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Extremity: Daniel Warren Johnson’s War Epic [Interview]

interview and essay by Sam Stone

Conflict can be a messy, all-consuming process, and the longer conflict is dragged out, the messier and more consuming it can become. EXTREMITY, by Daniel Warren Johnson, focuses on two warring cultures that have been embroiled in a bloody, escalating conflict for years. Each faction feels that they have suffered a great injustice at the hands of the other. This led to a deep-seated sense of loss of livelihood and home, and everyone involved seeks self-righteous vengeance at any cost. EXTREMITY follows two adolescent siblings, Thea and Rollo, forced to grow up in a time of constant violence. It becomes clear that the first casualties of battle are innocence and culture, thanks to art and music quickly being discarded or destroyed to focus on the endless war machine.

While the fearsome Paznina serve as Thea and Rollo's antagonists, it quickly becomes clear that this isn't a simple matter of good guys versus bad guys. The Paznina feel wronged by Thea's clan, the Roto, and both groups are just trying to find and defend their homes. However, in doing so, they have been pitted directly against each other, leaving a bloody trail of broken lives and shattered dreams as they grow increasingly consumed by the fires of war. 

Johnson imbues EXTREMITY with a variety of visual sensibilities, from architecture and fashion inspired by Norse influences to landscapes and beasts derived from Chinese folklore, to a sense of chaotic, brutal action that would be right at home in a Mad Max movie. While the characters fight for what they believe to be a righteous cause, the violence isn't depicted with a sense of escapism but with one of bone-crunching, blood-letting reality instead; no holds are barred when illustrating the action, and the toll that it takes, both physical and mental, are fully conveyed.

EXTREMITY is a tale of fantasy warfare set in a mystical world with an incredible scope. More than just a play on the familiar trope that war is hell, it really showcases the costs of an "us versus them" mentality and how easy it is to get caught up in hatred rather than being open to exploring the potential for peace. By focusing on two young protagonists, Johnson makes it easy to see the true cost of war.

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SAM STONE: The visual style in EXTREMITY seems to draw on a whole host of influences from Mad Max to Norse folklore. What were some of your inspirations when creating the world of EXTREMITY?

DANIEL WARREN JOHNSON: I love how you noticed both of those things! When creating a new world with different cultures and economies, things can get kind of overwhelming visually, both for the readers and the creator who is responsible for coming up with something unique and vibrant. Since I only had so much time to world-build, I tried to find simple ways to distinguish between two different clans in EXTREMITY.

One side, the Roto, is forced to scavenge and make best of the old world, which immediately makes them look old, rusted, and broken down. The other side, the Paznina, have found a way to create their own industry, which allows them to mass produce swords and plate and mail, but since they're starting from scratch, their technology looks dated but refined.

Once I had those concepts in my head, I started researching and taking ideas from all of my inspirations. That included history books, films, novels, and basically anything else that brought me joy and made me excited to create. Some big ones that stand out to me are Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira, Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaä, Masamune Shirow's Appleseed, Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, S.C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon, a ton of books on castles from the library, and so much more. I could go on and on and on (and I'd be happy to).

STONE: The book opens with a flashback to why the protagonists are caught up in this conflict. Can you tell us a little more about what life was like for them before they came face-to-face with war?

JOHNSON: With the flashbacks in the first few issues of the series, I tried to imply an inherent "rightness," that the things Thea experienced before the war are the way things should be. She had a protective and loving father, a caring mother, and passions, like drawing and art, that fueled her. I imagine her life to not necessarily be easy but peaceful at the very least. The harshness of the world hasn't touched her yet, which makes her oncoming trauma that much more horrific. When all you've known is peace, what happens when everything turns to war?

STONE: There's a significant phrase in the opening issue: "Remember why you fight." It hints at both passion and reluctance for fighting. How does the cast feel about this war they're in?

JOHNSON: From the beginning of the story, I wanted to highlight in some way a reluctance for violence that's shared by the entire cast. For some, it's a necessary evil; for others, it's a way to make things right again. Then there are the characters who refuse to engage in violence at all, or, oppositely, revel in combat, bringing in an almost chaotic aspect to the entire arc.

I don't have much personal experience with violence, so I wanted to make sure that I had different characters who view it in different ways, which leads to unique situations for the characters. It's during these new moments that we get to see Thea and how she is growing her path for revenge. She has no inner monologue that the readers can examine, only her physical actions and reactions to the decisions of her family. As those members of her family begin to diverge and conflict with each other, Thea must make decisions that drive the rest of the tale.

STONE: The protagonist, Thea, is an artist before being drawn into the war effort. Is creative culture one of the first major casualties during wartime? What do you get out of the contrast?

JOHNSON: Before I had pitched the idea for this comic to any publishers, the art element hadn't been added yet, and I was struggling with the concept. How could I make yet another revenge story interesting? Everything that I came up with felt flat, even with hoverbikes and monsters. The story had no personal drive. It wasn't until I put myself in the story and asked myself the questions: "What would I do to a person if they cut off my drawing hand? What would that revenge story look like?"

Kind of intense, but a necessary step for me to make the story mine. Everything that I am as person seemingly rests in my ability to draw and create. If that's taken away, what's left? That's why, even in the absence of a right hand, Thea still draws with her left. I feel like I know Thea, and I can begin to examine her as she struggles with these questions, questions that (I hope) make this story worth reading.

EXTREMITY #1 is available for pre-order now and debuts 3/1.

Sam Stone is a columnist and translator for Image Comics living in the D.C.-area. He is one of the foremost experts on the work of Shigeru Miyamoto. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @samstoneshow.