THE LAST GOD is the newest addition to the DC Black Label imprint. The high fantasy/horror book written by Phillip Kennedy Johnson is unlike anything we’ve seen from Black Label so far. It deals with gods, warriors, royalty, and lies that will affect the lives of entire civilizations.

On top of this, it gives its readers some absolutely terrifying visuals. Art team Riccardo Federici (pencils and inks), Dean White and Sunny Gho (colors), and Tom Napolitano (letters) have really outdone themselves here. THE LAST GOD #1 is absolutely stunning and gut-wrenching. It transports you instantly to the land of Cain Anuun. You almost feel like it could be a real place.

We spoke with Johnson about the development of this series, working with these incredible artists, writing a creepy children’s song, and more. Check out the full interview below.

The Concept and Look of THE LAST GOD

ComicsVerse: For those who may not know, tell us a bit about THE LAST GOD?

Phillip Kennedy Johnson: THE LAST GOD takes place in a world called Cain Anuun, which is a harsh, high-fantasy world where civilization is still in its infancy. In this world, one generation earlier, an entity called The God in the Void almost wiped out all that is — all of creation. And it would have, except for a fellowship of heroes who, as they do, saved us all. These people climbed the Black Stair, walked off the edge of creation, and killed The God in the Void. Thirty years later, those heroes have become the rulers of this world, acknowledged by everyone to be the saviors of everyone. But then something every unexpected happens and we learn that the first fellowship didn’t do what they claimed to do — that it was all a big lie. The undead hoards of The God in the Void overrun the world again, and a new group of characters gets swept up in a second quest to undo what their predecessors did and kind of redeem their failings. From there, the series takes on a kind of TRUE DETECTIVE format where we see both quests unfold at once, thirty years apart. There’s psychological horror, some body horror, and undead/apocalypse/survivor horror.

THE LAST GOD #1 Interiors. Courtesy of DC Entertainment.

CV: You’re not kidding about the horror. It’s brutal. I’m sure it’s one thing to write it and another to see it. When you saw the art, how did you react?

PKJ: I’m laughing right now thinking about it. Every time I see it, I laugh like a psycho because it’s just so great to see two genres really come together all the way. The moments of GAME OF THRONES that I always loved were the ones that got super scary and dark. It was primarily a fantasy story, but there were moments of horror. The moments that they went all-in were the parts I loved the most. And I don’t normally write a lot of fanfic, but if I were to do that … I would love to return to Middleearth and I would love to see this little band of rogue Uruk-hai go up to the north and try to resurrect this dead zombie dragon god. I want to see the darker elements of those worlds. Towards the end of GAME OF THRONES, I really wanted to see the Night King bypass Winterfell and go straight for King’s Landing, and then we’d see this aftermath with Jamie almost like the PREDATOR movie with this team of badass guys who go down there are and try to face the Night King and the Night Queen, who would be Cersi, and their little zombie baby. I wanted to see the horror ramped up.

Here, there’s a chance to do that. It’s a land of fantasy, but it’s not a land of shiny, happy, immortal elves, or unicorns, or Rivendell. It’s more of a Robert E. Howard approach where it’s just a cool place. I wanted to have fantasy races that people would recognize, but that were not the same. So now, the elves that are described — the Aelva — are a subjugated aboriginal race who are more than us in a way that elves are usually depicted, but they’re also less in other ways. Some of the tribes are kind of barbaric. They have control of magic and we don’t.

THE LAST GOD #1 Interiors. Courtesy of DC Entertainment.

But the horror stuff was really important to me. I wanted it to be a dark take on a beloved genre. I didn’t want it to be like all the other high-fantasies I’ve seen. I wanted it to be a true fantasy book, but also a true horror book. So every time a page came back that really captured what I wanted, or even took it further than I expected, to me it was just a home run every time. Riccardo (Federici) is just a genius of an artist and the best choice in the world to do this book. He has such great instincts for horror. It’s the perfect fit.

CV: Could you expand and talk a bit about the wider art team on THE LAST GOD?

PKJ: Oh, I’d love to. Okay, so Riccardo Federici is an Italian artist. I saw his work first on AQUAMAN, and to say I was blown away is a complete understatement. It was just unbelievable. He’s almost too good for comics. His technique is beyond reproach, and he also has these great instincts for horror, and every face looks so consistent from panel to panel, from book to book. So he’s, like, the man.

We had Dean White on colors for a while, and he kind of set the stage for what was possible here. He did some of the early concept art on the book. Unfortunately he had to leave the book partway through the first issue, which was a real shame. He had this beautiful, painterly style that I really loved. But Sonny Gho came on board as colorist, who has worked with Riccardo before. When any names came up of people who he’d like to work with, Sonny was top of the list and it totally makes sense why. He kind of adopted that style that Dean set up, and has just run with it and it’s worked so well. He’s a consummate collaborator. He’s not working in a vacuum — none of us are.

The best thing about this art team is that none of us are working in a vacuum, we really are working together like a jazz combo. We’re constantly talking about what things look like, everyone’s taking notes from each other really well. It’s been really great and Sonny’s a huge part of that.

And Tom Napolitano, the letterer, is the same. He’s got the best sound effects I’ve ever seen from any letterer ever. They fit so fluidly in with the artwork. There’s also music in the book. I’ve written songs that are in the back of the issues, but there’s also musical fragments that appear in the book itself. We work really hard to incorporate the music into the balloons themselves. If you ever see music or dialogue in word balloons, they usually just kinda throw a couple eighth notes in the edge and call it good, but we experimented with a lot of different ways to do it. I wrote a lot of musical notations in this book that no one can read but us, and found ways to work it into the book. He’s a joy to work with and a super patient collaborator.

THE LAST GOD #1 Interiors. Courtesy of DC Entertainment.

The back matter, is designed and lettered by Steve Wands, another really brilliant letterer. He’s really put his stamp on it. All the documents in the back of each issue are mostly like historical documents or sacred texts or songs. He gave every ones of those his own style. Everyone’s bringing their A game and a lot of creativity to do their part in this.

Influences on THE LAST GOD

CV: Speaking of the songs, what made you want to write your own weird, creepy, dark, children’s song?

PKJ: The idea came from Tolkien’s books, for sure. That was one aspect of the Middleearth books that I always really admired. The world was so much more real, and old, and deep because people know these songs that they were taught by their ancestors. There’s different languages based on where they come from. The songs and poems that I saw in the Tolkien books were probably the most impactful part of the whole experience for me. Even as a kid, I was kind of musically minded back then, I would just sing. I would try to find a melody that would what I was reading. I’d play along on piano. I actually found a recording of Tolkien actually singing one of those, and it was just so cool to hear his take on it and his dialect. That aspect of it just fascinates me.

And a different aspect of it is growing up and knowing, you know, “London Bridge,” and having no idea what I’m saying. And then later on, paying a little more attention and going, “Oh my god, this is super dark.” I love those hidden origins of those stories. So in this book, I really wanted that moment where these guys are getting drunk and making out with their women and signing this song kind of for fun. They definitely don’t know what they’re saying. Then, when it gets to the dark part of the lyrics, it starts to happen in front of them. It’s the kind of moment I wanted to capture to bring home the idea that the songs that they’re singing are not what you think they are. There’s gonna be songs like that, or poems, that show up in every issue.

THE LAST GOD #1 Interiors. Courtesy of DC Entertainment.

CV: You can see the influences of Tolkien and GAME OF THRONES in most fantasy. How do you balance your influences with your own originality? Are you ever concerned that people will focus only on the similarities?

PKJ: I guess I don’t worry about it too much. Sometimes when I turn in the scripts, I’ll stand back and look at it again and be like, “Hm this is kind of like that thing in NARNIA, or whatever,” and sometimes I will tweak to, you know, make it a little different. But I have kind of unapologetically drawn from some sources and as long as it’s not too on the nose I don’t mind doing that. I mean, Tolkien did that, too. Some of the characters’ names that he used were taken from historical texts from Scandinavia. So I guess I don’t mind so much.

In the back of issue two, there’s a poem called “The Gryndel.” The word “gryndel” is obviously a reference to Grendel, but it’s a different monster. And the form of the poem is taken from “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll. It’s nothing like “Jabberwocky.” The form itself is the only similarity. It’s much longer than “Jabberwocky,” it’s not all nonsense like “Jabberwocky” is.

The main character is named “Tyr,” who is the Norse God of War. I don’t mind, sometimes a word just feels right.

So yeah, I guess I’m careful. When I look back over what I’ve written, I’ll take care and if anything’s too close I’ll make a change. I’ll never rip stuff off deliberately, but if I look back and go, “Oh yeah, that’s kind of like that thing,” I’ll sometimes make a change to accommodate that.

Building a World

CV: How do you develop the languages and the names?

PKJ: I’ve taken some time studying and looking up dead languages or extinct tribes of, mostly South America, but also Latin America, but also other countries, too. I’ll look up things you just don’t hear anymore, and if I can find a lexicon where I can actually compare the words and see what the words look like, then I’ll try to build out a language from that. So with the Aelva, there are well over a hundred tribes in this world. We’re not going to see them all in the book, but they’re all out there and their names do sometimes come up. So, I’ll find a name, and then based on the letter choices or the other words I can find from that language, I’ll kind of build out a fake language from those little pieces. So that way, when the different tribes speak … I try to design each one based around the way they use consonants and whether certain letter are always omitted, etc.

THE LAST GOD #1 Interiors. Courtesy of DC Entertainment.

CV: There’s a lot of characters and world building. How long was THE LAST GOD in development?

PKJ: Um, maybe a year on this specific one? But before that, I was doing other things to kind of prep me for this. So if you know about Stephen Colbert’s LORD OF THE RINGS obsession, they flew up out to the set of one of the movies and there was a big Tolkien trivia competition … and Colbert won. There’s a quote where he said, “I’ve been training my entire life for a race I never knew was coming.” I guess that’s kinda where I’m at.

I mean, my dad, I never got played with a lot as a kid, but I got read to a lot, but not kid’s books. I didn’t get CURIOUS GEORGE or [CLIFFORD] THE BIG RED DOG. Dad read, like, MACBETH, or Mark Twain, or Hemmingway, or whatever — this super random stuff. I look at all these books on castle architecture and old weaponry. It’s like I’ve been in this experiment my whole life, getting ready for this gig. So, I’ve always kind of had a love of that kind of stuff … When I found out Tolkien wrote his own languages for this book that he wrote, it just completely engrossed me.

Even before I was ever working on this book, I was writing other comics in which I was inventing little pieces of languages or books of gospel of made up religions, or writing songs for the back covers of the issues. WARLORDS OF APPALACHIA, another book I did, every issue had a song — that was all mountain music. I wrote an original book of the bible for that one. I only write comics at all because of my love of world-building, and the fact that I could do that on this book and join it with my love of old things — old poetry and old creepy, fantastical fairytales … even though I wasn’t working on this particular story that long ago, I’ve kinda been planting seeds for this kind of gig for a long, long time. So now that I’m finally able to do it, I’m just pouring the hours into it from the back of a box truck. I’m just giving every hour I’ve got to this thing to make it as old and as real and as true as I can.

THE LAST GOD #1 from DC Black Label is available on Wednesday, October 30th.

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