Daniel Warren Johnson is one of the best action storytellers working in comics right now, and his work on titles like Dark Horse’s The Ghost Fleet and his ongoing Space-Mullet webcomic has revealed an incredible talent for exhilarating, engaging battle scenes. His new series from Image Comics and Skybound Entertainment, Extremity, delivers no shortage of heart-stopping action, but it’s bolstered by a strong emotional foundation as Johnson tells the story of Thea, a young artist who loses her drawing hand and her mother when her people are attacked by a rival clan.
With a visual sensibility that combines medieval design with futuristic sci-fi elements and a heavy dose of Mad Max, Extremity is a stunning book with bold coloring from Mike Spicer, and The A.V. Club reached out to Johnson to learn more about the inspiration for the series, how he’s switching up his art style, and collaborating with Spicer.
“A lot of things went into the initial spark of Extremity,” says Johnson. “I knew that I wanted to make something that could be taken a bit more seriously than my previous long-form title, Space-Mullet. I could always hide behind the title with it, so when it got dark, I could pretend like it wasn’t coming from a raw place. With Extremity, it’s a fun ride, but has a personal element that I think Space-Mullet is less up front about. With this goal in mind, I just kept my eyes and ears open for things that would inspire me.”
“That initial inspiration came to me after hearing about a Jewish woman, Eva Kor, who was tortured as a child in the Nazi camps,” he adds. “In the early 2000s, she publicly forgave the Nazis who did such horrible things to her. As amazing as this was, the spark for me came from learning how much pushback she got from her own people. The global Jewish community publicly denounced her actions. It got me thinking about what happens to families and loved ones when outside strife occurs. We all deal with pain in different ways, and I wanted to examine how that would look in a fantasy/sci-fi world. It’s been a challenging but joyous journey.”
A big part of the challenge of Extremity was finding the emotional thrust of the story, which came to Johnson when he started exploring his own personal fears. “When outlining this book, I was still struggling with the emotional core,” says Johnson. “Thea still had her right hand in the original outline, and it wasn’t until I started asking myself what really scared me in life that I found what drives the story. My greatest fear is losing my hands. I’ve never been good at sports and I’m not great at a lot of things, but I love drawing and creating, and I love playing music. With so much at stake, what would it be like to lose something so precious? What if someone took it away violently? This is an intense way to go about writing a story, but what other way can I write? It’s a story that’s very personal to me.”
One of the most impressive things about Warren’s artwork is the amount of detail he puts on the page while maintaining a dynamic energy, and even though he’s loosening up his technique for Extremity, the visuals are still meticulously rendered. “I’m trying to not be obsessive about my art,” says Johnson. “When I was drawing Space-Mullet, more often than not I’d be near tears trying to make things perfect. It got to the point where I couldn’t sleep at night because it was all I could think about.”
“I’m trying to toe the line between always trying my hardest and giving myself room to rest and be at peace with the lines I make. This actually frees me up to be a bit looser in my approach to drawing a page, and giving new materials a try. I’m inking on smooth paper now instead of rough, and I’m loving it, and I’ve been using more tech pens and a bit less brush for my inking, just to switch things up. I really love how sharp an .08 micron looks on smooth bristol. Sorry, I know that’s super art nerd stuff,” Johnson says.
Mike Spicer’s coloring plays a big role in the visual impact of Extremity, with a color palette that adjusts to fit the shifting tone of the story. Bright reds, oranges, purples, and pinks are used to intensify the spectacular action sequences, and Spicer uses cooler, more subdued colors for quieter, introspective scenes. “I love how Mike surprises me,” says Johnson. “I’ll give him a few notes on an issue before he begins, like mood, palette, etc, but I mostly give him free range, and he always brings it home in ways that I never thought about, and I love it. The other times, he colors a scene so perfectly, so exactly like I pictured when I drew it, that I feel like he’s looking into my brain. It’s freaked me out a few times, but in the best way.”
Readers can get swept away in this thrilling story when Extremity #1 goes on sale this Wednesday, and below are some exclusive preview pages of what’s in store for Extremity #2, out April 5.