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Worldbuilding and subverting tropes: Phillip Kennedy Johnson talks 'The Last God'
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Worldbuilding and subverting tropes: Phillip Kennedy Johnson talks ‘The Last God’

Hear from the creator of DC Black Label’s best new comic book.

This past June, DC announced a new high-fantasy horror series coming to its Black Label imprint, The Last God: Book One of the Fellspyre Chronicles, from the team of writer Phillip Kennedy Johnson and artist Riccardo Federici.

That’s right, fellow adventurers, you’re about to embark on a fantasy epic on the scale of The Lord of the Rings but with a much more disturbing and grotesque take on the conflicts, mysteries, and intrigues that exist in the magical realms of men, elves, dragons, and gods.

Listen to the latest episode of our weekly comics podcast!

But, wait a minute, DC? DC Comics is putting out a dark fantasy book in its own self contained universe? You’re damn right they are. The home of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman is delivering one of the finest series of the year.

We touched base with Kennedy Johnson recently to talk about the series, which follows a dark, vengeful god and its many disturbing creations. Plus, the series’ origins, how to create a fantasy world, and the magic of horror movies.

Worldbuilding and subverting tropes: Phillip Kennedy Johnson talks 'The Last God'

DC

AIPT: When people look at a fantasy story, there are several preconceived notions on what to expect. Inevitably everyone is thinking about elves, dwarves, dragons, wizards, etc. Are there any fantasy stereotypes and tropes that you intend for The Last God to leave destroyed in its wake?

Phillip Kennedy Johnson: All of them! We didn’t go out of our way to avoid tropes, but we WERE careful not to use them unless we’d be subverting them. We have the races and classes you expect to see, but when you look more closely, every one of them is a more complicated, usually darker version of itself, with aspects we haven’t seen in other fantasy worlds. In Issue 1, the most obvious example of this is the Aelva, who are the “elves” of Cain Anuun. They’re not the immortal, luminous, divine beings we’re used to seeing… they’re a subjugated aboriginal race, enslaved and downtrodden by the Nation of Men. Race relations between Men and Aelva are thoroughly explored, and treated in what I hope is a realistic, thoughtful way.

Another fantasy concept that I wanted to mess with was the fundamental nature of magic. In Cain Anuun, each of the dominant races, and even some high-level beasts, have control over a different form of magic, and each one requires a specific kind of “fuel” to work. When readers learn which energies fuel which magics, it might make the concept of magic a bit less wondrous for them, and a lot more ominous.

AIPT: One look at the artwork for this project and it’s clear as day that not only is Riccardo Federici an incredible artist, but he was also fated to draw it. Is there a specific instance you can tell us in which you had a vision of what you wanted something to look like and Federici gave you something completely different, but it worked out better because of how he envisioned it? And how does Federici’s vision complement and challenge your own during the creative process?

PKJ: I am constantly drawing on Riccardo’s designs, and even his layouts and action choreography, to reshape the story. Riccardo gets the script, he makes insanely gorgeous and terrifying art with it, and then I do a heavy rewrite based on that art so that the art and the words marry up as well as they can. That’s how any creative collaboration should work, in my opinion… just because Riccardo performs his role after mine doesn’t mean he works for me, or that Sunny or Tom work for him. We all work together, and we all try to be sensitive to what everyone else is doing.

To answer your question, though, one example of a moment when Riccardo changed the story: there’s a moment in Issue 3 when a monster we met earlier in the story was supposed to return in a different, more leveled-up form. But Riccardo changed the character design so substantially — and it looked so badass as a result — that it made more sense to create a whole new creature for that chapter, and to give the original monster a new role going forward. That decision changed everything that followed, and there have been a lot of moments like that… moments when the story was sent in an unexpected direction after seeing Riccardo’s artwork. Riccardo’s a genius, and I’d be an idiot NOT to respect his vision as much or more than my own. Anytime his ideas diverge from mine, unless there’s some storytelling reason why they won’t work, I try to use them.

Worldbuilding and subverting tropes: Phillip Kennedy Johnson talks 'The Last God'

DC

AIPT: I’m aware that your editor at DC, Amedeo Turturro, is a passionate D&D fan and had a big hand in getting you on board with this project (thank you, Amedeo). But I’d like to dig deeper than the surface level of this tale’s origins. When you really dig deep down into the monsters, politics, magic, horror, and unrestrained imagination at work here, where did all of that come together for you into what we see before us today?

PKJ: I didn’t start fleshing out the specific details of the world of The Last God until probably a year ago, but I’ve been wanting to tell a story like this for a long time. My favorite stories have always been the ones with seemingly bottomless depth, stories I could immerse myself in for weeks or months. In prose, that was the work of Tolkien, Howard, Le Guin, and Martin; in comics, it’s the Mignolaverse, Locke & Key, American Vampire, and East of West; in film, it’s the movies of Guillermo Del Toro and Ridley Scott; in video games, it’s The Last of Us, Red Dead Redemption, and the latest God of War. I’m the guy who reads the songs in Tolkien’s books and writes melodies to go with them, or who stops to read every journal or bit of graffiti in a video game. Those supplemental bits of storytelling are what make the story real for me. I love getting drawn into not just the story, but the world in which the story takes place.

Regarding the style and tone of the book: I always knew that if I got a shot at a fantasy epic, I wanted to draw from the world-building and wonder of Tolkien, but also lean into the harsher realities of Robert E. Howard, the creepy sense of doomed fate found in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and maybe even horror elements from Lovecraft or Del Toro. I could list a hundred other influences, but the ones above are some of the biggest influences on The Last God.

AIPT: I know that you’re a lore junkie and I’m right there with you when it comes to almost anything remotely fantasy related. Currently I’m working on Malazan Book of the Fallen series and I inhale its fandom wiki pages. What’s it like being on the other side of that fence and being in the driver’s seat for what uber fantasy nerds desire most? Is there any specific piece of lore that you worked on where you ended up falling down the rabbit whole and creating enough material for a whole different story?

PKJ: Creating the world of Cain Anuun has been one of the most rewarding creative experiences of my life. I love making as many different kinds of things as I can—comics (obviously), prose, poetry, composing and performing music—and I’m increasingly looking for ways to combine them, in hopes of creating something that might outgrow a single medium. As far back as Warlords of Appalachia at BOOM! Studios, I was writing songs for each issue and recording them, writing a lost book of the bible, creating boatloads of back-matter that was never intended to make it onto the page, that was just meant to make the story feel deeper and more authentic. Now, The Last God is going several steps beyond that, becoming this gigantic, all-encompassing work that crosses and combines different mediums, a place where I can make practically any kind of art I want, and this time the reader gets to see and hear a lot of it.

Writing The Last God means writing much more than just a script… it means writing ancient sacred texts for a false religion, epic poetry about a new kind of monster, songs in original notation with lyrics that tell us about the world of Cain Anuun, folktales from lost cultures, journal entries from a lost mission of an extinct order of knights, drawing a map of a city that’s been burned and rebuilt several times… it really is a whole world. I’ve never written a story that let me make ALL the different things I like to make in one place, at least not to the scale we’re doing in The Last God. And although it’s time-consuming, taking the time to flesh out all those things adds a feeling of authenticity that you can’t achieve any other way.

One example of this is a statue that appears in Issue 1, located at the steps of Tyr’s palace. That statue wasn’t in the script, it was 100% Riccardo’s idea. But I loved it, and now that she was there, it was important to me that she not be a meaningless figure. If she was important enough to be immortalized on the steps of the Godslayer’s palace —especially as a woman in Tyrgolad, which is a male-dominated culture — she must have played a crucial role to his city or his empire. And that’s where I got the idea for Cyuli Queen-Of-Rivers, founder of the city that became Tyrgolad, whose story you can read in the bonus material in the back of the first two issues. The bonus material in the back of every issue has been a godsend, because it lets me give the reader a peek behind the curtain, to see a small piece of the exhaustive worldbuilding that goes into every issue of this series.

Worldbuilding and subverting tropes: Phillip Kennedy Johnson talks 'The Last God'

DC

AIPT: Maps are one of my favorite parts of digging into a new fantasy world. Talk to us about how you managed to get the Jared “King of fantasy map making” Blando involved. How involved were you in the process of creating the map of Cain Anuun?

PKJ: Very involved. I gave Jared a drawing of Cain Anuun as I envisioned it, with every city and important landmark on it, and he prettied it up and made it look like Blando maps do. We batted a few ideas back and forth, but it all came together pretty easily.

AIPT: So, we’re both lore nerds. When I dig down deeper into that nerdom, I find that one of my biggest personal hooks in fantasy is interesting names of places, groups, and objects. To name a few: Frostmourne, Knights Radiant, Angband, Horcrux, and the Pandemonium Fortress. Would you be willing to provide us with one from The Last God that we haven’t seen yet? Without any context of course. No spoilers!

PKJ: The Abyssal Realm. I cannot wait for readers to see that place.

Also: there’s a place called “the Maer” that has great significance to the story, and although it played its role many years before the events of The Last God, we do see it in flashbacks (AND in a creepy poem in the back of Issue 2!).

AIPT: Happy Halloween! Do you participate in the annual “31 Days of Halloween” horror movie event? Or do you have different Halloween traditions you excitedly follow each year?

PKJ: I haven’t done the 31 Days of Halloween yet, but have just this moment committed to doing it next year, so let’s round up again then and see how it went. If it’s not clear from The Last God, I love horror movies, and am always looking to up my cred as a horror fan.

My most treasured tradition is carving a Jack-o-lantern with my son. I have three younger siblings and always helped them with their jack-o-lanterns as kids, and now my son and I design ours and carve it up together, which is a ton of fun. This year, I’m hitting up Alamo Drafthouse to see a Halloween screening of The Exorcist Director’s Cut, which I am pretty damned stoked about. It’s only my second time seeing The Exorcist on the big screen, so I’m not sure I can call it a tradition yet, but if I can find an equally cool Halloween movie in upcoming years I’ll happily do that.

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