Be sure to catch every installment of Surviving The Big Wet, Comics Bulletin’s week-long Wasteland event:
Antony Johnston Interview (Part 1)
Justin Giampaoli for Comics Bulletin: Chris, for those who don’t know the history, can you talk about how you started working with Antony Johnston, and how you guys moved from your Queen & Country: Declassified arc to formulating the pitch for Wasteland?
Christopher Mitten: The whole thing’s pretty straightforward, really. I’d just come off of The Tomb, my second project with Oni Press – my second project anywhere, actually – and I got an email asking if I’d be interested in drawing a Queen & Country arc. Being a huge fan of the book, I said yes, obviously. What was set to happen, and it would be the only time someone other than Greg Rucka would pen a Q&C story, was that he’d oversee the proceedings and hand the actual writing duties to Antony. I knew Antony’s work – I think Julius was out at the time, which I loved, though almost a decade on, my memory’s a bit hazy on what was out when, if it was that or something else, but I know I knew his work – so I was excited to be working with him.
It was pretty clear once we started working on Q&C that we made a good team. One always hates to fall back on the “we just clicked” cliché, but we did. We have fairly similar sensibilities in how a page should look and how a story should be told, so there really wasn’t a lot of back and forth on anything; he’d write; I’d draw; it was sort of a cycle of trying to impress and inspire the other, and fit us well.
Once we wrapped those three issues we rolled, if memory serves, relatively quickly into Wasteland. I don’t even remember doing too much preproduction stuff: a few quick sketches, maybe, but nothing more. Antony’s world was so fully formed in his head and on the page all I had to do was draw what he’d written and hope to hell I didn’t screw it up too badly.
At the time, it was quite the departure for Oni and what they’d been doing; not only from an ongoing or long-form standpoint – the exceptions being Queen & Country and, I think, Andi Watson’s Love Fights – but certainly in terms of genre. They’d not really done flat-out sci-fi/adventure before, and certainly not something as ambitious as what Wasteland proposed to be, both in scope and potential commitment of time. If it worked, Antony’s story was set to run somewhere between 50 and 60 issues. He had this thing set from the beginning and Oni was there to see it through –pretty amazing, really, especially looking back on it and having a decade-plus under my belt.
CB: How collaborative was the process for Wasteland? It seems like you’ve gotten even more collaborative as a creative team with your recent work on Umbral.
Mitten: Like I touched on above, it came more or less fully formed. As we went along, Antony might tweak this or that, expand one story or shorten another or take a little detour, but the whole of it, the arc from the first page of the first issue to its closing one in issue 60, was mapped.
Wasteland was a story Antony had knocking around in his head for 10 years before it got to me, so its world and characters felt very lived-in and realized—I could just see everything so clearly—it made my job easy.
That Antony makes it all seem so effortless, from the world-building, the characterization, the natural flow of the dialogue, is a testament to just how hard he works on these things and how gifted he is as a storyteller, and how fortunate I am to have been along for the ride.
CB: You’ve had a very long haul on this title, illustrating all but about three of the arcs over 60 issues. What did you learn as an artist?
Mitten: Don’t over-think and just roll with it; loosen up; breathe. Things I wish I could carry over into my non-drawing life where I’m basically a constant ball of frazzled nerves.
If you look at the first issue and issue 60, it’s not even the same guy. But that’s the thing: you draw and draw and draw until you start to find your groove, your voice, your style, and once you do (or think you do, more accurately), try like hell to make every issue, every panel, better than the one before. Never settle and never get too comfortable; that’s creative death. Always try new styles, new techniques. They may not all work—most don’t –but it’s all part of growing and changing and keeping it interesting, not just for yourself, but for the readers, the writers, and editors. If there’s no growth, nothing to keep everybody at every level interested, I’m not going to have a job or, especially important in freelancing, I’m not going to have that next job.
There’s a lot the whole “progress not perfection” thing happening. In terms of finding my Wasteland groove, though, I think that started to happen toward the end of the second arc and certainly the third. That’s where I think you can see the echoes of everything and every project that came after.
CB: How did your style or process evolve from the beginning of the series to the end? I definitely noticed more details and heavier inks by the end.
Mitten: It just goes back to trying new things and trying them as often as I can. I mean, I’m basically at my desk 12 to 16 hours every single day, so it’s about keeping it fun and interesting. The last thing that should happen to anyone who’s fortunate enough, for however long it may last, to cobble together a living in comics—or doing whatever it is one loves—is to grow bored, or complacent. That’ll come through in the work, whether you realize it or not. If you’re having fun, or are, at the very least, engaged and interested in the job in front of you, if you care, that’ll show, too. It’s about making every job the most important job you’ve ever had. I get to draw comics. That’s awesome. 12-year-old me wouldn’t believe it. Want it, sure; believe it, probably not. At the very least, it’d take some major convincing.
CB: I was joking with Antony that other artists have it relatively easy. Writers will say “draw Batman“ or “draw a city“ or “draw an explosion.“ These are known quantities. But, Antony says “draw The Dog Tribes“ and “draw Sand-Eaters“ and “draw The End of The Goat-Fucking World!“ How do you approach designing elements which are wholly new?
Mitten: I think in some ways it’s easier to create something from nothing. Nobody knows what a Dog Tribe looks like, what Michael or Abi or Marcus look like, or a pre-city or Newbegin or any aspects of this world look like. And that’s part of the fun. There’s no wrong way, really, to draw these things. Everybody has a picture of Batman or Spider-Man in their head and what they’re supposed to look like. Granted, that’s fun in its own right—I’ve had a couple cracks at Batman, and you’d better believe it was a blast, because if you can’t have fun drawing Batman, what’s the point? – but it’s a different kind of fun: it’s a riff on an established design as opposed to giving some guy ram’s horns and odd piercings for the honest hell of it.
From the beginning, from Queen & Country, through Wasteland, into Umbral, and whatever and whenever it’s time for that next thing, Antony and I have always expected a lot from each other and that’s what pushes us and inspires us and keeps us on our toes. We both have soft spots for these big, sweeping stories, huge set pieces populated with interesting and often odd-looking, and odd-acting, characters. We have a love of the fantastic and try as best we can to get that to the page. Hopefully, along the way, we find a few readers and fans that like what we do so we can keep doing it.
I truly don’t think I did preliminaries for any of the characters. One, maybe two of Michael. Abi, maybe one? For the rest of the characters, I kind of just dove in and drew them. I can find the characters quicker that way, in the story, in the action. That was certainly the case for the Dog Tribe. I want to say in that case, in a parenthetical, Antony wrote something along the lines of “just go nuts.” I loved that arc. Some of my favorite designs lie in members of the Dog Tribe. Antony gave me a lot with which to play through those issues. Man, that was fun!
CB: I’m curious about some of the different methods you used along the way, two in particular. The dull gray for depicting the night sequences in The Dog Tribes arc, and early on there’s a certain textural effect to the pages that looks like crumpled parchment. How’d you do that?
Mitten: Basic-as-hell Photoshop tomfoolery. I wish I had a better (or at least more interesting) answer.
CB: I don’t mean to give you the business here, but I’m curious from a process standpoint about issue 25. This was the first issue you did in full color, and it must have been bittersweet. It was absolutely gorgeous, certainly a high point artistically, but from a publishing standpoint it derailed the schedule a bit. What happened?
Mitten: For better or worse, I can compartmentalize the hell out of things, basically to the point of Vulcan stoicism—which, I’m sure, is a totally healthy approach to life and will have no long-term ramifications. Work is here; life is there.
Issue 25 had the distinct misfortune of being produced during a time where those compartments buckled and collapsed, leaving everything inside my head in a bigger heap of anxiety and depression than usual. Nothing that happened during that time was unusual, really, just the stuff that comes from living life, the good and bad, but everything happened so quickly and overlapped so incredibly, I was never able to find my footing, with work, with life, and that got into my head in a big way. I couldn’t concentrate. I was having full-tilt panic attacks, which would dovetail helpfully into bone-powdering depression and then cycle around again. I was an absolute mess. This isn’t said lightly or with hyperbole. It was bad.
The one thing I always felt I had a handle on was work, and suddenly I couldn’t do that anymore. I can’t control life but I can control what happens in those boxes on that page. But that was gone. I had no control over anything, anywhere. No safe place to quiet and concentrate my mind. And I could feel this thing, drawing comics professionally – and it was just at the point when it was starting to become a self-sustaining career, my dream since I was kid – slipping away. Fast. And that scared me even more.
The harder I tried to right the ship and get things back on schedule, the worse it got. Like I said, I was trapped in my head and I couldn’t sidestep the loop of anxiety and depression, and it was tightening and spinning faster and we were falling months and months behind.
I truly love issue 25. I wish I’d been able to keep it on track and on time, but the end result is something with which I’m truly satisfied and proud.
A few issues into the next arc we were still so far behind and I was completely fried. Antony, James Lucas Jones, Joe Nozemack, and everybody at Oni was so understanding and forgiving, but I’d hit the wall and hit it hard. The only way this book was going to have even the slightest chance of survival was if I was not longer drawing it. I think there’d only been three issues that year. That’s devastating for any book, and almost certain death for a black-and-white indie.
We tried to complete the arc but that wasn’t going to happen. Not with me still drawing it. No one wants to switch artists in the middle of an arc but there really wasn’t much choice. I did breakdowns for two of the three—I think three—remaining issues in that story, but I really and truly had to leave the book, for the book’s health as much as mine.
And that was it for a while for Wasteland and me.
Through the sheer determination of Antony and James and the artists who followed, the book was brought back to life and, most importantly, over that next year or so, brought back to its regular schedule.
CB: This is a totally unfair question, but how did you feel about other artists like Justin Greenwood or Russel Roehling coming in and delivering arcs? Any particular favorites?
Mitten: Ha! If you could see me, you’d see I’m shaking a crotchety fist at you.
I know this is going to sound like a total dodge, but I liked them all. Look who we had in there, and there’s not a lot of reason to nitpick and quibble; they each brought their top-stuff and made this world theirs. And not just for the arcs, either, but for the standalones, like Brett Weldele and Chuck BB and Carla Speed McNeil and Joe Infurnari – it’s all fantastic stuff. To see the different interpretations of characters I’d drawn for so long, and get to see totally new characters emerge along the way, that’s a pretty cool feeling.
And don’t forget the absolutely beautiful work Ben Templesmith did on, what, 33 covers? That cover for the first issue is so singularly striking, I know it grabbed and cemented a lot of fans for the entire run. I couldn’t be more thankful for his work on this book and the years of friendship that spun from it.
Justin Greenwood. What can I say? Look at his stuff. From Wasteland to The Fuse to Stumptown, he’s one hell of an illustrator. He has a great line and such a strong sense of character and acting, it’s really quite remarkable. Justin and Antony (and made possible through the almost inhuman patience and support of Oni) brought this book back from the dead, made it pretty, and kept it on time all the way to the end of his run. Without Justin there is no issue 60. Without Justin, Antony’s story doesn’t get told.
CB: In “The Virus of Life“ interlude issue (which I think Sam Keith was originally supposed to provide art for?), you help Antony start to close up shop on a few characters, and it’s done in a different style with free-floating images and text. How’d you approach that?
Mitten: I had so much fun with this one. I wish we’d done more issues like it, actually. I love doing stuff like this, or every now and then when I’m asked to do spot-illustrations for prose. Doing single illustrations like this—it’s the same part of the brain one uses for covers; it’s play; it’s pure design; it’s boiling everything down to its base emotion or tone and, hopefully, finding an image that expresses the author’s vision. It allows more wiggle-room for experimentation and abstraction that may not always be there when you’re focused on telling a coherent story sequentially.
CB: What was your mindset going into The Dog Tribes? The designs seem more ornate, like maybe more of what you naturally enjoy, like your work in Umbral?
Mitten: I think I found my stride during the third and fourth arcs, not just for Wasteland, but everything that would come after. And yes, getting to cut loose on the Dog Tribes was tremendous fun. Until this final run, the issues from 52 to 60, it stood as my favorite chapter. And if you take me out of the equation, just looking at the series as a whole, it drops to third place, because what Antony and Justin did in “A Thousand Lies,” the final Newbegin story, is a great button on those characters and that section of the world.
CB: How do you want Wasteland to be remembered?
Mitten: Man, I don’t know… if it’s remembered at all, that’s pretty wonderful. If it’s remembered fondly, all the better. I’d like it to be remembered for showcasing Antony’s talent, he’s such a powerhouse writer and natural storyteller, it’s crazy. I’d like it to be remembered for what can be done when a publisher as determined and faithful and, ultimately, patient, as Oni Press gets behind a project. There were bumps along the way, some fairly sizeable, but Antony got to tell his story, something he’d had in his head a decade before I started to draw the first page, from beginning to end, the way he wanted; and I’m thrilled as all hell I could be along for the ride.
Join us tomorrow for our interview with artist Justin Greenwood!