Interview: Welcome To The World Of Moth And Whisper

AfterShock's new series Moth & Whisper is all about two accomplished thieves and who picks up [...]

AfterShock's new series Moth & Whisper is all about two accomplished thieves and who picks up their legacy, and we get all the details in an exclusive interview with the creators.

Moth & Whisper comes from writer Ted Anderson and artist Jen Hickman, and we had a chance to sit down with the team and find out what Moth & Whisper is all about. In the debut issue we meet two thieves and learn about their legacy, but while they are an important part of the book, the spotlight is really on Niki, their genderfluid child who picks up the mantle.

"I've always loved the idea of legacy characters, people who take up the mantle of some previous hero (or villain, or other type of character) and put a new spin on it," Anderson said. "Initially I was thinking a lot about thieves and heist stories, which are one of my favorite types of stories, and somehow I got the idea of a family of thieves, or a character whose parents were thieves."

(Photo: AfterShock)

"The other part of the puzzle came when I was thinking about representation," Anderson said. "I'm a straight cis-male author, but I have friends in the LGBTQ community, and I wanted to come up with a character and narrative that could be a positive depiction of someone in that community—while, at the same time, I had to be careful not to overstep my boundaries and attempt to speak for the community. It's a fine line, writing a character with a marginalized identity that you don't share, but it's also a good challenge as a writer to step outside your own experiences."

There's a whole world of espionage and intrigue that Niki will interact with, but that isn't all Niki will have to deal with.

"A lot of Niki as a character came out of the story I built around them. Having them be a teenager whose parents have disappeared under unknown circumstances gives them a definite goal, but also makes them emotionally vulnerable—Niki is incredibly skilled as a thief, but they've never been truly on their own before. I really liked that balance, that Niki is a great infiltrator but still a teenager: irrational, prone to rash actions, but also desperate for answers and comfort."

As for Niki's parents, fans will learn more about them as time goes on, and so will Niki.

"The Moth and the Whisper themselves, Niki's parents, are mostly seen in flashback or in recordings, so we're more getting Niki's memories about them rather than the real people, Anderson said. "We don't know everything about them, and neither does Niki. But that's also part of being a teenager, coming to understand that your parents are fully formed people with their own histories and beliefs—and secrets, too."

Both Moth and Whisper feature slick looking designs based around their skill set. "For their designs, we split up the two big flavors of "infiltrator" between them: Niki's father, the Whisper, sneaks in and out of places without being seen, while Niki's mother the Moth was a social infiltrator, who could blend in with any crowd and pretend to be anyone. He's a cat burglar, she's a high-society thief. And those differences are reflected in their designs, the way they stand, how they dress, etc," Anderson said.

(Photo: AfterShock)

As readers watch Moth and Whisper in action the art becomes heavily stylized and changes color schemes depending on who the action is focused on.

"I had a lot of fun with those stylized pages! Ted and I wanted to invoke something like a fairy tale with their look, since essentially Niki is telling the reader a story, and both of us immediately referenced Revolutionary Girl Utena's 'shadow girls' as a launch point," Hickman said. "From there I looked at papercutting art and of course Lotte Reiniger's work, to further refine what I wanted to do with the story pages. As far as whether or not we'll see those again, I guess we'll just have to wait and see!"

"Like Jen said, those pages were a lot of fun! When I started the script, I didn't have a specific image in mind, just something that was heavily stylized and distinct from the rest of the book," Anderson said. "Jen and I share a lot of the same interests, and I forget who suggested the connection to Revolutionary Girl Utena, but we both immediately loved that idea. Jen did a knockout job on those pages, and it definitely won't be the last time we see that style."

Niki has known about their parents work for some time and has had a very different childhood because of it.

"We don't show a lot of Niki's childhood, but Niki definitely knew from an early age about their parents' work," Anderson said. "Niki's parents raised them outside the system: Niki doesn't have a birth certificate, no identity in the system, there's no pictures of them out in the world. This is a cyberpunk near-future setting where surveillance is everywhere and the system constantly monitors everyone, so Niki's non-existence has to be carefully maintained. They've been kept isolated from the world. They're highly trained in certain skills—they can pick a lock in seconds or identify gems by sight alone—but they've never been to a school or hung out with kids their own age. "Naive" isn't quite the right word for Niki, but they definitely lack real-world experience. They're very driven, almost single-minded, in their search for their parents."

Niki's main point of interaction comes from Weaver, a sort of artificial intelligence that is also used to power their state of the art thief suit.

"The technical part of Weaver, the suit that Niki wears that can change disguises and completely change Niki's appearance, was a part of the story from the beginning, but Weaver as an entity was a somewhat later addition," Anderson said. "Niki needed someone to talk to, some person or quasi-person to bounce off of, and Weaver helps fill that psychological need for them."

"Weaver was also partly Jen's suggestion: while writing the first issue, Jen noted that we needed a bit of humor, something to break the tension and angst of the rest of the issue, and suggested a bit with Weaver," Anderson said. "It's right at the end of the first issue, and it's a minor thing, but it helps show that Niki is still a teenager, even if they are a super-thief, and it also shows that, deep down, they crave that kind of parental authority to show the way and keep them grounded."

(Photo: AfterShock)

There's a sequence towards the end of the book that is a rather poignant moment for Niki and will definitely pull at the heartstrings. During that sequence, Niki's father says "Don't Lose Yourself, and the creators broke down what he means.

"Thank you! I'm really proud of how that section came out—Jen did an amazing job with some really subtle facial expressions and body language, to say so much without words," Anderson said. "As for what Niki's parents said: Niki is young enough and has a tangible enough goal ("get my parents back") that there's a real danger for them to lose themselves in that goal, to become obsessed with seeking out the truth, no matter the harm to themselves. And Niki's parents know this. Niki is so driven to find their parents partly because they're Niki's only support system, but partly because that's just how Niki is: dedicated, strong-willed, focused. Niki might end up self-destructing in their search for answers, or revenge."

A prominent figure in Niki's mission will be Ambrose Wolfe, but that doesn't necessarily mean we'll see him all the time.

"It won't be under the best of circumstances," Anderson said. "Wolfe is going to be talked about more than actually seen for most of the series—it'll take Niki some time to work up the chain. Readers will get a look at how Wolfe conducts some of his business, and who his competitors are, before Niki ever meets him face-to-face. It'll be a tense meeting, I can tell you that!"

Anderson and Hickman have created a world that has a base of familiarity but holds a much different stance on technology, something that can be challenging to show visually.

"For me, it's been a challenge to visually communicate the tech-level that the city is at," Hickman said. "We're trying to introduce the reader to a place where tech augmentations are common and individuals, as well as corporations or government entities, rely on technology in a way that is both deeper and more systemic than our current usage but is possibly where we are heading. Specifically, this was a challenge because of things like Bluetooth and wifi- visually, they're nothing. Complete nonstarters. So I opted instead for wires at every opportunity, which in the end kind of gives the city a retro feel and makes the tech feel older and more permanent. I ended up being very enamored of the look!"

While many have some sort of augmentation, there's still a difference between the economical selection and the high rollers.

"And as far as personal tech augmentations go, it's also hard to communicate these visually without them being designed as something completely over-the-top," Hickman said. "There's a character in issue 1, though, that is a bit over-the-top but hopefully will help the reader understand similar augmentations later. He's got burn scarring over half his face and has lost both the eye and ear on that side, so he's got tech to hear and see for him instead. The tech is not elegant or subtle, which is to my thinking both part of his character and indicative of how augmentations look at this economic level. Later we see a lot more refined augmentations and hopefully, the story I'm telling about how people in this world integrate technology into their bodies will make sense to the reader!"

For Anderson, the most difficult challenge was showing the larger issues at play in the world since this is a more personal story.

"I'd say the most difficult part is getting across some of the big issues and effects that are shaping the world right now," Anderson said. "This story is very focused on Niki's search, and Niki doesn't care about much beyond what's standing immediately between them and their parents. So Niki's worried about the surveillance and monitoring systems that the city has set up, which is a nightmarish element, but that's just a part of what's made the city the cyberpunk hellscape that it is. Climate change has devastated large sections of the world, and the city has massive technological protections for its citizens that are only partly effective."

"There's also huge movements of refugees across the globe, many of whom are flowing into the city, and then being treated horrifically: refugees are confined to a disgusting shantytown on the city's docks, are treated horribly, and have to wear tracking collars when they leave. There's larger sociopolitical issues that are contributing to the landscape, but because this story is so personal, there haven't been a lot of opportunities to show those elements. If we do tell further Moth & Whisper stories—and we'd love to!—those elements will probably play bigger roles," Anderson said.

While inserting these small elements is a challenge, it has also been rewarding when they pull it off.

"At the same time, one of the most fun elements of creating the world has been the little opportunities along the way, the small things that show just how awful this city is," Anderson said. "There are public health signs and warning signs all over the background, which hint at the draconian regulations that are in place. At the very end of issue one, Niki eats a cup of instant noodles, and if you look carefully at the label you can see that they're "protein noodles" made from mealworm protein, which tells you a lot about the food supply in this future. Jen and I have both come up with elements like that, little background elements that tell you about the state of the world."

You can find out all about the world of Moth & Whisper when issue #1 hits comic stores on September 12th.