D.L. Johnson's vertical slum isn't so different from the former Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong or the Tower of David in Caracas. The local illustrator created his fictitious urban space as a lawless society that grows up toward the sky in a cluster of skyscraper-like tenements. It's populated by gamblers, prostitutes and mafias and is mired in class war, but it also includes labor unions and other forces for good. Johnson, who designs table-top role-playing games, takes his vertical world several steps further—this is fantasy, after all. The slum is full of beasts and psychic divinities, encompasses several dimensions and is carried on the back of a wandering godling called Gathox.
"Part of the tongue-in-cheek thing with Gathox—and I hope this doesn't alienate anybody—was to ask what the logical end of libertarianism is," Johnson says. "What is shrinking the government until you can drown it in a bathtub going to do? What kind of society is that going to create? We have examples of that on Earth. While [real life vertical slums] had a surprising amount of success—there were doctors, there were impromptu schools, there was a whole functioning community there—it was also rampant with disease and drug addiction and all these things that government programs try to minimize."
Johnson occupied an entirely different realm when the Indy wrote about his experimental music project, Bridgebuilder, in 2009. Even then, his work showed a sci-fi edge with album titles like Lay Waste the Siege Perilous! and Solemn Hymnal to the Ancient Ones. He was working at a hotel and a box store, playing music with friends and sketching cover art. At the time, he was doodling but not taking his artwork seriously.
"I hit a point after turning 31 where I sort of reached the limits of where I was going to go unless I started getting ambitious," Johnson says. "So I resolved to do what I always loved to do, which is to draw."
In a chance encounter, he met a sculptor and animator named Shawn Mclean who agreed to help Johnson beef up on the fundamentals of drawing by giving him one-on-one instruction at his studio.
"He used to play The Military Channel on full blast while the models were posing in the room," Johnson says. "The whole time he's telling me about their anatomy and marking up their bodies with grease markers." He laughs. "I think some of them came away a little traumatized from it. But I was fortunate to have a hard-working guy like that work with me. After that I spent every moment possible drawing. I had to quit music and I wasn't spending time with friends. I had to make a total retreat in order to level up as much as I needed to make it as an illustrator."
Since then, Johnson has been making a living off of commissions for illustrating games. His first gig was for the reputable London-based Pelgrane Press working on horror-based investigative games like Trail of Cthulhu, and that got him a shot with other RPG companies. He estimates that he draws 300 to 400 illustrations a year.
He's also been working on his own games, some of which are compatible with Dungeons & Dragons. The first-generation game has inspired illustrators like Johnson to create new worlds, weaving in pop culture as a way to update the game. The Vertical Slum of Gathox, for instance, includes threads of DJ culture and references to Dr. Who. While those elements make the games feel new, Johnson's approach is part of a larger resurgence in the older RPG world where designers are scaling back on mathy dice-rolling and putting more of a focus on storytelling.
"I've been fortunate to be plugged into the revival of old-school forms of game playing," Johnson says. "They are much more about emergent narrative and less about number crunching. I think it's ultimately a more social and engaging way to play."
The Vertical Slum of Gathox won't be out until March 2016, but Johnson's upcoming First Friday show provides a teaser to his multi-dimensional community of gods and beasts. His show in April, titled Monsters are Awesome: Evil Will Always Triumph Because Good is Dumb (in reference to Space Balls), introduced several of his RPG characters to the Missoula art community. The new exhibit, Psychic Warbeasts of Gathox, at Gecko Designs, will feature acrylic paintings of the vertical slum creatures including The Goddess that Balances on Narrow Precipices, The God that Grows and Grows and The God Who Dreams in Pillars and is a Boy.
"They are an expression of the world-building I've already done," Johnson says. "And they are an excuse to paint monsters, which I love to do. It's fun to design these beasts and scenarios. There's definitely a lot of action—a lot of death and disease—and that makes for good storytelling."
D.L. Johnson's Psychic Warbeasts of Gathox opens at Gecko Designs with a reception and live-drawing party Fri., Dec. 4, from 5 to 8:30 PM. 532 N. Higgins Ave.