By Alasdair Stuart
Here we are again, with Antony Johnston's writer's notes for Umbral Issue #2 featuring new cast members, new locations and just the tiniest hint of magic. As ever, these were originally published on Antony's Tumblr and are reprinted here with his permission.
Antony Johnston: WRITER'S NOTES: UMBRAL #2
If you missed the notes for issue #1, click here.
SPOILERS AHEAD! WITH BIG, NASTY, TERRIBLE TEETH!
See, she can't be falling down, or then the mouth would have to be mixed up with the "tendrils", as we call them. And that would look terrible. So she's falling up, which just makes it weirder anyway. And then Chris [Mitten] went and matched the angle of the mouth to the tendrils, for a bit of nice symmetry.
Man, all those teeth.
Apparently these credits really confused some people, which amuses me no end. For the record: I write it. Chris [Mitten] pencils and inks the art. John [Rauch] colors. Thomas [Mauer] letters. We good? We good.
Ooh, new characters! Now, look. If you're familiar with fantasy epics, you already know Umbral is probably going to have a decent-sized cast. But if you're familiar with my series Wasteland, you'll also know that in that book many secondary characters come and go, revolving around a core group. That's pretty much how Umbral will go, too.
This scene is placed here at the start to break up and sustain the cliffhanger from #1, but it also gives me a chance to do a bit of relaxed worldbuilding. What are the Buckets? Why is there a Bay Patrol? What the hell is a "black market priest"?
A leap into the unknown. It demonstrates a couple of things about Rascal; first, she now understands the seriousness of the threat (literally) facing her. She still doesn't know exactly why, of course. But she'd rather jump off a balcony than let herself, and the Oculus, fall into the Umbral's clutches.
(Only the second worst day? Now there's a story waiting to be told.)
Second, it simply demonstrates her bravery and ingenuity. Because this isn't a leap of faith…
…It's a deliberate escape.
The bottom half of this page is all about explication. Issue #1 moved at such a pace, and we left so much vague, that I knew some people would simply be confused. The last three panels on this page are designed to dispel that confusion. Now we can just get on with the ride.
And can I just say again how much I love our color palette? Look at all the purples and greens, here. If you tried to describe it it'd sound gauche, but John mutes them all just enough to make it weird and spooky instead.
I'm just going to quote the script, here:
Jinglefingers PULLS an ALARM BELL CORD, and SHOUTS into a COMMUNICATION TRUMPET. The trumpet pipe leads down into the floor, presumably to a guardhouse somewhere down below.
Now look at panel 1 and understand why I love Chris and his beautifully bizarre mind.
Dalone to the rescue!
…Actually, I was on the fence (ho ho) about this sequence, because I didn't want Rascal to feel like a damsel in need of rescue, especially not by a man. Hopefully the previous 5 pp. of her fighting and escaping under her own steam (not to mention the rest of this entire issue) is enough to counter that, and show she's anything but helpless.
The start of a beautiful relationship. Maybe.
More casually-dropped-in worldbuilding, and another self-observation; so far, Dalone is the only character to talk like 99% of traditional fantasy characters, with correct diction, an old-fashioned vocabulary, and so on. It makes sense that Rascal would notice, and call him on it.
Huh, I just realized panel 3 feels like a callback to the very first page of issue #1. I very much doubt that's an accident. Nicely done, Chris :)
"Mister Mystery Tramp" is the name of my R.E.M. cover band. Actually, scratch that, it's probably already an R.E.M. song.
(Hush. When I was a student, there was no bigger fan of the Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe oeuvre than me. Automatic was their last good album, though.)
Again, I love how this whole page is a microcosm of their relationship. I've never been one to just stop everything and let a character "reveal themselves" for page after page — I prefer to let it come out in small moments, like this, and let readers piece it together for themselves. Character is revealed by adversity, not pontificated from a podium.
And now we realize that it's not just Rascal who hates magic, in this world. In fact, everyone seems downright scared of it. And there's clearly more to our hirsute hobo than meets the eye.
(I'm genuinely curious to know what everyone's thoughts were when they first saw the "magic words" here. It ties in with the world mythology, of course, but it's also my attempt to make the magic of Umbral feel genuinely weird and otherworldly. This isn't about reading faux-Latin from scrolls, this stuff is literally incomprehensible to the uninitiated.)
When I first told Thomas what I intended to do with magic speech, I pictured perfectly round balloons, to emphasize the symmetry and "other" of it all. Thomas suggested they'd look better with ragged balloons, similar to what we came up with for the Umbral. I wasn't sure… until he showed me how it looked, at which point it was kind of obvious.
And this is why you work with smart people.
More character-revealing conversation, and another demonstration of Rascal's fearlessness.
The Buckets, in case you hadn't realized, are used to take heavy and cumbersome goods up from the docks to the city proper. After all, winding them up the narrow cliff path (as seen on p1) is impractical in the extreme.
MAP LOOKUP TIME! YES!
(She's a suspicious one, isn't she? Still, it's what's kept her alive so far…)
MAP LOOKUP TIME! Y—oh, all right, I'll stop it. But seriously.
I assume all that stuff in the docks is Chris filtering a modern-day longshoreman's environment through the fantasy filter, by the way. Impressive, isn't it?
And this time, it's Rascal rescuing Dalone. Twice, in fact. So it all works out.
The colors here under the water are brilliant. Not only does everything have a blue tint like you'd expect, but the tonal contrast is reduced as well. Not just coloring everything blue, but also flattening the visible spectrum. Lovely.
So, as you've no doubt figured out by now… this whole issue is about descending. Literally, from a balcony at the top of a mansion on a clifftop, down into the city, down to the docks, and now down into caves underneath the city. And figuratively, as each time the situation becomes more dire, more… hellish, if you will.
It's all symbolic and shit, innit.
Heyyyyy, hang on a moment. Weren't those people in the boat at the start heading for some caves? I wonder what happened to —
— Oh. Oh, dear.
Letters, we have them! But we want more! We are insatiable! Write us at firstname.lastname@example.org and you too can get a flippant and/or sarcastic reply in print!
In case you're the kind of person who skips past the ads, I encourage you to go look again. Because all the back pages in this issue are actually a preview of my next Image book, The Fuse. It's a very different book to Umbral, but does feature another kick-ass female lead character, and plenty of mystery. So you might like it.
Alasdair Stuart is a freelance journalist based in the UK who hosts Psuedopod (www.pseudopod.org) and Escape Pod (www.escapepod.org) the weekly horror and science fiction podcasts. Find him on twitter @AlasdairStuart