There’s no shortage of fantasy comics on the market, but new Image series Protector immediately stood out to me due to how lived-in the world feels in the span of just 20 pages. The comic opens with a chase scene that gifts readers with an overview of the Great Lakes Region. Halfway through the first issue, the story takes us to Sussemm-Ri, another corner of the globe. The rough-and-tumble art style of Artyom Trakhanov and carefully chosen words by co-writers Simon Roy and Daniel M. Benson quickly immersed me in the story’s setting.

I was very happy to have the opportunity to discuss Protector with the co-writers and artist of the comic. Read what the trio had to say about the development of the project, their approaches to worldbuilding, and the benefits of their different backgrounds.

protector comic cover

How did Protector come together?

Simon: It started, long ago, with a project I had been working on in art school back in 2011 or 2012. Based off of some convoluted class assignment, I made a semi-satirical sci-fi brochure, advertising a museum detailing the long history of mankind, culminating in the far-future era the Museum was from, where Mankind was ruled by a benevolent race of machine-like beings. It was very much in the same vein of “The Motel of the Mysteries”, a David Macauley book about far-future anthropologists who have misinterpreted a 20th-century hotel as a Pharoah-like funerary complex. In my project, this museum was a dedicated effort by mankind’s new machine-rulers to re-interpret the artifacts from mankind’s industrial past as evidence of mankind’s enslavement to machines. An ideological interpretation of history to solidify their mechano-tyranny! 

But after thinking about this scenario – of post-civilizational tribal peoples being “civilized” by extraterrestrial machine-beings – I started to ruminate in greater detail on what kind of stories could be told, and what kind of exciting swords-and-sorcery type fun could happen in that setting. 

Daniel: I (and our mutual friend C. M. Kosemen) got interested and asked Simon questions that dug into the world. Simon came up with a story about a slave girl who stumbles upon an ancient war-cyborg. Simon sketched that scene, and the sketch got into the hands of Artyom, who inked it up real nice.

There was actually some hesitation then. We were all like “do we have time for this project?” But we decided to push it forward.

The funny thing is that Protector was rarely anybody’s front-burner project. It just quietly inched forward over the next four years, growing as we devoted a few hours here or there to it. I think we were using Protector as a training exercise – trying to see how far we could push the skills we were acquiring. But then Simon got us a contract!

Daniel, what made you interested in creating comics?

Daniel: Simon, that’s what!

I made friends with Simon on Deviantart, and we got into the habit of trading illustrations from him for dialogue editing from me. In Protector, the dialogue editing turned into deeper questions about why the characters were doing what they were doing, and that evolved to actual writing on the comic’s script.

Now that I have helped write one comic, I definitely want to do more. I love collaboration, and there are things you can do with a comic that you can’t do with a novel. There’s very refreshing objectivity to the story-telling. Right now, we’re talking about the sequel to Protector.

Simon and Daniel, what’s the co-writing process between the two of you?

Daniel: We shared Google Doc that began as a very rough outline (“Slave girl finds cyborg. Hudsoni Warrior goes to deal with that.” “They walk through the desert until something cool attacks them.”) We each tinkered with the outline until it unfolded into a script. Sometimes we had to back up and talk about what was motivating these characters (“First Knife wants to expand the empire, so…”), what sort of scene should come next (“it’s been a while since anybody has been killed, so…”), and what plot events would be most satisfying (“so he mind-melds with a Deva and it’s like ‘Beep! You have reached the customer service hotline…’ ‘Uh, maybe not?'”). Sometimes these conversations were through emails or comment boxes in the Google Doc, sometimes they were skype conversations. Simon and I even met once in real life! We mostly talked about how pretty Sofia is and how much my children exhaust me.

Protector was Simon’s baby and this project was a comic, so he had the final word. Once Simon decided which way to go, I’d dig in and write up a scene, which he would edit, then sketch out on paper. Artyom was also involved in the writing process and asked important questions about such things as the cultural relevance of clothing and the phases of the moon.

The three of us also ended up bonding with different characters, who became richer because of it. I’m the cyborg.

Simon: And I, of course, am the slaver chieftain! But really, I can’t add too much – Daniel’s covered it all! 

protector comic page

How does it help to have one writer experienced in comics and another with a background in prose?

Dan: It helped a lot! We could each focus on our strengths. Simon, of course, has a better grasp of visuals than me, and my contribution was the hidden inner lives of the characters. I also tended to focus on dialogue while Simon focused on plot.

What have you learned from each other during this collaboration?

Daniel: I learned to remember who was in charge of what and let Simon, Artyom, Jason, and Hassan do their jobs. They were very patient with me. I also learned how smoothly a good collaboration could run. It was amazing to watch scenes pass from Simon to me to Simon to Artyom and so on, becoming better and better as if by magic.

Artyom, what makes your art so well-suited for a post-apocalyptic, Mad Max-like story?

Artyom: Maybe it’s my general disdain for everything new and shiny and my disproportionate love for dilapidation and rot… That is, when it comes to drawing, haha – not in my actual life! I think my worst art nightmare is being asked to draw a skyscraper, a plane or a boring modern gun. That is why I find so much joy in the sand-and-moss fantasy/sci-fi world we built together for Protector, and why working on it felt so natural, even with the challenges this book has brought to me with each issue. My favorite comic in the genre (and maybe ever) is Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, so I find a lot of inspiration in the very bulky and organic way in which Miyazaki renders everything – from a piece of clothes to massive airships and ruins.

A lot of the scenes in the first issue are told entirely visually. Is there a lot of trust in the collaborative process between the three of you?

Daniel: I don’t think “trust” is quite the word for what we had. We didn’t hand the comic off to the next person in line and then lose control forever. We passed the same scene back and forth, building it up, pointing out problems, breaking it down, discussing solutions, and putting it back together. Less assembly line and more volleyball.

For example, there was a battle scene that Simon put down in the script as “They fight.” I choreographed that fight and wrote a scene that was almost dialogue-free. Then Artyom came back and said, “can we please have some words?” It’s funny, but in a novel, you can get away with writing a whole scene with no dialogue. It’s all just words anyway, right? In a comic, though, that didn’t work. I thought of some of the things that would be obvious in prose (what the characters wanted, what they were afraid of), and translated that information into believable speech. And throughout all of this Simon was saying “they wouldn’t do that,” and we’d have a conversation about what they would do instead.

Worldbuilding tends to be difficult in comics because of the confined amount of space with which you have to tell the story. Are the text entries a way to let the comic breathe and still build a rich world?

Daniel: Funnily enough, the text entries were Simon’s idea. That sort of thing is frowned upon in novels, where people call it “infodumping” and “telling, not showing.” But I really like those little encyclopedia articles!

Interestingly, though: those encyclopedia articles came at the very end of the writing process. 

Before that, we were each doing our own worldbuilding and we each had a slightly different picture of what was going on. A couple of times I would write something and Simon would say “but that’s not what the Hudsoni believe.” I didn’t know the Hudsoni were matrilocal until like last month!

That was another source of richness. Once we had scrubbed out the inconsistencies and disagreements, there were still all these little clues about our individual worldbuilding scattered all through the story. Simon’s overarching concepts, my little quirks of speech, and Artyom’s costume design, for example.

Simon: I have always been a fan of the carefully managed comic-book info-dump. Not the sort that happens awkwardly, inside a scene, but one that takes place between them. A great example of this, in my opinion, is in the book “Petit”, by Hubert and Gatignol. It’s a complicated, subtle fantasy world, and one that doesn’t give you, as the reader, all the information you would want while in the story. You’re very naturalistically thrown into the deep end! But between each long chapter of comics, the book pauses and gives you 5 pages of prose historical background, complete with large illustrations. And, as these guys are real masters of their trade, they manage to go just long enough to cram in enough info without boring you!

Other great examples of this approach can be found in the original Watchmen, where [Alan] Moore wrote little in-world newspaper magazine articles that capped off each chapter, or in Nowhere Men, where [Eric] Stephenson cleverly interspersed similar in-world magazine articles, photoshoots, and advertisements, to help give the reader the overall impression of the world. 

Basically, knowing that we had made a very complicated set of nesting premises in our book, I wanted to end the first issue with a nice slow chunk of information that could ground the readers in our world, without breaking up the flow of the story itself.

Every issue solicited so far has a different cover artist. What made you decide to go that route?

Artyom: I think that was my idea. I really love to see covers (regular or variants) from different artists, but only if these artists could synergize together and make the tone of the book itself feel wider and richer. And hell, I hope we did synergize with our Protector covers.

We pulled off a similar thing on my first Image book, Undertow, together with my writer friend Steve Orlando. Each issue of Undertow had a variant cover from an exciting artist we invited to help us – and Mr. Roy here was our pick for #1’s cover. So actually working with him on our own book years later, and then also seeing artists like James Stokoe, Ian Bertram or James Harren tackle our characters is the wildest feeling!

Do you know the length of the series or are you waiting to see where the story takes you?

Dan: I’m pretty sure we were done with the (first arc’s) script before we signed our contract with Image. It’s a good thing, too, because Simon and I discussed like five different endings. I think we ended up with the best one. It would be interesting to write without a net, though.

Simon: For our next arc, though, we are very much still in flux. We’re lining up all the elements we want to explore, but the process of actually clipping it all down to size and streamlining (or not) the ideas into a few more manageable narrative threads will be interesting! 

protector comic creators

Thanks to Simon Roy, Daniel M. Benson, and Artyom Trakhanov for taking the time to discuss their comic Protector. The first issue comes out tomorrow, January 29.

Matt Chats is an interview series featuring discussions with creators or players in comics, diving deep into industry, process, and creative topics. Find its author, Matt O’Keefe, on Twitter and  Tumblr. Email him with questions, comments, complaints, or whatever else is on your mind at matt@mattwritesstuff.com.