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Sci-Fi Meets Murder Mystery in Image Comics' 'The Fuse'

Antony Johnston talks about his police procedural set 22,000 miles above Earth

The Fuse Cover - P 2014
Antony Johnson/Image Comics

In case the success of Guardians of the Galaxy and excitement over the forthcoming Star Wars revival hasn’t made it clear just yet, space is once again the place when it comes to genre entertainment. But if you want something more from your science fiction than space opera and mixtapes, The Fuse — the first collection of which is released this week — just might be what you’ve been looking for.

Described by writer Antony Johnston as “What if Homicide was set on board Battlestar Galactica?” or “CSI in space” (Your choice of pitch “depends entirely on your level of nerdery,” he jokes), the series combines genres and takes the police procedural into orbit. “Sci-fi, crime stories, American cop shows, [and] murder mysteries — these are all things I love, and The Fuse is me mashing them up to see what happens,” Johnson — who created the series with artist Justin Greenwood — tells The Hollywood Reporter.

As with his fantasy series Umbral, in The Fuse Johnston turns traditional expectations of the genre (or, in this case, genres) on their head. “There have been ‘space cop’ stories before, and I'm sure there will be again, but many of them are more concerned with ker-razy sci-fi stuff than the actual crime. With The Fuse, that balance is reversed — there are no wacky aliens, no laser-gun spaceships, and definitely no psi powers. The sci-fi elements are there to serve the mystery,” he explains.

The series, which takes place on board a space station 22,000 miles above the Earth that shares its name with the book, was always intended to be a murder mystery procedural. That’s about the only thing that didn’t change from its original conception, however. “It was originally a giant space elevator rather than an orbiting station, and the story took place from the point of view of the politicians, rather than the cops investigating the murder,” Johnston reveals. “But that wasn't working, until I figured it would be more interesting to see things from the cops' side.”

With that shift in perspective made, the British writer says, “my love of U.S. cop shows kicked in, and I quickly realized I'd found a direction for [the series] that felt right. It seems obvious in retrospect, but it took some years to reach that point — and then quite a bit more time before I decided to try publishing it. I simply had no idea if anyone else would enjoy a book like this.”

When Johnson talks about the idea taking years to come to fruition, he’s not being hyperbolic; he describes being a fan of “lived-in sci-fi” — think the rundown reality of Blade Runner, Escape From New York or comics like Judge Dredd or Transmetropolitan — and cites the debut of Syfy’s Battlestar Galactica reboot as a welcome sign. “That show reassured me I was heading in the right direction with The Fuse’s attitude to tech,” he says.

“I often use the example of a car — to someone who lived just 200 years ago, the modern car might as well be a space ship powered by the devil. But to us it's just a tool, something we use without thinking. It's no big deal,” he continues. “The quintessential modern example is the smartphone. Consider how quickly we've become used to having a pocket-sized always-online computer in our hands. To an old git like me, that's insane. But then I see kids trying to swipe up on the page of a book, because that's how you read books, isn't it? We adapt, we assimilate, and eventually our space-age technology becomes so normal and mundane we stop thinking about it. Why on earth would the future be different?”

Similarly, it’s not just our relationship to technology that won’t change in the future, Johnston suggests. “Wherever there are human beings, there will be crime, lies, jealousy, betrayal and murder. It doesn't matter if you live in a shiny Enterprise or a scummy Fuse, people are people.”

The people of The Fuse — and especially, lead character Klem Ristovych — have drawn praise from critics excited to see something so different from the comic book norm, something that Johnson considers a failure of the medium rather than a success on his behalf.

“It's a real shame that a character like Klem — an irascible older woman, who doesn't dress provocatively and takes no shit — is such a rarity in modern comics, and regarded as iconoclastic or groundbreaking,” he argues. “How did we come to this point? How did we find ourselves so deficient as a medium, as a society, that an older woman is somehow transgressive?”

Despite positive feedback from “readers of all genders” about Klem — something Johnston says is “really gratifying” — the writer continues, “I don't care if people like Klem as a person (and I can guarantee you Klem feels the same way), so long as they like her as a character. That's an important distinction, and it helps that the murder mystery procedural format tends to attract readers who understand the difference.”

Following the release of The Russia Shift, which collects the first six issues of the Image Comics series, the series will resume in November with a new storyline titled “Gridlock,” which explore even more areas of the space station and culture therein — with, of course, a murder to be investigated.

The Fuse is a crime book to its core, and that won't change,” Johnson says when asked about the future of the series. “Each story arc will be a new case — or even multiple new cases — and we'll use them to showcase different aspects of Midway City, orbital society, and Fuse life (or lowlife).” While he plans on staying focused on Klem and her partner Ralph for the foreseeable future, Johnston showed that he was definitely thinking about the bigger universe of The Fuse. “Hell, we haven't even covered Moonbase or the Mars colonies, yet,” he teases.

The Fuse Vol. 1: The Russia Shift will be released this Wednesday in comic stores and digitally.