If you like thieves, monsters and dark fantasy, then you’ll love Umbral.
Umbral is a new series by the duo behind Oni’s Wasteland series, Antony Johnston and Christopher Mitten, that follows the young life of a dyed-in-the-wool thief named Rascal who bites off more than she can chew when she attempts to steal a precious jewel from the possession of the Fendian royal family. Rascal doesn’t get caught, no – it’s something worse. On the cusp of acquiring this magical gem she bears witness to the murder of the king and queen by a sect of shadowy creatures called the Umbral. These creatures want to rule the world, and this second-generation thief is cast in the unlikely role of protector for this dark invasion.
Umbral’s dark fantasy landscape is a long way from the post-apocalyptic world of Wasteland, and Johnston and Mitten are jumping into it whole-heartedly with colorist John Rauch. Newsarama talked with Johnston about this new series which launches in November, setting up the world, the conflicts and the heroes who hope to push back against the darkness.
Newsarama: Comics readers know the two of you well from Wasteland, but Umbralis something completely new. What is Umbral about, Antony?
Antony Johnston: Umbralis a new dark fantasy series from myself and Chris Mitten, my Wasteland co-creator. It’s the story of Rascal, a young thief who breaks into the royal palace to steal a precious jewel — but ends up witnessing the horrific murder of the king and queen in a dark magic ritual!
Rascal has stumbled upon a stealth invasion by the Umbral, shadow creatures that everyone thought were just a legend. But the Umbral are very real, very dangerous... and now Rascal holds the key to stopping them.
Nrama: With a name like Rascal, you have to tell us more about her.
Johnston: Rascal is a young orphan, and one of the best thieves in the city. She was raised by smugglers and mentored by the head of the Thieves’ Guild. She’s independent, strong-willed, streetwise, and takes absolutely no shit from anyone. She also has a wicked streak of sarcastic humour, which she’ll need to get through the events that are about to unfold.
Nrama: You said this kicks off when Rascal witnesses the murder of the king and queen. When people her talk about a royal family, they think about the British – Queen Elizabeth and the like. But just so we’re clear, they’re not, right?
Johnston: Ha! No, not at all. This is a fantasy world, and these are the Fendish royalty, descended from the mythical hero-king Strakan I.
Nrama: Understood. And with the heads of the Fendish royal family being proverbially chopped off here, where does that leave their kingdom?
Johnston: The whole of Fendin is now under threat from the Umbral. Which is not good.
Nrama: When Umbral was originally announced, you released a comic book trailer with an object of some sort called the Oculus. What is it, and how does it factor into the story?
Johnston: All I can say is, it’s incredibly important. But nobody seems to know why. You’ll have to read the book to find out...
Nrama: Okay. So back up a bit and give us the big picture – what’s it like here in the world of Umbral, the world of Fendin?
Johnston: The Kingdom of Fendin is a dark fantasy land where terrible things with sharp teeth lurk in the shadows, and anyone with a lick of sense stays well away from the forest at night. Not that the cities are much better, what with all the thieves, smugglers, and assassins roaming about.
One thing makes Fendin unusual for a fantasy world; magic and religion are both completely outlawed. Centuries ago, the Fendish turned to science and education instead, led by their wise men, whom they call Profoss. It heralded an age of reason and learning… which is all very well, until you find yourself invaded by shadow creatures!
Why did they turn their back on magic and gods? It might have something to do with an eclipse which takes place every 500 years… but again, you’ll have to read the book to find that out.
Nrama: As you said earlier, Umbral sees you re-teaming with long-time collaborator Christopher Mitten, who did Queen & Country: Declassified with you in 2005 and then launched Wasteland in 2006. What brought you two back together for this?
Johnston: It felt like it was time for us to create something new. Chris and I share a lot of opinions about comics, in terms of both craft and content. That’s why we worked so well together on Wasteland, and even after Chris left we stayed great friends.
Last year, I had a sudden urge to work with Chris again, and make something new. Luckily, it turned out the urge was mutual, so we began throwing ideas for genre around.
We quickly settled on a dark fantasy, and what we’ve ended up creating is basically a big mash-up of our twin obsessions — I love building huge, elaborate fantasy worlds, and Chris loves drawing weird, grotesque things that lurk in the shadows. That’s Umbral in a nutshell.
Nrama: People like myself who’ve read Wasteland are coming to this expecting a very large scope and world. What can you say about the world-building you have here?
Johnston: It’s huge. I know a lot of Wasteland readers are big fans of all the detailed world-building that goes into it, and Umbral doesn’t disappoint on that score at all. The first issue has a *map*, for crying out loud.
Nrama: In terms of genre, you describe Umbral as a "dark fantasy." Can you elaborate on that, especially contrasting with the other work people know you for like Wasteland?
Johnston: Umbral definitely has a broader appeal than Wasteland. There’s humour, and characters like Rascal and Dalone are quite likeable. Anyone who reads Wasteland already knows those aspects alone make it quite different!
But I’m confident Wasteland readers will enjoy Umbral, too. It’s still me and Chris making this, and no matter what we do our voices are going to show through in the work.
So yes, it’s fantasy. But there are no pointy-eared elves, or green-stockinged heroes. This is much more like something out of a Del Toro horror-fantasy, or a children’s movie gone horribly wrong. Think of it like The Dark Crystal meets Saga.