Robots and revenge stories: Daniel Warren Johnson talks Extremity

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Jun 5, 2017, 6:00 PM EDT

There's nothing currently on the stands quite like Extremity. At its core it's a cautionary tale about revenge and identity, but it's also an epic adventure bursting with action and imagination. It has the fantastic visuals and careful world-building you'd expect in a Miyazaki anime before an Image comic book, but it feels just as influenced by European and American comic traditions. Put simply, Extremity is my absolute favorite comic book currently running, and if you haven't jumped aboard, you should do so immediately.

Published through Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman's Skybound imprint, Extremity will be releasing its fourth issue this Wednesday, and it's an issue that really raises the stakes for the series. The book is about a young artist named Thea, whose tribe was attacked when she was young, killing her family and cutting off her hand—the hand she used to draw. Her father and the rest of their clan then embark on a mission of vengeance across their sky-island world. The first three issues have been stunning, and the fourth issue only continues the trend.

But if you need more convincing, I have just the man to do it: Daniel Warren Johnson, the incredibly talented writer and artist behind Extremity. Also the creator of Space Mullet at Dark Horse, Johnson is known for his innovative storytelling, memorable character designs and explosive action, and he was kind enough to answer a few questions about his latest project. We talked about Johnson's process, creating the world of Extremity, the killer robot Shiloh and much more!

In addition to the interview, we have a four-page preview of Extremity #4, and you can find both below. Be sure to let us know if you're reading Extremity — or if now you're planning to after reading these pages — in the comments!

The world of Extremity has a lot of depth and history to it, and more is being slowly revealed in each issue. How much lore did you build ahead of time, and how much do you flesh out as you write?

Daniel Warren Johnson: Great question! As much as I wanted to sit down and figure out every single part of the world of Extremity before I started writing and drawing it, there just wasn't enough time. I really respect creators who have something completely solid before they start, but I only had the very basic aspects of the world down. Because of this, a lot of what you see in Extremity is a happy accident, or me in the middle of an issue banging my head against the wall. This can get frustrating, but when it works, it keeps the story fresh for me as the creator, and hopefully for the readers as well.

Since you are both writer and artist, do you write a full script for yourself before you draw pages?

I do! Skybound has been great in letting me create scripts the way that works the best for me. They're much looser than a traditional comic script, but all the necessary information is there for my editors to look it over and make any necessary notes. I simply write what is happening on the page, and get the dialogue down. Then, when I start visually thumbnailing out the issue, I can just riff on what I've written. It's super fun.

Issue #4 may be the darkest issue yet, as the family ties begin to fray under the pressure of the ethically grey areas they're operating in. How hard is it to toe that line of making the characters sympathetic, but also morally questionable?

A lot of it is me following the emotional trail that I've started for a character. I have to sit down and intentionally put myself in the character's shoes and ask myself honest questions of how they're feeling and how they'd act. Jerome, for instance: All he sees is red. But as we learn in issue 3, his name given to him by Mother Diedre was "protector." But he wasn't able to fulfill his identity when it came time to protect his wife and daughter from the nightmare of the Paznina, and now there's a bitterness there that won't go away. Now, the people that Jerome loves are almost physical representations of his failure, and they're slowly driving him mad. I hope that's something that people can relate to in some way, and (fingers crossed) make the characters more sympathetic.

While both sides of this conflict—Thea's family and tribe, and the tribe that took her mother and her hand—have differing means and circumstances, they both come from fairly similar cultures that drive them to unerringly seek vengeance and justice. What are the key differences between the two groups in your eyes?

One of the main differences is the way the Roto and Paznina both interpret the world around them, and how to react to it. The Roto have always scavenged to survive, and have had to flex to the natural chaos that comes with that life. The Paznina have separated themselves from other clans, and built up their own industry, walling themselves off from others. Both sides regard the other with an inherent distrust, because they don't really know each other. Another way is how they interpret the religious aspects of their culture. You'll notice that the characters (on both sides) refer to a deity, "Desiden." I wanted to make sure that both clans worshipped the same god, and interpreted that god in very different ways, which plays out in later issues.

This issue also has some big developments for the hesitant robotic warrior Shiloh, who's definitely my favorite character in the series. How did you come up with the character's unique look? And why is his perspective important for this revenge tale?

I remember wanting Shiloh's design to be perfect. He is the chaos element of this story, and I needed his face to reflect the idea that with him around, anything could happen. I came up with pages and pages of drawings of different visual ideas for Shiloh, until I had filled around three sketchbooks of just him. I also like how he's seen war on this massive scale, and was a part of it. He remembers the negative aspect of it, but is still dragged into conflict upon waking up to this later age. I remember wondering what would happen if you had a super killer robot that refused to engage in violence to others. What would that look like? How would it throw a wrench in a revenge story? That's where I started, and issue four is a good example of where I ended up with the character.

And since I brought up characters going to extremes, let's talk about the title for a second. It has multiple meanings for the story, as it can be referencing extreme actions or circumstances, missing body parts, or even the world's geography. Which of those ideas came first for you, and how did they grow out of one another?

I wish that I had come up with the title! One of my friends and follow comic artists, Ryan Lee was helping me workshop the title after I had drawn six issues. I was still sweating trying to find a title that hinted at all the things you mentioned. As soon as Ryan mentioned it, I knew it was the one. Thanks, Ryan!

While there's a big emotional and philosophical core to this book, there's also huge, awe-inspiring action. What was your favorite battle to draw in these first few issues?

I was absolutely giddy drawing all of issue 1. I had spent so much time laying the groundwork of the story, making sure the emotional core was there before I started drawing action scenes. So when it came down to make the book look good, I was free to give it my all. Also, the issue three battle was a joy to draw. I remember laughing to myself as I drew the storm leviathan eating Paznina soldiers. Sometimes I still can't believe this is my job.

You definitely come from a more anime-inspired school of art when it comes to action, and that's a movement that's really blossoming in American comics recently, such as in other Image books like Luther Strode or Rumble. Do you think that influence is something that western audiences are becoming more and more accepting of?

Another awesome question! All I can say is that I draw what I want to see in comics today, not what I think people want to see. I want more artists to push themselves in the way that many manga artists do, especially when it comes to action and energy in the pages. I'm seeing more artists start integrating this into their pages, which gets me excited for the future, whether or not readers are jiving with it. I will say that now that I've been reading manga for many years, I'm starting to study the old masters with more intensity, like Kirby and Simonson. I'm trying to connect the best of both worlds in a way, mashing the intensity and weight of the Kirby look with the precision and dynamics of Otomo. Lofty goals, I know, but it keeps me working hard!

What in upcoming issues are you most excited for readers to see?

Issue 6 is (I believe) the best art I've drawn in a comic so far. I'm super proud of it, and I can't wait to show it to readers.

How many issues are you planning for Extremity to last? Please say forever.

Right now, it looks like it's going to be a solid 12 issues. I have the room to tell a one and done story my way, with a beginning middle and end. It'll be sad to end it, but this is what I wanted from the beginning. And I've already got other projects I'm working on! Thanks for your questions!

Extremity #4 is in stores June 7 from Image Comics. All art by Daniel Warren Johnson with colors by Mike Spicer.