Antony Johnston Shares His Own Writer's Notes for Umbral #1 With Bleeding Cool

By Alasdair Stuart

Umbral is, in a year crammed full of insanely good Image comics, one of the very best. I'm really fond of it, as you may have noticed.

It's a great book and writer Antony Johnston has been producing writer's notes for each issue. We're very happy to reproduce them here. Do please check out his tumblr too as it's full of good stuff.

Anyway, here are the notes for issue 1:

Umbral Issue 1


Antony Johnston: Hrrrm. Never done these before, but I always enjoy Matt Fraction's and Kieron Gillen's, so I figured what the hell, it might be fun. Here we go:



This is one of the first images I had in mind when we started talking about Umbral. A long-haired thief, reaching for a precious jewel, uplit by the jewel's glow, with a hideous monster skulking in the shadows behind him… oh wait, did I say "him"? Yeah, originally I thought it would be a boy thief. Why? Because that's male default privilege in action. So pretty quickly I changed it to a girl.

The design for the eyes took a while. Chris [Mitten] and I went back and forth, trying to make them different — significant — a signature that would stand out. Pretty happy with what we turned up in the end.


The fake titles for everyone are totally me just being silly with the fantasy milieu. It makes me laugh.


I wanted to start with something completely alien, something that would tell the reader this isn't a normal fantasy book. Up till now — the cover, the credits, the logo design, even the teaser ads we ran — you could be forgiven for just expecting a "regular" fantasy book. But this… well. Chris loves drawing shit like this, and I'm only too happy to let him. Not your regular fantasy.

Also, note all the purple. John [Rauch] really went to town with that direction.


Rascal's captions here suggest the casual, conversational tone they'll take throughout the series. Again, this is partly to make readers realize ours isn't a normal fantasy — no "thees and thous" here, thank you.

The other reason is to make readers feel comfortable with the language. I'm deliberately using a modern conversational style so that readers focus on the content of the words, rather than the phrasing.

I love how the Umbral here looks like some kind of shark. And Thomas [Mauer's] balloon style here is fantastic.


The "Earlier…" flashback after a high-energy cold open is such a cliche, I know. But like I said, I wanted to make sure that from the very first page, the reader knows they're not in a regular fantasy world. And let's be honest, this page wouldn't do it.

Chris' architecture is magnificent. This is what an epic looks like, y'know? If he wasn't drawing my silly comics, I'm pretty sure he could be a very well-paid concept artist for some big entertainment studio. Their loss is our gain.

Again, note the contempt of the woman shouting at the bard. How very modern.


Introducing the King and Queen. This was a very tough scene; I knew I had just two pages to define their personalities, their history, and a bit of world mythology to boot. Like, if you've read the issue by now, you know that we literally do not see them alive again after this scene. That was… well, it took a few rewrites.

I didn't ask for the servant women to be veiled, or for Borus to be heavily scarred. Chris does weird shit like that off his own bat.

Note all the royal reds and golds. Lovely.

Also note that balloon at the top of p.5, the one that breaks over the panel borders. It's not really part of our style, and Thomas was reluctant at first, but I asked him for it, to get more separation between Queen Innaline's two balloons and thereby make them distinct phrases, rather than running into one another.

Nerdy technical shit about balloon placement is what these writer's notes things are for, right? Um.

A NOTE ON NAMES: Yes, GRRM did the whole "take a normal name and change a letter" thing first. I've been reading ASOIAF for over a decade, so step off, sistah. But it's one of those great ideas — grounding everything, but also making it just strange enough — that I couldn't resist stealing.


The now-obligatory-in-Image-books DPS title page. Emphasizing the eyes again…

…And then there's the map. Ah, the map. I've joked in interviews that I only put it in there because Warren Ellis once told me that if he opens a book and the first thing he sees is a map, he stops reading. So it's on page 7, instead :D

But the truth is, I love maps in fantasy books. And this one's kind of important. There's stuff that'll come later on which directly references places on this map, and you need to know what they're talking about to get it properly.

Respect the map. Loooooooove the map.

(I hand-drew and scanned the coastlines, then added all the other stuff in Illustrator, if you're interested.)


And here's where we get the first hint that things might go wrong. Not overtly — there's nothing really suspicious about the guards' behavior here — but in a few pages time, readers will hopefully flip back and go "Oooooohhhhh."

Check out that staircase! That's Chris' epic architecture in action, again. All I asked for was Arthir going through a doorway, heading for some stairs. Those pillars are pretty massive, too.


And at last we meet Rascal properly, and realize they're friends.

The opening here, where Arthir opens the hatch, was just a couple of silent panels. Chris broke it down into the multiple steps, and there's no question it's better for it.

I love how John's colors divide the page, from dark to not-quite-as-dark as we head outside. Lovely shapes.


Our first look at Mist, the strange glowing gemstuff of Umbral. But no explanation of what it is, or why it glows, or anything. Obviously, that's deliberate.


More massive architecture… and a missing gem… and a dead Redguard. And Rascal doesn't panic. That's important — she's not the panicking type. While Arthir starts to lose his mind, Rascal keeps hers. This is our first real hint that Arthir is just playing at thieves, here, but Rascal is for real. She's seen dead people before. She's escaped from the scene of a crime before. She's got this.

Also, more world exposition and name-dropping. I do that a lot.


Seriously, how big is this palace.


"Of course there is." Yeah, it's a little bit meta, a little bit self-aware. Don't worry, this isn't going to turn into National Lampoon's Game of Thrones. But again, making the reader comfortable. "It's OK — we know this is a cliché. Look, we're even commenting on it. Stick with us. We'll shock you soon enough."


The whole peephole-through-the-sconce thing didn't work as well as I'd liked. It's my fault, though; Chris drew pretty much exactly what I asked for. It's just not very clear on a static image.


Oh, boy.

So yeah, here's the shock. The page where readers begin to realize that not only is this "not a regular fantasy", but that it's kind of verging on horror, too.

There's not much I can actually say about this page. Everything, from Chris' inks to John's colors to Thomas' lettering, is perfect.

One thing I do want to point out is how different these Umbral are to the one we saw at the start of the book, even though they're obviously the same thing. That was Chris' call, based on the fact that they're literally made of shadow — so why wouldn't their shapes flow and change?


You know that scene in bad martial arts/combat movies, where someone suits up with guns and grenades and shit, and all we see is close-ups of stuff being put into place? Yeah.


John's colors make this page. I love the palette he's given us, and this page kind of sums it up. When was the last time you saw a fantasy book with these colors? I'm struggling to think of one at all, let alone recently.


First hint of a connection between Mist and the Umbral. And a display of their strength and cruelty.

I love the panel of Arthir, here. He looks like a proper fantasy hero, the prince who steps up and leaves behind his life of luxury to become a noble warrior, right? Right?


…Poor Arthir.

See, we've already shown readers that this "isn't regular fantasy", and that it verges on horror… now we complete the trifecta, showing them that nobody is safe. You thought this was going to be a story about Rascal and Arthir teaming up, because every young girl character needs a young boy hero to do the fighting for her, right?

Yeah. We're not that kind of book.

Thomas, bless him, thought Rascal's dialogue here was an error — the first proofs he sent me had proper punctuation added, so it was "Are you trying to —" (break) "— Impress me?" I had to convince him to trust me, the no-punctuation version would work better. Which I'm confident it does. Well, 99%.

Note the Umbral have even changed in size, here, compared to previous pages. Constantly shifting, and Chris does a great job of making that seem natural.


Color shifts, where the overall color of a scene changes, are often used to signify a change of location. And that's what we're doing here, as the magenta ramps up… even though we're not actually going anywhere. Which is, of course, the point.

Note that Rascal still hasn't actually figured out that the Umbral are, well, Umbral. It's a tiny bit of dialogue, but it subtly foreshadows (and retrospectively reinforces) the later revelation that these things are such a myth most people don't even think they're real.


I think I asked Chris for a door covered in spikes. What we got was something that looks closer to a fang-lined maw, like some horrific shark's mouth. Love it.


And now we know twenty minutes has passed, because we're back to the opening scene of the book. And Rascal finally realizes where she is. We don't revisit the "that's bad" part from the opening, though; I'm relying on readers remembering that, so I can effectively skip past it and get straight to new stuff. Nobody likes repeating themselves.

Who is this mysterious mohawked man in the Umbral? Why is his head glowing purple? I'm not telling. Great visual, though, isn't it?


"Rascal punctures potentially pompous portents."

One of my favorite bits in The Dark Crystal is where the heroes are cornered on a clifftop, with no escape. Then suddenly, Kira (female) grabs Jen (male) and they jump off… but instead of plummeting to their death, Kira opens a pair of wings and they float to safety. After they land, Jen stares at Kira in amazement and says "Wings! I don't have wings…" but Kira walks off, saying simply, "Of course not. You're a boy."


Our first clue that the Oculus is more than just a big jewel. And again, note the color shift to indicate a change of location… even though Rascal seems to have simply walked through some kind of magical door.

The panel here where Rascal appears back on the street has a lovely weird perspective to it, I think. And I love her expression.


And again, puncturing pomposity. Rascal's just been through literally the weirdest event of her entire life… but she still isn't going to take shit from some homeless pervert.


More of our modern dialogue rhythm. I'm not even sure where or when the repeated use of "WHAT." became a thing, but it feels like it was only maybe in the last 5-10 years. But it felt right, for this scene. It expresses Rascal's disbelief perfectly.

By the way, these songs scattered throughout? I'm not just writing this stuff because I like writing lyrics, you know. Pay attention.

Oh — there's our horny hobo again. Hmmmm.


You says the title, you wins a prize! Joking aside, I really like this page. This is the kind of quiet, minimal page that most readers don't give much thought to. And why should they? There's hardly anything to it.

Except. What do we learn here? This mansion is on a clifftop. It has guards. You can't get in without a password, which changes daily. Rascal, perhaps to our surprise, knows this password. Not only that, but once the guard lets her in, it becomes clear she also knows the guard, as well as someone we can safely assume is fairly important if he has the capacity to give the guard orders. We also learn that Rascal doesn't care about those orders (although that's probably not surprising after what we've seen of her so far). And finally, Rascal feels secure enough here that she's clearly going to tell this "Jinglefingers" about what just happened to her.

All of that, in five panels. Yeah, I'm quietly proud of this page.


JINGLEFINGERS! I love that name. JINGLEFINGERS! And Chris draws him perfectly, exactly as I imagined. As I mentioned on the previous page, Rascal clearly feels comfortable around this rotund fellow, and then we realize that he's the Master of the Thieves' Guild, which I don't bother explaining further, because really.

Rascal's youth comes out a little, here. It's as if being in the presence of an adult she trusts allows her to act her age, whereas out on her own she has to become "the adult in the room." I didn't actually plan that, it just felt right.

(And this is what writers mean when we say "The characters tell me what they want to do," or "They have a life of their own." Of course we're not being literal. But a certain response, or action, feels right and natural for the character — then we look back in retrospect and realize it reveals something important about their nature.)



A subtle reminder that despite everything we've seen, Rascal is still just a child. And while she's certainly not naive in many areas, like many young girls, she's perhaps a little too inclined to take boys at face value.

But like I said, she's not naive. And she knows, now, that the Oculus is both valuable and important. Of course she trusts Jinglefingers, but he's still a thief. She knows he'd rip her off if he thought it was profitable enough.

Of course, that's not actually what Jinglefingers has in mind…


…It's much, much worse than that.

This kind of splash reveal is always tricky, because by setting it up on the page beforehand I'm kind of giving the game away. But an inset panel on the final page doesn't always have the same impact as a pure splash. No technique is perfect, you know?


No, that's not a typo.


And I'm pretty sure this page says everything you need to know. I worry sometimes if people find this kind of stuff interesting, because I live it, and believe me, my life is incredibly boring and domesticated. But readers tell me they love to read essays like this, glimpses behind the curtain, so there you go.


There'll be a different rhetorical question like this on the back cover of every issue. Think of them as subtitles, almost. Just interesting things to ponder.


Alasdair Stuart is a freelance writer and podcaster who hosts Pseudopod ( and co-hosts Escape Pod ( as well as making occasional appearances in podcast radio dramas and writing an indirect sidequel to One Of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing. Find him on Twitter @AlasdairStuart

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Hannah Means ShannonAbout Hannah Means Shannon

Editor-in-Chief at Bleeding Cool. Independent comics scholar and former English Professor. Writing books on magic in the works of Alan Moore and the early works of Neil Gaiman.
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