Discovering A Town Where Death Is Not The End – Phillip Kennedy Johnson On Low Road West
by Hannah Means Shannon
Upcoming from Boom! Studios is a new series from writer Phillip Kennedy Johnson (The Power of The Dark Crystal, Aquaman) and artist Flaviano (I Am Groot, Spider-Man/Deadpool), that pits a group of young teens against a mysterious location, strange happenings, and their own dark experiences that have sent them across the country in the wake of an East Coast evacuation. Low Road West, a five issue series, launches on September 12th, 2018.
Five young people find themselves in a dark place, and that isn’t just their waylaid location in Oklahoma, but are about to encounter things that make them question the nature of life and death. If those things can prove mysterious, what else might be able to change in their lives?
I spoke with Phillip Kennedy Johnston at San Diego Comic-Con 2018 about Low Road West and the ways in which we can view the new series in the context of his other thought-provoking works in comics so far.
Hannah Means-Shannon: It seems like you’ve made a lot of quite specific choices with Low Road West in terms of character creation, settings, and more. What led you to choose you to focus on a group of five characters, specifically, and how do you think that affects the storytelling?
Phillip Kennedy Johnson: Well, I knew that I had certain kinds of characters in mind. There are a number of influences on Low Road West, and one of them is James Tynion IV. Hearing him talk about The Woods years ago, and how much of himself is in that book, made a lot of sense to me. I took a similar approach to Warlords of Appalachia, and to all my work since then, honestly. I always try to put a lot of myself into my books.
The cast and the tone of this book, though, make it a more direct answer to The Woods. Each of the kids in the group is a fully-realized character, but has aspects of myself when I was growing up, and not always ones I liked about myself. There’s the kid who thinks he’s smarter than everyone else. There’s the kid who will do anything to protect a sibling, at all costs to anyone else. There’s the kid who grew up in a hardcore patriotic home but is also a little bit judgmental toward others. They’re not defined solely by these characteristics, but each one of them has specific virtues and flaws that I wanted in the group.
HMS: Taking that as a starting point when building these characters, did you then have any rules of thumb that you used to fill them out and make them feel more well-rounded, to make sure they didn’t just get associated with certain traits?
PKJ: Yes. They all have very specific backstories that brought them together. They all have starting points, but I asked myself: “Okay, these are all kids from Washington, D.C. What were their lives like before? What were their pastimes while living there? What were they like before everything went to hell, and how are they all broken now?” Everyone is broken in their own ways, based on their own experiences, so I gave each of them a backstory that included those experiences. They all have their own fears and issues.
HMS: Of course, one way to get to know a character pretty quickly is to see them in reaction to extreme circumstances, which is what they are all facing.
PKJ: Yes, exactly. There’s a scene like that right from the get-go. The inciting incident occurs early-on, and they all react, giving a clear picture of who they all are.
HMS: That’s a solid strategy. Did you always know you were going to open the series with an event?
PKJ: I did, yes. It causes the reader, and all the kids, to have the same reaction: “What the hell happened?” That was always the game plan. There was a point where I had a more Black Science-type opening where everything is just crazy-pants. A “cold open,” like in the Breaking Bad pilot, where pants are flying, bodies are sloshing around in the back of an RV, and all you can do is stare at the spectacle and ask, “How did we get here?” The cold-open version didn’t survive the cutting room floor, but the beginning of the actual linear narrative was always going to be that moment that you’ll see in issue #1.
HMS: Do you have any favorite experiments you’ve carried out in your various projects so far involving pacing or reveals?
PKJ: I’m actually experimenting more with stuff like that now, but in the past not so much. I recently did the DC Writers’ Workshop, taught by Scott Snyder. My big takeaway from that class was “form,” which was not something I thought about that much before. Scott is way into three-act structure, the little landmarks within that, and though it’s not something I have to adhere to, it’s something I’m working on more in my writing… both with relying more on it and with circumventing expectations within it.
If I did have one story that plays with formal structure more than the others, I guess it would be Smoketown, a series I recently did with Scout Comics. It’s a small-town crime story set in blue collar Pennsylvania. It’s kind of my answer to Pulp Fiction, with interconnected chapters that stand on their own. I feel it gives information in the order that the reader needs it, but the chronology is all over the place.
HMS: Regarding locations, why did you choose Oklahoma as the locus of Low Road West?
PKJ: Because I’m fascinated with the Dust Bowl. With the [Great Depression] as a period of American History, and also just with that region. The Dust Bowl images that we see now are so incredibly haunting and really stick with you. This region just got wiped off the map and became a desert purgatory in the middle of the United States. I’ve always wanted to write something set there, and this story is basically about these kids who have lost everything, trying to figure out what their life will look like now.
If I had to boil the whole story down into one sentence, it is: ‘death is not the end.’
They’ve lost everyone. Everyone is dead. All they have is each other, and they don’t even like each other. Then they find this place where death may not exist, certainly not in the way that they thought. There is a line that keeps recurring in the story: ‘There is no death, only change.’
The Dust Bowl seems like the perfect setting for a thought like that. This place has been wiped away, just like these kids’ lives have been wiped away, and now they have to find a way to come back from that.
HMS: How did Low Road West come to be the next project that you’re working on in terms of your publications so far? Does it have a long history, or is it a more recent idea?
PKJ: It was a more recent idea, although some of its influences have been percolating in my head for a long time. Of the story choices I offered the BOOM! team, I think they saw Low Road West as the logical evolution in terms of my work for them. All my creator-owned BOOM! work so far has been grounded sci-fi with overtones of politics and family. Last Sons of America is technically a sci-fi, high-concept thing, but there’s little visually on the page that tells you that it’s sci-fi. In Warlords of Appalachia, there was more sci-fi on the page, since the warfare was next-gen. Most of the weapons in it are on the way, but feels sci-fi, even though Warlords is all about current politics.
Low Road West also has a strong political element, talking about things that are happening in America now, or could happen, and uses that as the setting for a crazy, sci-fi story. The sci-fi elements are so extreme at times that it feels more like fantasy than sci-fi.
HMS: You’re in the borderlands between mad science and the supernatural?
PKJ: Yes, influenced in tone, at least, by Stranger Things. It has similar sci-fi elements, but also elements of the supernatural and spirituality, the way Dune kind of skirts that line.
HMS: Now, these are kids who have been displaced, and they are being forced to go from the East Coast to the West Coast. What made you want to write about characters who are uprooted in this way?
PKJ: Well, frankly, because the concept of refugees has been on my mind a great deal in the last couple of years. I wanted to see a story where the refugees are Americans: our kids, instead of someone else’s.
And that got me thinking about The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and how those kids are also refugees. They were sent from London into the countryside to escape the Blitz. I wanted to see a version of that in modern America, more extreme and fantastical.
HMS: In regards to Flaviano’s artwork, what kind of tone do you think he’s striking with this series, and how does that change at different points in the story? I saw the initial preview art for the series was fairly somber, but a lot of emotion was being conveyed through facial expressions and body posture. If we’re going to be encountering more fantasy-type elements coming up, I imagine that style is going to become much more energetic.
PKJ: Yes, indeed. I’ve asked him to do so much, because the environments are so important to this story. That was actually something that initially drew me to his work. He drew a bombed-out gas station that just looked haunted, perfect, like those photos from the Dust Bowl. Of course, he has this amazing way of making people look cool, too, and is able to bring so much personality to facial expressions and body carriage. He also has a very dynamic style… you can see motion fly across the page, which is always something I look for.
HMS: He’s known for his action sequences, I think, already.
PKJ: Yes. We’ve asked him to do things that are a little different from his Marvel work, but we’re also going to have him flexing those muscles very soon, not just with action and fighting, but with character design and creature design.
HMS: Did you initially send him a lot of reference imagery for these locations?
PKJ: Actually, he designed a lot of stuff on his own. I would send him things, and occasionally course-correct with some photo references, but most of the references I sent were for the fantasy elements rather than real-world stuff. Flaviano did a great deal of design for the Oklahoma scenes… The buildings, the decay, everything.
I try not to micro-manage artists. They’re in charge of the visuals, and I want them to have that control. I would rather see what they come up with on their own first, and then the real collaboration begins.
HMS: What is rewarding about telling a story about teenagers and looking back at that age? Are teens the audience you are specifically trying to reach with this story?
PKJ: The earliest glimmer of concept for this story began as a post-apocalyptic, American version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, so in the back of my mind, they were always young teens. I did eventually question that, and wonder if I should make some of them older, but I always came back to them being kids, out of their element with no one really knowing what to do.
HMS: That affects the dynamics of the story a lot. Presumably, out of any dynamic, there are going to be some people who push forward into leadership roles, but having a lack of knowledge among all the characters is kind of an equalizer.
PKJ: Some of the kids do try to take charge and think they know best, but they’re all still pretty young, and are definitely unprepared for the events of the book… not that adults would have fared any better. I didn’t set out to specifically target teenage readers with this story, but I do feel that it’s an easier read for teenagers than any of my previous work. While writing this book, I had teenagers look over the dialogue at every stage…I needed to make sure the characters spoke and acted authentically for their age, and that I wasn’t just writing adults that look like kids.
The most rewarding part of that process is that every teenager who’s read the series names a different character as their favorite, and always for different reasons. I love that younger readers are finding characters in Low Road West they relate to. More than any other age group, I’m excited to see how young audiences take to the book.
HMS: Do you see any consistency in the work that you’ve published so far? Is it fair to say that you like to create stories that put people in survival situations?
PKJ: I definitely think I have themes that I revisit, in my creator-owned BOOM! work, especially. Those stories are all usually about America in some way and about family in some way. Last Sons was about two brothers. Warlords was about a man and his son. Low Road West is about a bunch of strangers who, hopefully, become family. The books all have sci-fi and political elements, but are grounded enough to identify with the characters. My licensed work, and my creator-owned work with IDW and Scout, are starkly different from my BOOM! creator-owned stories, and I’m developing others now that are very different, but survival is another theme that comes up in a lot of my work, yes. I think those kinds of high-intensity scenarios lend themselves well to comics.
HMS: Is there anything you can tease about what difficulties these characters in Low Road West are going to face? What are they up against?
PKJ: In the beginning, their biggest challenge is dealing with what they’ve already faced, but that’s mostly in their own head. Then things get very real very quickly, and they’re suddenly facing much more obvious threats.
I don’t want to get spoilery, but here’s a rapid-fire list of threats with no context: Radiation. Starvation. Dead beasties. The Deserters. Hollow House. The dogs. The Thin Man. The Burn-ins. And a couple of REALLY big ones that I really can’t even name.
I will say that by page 1, they have already been through great change. They are not who they used to be. And after the events of Low Road West, they’ve changed so much again. I’m really interested to see how the characters come through it, and I really want readers to see how they evolve.
HMS: Any books you think are cool that you’d encourage readers to take a look at?
PKJ: Two Brothers by Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon is probably the best graphic novel I’ve read in months. Deadly Class, all day, and Gideon Falls. Black Science. I’m a huge fan of Remender and Lemire. East of West. Anything Hellboy and Mignolaverse. There are so many great comics out there. Anything by Moebius. Outside of comics, J.R.R. Tolkien’s translations of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, if you want a nice reminder of how poetic and musical modern English can be.
I really love the Full Bleed volumes that IDW is putting out. I love the idea of the print-only volumes with literature, comics, interviews, and more. Selfishly, I’ve got a story in there, a webcomic that’s coming to print, The Lost Boys of the U-boat Bremen. But everything in those volumes is worth reading.
Big thanks to Phillip Kennedy Johnson for such an extensive discussion, and one which delved into his creative choices in such detail!
The first issue of Low Road West arrives in comic shops on September 12th, 2018, and the first issue reaches Final Order Cut-Off (FOC) on August 20th, so get your orders in!