Daniel Warren Johnson's Extremity is a Hyperviolent Sci-Fi Comic About Hope

“It’s about loss and finding yourself post-trauma."

Comics Features Daniel Warren Johnson
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Daniel Warren Johnson's <i>Extremity</i> is a Hyperviolent Sci-Fi Comic About Hope

What does it mean to have your identity tied to your art? And what happens when you’re no longer able to create art? Do you become a different person entirely? These are the questions proposed by cartoonist Daniel Warren Johnson in the first issue of his gritty new sci-fi series Extremity, published by Skybound Comics.

The debut issue, out tomorrow, tells the story of Thea, a talented young artist and the daughter of clan leader Abba Jerome. While the cause of the war between Thea’s faction, the Roto Clan, and their wealthy adversaries in the Panzina Army remains a mystery, Johnson articulates Jerome and Thea’s personal battle in a flashback early in the book: at some point in the past, Panzina invaders amputate her hand and murder her mother. Unable to draw, Thea expresses herself in the only way she knows how: joining her father’s brutal crusade.

Johnson spoke with Paste about his process, the themes behind Extremity and his fears as an artist.

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Extremity #1 Cover Art by Daniel Warren Johnson

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Paste: How long have you been working on Extremity and where did the story emerge from?

Daniel Warren Johnson: Before I answer, I’ve got to say that when developing a new idea, the act of creating something from nothing is like pulling teeth, right? It’s hard for me to do, just taking the time to do world-building and character beats and overarching story elements and how everything works together—going through the self-doubt phase of creating a story. It’s kind of like climbing a mountain where you don’t ever fully see the top, and then by the time you’re creating this thing you realize you’ve already hit your goal of creating it and you’re walking your way down the mountain.

But my initial push to start creating Extremity was maybe about three, three and a half years ago. It was maybe a year after I had started working on Space Mullet, my webcomic. I really loved working on Space Mullet, but it’s something that, of course with the title and just the presentation of the whole thing, it’s kind of something that’s easy for me to not take seriously. And if people have a problem with it or someone doesn’t like it, I’m like, “Hey what were you expecting? It’s called Space Mullet.” So that was always something I could hide behind. Extremity is like my first venture into putting something out there where I can’t hide behind its tongue-and-cheek-ness. If that makes sense.

Paste: It’s unironic.

Johnson: Exactly. [Extremity] is intense and really fun to read, but it’s just a challenge for me. It’s scary to open myself up and also to make it clear to the world, Hey I am taking this seriously. Everybody looks at it with a different pair of eyes. Around a year after Space Mullet started I was looking for inspiration for new stories that I could take a little bit more seriously. The initial springboard came from my wife telling me about an interview she had heard with a Jewish woman and Holocaust survivor named Eva Kor. [Eva] was made famous for [embracing and] forgiving [Oskar Groning, a former Nazi squad leader from the Auschwitz concentration camp] at his war crimes trial, which is amazing. But what struck me about the story was not actually that she forgave her captors, but the response from the global Jewish community.

When they found out this one woman had forgiven [a Nazi], they ostracized her. They were like You can’t do that, you’re not allowed and her quote unquote family, her religious family, turned their backs on her. And that I thought was really interesting—I thought it was an interesting context for a revenge story. So you have a person who is not completely sure of how they want to go about this revenge, and these family members, all they see is red, and there are other family members who are basically pacifists, and would be considered in the world of Extremity as “weak.” Then there’s Thea in the middle of that who’s being pulled in two direcitons. So that was the initial surge of inspiration, and from then on it formed into a world of its own.

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Extremity #1 Interior Art by Daniel Warren Johnson

Paste: I’m glad you brought up Space Mullet. I think if you just give a cursory glance over that material, which you’ve been doing for over four years, it’s clear that there’s been an upgrade in your skills.

Johnson: Oh yeah.

Paste: What were your biggest learning experiences or moments of insight making Space Mullet?

Johnson: Honestly, there’s been a crap ton of stuff that I’ve learned and taken away from my experiences with Space Mullet, but from the get-go Space Mullet was literally a canvas for me to allow myself to make mistakes and just to learn. Space Mullet was the first comic I had ever done and what I found was that as I was trying to get better, I’d really be pushing myself. I need to get better at my backgrounds, I need to get better at perspective, I need to get better at drawing fingernails. Just anything. And it got to the point where I was getting a little desperate and I couldn’t sleep at night and it was driving my wife crazy because I’d be like, “My page sucked today, it’s terrible. I’m never going to make money at this.” When money happens and you’re not just [drawing] as a passion, but also doing it for a living, the dynamics change.

As a professional creator, I am responsible for making stuff, but every time I sit down at the drawing table I say, “Okay, I really need to make something that is going to blow back people’s hair today.” There’s always an element of having to draw something badass every day, for the rest of your life. Which of course is awesome, but the pressure could be a little intense. I was letting it get to me in the middle of working on Space Mullet and I had to learn to let things go. Especially working on Extremity, I basically have to finish a page a day. And the ability to say, “You know what? This isn’t my best page, but it’s good enough.” I feel like there’s an immediate American cultural pushback of It should be your very best every single time. Always work hard. And I am working hard, but I have a wife and I have parents and I have friends and I have other passions. I love to play the guitar. And those things round me out as a human, which I need to hang onto. Those actually help in the times when everything is bad with my art and it’s been a whole week of just terrible drawings. Of course I walk that ever-difficult tightrope of trying to be at the very best I can be and super professional and also letting myself rest. It’s a challenge.

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Extremity #1 Interior Art by Daniel Warren Johnson

Paste: I might be ascribing this quote to the wrong person, but I think Jason Latour said a couple of years ago that most people will never see your A-game in comics, so you better make sure your B-game is at your very best.

Johnson: That’s a really good way to put it. That’s a really good, succinct way to say what I just said in five minutes. [Laughs]

Paste: In that same space, what are the differences between the one-man endeavor of Space Mullet, this semi-improvisational thing where you’re only beholden to yourself, your work-for-hire and collaborative projects and now Extremity? What are the biggest challenges associated with A) working with another writer and B) occupying both the space of writer and artist as the sole creator?

Johnson: The most challenging thing when working with a writer is trying to get into the writer’s brain. Sometimes writers make it easy because they’re so excited about the project they want to talk to you about it, and the exuberance and joy bleeds onto the page, right? And I’m able to take that excitement and that energy and translate it really well. It’s like working with a client. I have a lot of illustration clients, I do more corporate-esque storyboards and things for commercials and things like that. It’s like math, right? “We need this and we need it this way.” But you get little subtleties from each client. I know this client wants the art style to be a little more reserved here and I know that this client over here expects me to bend the rules a little bit. And if I have just one style, just one way of approaching it every time, none of my clients will be happy. It’s the same thing working with writers, which is a challenge, but it’s also really fun because you’re not just working with a script—you’re working with people. And that’s something I get excited about. So that’s an element of collaboration that is really fun for me. It’s also really hard.

When I was working with Donny Cates on Ghost Fleet, he’s writing scenes that are really intense and crazy—they’re really fun and they’re really well written, but I needed to break down my own brain and get into Donny’s brain and turn that into images. That is a challenge but it’s, again, very rewarding. And then when doing everything myself, I would say, ultimately, it’s more rewarding to be able to have a sole vision. I thought it up, I wrestled with it, I put it on the page. And the end product, reading issue one of Extremity, I was very proud. Of course I’m always going to see faults in my art, I’m always going to see faults in the dialogue and the storytelling. But for what it is I’m really proud of it and that’s a feeling that I don’t get when I work with a writer.

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Extremity #1 Interior Art by Daniel Warren Johnson

Paste: Do you write a full script before you hit the drawing table or do you figure out the story on the page? Or a mixture of the two?

Johnson: My editor, Sean Mackiewicz, was very clear from the get-go. He said, “We really would like to cater to your style. Whatever works for you.” I know that my work suffers if I don’t outline everything first and have a good idea of what’s happening, because it’s so much easier to delete a whole paragraph than it is to axe two whole pages that I’ve drawn. So what I do is I write out what is happening very mathematically: Thea walks into the room and does this and does this, she looks at this person and says this. And I’ll write down very specific lines of dialogue, but the actual breakdowns, pacing and panel layouts I do not explain at all. That all comes from when I am reading the script that I’ve written four months prior, and tackling it when I lay out the page visually instead of trying to figure all that out with words, because I am more of a visual storyteller. There have been moments, like issue six for example, where I wrote it out four months before I had to draw it. Then it came time to draw it and I’m mapping it out, I’m doing my thumbnails and my breakdowns, just so I can get an idea of where I’m at. But nothing was working and everything I’d written wasn’t making sense, and it wasn’t until I actually drew the characters doing the actions that I had them doing in the script that I thought, Thea would not do this, none of these characters would do this.

I was forcing the characters instead of letting them breathe and I couldn’t figure that out until I was actually drawing it. So I trashed the whole issue and rewrote it the way that it was coming out in the art, and it was night and day. It was so much better and I’m so glad that I took the time to fix it. But that all happened visually. And that’s another thing that’s awesome about working [as the] sole person—when the story needs to flex and bend or needs to change or maybe there’s a little detail that makes the ending that much better, it’s so much easier for me to just incorporate that into the aesthetics of the book instead of trying to coordinate with a writer.

Paste: Very early in the book, Thea defines her identity as an artist. Knowing what happens to her in the events that precede the narrative in issue one, we see that she’s lost a little bit of that identity. And in that same way, Asmund—the Panzina General that the Roto are hunting down—is a violinist and he also has a similar identity tied to an artistic ability. The book is called Extremity and you’re openly telling a story about an amputee, but is this book also about making art? Is it an analysis of creation and the challenges that come along with it?

Johnson: I should be honest and say a lot of the emotional structure of Extremity comes from my fear of losing my drawing hand. It’s an expression of my fears and what I would do if I lost my hand, especially in a violent scenario. I have lived an amazing life. I’m very priveleged. I have two parents that love me. I have an amazing wife. I’ve experienced very little violence in my life. I needed to put myself in the shoes of a person who, when losing their identity, what do they turn to? It’s about loss and finding yourself post-trauma, and I do think it is about creating art. But I don’t know if I was explicitly trying to delve into that.

But you know, Thea still draws with her left hand. Her artistic identity is gone, but she’s still trying to find it. She’s still trying to hang onto it. All of her drawings are expressions of how she’s feeling at the moment or what she’s thinking about. One thing I knew that I didn’t want to do in Extremity was to have captions of Thea’s thoughts, kind of like The Dark Knight Returns’ style. It’s super popular to do right now and I don’t necessarily mind it, but when looking at my favorite TV shows like Breaking Bad or The Wire, none of the characters have a narration going on while these things are happening. You’re just looking at them emote and reacting to the things around them. Or their little quirks, like how they light a cigarette a certain way. Those give you clues as to what that character is feeling without banging you over the head with it. My goal was trying to show Thea’s emotional state with her sketchbook. She’s still drawing with her left hand, however sloppily. She can’t stand the way it looks, but she’s still doing it and I hope that it gives readers a sense of her spirit. There are definitely more instances as the series goes on of her art and bringing out her sketchbook. And all of her sketchbook drawings are done with my left hand.

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Extremity #1 Interior Art by Daniel Warren Johnson

Paste: The aesthetic of the book is also really dense. I’ve read your Martok (Star Trek) fan comic and the Green Leader (Star Wars) fan comic. Where does your visual vocabulary come from? What other science-fiction or fantasy have you absorbed over the years that filters out into the designs of your spaceships and outfits?

Johnson: Everybody my age is of course all Star Wars Star Wars Star Wars. The idea of putting things together that maybe don’t belong together, scavenging old equipment and technology—I really like that idea. As a general aesthetic, something that I think influences me, as far as the approach to creating a line, and with regards to inking and energy, is [the work of] Katsuhiro Otomo, the creator of Akira. There are some panels in Akira where Otomo doesn’t even show a person getting punched but you [somehow] know they just got punched, right? It’s amazing. So when I can, I try and break down action and elements of kinetic energy in Extremity. It’s a pale reflection, but it’s something that drives me. I read those books all the time.

Paste: Thea’s father, Jerome, is called ‘Abba’ in the book. If I’m not mistaken, that’s from the bible and it means ‘father’ or something like father. Jerome also makes mention of “the gods,” plural, in issue one. Are there any religious or mythological influences that you’ve incorporated?

Johnson: I was thinking of a million different ways to highlight what kind of religious world [the characters occupy]. With any world, there is going to be some religious aspect, especially something that may drive a culture to do the things that it does. “Abba” is from the Bible and it does mean “father” in Aramaic. I get a lot of inspiration from the Bible. As much as it’s turned out to be like a “do this, don’t do that” kind of book, there’s also some crazy shit that happens in the Bible. Insane stuff. There’s just some wild shit in there. One of my favorite stories from the Bible, there’s a chapter that specifically describes a fat guy getting stabbed over something ridiculous. And there’s another story where a Jewish prophet calls on bears to kill a bunch of kids that are making fun of him.

Anyway, I loved the way the word “Abba” sounded and it’s this term of endearment, but contrasted against such an intense looking character. The goal was to try and show a softer side to Jerome and have that “Abba” title make sense. A leader that’s compassitonate and has a deft, but soft, hand, and who’s not afraid to do the hard thing. Back to the religious thing: I do identify as a Christian. But there’s plenty of bullshit that Christianity has done to the world that has left it in a sorry state. It’s something that I wrestle with. Of course there are also amazing things that have happened in the name of Christianity. When you have two different cultures that worship the same god, but they have two very different ways of approaching how that worship is to be put out into the world, it creates a lot of conflict.

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Extremity #1 Interior Art by Daniel Warren Johnson

Paste: If and when you do have free time, what are you reading in the comic book world and who are some of the cartoonists or artists that you admire right now?

Johnson: I have a few: Kaijumax by Zander Cannon is blowing my mind. It’s fantastic. It’s really fun. The art style is really a blast. And I love the dialogue, it just seems so natural. I don’t know how he does it, but it’s really fun and it makes me laugh and the puns are great. I’m really excited about anything that James Harren does. He is amazing. It’s funny: I used to be an art teacher, and back in 2011 he was working on B.P.R.D., and “The Long Death” had come out right around that time. It had that huge monster fight, it’s like the entirety of issue three. I read that issue and I was like, I need to start drawing comics again. [Laughs] I told him that once at a show. I really can attribute a lot of my initial excitement about getting back into drawing comics to James. His work continues to inspire. He’s not afraid to try new things and to show things in really interesting ways. I honestly think that when we are old and talking about the greats, we’re gonna talk about him like the greats now talk about Jack Kirby. I honestly think that’s gonna happen. I know those are big words.

You mentioned design and inspiration. Jake Parker has these sketchbooks. They’re just called Drawings. There’s Volumes 1, 2 and 3 out and I look at them all the time. No matter how bad I’m feeling about my art those books get me excited to draw again and to design. His sense of design is impeccable and its so simple. His eye for design is based in shapes and balance and it’s so exciting to see and it gets me really excited to draw.

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