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DF Interview: Antony Johnston brings spy thrills, kick-ass Russian women with Codename: Baboushka
By Byron Brewer
Writer Antony Johnston loves high adventure, but he also loves pulp. Thus, stretching his writer’s muscles, he has taken as artist Shari Chankhamma, the colorist from his previous Image comic, Fuse, and created his own version of a 007 spy comic … with some differences, as you will learn.
To begin that learning process, Dynamic Forces talked with the scribe about his heroine, her quirks and her world.
Dynamic Forces: Antony, congratulations on your new Image comic, Codename: Baboushka. Are high adventure spy stories a la James Bond a genre you enjoy?
Antony Johnston: Absolutely. People mostly know me for darker spy stuff — like The Coldest City, a Cold War spy thriller I wrote a few years ago, or the arc of Queen & Country: Declassified I did.
I love that stuff, and I’ll write it again some day, but I also love a bit of pulpy action. James Bond, Black Widow, Modesty Blaise, The Avengers (the Steed & Mrs. Peel one, that is). And so on. The teen spy Alex Rider books are very pulpy, full of high action and gadgets, and I’ve been writing the graphic novel versions of those for years.
I wanted to scratch that itch a bit more, and this is the perfect place to do it. Baboushka is a big-action modern pulp character, and I’m having a blast chronicling her adventures.
DF: Tell us about Contessa Annika Malikova.
Antony Johnston: She’s the last scion of the House of Malikov, an old noble Russian line. They fled Russia after the October Revolution to live in Switzerland, intending to return when the Bolsheviks collapsed.
Of course, the Bolsheviks didn’t collapse, and the Malikovs soon frittered all their money away. By the time Annika was born, they were penniless.
When the rest of her family died in mysterious circumstances, Annika -- then just a teenage girl -- took matters into her own hands. She returned to Moscow, determined to re-make her fortune by any means necessary. She doesn’t talk about what happened, exactly, but it didn’t take long for her to turn to a life of crime.
She adopted the nickname “Baboushka,” became a gang boss in the Russian mafiya, and quickly built a criminal empire.
(Exactly why she took the term for “grandmother” as her nickname is a whole other story, by the way.)
Baboushka was soon a renowned crime lord, a ruthless killer feared throughout Moscow… until the other mafiya bosses joined forces against her, and forced her to flee the country with her second-in-command, Gyorgy Gyorgyov.
They wound up in the USA under their civilian names, claiming political asylum. That was three years ago, and they’ve been keeping their heads down, laying low the whole time. Until now…
DF: Who -- or what -- is EON and what connection does it have to the Contessa?
Antony Johnston: The Extrajudicial Operations Network is a covert U.S. agency that specializes in… well, stuff the CIA doesn’t want to get involved in. Very, very black ops, the kind of thing no government would officially sanction.
And somehow Mr. Clay, the head of EON, knows exactly who the Contessa really is. So he uses that information to blackmail her into coming out of retirement, and working for him. After all, the alternative is a one-way trip back to Moscow, where she and Gyorgy face certain death.
To save herself, Baboushka must return.
DF: And Gyorgy Gyorgyov?
Antony Johnston: Gyorgy Gyorgyov insists that’s his real name, but as he’s an ex-KGB officer and technical wizard, can you really believe him? He’s a bear of a man, but lost a leg on a KGB mission, and was forced to retire. Baboushka quickly recruited him for her gang.
Gyorgy became her trusted second-in-command, overseeing operations and building gadgets for her. He’d take a bullet for Baboushka — and probably survive it, before beating you to death with his false leg.
DF: Can you tell us in a "non-spoilery" manner about the storyline going forward?
Antony Johnston: Baboushka’s first mission is “The Conclave of Death.” One of the world’s most notorious crime lords, a man named Felton, is retiring — and he’s decided to put his operations data up for auction at a private conclave of his fellow crime lords.
Every smuggling route, every contact, every bribed politician, all to the highest bidder.
EON wants that data, rather than let it fall into the wrong hands. Of course, Felton would never sell it to them. But the legendary Baboushka, fresh out of retirement…? Well, he just might sell it to her. And that’s EON’s plan -- to send her in, with a blank checkbook, to buy the data.
There’s just one problem: the conclave is invite-only. And because she’s retired, nobody invited Baboushka…
DF: Tell us about this innovative list of stunning female cover artists. Whose concept was this?
Antony Johnston: That was an idea I had when discussing the book with Image publisher Eric Stephenson. I knew I wanted to do the two alternate styles of cover, the regular silhouettes and the variant "art covers”, for each issue. And I already had Tula Lotay in mind for #1 — I've known her for a long time, and love her work.
Eric picked up on the idea, and suggested that because of the strong feminist attitude of the book, it would be really cool to get an all-female artist line-up for those alternate covers. He was right, it's an awesome idea!
So we already have Tula, Annie Wu, Leila del Duca, Tess Fowler, and Kate Leth, all doing amazing covers for us. It’s definitely something we’ll continue.
DF: Can you tell us what inspired you to create this comic?
Antony Johnston: I was watching From Russia with Love, one of my favorite Bond movies, and suddenly thought: I’d love to see a version of this from Tatiana Romanova’s point of view. How much does she know, anyway? Can we really trust anything she says?
That got me thinking about female spies, female action leads, and the historical characters like Modesty Blaise and Mrs. Peel that I already mentioned. They were groundbreaking characters in their time, and it’s pretty shameful that 50 years -- half a century! -- later, female action characters like them are STILL regarded as unusual and innovative.
There’s also a serious dearth of leading female action characters in comics, outside the superhero universes. It’s only really in the last several years that a few creators, many of whom I’m proud to count amongst my friends, have begun to redress that balance. We’re still nowhere near any kind of equilibrium.
I wanted to create a character who could be that leading female action hero, a fighter and survivor who was in charge of her own destiny. A character that could endure, and find herself in any number of stories and adventures. Someone with an iconic look, an interesting and shady history… and a very bad attitude.
Baboushka was born.
DF: Why is artist Shari Chankhamma right for this book?
Antony Johnston: People already know Shari is an amazing colorist from her work on The Fuse and Sheltered, but not many people know she’s also an awesome artist, with a couple of graphic novels to her name.
Shari’s work is modern and energetic, a mixture of manga influences and American storytelling that comes from her unusual background; she’s Thai, but she reads, loves, and works in the U.S. market.
She has a great eye for character, draws some downright sexy women AND men, plus -- because she’s such a great colorist -- readers are getting a full-on Shari art experience, from layouts through to final colors. It looks fantastic.
Dynamic Forces would like to thank Antony Johnston for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions. Codename: Baboushka #1 hits stores in October!
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