F-Stop on the Long Haul

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Calling Antony Johnston prolific is an understatement. Counting his upcoming western (The Long Haul), the writer has seen four original graphic novels hit the shelves this year alone. Throw in the various anthologies he’s worked on and the Nightjar series and it’s evident that this comic creator can’t stop telling stories.

And lucky for us, because shipping in January, Johnston’s romantic-comedy, F-Stop hits local comic shops. Combining Johnston’s wit with cartoonist Matthew Loux’s style, F-Stop shows us just how far Nick, a down-on-his-luck photographer, will go for popularity and love.

Months before most of the world gets to read this fun graphic novel, I was able to pull the creator away from his writing long enough to ask him a few questions…

Broken Frontier — First off, thanks for letting me read some of the F-Stop script. I enjoyed the pages you gave me and I can’t wait to see how it all turns out.

Antony Johnston — Thank you. Glad you liked it.

BF — We’ve all done something stupid for love or gotten suckered into trouble thanks to a scheming friend, so I believe F-Stop will be very accessible to a mass audience. Did you have that in mind when you began writing, or was that fate stepping in?

Antony — Appealing to a mass audience, you mean? It's not something I do deliberately, no. I mean, every writer wants to be read and anyone who tells you different is lying. But I don't write with a particular audience in mind and certainly never with the thought that if I just write something a particular way, or in a particular genre, that thousands of people are going to flock to it.

Of course, I do hope lots of people read and like the book! But I never expect it, even when writing something in a "real mainstream" genre. Come to that, especially when writing in such a genre.

BF — After reading the F-Stop solicitation (page 310 of the November issue of Previews) I was expecting a lighthearted, humorous romantic comedy. While we certainly get that, I was surprised at how involved I became with the main character, Nick. What is it about the character that makes him so compelling?

Antony — He’s an everyman. That part of the book was deliberate — I wanted a character who could literally be the guy down the street. He's not possessed of any great skills, or intellect, beyond what you'd expect from a normal guy. His main talent is grabbing opportunities, even though he has a tendency to do so before thinking it through — which is in itself something I think most of us can relate to.

BF— Can you tell us a bit about how the story came to be? Are you drawing from personal history at all?

Antony — A little, but probably not in the ways you might think. I've never worked in fashion but I did work in magazine publishing for five years and that involved a lot of photography. Besides that, though, it's all just out of my head.

The idea came to me, funnily enough, almost as soon as I finished writing Three Days in Europe. That was a while ago and I can't remember the thought process, I'm afraid. It must have popped in there somewhere, maybe in one of my occasional moments where I remember the old mantra of "write what you know" and frantically try to think of something I even vaguely have experience of besides writing and heavy metal.

BF — The writing flows nicely in this story. The progression occurs very naturally. You've already stated your desire to make Nick the everyman, so I'm curious how the writing evolved. Did you have particular themes you wanted to work into the story? Or did you just have some ideas for trouble you wanted to see Nick work himself out of?

Antony — Well, the story has a single overall theme — it's probably the first thing I've written where I could actually identify the theme as I was writing it, in fact — which is a simple one of not letting fame and success go to your head. I knew how I wanted to show that and what the major points of the story would be, so you're right, the rest of it was a matter of coming up with more and more problems for Nick to overcome.

But it's funny you should mention the writing "evolving," because that did happen while I was writing F-Stop and not in a manner I expected at all. The book was originally conceived as simply a knockabout comedy, in the same sort of vein as Three Days in Europe, with very little in the way of morals or philosophy beyond cracking jokes.

But fairly quickly — around a third of the way in, I think — it turned into something more serious, more thoughtful and the humor started to come more from situations than straight gags. That's not to say the book's in some way deadly serious, or profound, mind you! It's still a comedy, and doesn't pretend to be anything more. But the tone definitely became more serious, and it caused me a few headaches, initially. And I think it's a stronger story for it, in the end.

BF — Speaking of tone, I think Matthew Loux has a very distinctive style that feels right for this story. First, how did you hook up with the artist and second, how do you think his art works with your story?

Antony — Matthew was recommended for the book by James Lucas Jones, my editor at Oni. I wasn't familiar with his work, but James sent him the pitch, and he turned in some character designs. And they were great, just the kind of thing I had in mind.

Matthew's art works really well, but then, that's why we picked him. He's a good storyteller, with clean lines that subtly play up the underlying gloss of the fashion world. He really brings the characters to life.

BF— So you collaborated on the project before it was completely written? How was that relationship? By that I mean, if he offered some designs, did that affect your writing in any way?

Antony — It did, yes. I always try to get artists on board before I start writing, as it means I can then write to their strengths. Not in terms of plot, but rather the visual aspect, and the way the story is told as a comic.

Matthew's strength, when he's drawing in this style, is in what I call "body acting", where an actor will use their whole body to communicate. Body acting's very important in comedy, especially with sight gags, so having an artist who's good at communicating it — just like Mike Hawthorne was on Three Days in Europe, I might add — is a real boon.

Beyond that, it's hard to get specific, because a lot of it just comes down to instinct. I've worked with a lot of different artists, and you develop a feel for what will work best with a given artist — the pacing, viewing angles, types of action and so on. I try to imagine how the artist will draw every page and of course that's different for every artist. So even if it comes back looking very different to how I imagined, picturing it like that while writing helps me play up to the artist's strengths.

James — Your recent Oni books such as Closer, Julius and Spooked have been well received by audiences. Yet each of these has a darker slant than F-Stop. How do you think this new one will go over with those fans who only know you through your more recent works?

Antony — I think anyone who's read [Three Days in Europe] will know what to expect. With regards to people who've discovered my work more recently, I honestly don't know. If anyone can read all three of those books and like them all, then I don't see why they shouldn't also enjoy F-Stop. But at the same time, I know there are many people who simply prefer one genre over another, and if they like Spooked but not F-Stop, that's fine.

I try not to worry about whether my fans (all three of them) will like what I'm currently writing. If I do that, then suddenly I risk writing not what I think is good but what I think people will want. And history is littered with people who thought they could predict what the public would enjoy, to their downfall. Ishtar, anyone?

BF — You’ve also got The Long Haul coming out this month. Can you tell us a bit about that?

Antony —  The Long Haul is a Western — my first in the genre, but hopefully not my last — about an ex-con who hears about a train carrying millions of dollars across the country, from Chicago to San Francisco. Now, this man — Cody Plummer is his name — is trying to go straight after getting out of jail but it's not easy; especially with the Pinkerton agent who put him away breathing down his neck all the time. So when Cody hears about this train, he's tempted to rob it. When he then discovers that same Pinkerton is in charge of the train's security, well, he just can't resist.

But with so much money at stake, this is no ordinary train. It can't be stopped, it can't be unlocked, the safe can't be blown open, and there are fourteen armed guards between Cody and the money. So now all he has to do is come up with a plan.

Eduardo Barreto is drawing it and it looks superb. We're running a little late with it, sadly — it's now looking like a January or February release — but it'll be worth it. Eduardo's doing his absolute best work, with an enormous amount of detail and historical reference and we both believe getting a book like this absolutely right is more important than rushing it out the door half-cocked.

I think the amount of historical accuracy in The Long Haul may surprise people, given the kind of adventure story we're telling but it's one of the reasons I wanted Eduardo on board. Not only does his art have a lovely old school feel that brings to mind classic adventure strips, but we share a love of history and period reference. Everything in The Long Haul, from the story to the art, is realistic for its time. The technology, the fashions, the locations — they all existed. You may be surprised at just how advanced the "Old" West was.

BF — I'm sure you enjoyed writing all of your books, but is there a different thrill you might get from writing something with loads of action, like in The Long Haul, as compared to the more comedic fare of F-Stop?

Antony — There is, but it's not down to whether or not there's "action" in the book. Every book is different, and takes a different approach to write, regardless of its genre.
Spooked, for example, is pretty subdued. Actually, very subdued. But I got an enormous thrill out of writing it, because I'd wanted to write it for nearly five years. By comparison, Julius — which has plenty of violence, gunplay, and moody gangsters — was very hard work, much harder in terms of stress and exhaustion than Spooked. You really can't predict it, or tie it to any particular aspect of a book. It's just different every time.

BF — So then are you saying that you get different types of satisfaction from each story, but one style or genre isn't "more fun" than any other?

Antony — That's exactly it, yes. I know I get accused of "genre-hopping," like that's some terrible crime against Art, but the truth is that I just don't care about genre. I get just as much enjoyment out of writing a good romantic comedy as from a gothic horror. Come to that, I wouldn't hesitate to mix the two if I thought it would make a good story.

BF — I'm very interested to know what parts of the writing process are the most satisfying for you.

Antony —  I like plotting, outlining and doing research. I like starting a story. I love finishing a story. I hate all the parts in between. And in my experience, the same goes for ninety-nine per cent of writers. "No writer enjoys writing. Every writer enjoys having written."
I've heard that quotation, or one very much like it, attributed to everyone from Mark Twain to Ernest Hemingway to Douglas Adams. I'm afraid I have no idea who actually said it first. But it's entirely true.

BF — So, let’s see. You’re working on F-Stop, you just wrapped up The Long Haul, you’ve got an Avatar project in the works, you’ve participated in the upcoming Four Letter Worlds anthology, and you’re starting book two of Nightjar. Do you ever have any free time to spend with your wife? Or maybe to get out and enjoy the weather?

Antony — Well, two small corrections: First, I've finished F-Stop, and now it's all down to Matthew. Second, I'm not married. [laughs] But yes, I do get some free time.
I have a fairly strict work ethic. I get up in the morning at the same time as my partner, Marcia, and I start work when she leaves the house to attend her own work. That's normally about 9:15 a.m. I then work through until Marcia gets home, which is normally around 6 p.m. I have breaks within that time period, of course but essentially, I work a full day just like everyone else.

But the thing is and any writer will tell you this, even when I'm not writing, I'm writing. Ideas, plots, dialogue and scenes play out in my head all the time. I could be sat watching a soap opera and in the back of my head I'm still thinking about what I wrote today, or what I'm going to write tomorrow, or in a week's time.

I'm also a reasonably fast writer, which helps!

BF — You know, many of those reading this interview will envy your lifestyle and daily routine.

Antony — They might think they do but I'm afraid if they knew the reality they'd soon realize how very, very dull it all is.

I sit here at my desk, every weekday and I write. I write and I write and then I write some more. Any time spent not writing is spent thinking about writing. Any time doing neither of those is spent doing research. Any further time in the day...well, there isn't any. That's what I do, all day every day. And you'll find that's true of every full-time writer in the world. It's the only way to make sure the work gets done.

Not, of course, that I'd change it for the world!

But I think you do need a certain sensibility, not to mention discipline, to be a full-time writer.

BF — As is evident by your bibliography and fan support, you’ve had a fair amount of success in your career. Without giving away too much of the story, do you see any parallels between your own life and how Nick handles his career in F-Stop?

Antony — I certainly hope not...! The success I've had has been critical and artistic, rather than commercial. While I may have a small core of dedicated fans — whom I love dearly and give thanks for every day! — my books don't exactly set the sales charts alight. So I don't think there's much imminent danger of me falling victim to my own success.

Plus, I'm a working-class kid from Birmingham. I may as well have been born with "PESSIMIST" tattooed across my backside.

BF — F-Stop is solicited for release in January. What would you tell a fan (regardless of whether or not he’s a super hero junkie or if she’s never read one of your graphic novels) to get him or her interested in the book?

Antony — That it comes with a free twenty dollar bill? I don't know I'm terrible at this sort of thing. [laughs]

I guess I'd tell them that it's a story about a guy with big dreams, who finally lives them — but soon realizes the cost of achieving his ambitions and must decide between fame and success, or what he believes in.

- James W. Powell

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