackiewicz, my editor. When I wrote this outline, it was very crisp and sharp from issue one to issue six. Getting closer to moving on from the first arc I realized I’m not really sure exactly what’s going to happen. And then basically what ended up happening… like Sean said, when you get to issue 6 you’re going to have a really good idea of where things are going. We were confident because I really knew what was happening up till issue 6. Of course, as I’m writing it, as I’m drawing it, I’m constantly thinking about the next steps of the story. It very naturally led to being able to carry it through in the through lines of the characters and their motivations. They surprise me sometimes and how that might inform the end of Extremity.
CB: Tell me about the world you created.
Johnson: It doesn’t have a name for a reason. The only thing that I named was the actual floating continents. Those are called the Rising Plains. There’s a map in the back of the first issue which I was very excited to be able to do. Mike colored the heck out of that because he really made it look like an old map. It’s really neat. Actually, he sent me a version that was a little cleaner and I was, like, Mike can we do few more coffee stain kind of things?
That leads me into a quick shout out to Mike Spicer. I asked him can you try and figure out… this is a map but there’s like floating worlds. It’s a 4D space. We need to have some way to distinguish that things are above the ground. He did this amazing shading thing where it’s a little subtle gradient. It makes things pop. He’s a great colorist.
Back to the worldbuilding. Just visually speaking, not even really story elements, I really wanted to play with the visuals and just be able to draw floating rocks because I love drawing that stuff. I wish I could say it was really deep but it is not. It’s in videogames. It’s in movies. It’s in novels. But I had not seen it done, at least to my satisfaction, in comics. I felt like it was unexplored, not in science fiction but in comic science fiction. I just really wanted to dive in that way.
From there I just started developing different worlds and like what would happen if you had a science fiction world that was super advanced that some sort of war or some sort of destruction happened on the earth. They’re forced to rise these worlds up above to survive. And what happens to the people who are higher away from this old world, versus people who are a lower who have scavenge that old world.
CB: That explains why there’s this mix of like a medieval castle with these modern weapons. I’m sure you have a whole thought-though back story behind this too.
Johnson: I realize that your listeners or that your readers will not have access necessarily to this image but… You’ll notice that there’s the Great Basin right here. The idea was that the Paznina, who are the antagonists in this story, have access to this water source. Water fuels everything. Without clean water, you don’t have industry. You don’t have technology. The Paznina are so far above all this devastated world. They’re privileged to have the source. They basically develop their own economy and their own industry but they’re starting from scratch. That’s why you have the medieval look. They’re able to mass produce the same armor but it’s old school. Whereas the Roto, everybody looks a little bit different. Everybody has like a different flair and a different technology. There’s these two dichotomies of culture that I really wanted to explore visually. That (a) helps define who they are immediately when you read a panel; and (b) just makes it more fun to draw.
CB: You’ve got all this background, all this space, all this detail. But this is still an action comic. Did you want to throw people into this world with the action and then have them catch up?
Johnson: That’s basically the goal. I didn’t want to be too specific with it. I wanted people to fill it out. Because like in Star Wars they don’t really tell you everything. You’re just kind of there. I really like that. There’s nothing wrong with exposition but I wanted to do as little of that as possible.
CB: Tell me about first arc. What are we going to see over the next five issues?
Johnson: We’re going to get a better look at the Paznina, the antagonists who initiated this war with the Roto. We’re going to see more of the people who are responsible for taking Thea’s hand and killing her mother. We’re going to see some possible showdowns between the people that may have actually taken her mother’s life. There’s also a possibility of maybe finding something interesting on that lower world on the roads or scavenging. We see some of the stuff they may find. They find some pretty cool things.
CB: You keep saying “possibly,” “may find”…
Johnson: I don’t want to say for sure. I don’t want to give too much away but that’s what’s in store.
CB: So. I want to talk about your art style. It’s kinetic. The first name that pops to mind is maybe a Paul Pope influence.
Johnson: Yes. Definitely. I love how loose and freeform Paul Pope’s lines are. Along with Paul Pope, Simon Roy, who was working on the Prophet comics. I love looking at his stuff because it’s so free and I can tell he’s not sweating over it. It looks like he’s having fun. I want that professionalism, that sharp, crisp style. It looks representational but I want the freedom of not sweating too hard over it. I want to work hard on it but I want it to look like I didn’t work hard.
CB: If I can summarize your show overall it’s that you have a plan but you’re revising inside the plan. That’s a bit of what I see in your art as well.
Johnson: Partly when working on an epic story like this, there’s not a lot of time to… there’s only eight hours in my workday. I can’t render every single soldier in his battle suits. Sometimes I have to get looser just out of necessity. I have dinner waiting for me, and I gotta chill. I gotta go to bed. I refuse be the obsessive artist.
CB: How’s it been working at Skybound?
Johnson: Skybound been awesome. My editors are great. Everything’s great. There are notes on my scripts. They never tell me what to do. If they tell me anything, it’s like, hey, Thea does this thing in issue one but here in issue three she’s doing something that’s contradicting that. This is fine, but tell us why. Explain it. Make it into a story to make understand why she’s doing this. It makes a stronger story.
CB: What’s the overall plan? Do you see this going on forever or do you have a full story?
Johnson: I’m not sure yet. I’m not positive. I’ll see what happens. I would say it’s not going to go that long. I have an ending. I have a beginning, middle and end. I’m excited by the fact that I have an ending and I know where everything’s going. I have a plan.
CB: Anything else you want to add?
Johnson: I’ll say this about Extremity. I’ve never worked harder on anything in my life except my marriage. This is me trying really hard. We can say that publicly.