Antony Johnston Shares His Own Writers Notes For Umbral #3 With Bleeding Cool

By Alasdair Stuart

Here we are again, with the writer's notes for Umbral Issue # 3. I'm an absolute sucker for stuff like this as it's always interesting to see behind the curtain, especially for a book as meticulously planned as this one. Although in this case, of course, what's behind the curtain has very large teeth and know exactly where you live…


As ever these are reprinted from writer Antony Johnston's tumblr with his permission. As ever we recommend reading the issue right before or just after reading this and, as ever, Umbral continues to be huge fun and if you don't read it, you really should. Now, over to Antony.

You can find the notes for Issue #1 here and Issue #2 here if you'd like to catch up!



Right from the start of Umbral, one of the touchstones for Christopher [Mitten] and I was "more Moebius, less Tolkien."

Ultimately, how well we succeed isn't for us to judge. But I hope you'll agree that it doesn't get much more Moebius than a giant stone head.


Colorist change this issue as we wave a sad farewell to John Rauch, who's moved on to other commitments. John gave us an amazing colour palette, helping Umbral look like nothing else on the stands, and for that we'll always be grateful.

Meanwhile, a big welcome to rising star Jordan Boyd! Jordan will be with us for the foreseeable future and, in time, will no doubt stamp his own style on Umbral.


I know some people were confused because the "three in a boat" scene from #2 wasn't resolved by the end of the issue. Serialized storytelling, have you heard of it.

This was the first page Jordan colored, and the moment I saw it I knew we were in good hands. If we didn't print his name at the front of the book, I reckon most people wouldn't even realize John had left.


Notice how the view of the main cave here mirrors the rather different view from the end of #2, and that we'll see again on page 4. It's an old trick, to make the differences in state obvious, but always effective.


More questions! Yes! After discovering last issue that religion is illegal, we have two separate groups confessing to having faith; then we have the mystery of the "Mistwalker"; and finally, the introduction of SHAYIM herself, who we'll of course get to know better later.

I love Shayim's opening line — trust me when I say it sums up her character perfectly. Her cigarette holder was just something Chris threw in when sketching and designing the character. I liked it too much not to keep it.


And now we're back to where we left Rascal and Dalone in #2. There's that view of the main cave again. Note how even the candles are snuffed, compared to the bright lights from the flashback. Nice touch there, Chris.


This page is essentially all exposition and recap; but I always try to do those things while characters are engaged in something else. Using visual action to progress the story, while how they say their lines demonstrates character.

So Rascal is mourning, while Dalone gets on with investigating; after all, he didn't know these people. Rascal's tone reveals that her first guess is, she's responsible — both narcissistic and guilt-ridden, a combination I think most people will remember from their childhood. (Or, um, maybe that was just me. I hope not.)

We also see how Dalone, despite his often stern manner, can be quite reassuring. He may not care much about the smugglers themselves, but he clearly cares about Rascal's mental health.

Also, I love those wizard names. Both that people call them that, and that the wizards are clearly fine with it. The mad bastards.


And while there's exposition going on here, setting up some more questions, the thing to watch for is the visuals, and how — because we've worked hard to make purple synonymous with magic, even in just the first two issues — we can do the glow-then-fade trick, and trust readers will pick up on it.


This page is all setup for the big reveal on page 8, but there's still room to get some world-building in, like "Black Rojyr's ghost ship" and raising the question of where the refugee characters are from. But mainly, it's all about…


The Mistwalker! I was very specific with the image description, here, and I doubt Chris thanks me for it. But it was important that the position of his hands match how the Mistwalker is "used" in this scene; and I also wanted it to be clear that he's positioned mid-stride, which of course lends credence to his name, and the legend of him walking out of the wall.

Those cave mouths are all Chris, though. *wow* *much giger*

So much of the Mistwalker's impact relies on the colours and glow of Mist all around, and Jordan nailed it.


The multi-panel sequence through the middle tier of p10 is still the best way we have to show deliberate movement in sequential art.

You can imply big movements, especially bodily motion, just by choosing the "freeze frame" moment of an action. But that doesn't work for smaller movements, particularly when it's something as esoteric as "the blood disappears into the statue's hands". Repeating close-up panels focuses the action, and the reader's attention.

Splitting the dialogue line over multiple balloons also emphasizes how quickly the action takes place, but also makes it feel like you're watching the action in slow-motion — which again emphasizes the speed of the action, because we use slo-mo to watch things that happen too quickly for the human eye.

It's the sort of storytelling device that requires everyone — script, art, colors, letters — working together to pull it off. Comics!


Similar sort of thing here with the repeating panels, but for a different effect. This is more about storytelling clarity than demonstrating motion; we just wanted to make absolutely sure that people understood the refugees and Umbral are one and the same.


Some great acting here from Chris. Rascal's expression in 12.3 is just perfect.


Dalone's big line in 13.1 is a good example of balancing exposition and character, as it serves both purposes — a quick recap for those readers who don't re-read issues much, and a hint that Dalone maybe has more of his shit together than we thought.

"One Umbral, two Umbral, many Umbral" is also multi-purpose; first, it shows that Dalone is a pedantic prick, and second, it teaches readers the correct grammar to use :D


Look at the avarice in those eyes. That can't be good.

(Also, this is a quick reminder that Dalone didn't know Rascal had the Oculus; we've been moving so fast that readers could be forgiven for not fully realizing that up till this point, so I figured it was worth calling out.)

Aaaaaand then we get our re-introduction of Shayim, with a slight fakeout just to keep people on their toes.


15.3 serves as another great summation of Shayim's character. Only a couple of short lines, but I think they get her personality across really well.

And look, the Mistwalker isn't the only one with a lie-detection method…!


Quick space-time jump. Hopefully you didn't even notice when reading the issue, because this is a common technique in all kinds of visual media, as a way to keep things moving and tie two scenes together. But when you think about it, the idea that Shayim would have started a sentence, said nothing as they all went to the Mistwalker, then finally finished the sentence after they were all positioned in the cave mouth, is kind of weird.

Smoke and mirrors, innit.

Look at how Thomas places the Umbral's magic "dialogue" above the cave mouth, to draw attention to our heroes' location in the background. The letterer's constant tragedy is that, if they're good, you don't even consciously notice all these little techniques that they employ. And Thomas [Mauer] is very good.

Did you notice that the magic symbol colors are reversed when it's an Umbral doing it, by the way? Well, you have now…


Like I said, "More Moebius, less Tolkien." Chris and Jordan killed it on this one.


Tricky one, this. Lots to get across, not much space to do it in, and I've never been the kind of writer to fill every square inch with big balloons and captions explaining what the hell you're looking at.

But I think we pulled it off — the trick is to focus on a single moment/action in each panel, step by step, and keep those actions simple. Readers can and will fill in the blanks between panels — it's the most fundamental part of reading comics, after all — but in a rapid sequence like this, you don't want to leave too much off-panel.

If I did this page over, maybe I'd add a panel before the last, showing Dalone leaping in front of the others before he actually gets hit. But then, maybe that would have slowed things down too much. It's all subjective.


Look at clever Rascal, starting to figure things out… although the end result could maybe have been better.


A-ha! And you thought p22 was the cliffhanger! Ohnono. No, there's one more twist in this tale, once we've got a bit more exposition, a bit more mythology-filling, out of the way…


…And oh, that's cruel.

I asked, right from the start, for people to give us till the end of #3. That it would be enough to help you decide if Umbral is a book for you. It was this scene I was thinking of, you see. If this page made you jump up and down and go OMGWTFBBQ, then welcome aboard :D


I'm not kidding in this editorial, you know. I really do love letters pages, and I really do want to hear more from our female readers, of whom we know there are many. So write us at for instant fame and fortune!

(Note: fame and fortune may not be instant.)


Hmmm. Good question.


…And that's it for another issue.

If you're enjoying these notes, please reblog, tweet, etc etc. And if you want to get in touch:

Thanks, Antony. Umbral issue 3 is out now and the first issue of The Fuse, Antony's new series, also arrived this week. I'll be writing about both of them.

Alasdair Stuart is a freelance journalist, writer and podcaster. He hosts Pseudopod (, co-hosts Escape Pod ( and writes RPG modules and sourcebooks. He's about to start work on the official 10th Doctor sourcebook, although he has to finish writing the Victoriana supplement involving religious cowboys tracking shards of the archangel Gabriel across a steampunk America first. His job is weird. His twitter is @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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