“Exciting,” the word most often used to describe Daniel Warren Johnson’s work, suits about everything he’s done on the comic page. Even in his early webcomic Space-Mullet! (2012-17) and his first print original series, The Ghost Fleet (Dark Horse, 2014-15; written by Donny Cates), Johnson’s manga-inspired style possessed an urgency uncommon in many American comics.
However, his style is more than a simple merging of Japanese and American aesthetics. There’s an unruliness to it. A breathing, coughing, heaving liveliness to his lines, to inks that found themselves in perfect form on his ultraviolent Extremity (Image, 2017-18) and voltaic Murder Falcon (Image, 2018-19). It was surely the intensity of those solo comics, both emotional and stylistic, that caught the attention of Marvel and DC. Johnson's work on Wonder Woman: Dead Earth (DC, 2019-20) and Beta Ray Bill: Argent Star (Marvel, 2021) breathed fresh air into a stale superhero scene yet again reliant on continuity and uninspired crossover events. These two series are told with a writer’s interest in character and an artist’s eye for what simply looks cool on the page - as much an indictment of recent superhero comics as it is a compliment to Johnson’s storytelling. If it was a surprise to see Johnson win an Eisner award (Best Publication for Teens) this past July for Do a Powerbomb! (Image, 2022-23), a love letter to Japanese and American pro wrestling, then it must have come to those who hadn’t read it. While the art is deliciously frenetic, the story helps fuel an engine of familial loss and betrayal. Heavy stuff for a wrestling comic.
And heavy stuff in general. It’s a weight I’ve come to appreciate in Johnson’s work, and one that adds so much gravity to his storytelling. Even in his work as co-writer on The Jurassic League (DC, 2022, artist/co-writer Juan Gedeon), a DC-superheroes-as-dinosaurs remix, those same moments of emotional depth coexist with those of just pure fun. It’s why there's excitement surrounding Johnson's new Transformers series at Image, which he is writing and drawing; to see some warmth in the otherwise cold, metallic husks of Autobots and Decepticons. And that, in my opinion, is the beauty of Johnson’s work: we get to have our cake and eat it too. We zoom out to gaze upon battle scenes and cityscapes in awe, and then we’re pulled in close by the intimacy of the story, surprising us with a seriousness uncommon for such fun fare. Johnson and I spoke at length through our computer screens about this balance of emotional depth and fast-paced action, his creative philosophy, golfing on public courses, his frustrations with the Star Wars cinematic universe, and why it’s okay to have fun in comics.
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JAKE ZAWLACKI: So, I figured we’d start with your Eisner win.
DANIEL WARREN JOHNSON: Dude, I did just win an Eisner. I did.
First of all, congratulations. That’s huge.
And second of all, how does it feel?
Um, it’s a little surreal. It’s up on my shelf in my living room. So, I’m not hiding it. I’m very proud. It feels good. You know, I could lie. I don’t know. It’s a whole thing with awards. I feel like a lot of people try and pretend they don’t want one, but bro - I wanted one. It’s just that validation. It feels so good, you know? My art rep, Felix, he said, “Well, it’s a weird category, but we’ll take it.”
[Laughs] Yeah, the category was teen comic, is that right?
Yeah. Best teen publication, or however they phrase it.
When you were writing Do a Powerbomb!, was that your audience in mind?
No. I mean, I don’t think I ever have an audience in mind when I’m making something. I think maybe after the ball is already getting pushed up the hill, when it’s too late to let it go, is when I start thinking about that. If anything, I was worried that a wrestling comic would appeal to no audience. [Laughs] You know how you’re pretty sure there’s a connection between people who read comics and wrestling fans? I was pretty sure that was a thing, but I wasn’t positive, and wrestling comics don’t really sell well on the direct market anyway. Yeah, I was just trying to make the absolute best thing I could. If the teens want to read it, let’s do it. I mean, I’m all about that.
When a couple of friends recommended it to me and said it was about pro wrestling, I said, "Are you kidding me? There’s no way I’m gonna read that."
And then of course I did. And of course I loved it.
Oh, that’s great!
Speaks to your talent. But I do wonder what you think it is about your work that appeals to teens, or is it a way that adults think it “appeals to teens?” I’m curious.
Good question. I don’t know if it does appeal to teens. Honestly, I feel like the people who make the Eisner decisions are not necessarily teenagers... so I’ll answer your second question, which is, what about my stuff do people think is good, teen-wise? I don’t know. I do try and keep a kid mind when I make things, so - I just think about what would be really fun? What would be fun to see? What would be fun to happen in the story? I try and think like, I’m still a kid. I’m trying to activate that kid brain. And maybe I shouldn’t admit this to the Comics Journal, but I mean, I was playing with toys 'til I was like 14. I mean, I was late. [Laughs] I was... I was deep into it, bro. I would play with friends that were still in middle school because I couldn’t find anybody else that would play with action figures. They’d all just moved on. Amazing. So maybe it’s because I was a teen that played with toys, you know - like, not cool? It’s cool now that I’m in my 30s. I can play with toys.
Well, there’s an aspect of fun. That your comics are fun.
Another adjective that’s used a lot is “exciting.” I hear “Daniel Warren Johnson” and “exciting” in the same sentence everywhere.
So what is it that makes your stuff so “exciting?”
Well, maybe that’s it? Maybe it’s the willingness and the desire just to have fun? The way that I draw action, maybe? And the dynamics of how I approach a scene or a moment? But these are all very flattering adjectives, and I wouldn’t necessarily call myself such.
Sure. There’s an element to your style that’s a crossover between American [comics] and Japanese anime and manga. There’s this liveliness to it, this electricity to it-- and maybe this isn’t a good question, and we can scrap it, but are you writing Americanized manga or are you writing mangafied American comics?
[Laughs] That’s a Comics Journal question. [Laughs] Well, I can honestly say going back to the teen thing, I wouldn’t be here without manga. A lot of the early stuff. Ranma ½. Oh gosh, remember Trigun? Trigun was a manga for a bit. Also, Hellsing. Metal Guardian Faust by Tetsurō Ueyama. Deep cut that’s totally out of print now. His only English [translated] work. And that had a huge effect on me. Story is nonsensical, but the art is incredible. So yeah, I wouldn’t be here without manga. I think I make Americanized manga... if a manga is successful, you can have a knife fight over four trade paperbacks. I don’t have that luxury in America. I need to get in, have my two-page knife fight, if that, and get out. Which is something that makes me sad sometimes, because I love the artistry of being able to do that. There’s just more freedom there if it’s successful. So, sometimes I feel like I’m getting away with murder when I get paid per script, especially like on Beta Ray Bill. There are a few moments in there where Beta Ray Bill’s fighting and my script just says “Beta Ray Bill fights.” [Laughs] The next page: “Continue Fight Scene.” [Laughs] Which is something that I also really admire about manga - when two characters go toe to toe, they’re not really talking that much.
Not philosophizing and not telling the audience why they’re fighting. They’re just fighting because there’s conflict in the story, naturally, and I like trying to do that in my own comics as well. So, if I have to pick one, probably the first one: I am trying to make the excitement of manga translate to the shortness and abruptness of American comics. Which hopefully is a breath of fresh air. I want to make stuff that I am excited about. So maybe that’s just naturally what’s coming out. I just want it to be awesome.
A lot of times, at least in my scripts-- like I said, “Beta Ray Bill fights,” or whatever. Like when you read Shakespeare, and there’s this completely insane battle between two grand characters, and the [stage direction] says, “They do battle” - you’re gonna have to make it up in your head. I hated reading plays in high school because of that, because I was like, “There’s nothing here, there’s nothing. There’s nothing to keep me in.” Of course, it’s the language that’s amazing about Shakespeare, that’s one thing that I appreciated. My wife was in theater for a long time, and they would take the sentences and expand on them in the production of their plays in a way that was so interesting and unique. And it’s a way to reflect their own personhood onto something that has been repeated so many times. It’s like the story is there and the context is there, but there’s a way to put each person’s fingerprint on it, in the sense of how that action and how those moments unfold, which can really make or break a good story. It’s exciting to put your own spin on it.
You said in a lot of your battle scenes, there’s not much dialogue happening, but there’s a lot of sound.
How do you use sound? How do you articulate that? How do you see that taking up space on the page?
Sometimes I do it because I don’t want to draw all the backgrounds. [Laughs] I will sometimes use it as a cheat. I love Kirby, but Kirby has some big, big characters on a page. They take up the whole page, when they’re in action-- you know, there’s a splash page and they’re so big. And another thing I’ve taken from manga is pulling out a little bit more and making it just a little more cinematic. Oftentimes, just because of the layout of an American comic book page, you have some negative space where it wouldn’t really work if you put a really detailed background behind the characters doing whatever they’re doing, you know? Sometimes it’s an intense storytelling beat where it’s the two characters having this moment with each other, and you really don’t want to pull the characters away from it. It’s almost picking an aperture, a focal length so that the background will recede when taking a photo. So sometimes just a straight background with some onomatopoeia will really give that effect, and I want to make sure that the composition is something that really works. And sometimes when you have that negative space, you just need to fill it up with something. I mean, it’s always going back to manga but, like in Shirow’s Appleseed - he’s doing these hand-lettered sound effects and they’re just taking up all the spots that you need to itch the canvas with - the composition just needs a little something over there. It makes everything come together. It’s also fun. It’s a cool thing to practice and to try, and sometimes I’ll see an old school way in the Artist's Editions I have, with all these ways they did onomatopoeia, so - I love stealing. [Laughs] It’s just fun. It’s another thing to keep it interesting for me. Just a perfect little compositional tool, it’s compositional lubricant.
There you go. Well, speaking of fight scenes, do you consider your work ultraviolent?
That’s kind of surprising for American comics, but not that surprising for manga and anime. Have you heard much about that? That your comics are too violent? In a lot of ways they don’t seem that violent, even though there are beheadings, maimings, all kinds of crazy stuff going on.
I’ve never gotten any specific pushback. Probably just from my mom. She’s like, "Did you really have to show it that way?" I really love watching movies. A lot of the filmmakers I love the most are not the over-the-top guys or gals. They’re just doing what the story needs. And they’re really thinking about that when they push the pedal to the metal with violence and action. It’s very intentional. I don’t know, man, maybe I’m just that Paul Verhoeven guy. [Laughs] I can’t help it. I’m like, this would be really fun to draw and I think it’d be fun to read. Yeah, and so I do it. I don’t have a much of a self-editing thing when I make my stories, you know? I want it to be awesome. I want it to be cool and I want it to feel like: holy shit!
I’m thinking of a panel in Space-Mullet! when there’s a leg being kicked and then it just snaps right back because it’s hitting metal. I was like, oh man, my knees are hurting just watching that. That’s a visceral reaction, for sure.
I mean, I could definitely get away with not showing it that viscerally. But there’s something very satisfying about that kind of specifics. Kind of John Carpenter-y - it’s fun, but it’s also gross. But yeah, I guess I do love Paul Verhoeven movies, but I couldn’t make it through Showgirls, so I don’t know what that says about me. [Laughs]
Speaking of Space-Mullet!, it seems like you have an interest in working class aesthetics. There’s pro wrestling, which is generally for working class, middle class audiences. I mean, even hairstyles like mullets, '80s working class. A lot of trucking - space trucking, but also [terrestrial] trucking in Ghost Fleet. There’s trailer parks in Alabaster[: The Good, the Bad, and the Bird, a 2015-16 horror franchise project at Dark Horse with writer Caitlín R. Kiernan], there’s roller derby in Space-Mullet! What interests you about this?
Someone once said that I draw people in my comics like they’re riding the public bus. [Laughs] And I think he was insulting me. But I was also, like, that’s a cool thing.
To put it differently, they seem like normal people.
It seems unusual for a superhero [comic], especially, to have normal people in there.
Well, I do draw people on the bus a lot because when I take the bus, I bring my sketchbook and I want them to have a kind of lived-in quality. I’m kind of infamous for not being able to draw very hot women. [Laughs] I’ve just always tried to draw people regular. I’m just gonna be like, "Oh god, they don’t look normal enough." You know? With Wonder Woman, that was definitely an intentional choice. I want Wonder Woman to look like she’s really been through it. And she doesn’t look all that fantastic, but she’s still amazing and beautiful despite her outward appearance. I wanted to dirty her up. Like actually, literally - and the goal of that story was to bring her down to earth and have her make mistakes. Characters as gods is always kind of boring. There’s some writers who do it really well. I’m just not one of them. And also, perfect beings are so hard and no fun to draw.
I can see that. Thinking more about bodies—I’m thinking of Extremity, in particular—you talked about how losing your drawing hand was one your biggest fears and you channeled that fear through Extremity.
But you have lots of examples of differently-abled bodies throughout your work. I’m thinking of Beta Ray Bill. It’s this horrific transformation to where he doesn’t see himself anymore. Androids in a lot of your works have batteries that run out, so these bodies are limited. Cyborg arms and limbs are very common. So with the body too, there’s this maybe lived-in quality, but also all these broken bodies are everywhere in your work. What brings you to that? What interests you in the body?
[Laughs] Well, gosh, I guess-- yeah, that’s the throughline. With Extremity, it was literally just me trying to find a new way to tell a revenge story, and the only way I could do that was to dive into my own self because it just felt too “John Wick with feelings” until I came up with something that could connect it to my own soul. So that was out of necessity for the story and for myself. The rest of the time, it’s just a really fun design choice that separates [certain characters] from the rest of the cast or from what I’ve done before. And it’s really fun to draw. Gosh, I don’t want to give you a basic answer like that. But like Murph’s arm [in Murder Falcon]: so much fun to draw. And a little bit of a celebration of Kirby tech. I remember I tried to draw Murder Falcon’s arm when I first designed him more of like the Neill Blomkamp actual robot hand. It totally didn’t work. It had to be big and round and shiny and BOOM. So, the main answer to your question is it’s fun to draw. It’s a fun alternative way to present something visually. And specifically with Extremity, it was a huge part of the story too.
Yeah, that was integral. Do you consider yourself an auteur?
And the reason I say this-- I wouldn’t just say this.
Yeah, yeah, please. Go ahead.
The reason I say this is because you generally write, pencil and ink your own stuff. You work with [colorist] Mike Spicer on a lot of projects, but usually comics, especially mainstream superhero comics, are pretty collaborative with big teams. When you have that much control, then, do you see it as your vision? Do you see yourself as a director in some way?
Yeah, I won’t use the term auteur, but I will use the term director. I like having as few people in the kitchen as possible.
Why is that?
Well... [Pause] I just don’t want to sound like a dick. I’m trying to figure out how to say it. I feel like I have to be very, very conscious of what I say in these parts, because-- you ever watch boxing or like UFC or anything?
And there are these guys or gals, and they’re having their peak moment. And everything’s going well. And their body is in the most physical, best shape, and they are talking real big. I mean, they’re talking smack, and part of it is theatrics. It’s like a bit of a rock star element, but that makes their fall from grace just that much worse.
If I say the words to you, “I believe I’m an auteur,” I feel like I’m just setting myself up for some Conor McGregor type shit.
It’s done. Your career’s over if you say that. Only I can say that.
Yeah, exactly. But I will use the term director, and I like having as few people in the room as possible because I do feel like I have a very good instinct for what works and what doesn’t. Specifically when it comes to my own abilities and my own kind of stories in the way that I present things. So when I have an idea, oftentimes before it’s drawn and finished, or before I’ve even started writing, I will get the “Oh geez, I don’t know about this one, Dan.” I’ll get that kind of response from people. I remember I was hanging out in a hotel room when I was halfway through with Extremity. This is at Emerald City Comic Con and I was getting ready to pitch Murder Falcon to Skybound [an Image label]. And--who’s the guy that always wears-- Joe Casey? The guy that always wears sunglasses inside? Joe Casey was in the hotel room. Ramon Villalobos-- I don’t remember who else is there. Anyway, I’m like, “I’m gonna pitch this book tomorrow. I’m almost done with Extremity. I’m really excited about it.” They go, “What is it?” I’m like, “It’s called Murder Falcon. It’s about this bird man with a metal arm that comes to life when this guy is really down and out and his band is broken up and he’s just not really having a reason to live until he finds this guitar and it changes his life and the better he plays this guitar, the better that Murder Falcon fights evil.”
They were just hooting and hollering. They’re like, “This is the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.” [Laughs] So early the next day, I had a meeting with one of the editors, Sean Mackiewicz at Skybound. I pitched to him because he asked me, “What are you thinking about after Extremity? Do you have any ideas?” And I was like, “Yes, it’s called Murder Falcon.” I told him, and he’s like, “Ooohkay. Alright. We’ll think about it. I’ll pitch to Robert Kirkman and we’ll get back to you.” And I was like, “Okay, cool.” And I was sitting next to Ramon at Emerald City, and six hours later, Robert Kirkman walks up. [In Robert Kirkman voice] “Dan, hey! Sean told me about Murder Falcon. I love it! Let’s do it!” I looked at Ramon and I just pointed. “I told you.” But even then it had to go through a few hoops - there’s Robert over at Skybound, and there’s David Alpert, who does the money and the producing stuff at Skybound. It’s co-owned. And I don’t think David Alpert wanted to do Murder Falcon. I think Robert had to walk in there and be like, “This book is happening.” At least I was told. So, I have a lot of people vouching for it. But when all was said and done, I could see it. I could see it so clear in my head and nobody else really could. Robert believed in it, but when I sat down and I made it, it was this extension of myself. And I just knew, I was like, “This is awesome.” And sure enough, it came out and everyone was like, “This is amazing!” It didn’t sell well. [Laughs]
I believed in it 100%, and I feel the same way about all my projects. If I don’t feel that way about a project, I won’t do it. So oftentimes, the more people involved, the harder it is to achieve that vision that I have in my head - the tone, the approach, the way the story is told, the way the action scenes unfold. I’m sure I will get to a point in my career—I already kind of have—where your ideas just kind of slow down and you need to change the way that you tell stories so that you can keep being a storyteller, because I’m not going to have the energy or passion to keep doing this my whole life. But for now, it’s still going. I’m still excited and I still have ideas and I still have concepts that I’m telling to my friends that are still making them roll their eyes, but now there’s a little bit of that “Well, he did make that other stuff work.” [Laughs]
Could you walk us through your career? You said a lot of your stuff doesn’t sell well.
And yet now you just won an Eisner. You work for Marvel and DC. You’ve done Image and Skybound. Dark Horse. All this stuff. How did it start? Would you consider your rise “meteoric” in any way? Do you think it’s been hard-earned? How do you see it as you’re looking back? And you’re in the middle of it too, right now, of course.
Um, I don’t know. I don’t know about “meteoric.” It was not that long ago that I was drawing foreheads that were as tall as skyscrapers. I have some humble freaking beginnings. Have you ever read EVE: True Stories [Dark Horse, 2014]?
I have not.
Don’t hunt it out. It’s my first published work. It was a video game comic written by Daniel Way. It was like 16 pages for an anthology. Oh my god. I look back on it now and it’s like, how did anybody choose to keep me in comics after that? [Laughs] So it’s good - I have that hardcover, 16 pages of my stuff, and it’s good to look at every once in a while to have my humble salad. I think for the most part, it’s been-- not a grind, because “grind” makes it seem like it hasn’t been fun. Because it’s been a blast. But it’s been a lot of work and a lot of sleepless nights. I have moments of extreme confidence and then moments of extreme, “What am I doing? This is the worst. Like, I don’t even know if I can do this. Maybe this was a mistake.” And so on, just insert doubt at any point.
You wrote The Jurassic League, which was a blast, but you didn’t do the art.
Yes, that’s right. Was that a different experience for you? Not being in all angles of it?
Yeah. I had to learn how to let go. Because we were co-writing, Juan [Gedeon] had a lot of ideas - and he was the one that came up with the initial pitch, all the character designs, the whole vibe and tone, but he didn’t really have a story. So him and DC asked me to come along and help make it more of a story. Which I was happy to do, but I had to learn how to let go a little bit, which I hopefully can take with me to other experiences as well, because it was fun. But yeah, it was also a challenge because I was like, “How do I do this?” I have this idea, Juan has this idea, and just learning how to let go.
Most of your stuff has been miniseries. You haven’t done an ongoing except for Space-Mullet! when you were self-publishing it. It was ongoing.
Yeah, that just kind of went and went and went.
Do you like writing smaller arcs? Could you see yourself doing an ongoing?
I am still drawn to smaller arcs because I really don’t like when stuff overstays its welcome. Maybe it’s because I don’t know how to not go to 11 immediately? With Murder Falcon, you know - I feel the concept is great and really fun and really solid, but you get to a point where readers are like, eh, okay. All right. It’s like turning the saturation filter up on Photoshop, you know? It’s a little too much candy. And I want to be mindful of that. So I don’t know how to really keep things in a way that are entertaining, but still kind of hiding things behind a curtain so that you can reveal a story slower and with a little more intentionality. I am about as subtle as a hammer when it comes to stories, and it’s probably one of my faults. I still would like to do an ongoing at some point, but an ongoing for me is maybe 20 issues. Does that count as an ongoing?
I think it does as long as you don’t know it’s only going to be 20 issues.
[Laughs] I guess I just have to lie then. Yeah, I put it into the solicits. [Laughs]
Are there writers, comic writers, or fiction writers in general that you admire?
Oh yeah. Oh gosh, I’m-- well, I’m re-reading Dune. So good old Frank.
He seems like the absolute opposite of your kind of writing.
Oh, yeah. It’s so reserved, and everybody tells you exactly what they’re thinking and feeling and planning on doing. There’s a scene in Dune where Paul Atreides is about to have his first fight, and his mom is there watching while he is fighting this Fremen. And his mom will not shut up. I mean, he’s parrying, and it’s just a fight scene, and his mom is like, “Oh, he shouldn’t be doing that. He should be doing it this way.” Like, shut up, just let me read. [Laugh] Why do I have to have this italicized mom talk? Get outta here. So, yeah, execution sometimes can be frustrating, but the worldbuilding is incredible. Lord of the Rings is still probably my favorite book of all time. Yeah, I don’t write anything like them. I feel like I need to look at my bookshelf. Oh. Hyperion [by Dan Simmons] is probably my second-favorite book of all time. The first two: Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion. Sorry, this is a tough question. You caught me off guard here. Nobody asks me about writers.
What about comic writers?
Yeah, comic writers. Let’s see. Well, I was really, really impressed with Donny Cates’ writing, before we worked on The Ghost Fleet. He did this book called Buzzkill, this drunk superhero. It was so well done and I could see his passion in between the lines, and I actually cold emailed him. That’s how we got connected. Just from my emailing him and just telling him how much I loved Buzzkill. And then we would just talk on the phone every once in a while and he would tell me his crazy ideas, and eventually-- another artist was supposed to do The Ghost Fleet, but they backed out and Donny asked me, “Do you wanna be my runner-up?” And the book’s greenlit, and that’s how I got the gig. I really do love Donny’s writing. I-- now I gotta look at my bookshelf. I’m trying to think of stuff that’s really moved me or really made me want to make stuff. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Miyazaki’s stuff, his storytelling in general. I wouldn’t be here without Miyazaki. Extremity would not have existed without Nausicaä. It’s basically my love letter to Nausicaä, or my ripping off Nausicaä, whatever you want to call it. There’s an element to that book that’s almost spiritual for me. It’s just so, so well done. And it seems almost effortless for how kind of busy it is. Art, art-wise-- and the story goes on for so long. Jeff Smith’s Bone. That had a huge, huge impact on me, and I still love his writing today, all of it.
I’m literally looking around my studio for ideas. Okay. Kate Beaton’s Ducks was one of my favorite things I’ve read all year. I thought that book was tremendous. A lot of the time though, the things that I’m drawn to the most or the things that move me the most are nowhere near my lane. I don’t really read a ton of weekly comics. I was reading Tradd [Moore]’s [Doctor Strange:] Fall Sunrise. That was awesome. But it’s not like I have this big list in my shop, you know? And I remember, I’ve been trying to get into-- is it Druillet? Philippe Druillet. Lone Sloane. Well, it’s like a French dude, I think. His art is amazing, but I cannot read it. It’s so inspiring. I don’t know. Hold on, I’m gonna give you something. I’m gonna give you one more thing. [Stands to look at bookshelf] Okay. I’m looking at my shelf right now. Oh, I know. Garth Ennis’ stuff on the Punisher. His Punisher MAX run. Yeah. I’ve read it like three times. It’s so mean. I would never write anything like that, you know? Ever. It’s cruel. It’s just so well-written, but so crazy mean. I would just never think like that. [Laughs]
I recently finished reading The Boys, and I had to come out of it somehow. I had to watch some happy movies to get out of that because it’s pretty dark stuff.
It is dark stuff. My favorite thing he’s ever done is Punisher: The Platoon [with artist Goran Parlov]. Which actually is some of the most hopeful Garth Ennis writing I’ve ever read. Have you read that Punisher book?
Well, I don’t want to give away the ending, but I’d check it out. You’re gonna know what I’m talking about when you turn to the last page. It’s subtle. It’s not like, you know, Steven Spielberg Saving Private Ryan. It’s powerful stuff and it’s well done, but again, it’s not in my lane. Nowhere near my lane. Which is kind of nice. I just like being able to take things in stride. All of my favorite books, except for Miyazaki's stuff, are mostly things that I would never do myself.
You said about Nausicaä that there’s a spiritual quality to it.
And you’ve also mentioned that you are religious, spiritual, but you keep it close to the chest. I want to be respectful of that. I’m thinking of Extremity, and there’s that elder woman that has the names tattooed on her body, which to me felt very Christ-like. There’s this idea of sacrifice and hopefulness, but then you also have characters wrestling God. I’m curious, how do you think about your spirituality when you’re doing comics? How do these themes come out in your work?
I think back in the day, closer to Extremity, I was much more-- I don’t know what the word is. I still identify as a Christian, but that comes with such a weight now. Even more so than before, 2015, 2016. You know, now it has all this baggage. It always did, but it has even more so, and it feels kind of naïve to talk about it. I feel a little bit like: am I a fool when I talk out loud? My doubts are very, very strong, very intense. So, that’s one of the reasons why I keep it so close to the chest - because I’m like, do I sound like an idiot right now? I think that there are, at the very least, truths that I still believe in very strongly that originate from my faith, but I would hope are pretty universal, that will translate through the work that I make. But again, I’m not very subtle in any kind of work that I make. I can’t help it. It’s embarrassing how unsubtle I am. I guess I am trying to instill my... I’m not trying to convert anybody? But I also would never even wanna write something like Garth Ennis’ stuff. I’m not saying Garth Ennis is wrong. It just wouldn’t feel right for me to make that. It’s just not me. I’m a complicated person, and my faith is also complicated. I have stories that talk more about faith, and how in a lot of ways religion has failed me and many of my friends and family. That is something that-- I’m thinking like, “Oh, I’ll make a horror comic and it’ll be freaking terrifying and gross!” And then I was like, “But I don’t wanna make a horror comic, you know?” So, when, uh, when we’re not recording, I’ll tell you about it and it’ll make total sense.
But I think what you’re getting is just a reflection of me, and hopefully it’s not too preachy in any way. I hope it’s universal, but everybody has a different take.
Yeah, of course. You keep saying that you are very blunt with your work and you’re not subtle at all. But it seems like you have really good control of speed and pacing. So you can have these crazy action scenes for like five, six pages, and then you have this really close, intimate, personal moment that can bring readers to tears. Do you see that the lack of subtlety isn’t necessarily a bad thing? That the intimate moment may be blunt because we’re seeing it straight-up? Is it speed and change that you’re more interested in?
Yeah, I think it’s a classic case of "I just don’t think about it." One thing I cannot stand is when you’re watching TV and they need the characters to keep going to episode 14 [so they invent conflicts]. They’re just not being honest with each other. Like, just talk. So that always really drives me crazy. I have this tendency to be like, well, they’re just feeling this way, so they’re just gonna say it, and we’re just gonna get to the point, which is another reason why I don’t do ongoings. [Laughs] But you know, if my characters are honest and I do things that make sense with other people, then those transitions really are-- “easy” is not the right word, but it’s like, “Okay, this makes sense.” And if it makes sense, then you can really push how you deliver it, whether it be action or whether it be emotional.
I want to make things that people can be thankful that they’re alive to read, you know? So, when I see a really incredible movie that is just absolutely life-changing, I walk out of the theater and I’m like, “Oh my God. I’m so glad I was alive in this sliver of time to see this specific work of art and have it move me this way.” I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wanna do that for other people with my comics. Because it’s happened with me with comics - like I Kill Giants [created by Joe Kelly & Ken Niimura]. Like, oh my God, this comic is so incredible. I had the pleasure and honor of reading this. And it was such a positive force in me and my life. Miyazaki. Nausicaä. The same thing. You’re reading these panels and you’re like, I can’t believe I’m looking at this. I cannot believe I’m looking. [Laughs]
Are you ever intimidated or overwhelmed by mastery? It happens to me a lot where I’m just like, how the hell do they do that?
Just in general, if you would come across a brilliant comic or a film or whatever it is, you just feel like giving up.
[Laughs] That happened a lot to me earlier on, when I didn’t quite have my footing in the industry. This would happen a lot with Cory Walker’s art. I love his art. You know, he doesn’t make a lot of stuff, but man, his storytelling and his figure work is so incredible. And I would read his stuff and be like, “Oh, I’m never gonna-- I can never get to be this good ever, ever, ever.” But that’s another thing. One of the reasons why I like to write and draw my own stuff is I can rest in the story, and the art is doing a job. So I don’t worry as much about that anymore. I feel like the art is a little bit like a tool to get where I need to go. Of course I love it. I want to get better at it. But because it’s now a singular package, I feel a little more confident than I used to. But maybe that just means there’s gonna be this twentysomething who’s gonna rock my socks off in two months when I see ‘em at New York Comic Con, like, “You wanna look at my portfolio?” Oh my God, I have to work harder! [Laughs]
An unrelated question, but: are you a big collector?
Yeah, I think so. I have a lot of Transformers. I have too many guitars, but I don’t know if that makes me a collector or I’m just a straight up materialist. Just another consumer. Well, I collect some original art, but I think I mostly just have a lot of things I’m into. And then I have a tendency to do deep dives on stuff, like really intensely. Until I find something else to get into. It was pro wrestling for a while. Guitar for a bit.
I’ve been playing guitar since I was 11. And I never stopped playing, and I took it very seriously through high school and college. But something happened. I started listening to some different music, like in 2012, 2013, and I just really wanted to push myself, and that led into my experience with Murder Falcon and this guitar virtuoso kind of vibe. Having that be a big inspiration. Then the same thing happened with Do a Powerbomb! where I really fell in love with pro wrestling, and uh, I’m really into golf now, so I guess that means--
That sounds fantastic. If anyone could do it--
I know, I know. I watch golf. How embarrassing is that? Oh, I watch the Masters every year and I’m thinking, how do they do that? That’s what I do. I watch golfers and I’m like, I should just give up.
Do you golf yourself?
I do golf. I golf. I try and hit nine holes a week. I go to the Chicago Park District course. The greens are like hitting on a war-torn beach. A ball’s supposed to glide beautifully across the grass, you know? I pay $20 and the starter will laugh openly if you mishit your ball on the first tee. There was this one time - it was right after a really big storm came through Chicago on a Friday night, and I went golfing the next morning and it was just a little wet outside. There were tree branches and leaves everywhere and it was just a mess. But we didn’t care. We just golf and walk around branches. But the poor groundskeeper is just driving his cart around, his groundskeeper cart, picking up branches screaming “Motherfucker!” He kept screaming it all down hole four, which is like a par four. He’s just going back and forth. “Motherfucker. Motherfucker.” So bad. This is one guy, you know? He just has to deal with all this, the whole thing. Anyway, there’s some Park golf for you.
That’s funny. Okay. Last thematic question. How trauma works in storytelling. I’m thinking of Murder Falcon and how Jake is a cancer survivor; a lot of sacrifice in Extremity. There’s also the traumatic experience of being a father in Superman Red and Blue [i.e., "Generations," Johnson's solo comic in that 2021 anthology], and Do a Powerbomb!, [the protagonist] losing her mom in Do a Powerbomb! How does trauma center in your work?
Well, I’m not specifically trying to go super-traumatic, but at the same time, I feel like a lot of comic book drama and comic book storytelling can have a lack of character drive. They’re doing flips and they’re shooting some ray guns and they’re cutting people up, and it takes a lot for someone just to get out of bed. This is inherently how we’re wired. I don’t really like playing Dungeons & Dragons, but one thing that really helped me with my own storytelling and with playing this game was the Dungeon Master was like, “Look, you gotta give your character a reason to get out of bed - and not only get out of bed, but go without food and maybe get killed or maimed or wounded. They need to have something to put them on a quest.” Frodo does not want to leave his house. He doesn’t want to go, so to that end, I think I’m naturally just trying to find stories that have characters that have great loss, because in order to do a great thing, you have to start from somewhere pretty down and out. I read a non-vampire or non-sci-fi book, or I watch a drama at the movies or whatever, and nobody’s pulling out a chainsaw sword. But I’m so into the story, and a lot of times it takes big, big emotions to get there. I’m trying to keep that reality present so that people can hang onto that when I do have something crazy happen. I don’t know, though. I don’t know if my stuff is any different than anybody else’s. I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m doing. [Laughs] It’s just - sometimes it’s a mess. I know when something feels right and when a character feels right, and oftentimes it’s like in order to make it sing, you just gotta go through some shit. But yeah, nobody wants to-- I don’t know. I don’t know. Not like I’ve been through that much shit anyway. I don’t know. I don’t even know why you’re interviewing me. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Final question for you. You mentioned in Do a Powerbomb! that you like to introduce people to new worlds.
Like Japanese pro wrestling. What new worlds can we expect from you in the future?
I would love to do a comic about pornography. It’s something that nobody ever talks about. It ties in deeply with my own religion and shame growing up. Awesome - you know, fun. “You know, Dan, you can’t do this,” kind of tone. I’m really excited about it, but I don’t think it’s gonna sell...
Other worlds, hmm. A lot of times I wanna make something that I have not seen before. Like Murder Falcon. Like Do a Powerbomb! Like a scraggly Wonder Woman. Like a horse-faced guy, which Marvel didn’t want me to do for years because they said it wouldn’t sell. It actually did sell quite well. But, you know, I feel like sometimes my story choices are a little out of left field to start, you know, and then I can kind of draw people.
One-- I think it’s one of my skills, but man, I have always wanted to do a really epic Metabarons-style sci-fi book where I don’t have to explain anything in a Star Wars way. It’s like, “Oh, that ship is flying and moving that way, and there’s this space monster that’s just a serpent going through space.” It doesn’t make any sense. But it also is completely different in tone than Star Wars. Kind of irreverent, and has that grit around the edges, like Metabarons has. But when you read Metabarons and you’re like, “Okay, it’s so cool,” you’re not gonna go and tell a loved one about Metabarons. “You’re freaking nuts. Why are you reading that?” I want to make something that’s like Metabarons, but accessible. Or a world that’s over-the-top, insane, “I can’t believe he’s drawing this” kind of vibe, but with characters and a story that you can get your hands around and feel good about. Or, if not feel good about, at least understand and walk through it. Because I have the artistic ability.
All my books that I’ve worked on have been leading up to this point. Working on this kind of thing. I remember I wanted to do a fantasy book before starting Space-Mullet!.... If I want to get better at this, I have to push myself, and I’ve been pushing myself for so darn long. I feel very confident in my ability to make a sci-fi book that I hope people haven’t seen before.
I am personally-- I don’t want to get on my soapbox here, but I’m absolutely fed up with the entire sci-fi genre. It’s just so boring. I’m sorry. It just is. It’s good that this is printed and not a video because people can’t see me pulling my hair out. You watch a Star Wars show and you’re like, "Oh, are you serious? Are you serious?" I gotta watch 12 episodes of this shit? I’m sorry. It’s just no fun. It’s just not fun. It’s not cool. Nobody cares in a way that matters. I just get so frustrated.
Chris Pratt was in that sci-fi movie with Jennifer Lawrence [Passengers] and I’m like, "Kill me! Kill me!" Everything has this kind of filter on it, and I want that gritty Robocop feel back. The kind of thing where it’s an adventure to see it. It’s so exciting. It’s something new. You’re like, “Is he allowed to do that? Are they allowed to do that?” You remember that feeling you got when you watched sci-fi? I mean, when was the last time you had that?
They all have a Disney filter on them now, literally.
And it’s not just Disney movies. It’s like, in order for something to be sci-fi, let’s sand off all of these hard edges and present it to you so you can down it like a blue pill. I can’t remember which one gets you back into the Matrix.
It’s odd that the most interesting sci-fi is still from the '80s, like Blade Runner. We’re not past Blade Runner yet in a lot of ways.
Dude, that’s so true. That’s so true. That’s a great point. And maybe that’s why I keep going back to those classics and I still get excited by those more than I do with anything coming out. But bringing it back to comics, comics is this last middle finger to the proverbial man or Hollywood or who gets to make what or budgets, and making something that gets people excited. This is the goal and I know I can do it, and I know it’s what people want because there’s so many other people out there like me that want something to get their teeth into. That’s got spaceships and got-- you know, whatever. It just doesn’t exist right now. Here’s what it is. I shouldn’t get so upset about it, but I really love Dune.
You mean the remake?
Yeah. It got panned a lot, but I read, I watched, I re-watched it. This doesn’t have to be in the interview, but I have to talk about this. I re-watched it. I’ve watched it three or four times-- I think it’s so great. And there’s all these reviewers saying it's just [more] Disney-style fodder. I’m like, do you guys know what you’re talking about? This is so good. It was a blast. It was awesome. This is exciting. I’m excited about sci-fi again. It got me thinking about my own stories again. Because I felt-- look, if you can do that, with this multimillion-dollar movie. There’s some crazy stuff that happens in that book. I don’t know, it just got me excited again. So I’m really looking forward to Dune: Part Two. But other than Dune, there hasn’t really been anything. And I just get sad. I just get sad now when I watch new Star Wars stuff. Hmm. Maybe that’s not right, that’s not okay to say.
You didn’t like Andor?
I freaking love Andor. Okay. There’s a huge problem with Andor. It’s like six episodes too long. You know when they’re breaking into the Imperial thing to steal the stuff or whatever?
That happened in episode four?
They’re talking about it at the end of episode one. Get out of here. You should be in that place by the end of episode two!
You know, there’s an editor, and these writers are cooking, they’re rocking and rolling. Then there’s some producer who’s walking in, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. We gotta stretch this out.” Silly putty, you know? Eventually it’s gonna be at your knees. It’s just no fun. It’s no fun. And there are these incredible moments like-- did you like it?
I thought it was the best Star Wars thing they’ve done in a long time.
Yeah, the best thing. Too bad. It’s like completely freaking ruined by the pacing. Yeah. And it’s slow nonsense. Nothing ruins interactions like that. Was he Irish or Scottish? The Scottish-accented guy.
The cop arc.
Yeah. Yeah. What are you doing here? He doesn’t do anything, he doesn’t die. He just runs away at the last episode. And we spent what, 45 minutes on you? Well, so you could be a toy. There’s this moment when Andor finds out his adopted mother has died. What an incredible moving piece of acting and cinematography, and the music is so good - and it’s fucking lost in a sea of people putting together Imperial parts for an hour. Like, what? Oh, it’s part of the Death Star. Big fucking deal! Big deal. Gimme something that matters. I’m so sorry.
No, this has gotta go in, this has gotta be in the interview. The truth’s gotta be known.
That’s fine. That’s fine. It almost hurts more when you have these moments that are so amazing and they’re ruined by episode count necessity. Yeah. Ugh. I get angry just talking about it because I’m like, it’s just the capitalist machine, marching ever forward and ruining stuff that should be so special. Thank God for comics, I guess. Thank God for comics.