I first noticed Artful Daggers, an ongoing series published through Monkeybrain, due to the artwork of Andrew Losq, who creates incredible abstract page sequences. Having read the first issue, I decided to catch up on the rest once the first story arc had concluded – that’s the benefit of a comics publishing model like Monkeybrain, after all.
By the time I returned a few weeks ago and read the nine-issue arc, I’d already interviewed co-writer Adam P. Knave about his other Monkeybrain series Amelia Cole – so it seemed like a good time to catch up with the whole Artful Daggers team of Knave, Losq, and co-writer Sean E. Williams about their first storyline, how it came together, and what their plans were going forward. Happily, they were kind enough to chat with me about the series.
If you haven’t read Artful Daggers, I’d recommend you give it a try. With the first nine issues now all available online, it’s a good time to binge-read the whole of the first storyline in one go.
Steve: What kicked off Artful Daggers? How did the original idea come about?
Adam: I made the mistake of joking at Sean on Twitter. Well, not mistake, rather the glorious mishap.
Adam: I wanted to write something with Sean, I thought he was a good fellow, and so I joked we would be writing a dark medieval spy comic some day. And he reached out and said “All right, let’s!”
Sean: I always take a good idea seriously, even if it’s a joke. But yeah, from there, Adam and I bounced ideas around on email, hit on the A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT connection, then the title, got Andrew on board, and pitched it to Monkeybrain. They got back to us the next day. It was 25 hours from joke to greenlight.
Steve: How much discussion goes into establishing the design of the settings, clothing, characters and society? To what extent do you world-build before even starting to script something like Artful Daggers?
Adam: To a huge extent, actually. We spent months before writing the first script just doing research. “When did coffee come into play,” I remember that being a big deal. Most natural thing in the world – write a character having a cup of coffee. Except – can we now? When was coffee brought over? This all ignores folding in the modern tech and how it evolved, which, thankfully we had a map for from Twain, but even so we had to advance it along logical and realistic lines.
Sean: Exactly. We went through CONNECTICUT YANKEE and inventoried all the technological and social advancements Hank brought back, and then looked at what those technologies became fifty years later in the real world, then looked backward to see make sure it didn’t involve tech that HADN’T been brought back to the past. It took a lot longer than we expected, just doing this research phase. There were some anachronistic elements Twain himself included that, luckily, we were able to run with…like filaments.
Steve: How did Andrew come onboard the project?
Adam: Sean suggested him and reached out to him. What he did to convince him… well… I’ve never asked because I’m afraid to know.
Sean: [laughs] I knew Andrew from working with him on a pitch a couple of years before. I loved his style, particularly how expressive his characters are, and thought it a good fit with the subject matter of a technologically advanced medieval age.
Andrew: Yeah, Sean and I had collaborated on a different pitch that hadn’t panned out. Then we kept in touch and he came back to me with this idea and I was really excited. It just sort of rolled down hill from there. Sean had a lot of faith in my work and Adam liked the style as well so the pieces just clicked together.
Steve: One of the most dynamic aspects of the series is your art, especially in sequences like the prison break-in during the second issue. How do you break down a sequence like this, both as writers and as artist?
Sean: I feel like our process has evolved over the first arc. The first three issues were us feeling each other out, both Adam and me adjusting to each other as writers, but then also us to Andrew, and Andrew to us.
Adam: God, writing comics is like some lost episode of an 80’s sitcom, isn’t it? FULL HOUSE or something? “How will these zany creatives learn to get along on a deadline? Find out in a very special episode!” But… uhhh.. yeah, sorry, you were saying?
Sean: [laughs] Yeah, we were scripting everything pretty explicitly with those first issues, with Andrew adding or losing panels as need-be. By the end of the arc, all three of us felt comfortable with a more Marvel-style of writing: “There’s an chase sequence on this page,” leaving Andrew to do what he wanted, adding panels or even pages if he wanted to. That’s one of the greatest benefits of digital-first, not being locked into number of pages.
Andrew: Sean and Adam really gave me a lot of room to do what I felt would fit the best. Don’t get me wrong, we’d talk about big changes, but they always gave me a lot of freedom as long as it made sense to the story. The style is a little zany at times, so it really helped to be able to play around with layouts and paneling in different ways. And it also really helped me to get a more personal feel for the characters and the mood of the world they live in.
Steve: How do you trade off the dialogue? Do you each handle different characters, or swap between each other?
Sean: Adam and I actually trade off writing the first drafts of the whole script (I do one issue, he does the next), then rewrite each other until we’re both happy with it. But I know he has a totally different style of rewriting than I do, though. Something about “tracking changes.” [laughs] I approach each draft, either my own or Adam’s, as a fresh start, so I don’t want to know what he’s changed and what he hasn’t. It doesn’t matter who wrote it. Either way, if it doesn’t work on the page, we fix it.
Adam: I like track changes because I forget what’s different. And I like to see it so I can see how it compares, in case I want to go backward at times. It makes sense, Sean. It does!
Steve: The series builds up a deliberate pace, slowly moving up the tension each issue. Comics are so used to having superhero fights each issue – is it difficult to switch off from that idea, and write something with such a slow-burn feel?
Sean: I don’t think we ever considered taking that approach, honestly. We came at this arc as just that: an arc. We definitely wanted to make it a semi-episodic, though. To put it another way, we wrote it so the arc was a single whole…like a season of a good television series like BREAKING BAD or THE WIRE, but with each issue having its own conflict that needed resolving while ratcheting up the arc as a whole.
That’s one of the other benefits of digital-first that let us approach the story this way…all the issues are always available. We didn’t have to worry about readers jumping in on issue number four, since they could always start with issue number one.
Steve: How much of a challenge is it to keep raising the tension without letting things boil over?
Adam: I think the secret to the book is that things are always boiling over! These people live their lives in secret, knowing that if they aren’t careful they could all end up dead. There’s always something about to happen that they have to watch, keep in mind or stop just to survive.
Steve: How pre-planned are the character motivations? Do you write biographies for each one and decide what their true allegiances are, or do you leave some vague, even to yourselves?
Sean: A little bit of both? We know where the allegiances are to begin with, but as the story plays out, those allegiances definitely changed from what we planned initially. Some characters are still surprising us, but we just followed them there. I forget who it was…either Adam or Andrew…but one of them came up with one of the big reveals for the second arc mid-way through the first arc, and it fit so perfectly none of us could say “no.”
Adam: ME or Andrew?
Sean: Well I know it wasn’t me!
Adam: True story – we all have a Google+ hangout once a week to touch base, talk shop and work on the comic. It’s incredible to be able to feel so connected while working on a book like this. There’s a sense of camaraderie of course, but also just a safety net. We know where the others are at, headspace-wise. See, we use advanced technology to leverage our abilities. It’s like the book, you guys. Like the book!
Andrew: Honestly a lot of the time it’s hard to remember who came up with which idea. With the meetings we’ll talk about all kinds of wild and crazy things and a lot of the ideas just sort of pop up. It’s definitely a team effort, especially with the characters. We talk a lot about motivations and loyalties. At least until one of us has one drink too many and then it’s all space puppets and doughnuts, or arguments about bad movies.
Steve: Andrew, the scripts call for you to be very expressive in your facial expressions – and yet not give anything away. How do you approach the characters, in that respect?
Andrew: Like we talked about, Sean and Adam give me a lot of space to play around with the pages which definitely makes things easier. I like to mix it up when I can so I’ll do some exaggerated expressions that are more stylized and then pull it back and do silhouettes or profiles that are more subdued and try to use that contrast of over or under exaggeration to help with the mood.
Adam and Sean also put a lot of direction into the scripts that make it easier to see where I want to go with the facial expressions ahead of time. I’ll get notes like ‘here Arden is angry, but a bit guilty under the surface because she’s thinking about X or Y’ and those really help me see the energy of a scene before I start sketching. Other times I just get out a pencil and see what happens [laughs].
Steve: Issue 8 is where things come to a head, as everybody tries to make their move. Why did you pick the penultimate issue to be the one where you explode the story? Did you always want for the final issue to be an epilogue, setting things up for the next story?
Adam: You know I don’t remember if we always had it planned that way. But in terms of storytelling, it is a good format, so hey, even if we didn’t have it planned this way at first way back when in the dark days, it certainly works for us and for the story.
Sean: Yeah, it kind of happened organically.
Adam: When you explode something you want to see where the rubble lands. We thought showing a first hint as to where stuff lands was not only fair to the reader but a good look forward toward the second arc.
Sean: Exactly. Setting up the second arc and tying up the loose ends from the first were the two big things we wanted with the last issue.
Steve: Looking back on this storyline, did the way things unravel surprise you at all? Did you leave any characters alive you planned to kill off, or vice versa?
Sean: We had a rough trajectory we knew that we wanted to follow, but after we came up with it we didn’t (or at least I didn’t) go back and look at it at all to see if we stuck to it. We went where the story took us. That’s the great thing about the collaboration between the three of us, because if one of us has a good idea, and it’s right for the story, we run with it.
To answer your question, though, yeah, there were definitely surprises. Not to get too spoilery, Piper’s arc wasn’t what we had planned initially, or where Colin ended up for that matter, now that I think about it. And the big reveal for arc two was (and will be) shocking, but in hindsight was totally natural.
Adam: Oh, man! Piper’s original arc! I forgot about that. Yeah we course correct for the better and feel free to play and invent as we go. It’s a joy.
Andrew: I was actually pretty surprised. There was a lot of stuff at the end that I really didn’t see coming at all. By issue six or seven Adam and Sean were seriously off to the races with ideas and where the characters were going to go and what might happen next and I was just trying to keep up. Early on we had all sorts of ideas about what would happen by the end.
Now, looking back at the arc as a whole I really like how it came out, especially with Marcus and Piper. And of course there’s all sorts of great stuff coming up in arc 2. Which I’m sure will end up totally different than what we’re planning now [laughs].
Steve: Artful Daggers is going on a hiatus for the time being, following the conclusion of this first 9-part arc. What can readers expect once you return?
Sean: It’s not much of a hiatus! [laughs] We’re taking two months off the digital issues while we finalize the trade paperback, which IDW is putting out in March, but we’ll be back up and running with the second arc come February.
Andrew: We’re going to be updating the characters too, playing with the tech and character designs. Oh! And Arden gets a haircut. That’s not a spoiler, is it?
Adam: But what can readers expect? A new status quo! Secrets will be revealed! Tables turned! Hearts broken, relationships forged and changed, and the flashing of many knives and guns. The second arc is a laser focused thing, taking us closer to the hearts of the characters than ever.
Sean: I don’t think they have lasers yet, though…we’ll have to look into that.