BCP Interview – Phillip Kennedy Johnson talks Warlords of Appalachia
Here at the Big Comic Page, one of our favourite things to do every month is peruse the upcoming solicitations from publishers to see what titles are headed our way in the near future. And as we do this, every so often a title that hadn’t previously been on our radar leaps out of nowhere and grabs our attention.
Warlords of Appalachia, a brand new BOOM! Studios miniseries from writer Phillip Kennedy Johnson and artist Jonas Scharf, was one of those titles, and in a world where the old “X meets X in X” formula has never been more popular, its description – Southern Bastards meets Dune in mid-21st century America – was pretty much all we needed to hear.
Except it wasn’t, because we instantly wanted to find out more about this amazing-sounding series. Thankfully, we were able to sit down and have a chat with its writer, Phillip Kennedy Johnson, to get the scoop on what readers – ourselves included – should be expecting from this one.
BIG COMIC PAGE: For our readers who may not be familiar with the series, can you give us a quick breakdown of what Warlords of Appalachia is all about?
PHILLIP KENNEDY JOHNSON: Warlords takes place after the end of a second American Civil War. When a new administration passes a series of laws that represses religions that are deemed a “threat,” 13 states secede from the United States. The Union wins the war, but even in defeat, Kentucky refuses to acknowledge U.S. sovereignty. This essentially makes Kentucky an occupied nation within U.S. borders.
After a brutal military crackdown in a coal town in Eastern Kentucky, a mechanic and reluctant folk hero named Kade Mercer rises up to become the first feudal warlord of Appalachia. There’s a lot of action, complex characters, and a TON of world-building. We’ve constructed military histories and strategies, new religions, books of gospel, written music… there’s a lot more depth to this world than what appears on the page.
BCP: Tell us a little bit more about this “reluctant folk hero”. What’s his story?
PKJ: Kade Mercer is the kind of guy other people make up stories about. In his younger days he was a soldier, an amateur fighter, and a remarkable bowhunter, all things to be admired in the place he grew up. Now he’s the single father of a special needs son, and thinks about him first in all things… just keeps his head down, does his job and whatever else he has to do to make sure his son’s looked after. He’s still the big local tough guy, or at least people see him that way, but it doesn’t mean anything to him. He has no interest in fighting the occupation, because it would put his son in jeopardy. The only thing that would ever put him in a position to fight is if something threatened his family. (Spoiler alert!) And unfortunately, something like that does happen.
BCP: You seem to be a big fan of exploring family relationships in your writing, first with the brotherly bond in Last Sons of America and now with the father/son relationship here. Is that something you consciously try to base your writing around?
PKJ: It’s not something I set out to do, but it often turns out that way. Most of my stories start as a high concept “what if,” and as I flesh out the details, the stories tend to take shape around a relationship. That’s what makes a story compelling to me. One of the inspirations for the tone of Warlords is a video game called The Last Of Us, which has an amazingly rich setting and a terrific premise. But the reason you care about anything that happens in that game is the relationship between the main characters. They really make you love them, and when you lose one of the protagonists, or when there’s a conflict between them, or when anything bad happens to one of them, you hurt like they do.
BCP: Warlords of Appalachia addresses some of the serious political divisions that are currently plaguing the United States, albeit in a fictional manner. How important is it for you to address these real world issues with your writing?
PKJ: I think any artist has an obligation to create work that matters to them, especially when that means dealing with current events. I don’t ever want to preach to my audience, or put them in a position to feel manipulated, judged or condescended to… I just want to tell stories that I’ve poured my blood into, and make that connection with the reader. I know a lot of writers, musicians, artists, etc. are exploring the political landscape with their work right now, and I think this is an important time to tell stories like that. A lot of us in creative fields are thinking about the same things right now, but we’re also drawing on our unique personal experiences and perspectives on those things, which means we’re all telling stories that only we can tell. It’s a really exciting time to be a creative pro, especially in comics, where I think we have much greater freedom than you see in other mediums.
BCP: There seems to be a lot of parallels to historical events here, such as the American Civil War. Would that be a fair assessment, and what kind of research did you undertake in order to help flesh out the world you’ve created?
PKJ: There’s definitely a lot of historical reference in the book, as well as a lot of original world building. My research took me from the Civil War to the Old West to Robert Heinlein to Appalachian Studies college textbooks to CNN to church hymnals.
To give you a few examples: there’s a mysterious group of people in the book called the “blueboys.” It might seem like a science fiction or horror device, and there is some of that… but it’s also an exploration of meth addiction and the moonshine industry from the last century, and the name “blueboy” is a reference to the Fugate family of Eastern Kentucky, who had a rare genetic disorder that gave them blue skin.
There’s a church in Warlords called the Mountain Faith Church, whose members call themselves the Waterborn. That’s taken loosely from the Primitive Baptist Churches of the same region, which do some river baptism and have some other very old-school aspects. Some of the language in the book might read a little funny to someone from the East Coast, West Coast, Midwest, or pretty much anywhere but the Appalachian Mountains, but 90% of it is real. When someone calls someone else a “Jasper,” or a place “the scald,” a bag a “poke,” or any number of other words, those are all words I heard and used while living in Kentucky.
BCP: How has it been working with a relatively new artist in Jonas Scharf on the visual side of the series?
PKJ: Jonas is killing it. He nailed all the character designs, his action looks beautifully dynamic and consistent, the landscapes and textures look just like they should… I had very clear images of everything in my head before starting with Jonas, and everything on the page ends up looking better than it did in my head. He was the perfect choice, and colorist Doug Garbark and letterer Jim Campbell are rounding out the team beautifully. I couldn’t be happier with how the book looks.
BCP: Presumably with this kind of story, it’s important that the world feel familiar to readers while still being shocking and different at the same time. How did the pair of you go about creating the look of the world and the characters? Did you have a clear aesthetic in mind when you were writing it, or did you let him interpret your ideas in his own way?
PKJ: The story starts in Red Rock, a town that was built on coal mining, but where the coal has long since dried up. Even in real life, these towns can look pretty impoverished, and in Warlords, a war has also been fought here, and it’s now relying almost completely on federal resources. We wanted Red Rock to look old and in disrepair, without a hint of a franchise gas station or a restaurant chain, with a very defeated, beaten-down feel.
But we also occasionally jar the reader with a little flash of future tech, to remind them this takes place in the future. Sometimes pages will go by that could make you think it’s 100 years ago, but then you’ll see a glimpse of a drone, a vehicle or a weapon that couldn’t possibly exist yet. There’s a much greater military drone presence in Warlords than we have currently, and much greater variety of them; all Union vehicles are unmanned; wristwatches have merged with smartphones, and are worn differently. The American flag looks quite different, and there’s a story behind it.
BCP:You’re working with colourist Doug Gabark and letterer Jim Campbell on this one, the same team from Last Sons of America. Was that something you requested, or just a fortunate piece of serendipity?
PKJ: I admit that I didn’t request them by name, but I will next time. My editor Eric Harburn knew I loved working with them on Last Sons, and I was thrilled to learn that we’d be working together again. I’m happy to work with Doug and Jim anytime on any book; they’re both extremely versatile and easy to work with.
BCP: What kind of tone should readers expect from the series? Is this going to be all-out action, or more of a slow burn?
PKJ: The tone is gritty and rooted in real-world events, but with enough excitement, science fiction and fantasy elements that the reader can have fun and get lost in it. The events of issue 1 start a chain of events that build steadily to a confrontation in issues 3 and 4, and the reader gets more backstory and character development all along the way, but there’s no way anyone will accuse Warlords of being slow. Every issue is extremely eventful, and lots ’n’ lots of violence happens in the name of God, country, and mountain justice.
BCP: And finally, what would you say to someone who was on the shelf about picking this one up to help convince them?
PKJ: If you like the setting, tone, and dialogue of Southern Bastards, the family/crime family dynamic of Sons of Anarchy, or the world-building and savage spirituality of Dune, or if you want to read a Kentuckian’s high concept take on his former home, read Warlords of Appalachia! Thought-provoking, violent, and a ton of fun.
Warlords of Appalachia #1(of 4) goes on sale October 12th, 2016, and you can pre-order the first issue at your local comic shop until Thursday the 25th of August using Diamond Code AUG161302.
The writer of this piece was: Craig Neilson-Adams (aka Ceej)
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