An Interview With The Creators of First Knife

Leading up to the release of the collected trade release of the series, we spoke to Simon Roy, Daniel M Bensen and Artyom Trakhanov, writers and artist of the series First Knife. We go into the series’ life up to now, the potential for the universe and the current comics industry.

By Stephen Clark

First and foremost, thank you for talking with us! Protector, now named First Knife, was one of my most anticipated books when I saw it being tweeted about, leading up to its release. It’s been a joy to read and I thank you all for your hard work!

From subject matter to visual style, this has been a refreshing series for me and pretty much everyone I’ve shared it with. How has the response to the series been?

D: I may be totally wrong, but my impression is that reviews of the first issue were balanced between “wow, this is so original and interesting” and “ugh, this is so weird and off-putting.” By the time we finished the arc, though, I was seeing a smaller number of much more positive reviews. The story I’m telling myself is that we zeroed in on our audience. That’s good, right?

A: It was probably the most cathartic and pleasing experience of interacting with a fanbase in my entire hectic career? First Knife was able to get together a very nice “core audience” – many of old-time followers of the previous books by Simon or me, quite a lot of new readers – and all these people seemed to be incredibly kind and very invested in our work. Lifting a book up to the “acceptable” market numbers is always a struggle and endless hustle, but when you know that people are actually reading your comic and not just putting it in a baggie is very reassuring.

No part of the series ever phones it in. From serious subject matter to more comedic moments, writing and all aspects of the art compliment and punctuate what’s most important at any given time. With a team that’s as talented individually as you all are coming together, that’s no surprise. How did your supergroup get formed for this project?

S: Well, it all assembled rather slowly and naturally, to be honest. When I first started cooking up the idea that would become First Knife, Dan and I had developed a sort of online relationship where we would pass things back and forth between us, trading and commenting on each other’s stories and art, and the project initially developed along those lines. But as time went on, Artyom, who I had initially started talking to after he reached out to me about doing a variant cover for his Image series “Undertow”, started chatting with me about collaborating, and I showed him some of the layouts and concept stuff I had been doing for “First Knife”. Meanwhile, Jason Wordie, who I went to art school with and who co-wrote and colored our Dark Horse book “Tiger Lung”, back in 2014, began to independently work with Artyom on a great book called “Turncoat” from Boom Studios. So, before long, we had already interwoven into a coherent team of comics commandos!

Something that I loved about the series has been getting to whip out a map (on Google images) and try to place events and locations. When writing or creating the visuals of the world, did this basis in reality help spur creativity? Did it stop you from making any certain creative choices?

D: Oh those maps! I spent hours trying to figure out how long it would take to canoe from Sault Ste. Marie to Chicago to Saint Louis. Where are the new coastlines? What’s become easier and harder when you put together an expedition like that? And this was all because Artyom remembered to ask what phase the moon should be in, in a particular scene.

That was what was great about our process: we didn’t let each other get away with anything. Nobody said “aw, who cares about the moon”? We dug into the facts and fiddled around until we got them right. 

But we also gave ourselves a break. When I found out that it ought to take around two months to get from Chicago to Saint Louis, I fudged the shapes of the Chicago and Mississippi rivers. When NATO started looking unlikely as a future global hegemon, we decided that the cyborg must have been built by _some other_ organization with the same initials. The “North American Trade Operation”? The “Nihilistic Armada of Terror and Oppression?” What a fertile field for further creativity!

I, shamefully, didn’t catch Shikka-Go being Chicago until being a ways in and realizing just what we had going on with the world. Is there any consistent thing that you’ve heard from fans being the last real world parallel to click?

D: On the Comfort Food Comics podcast, David Shevlin didn’t realize that “Senta-Lu” was Saint Luis until his co-host Dan Molfese told him so. I enjoyed that.

What I enjoyed more, though, was the fan theories about the secret hidden meanings that must be behind many of our _other_decisions. Surely we weren’t just goofing off or making mistakes. Our plans are so deep and mysterious that even _we_ don’t know what they are.

First Knife is an interesting world to tell stories in! In the back of issues are fleshed out, textbook-style information drops about the world you’ve all created. Can people expect to see more of this info in the trade when it’s released?

A: Me and Simon are massive freaks for this sort of extra materials, so you could always count on us to sneak this stuff into our book. And this upcoming TPB has a few new pages of bonus materials in the end!

It’s been addressed in interviews and other online tidbits that First Knife is just the beginning of the stories you all have to tell here. What are you most excited about, individually, to get to work on with the forthcoming sequel/sequels?

D: Right now I’m most excited to see what the new characters and settings end up looking like! Also, we’re only like halfway through plotting out the story, so I’m not sure yet what happens to these people. I’ve got a lot of John le Carré books to read for inspiration. 

A: There is a sniper grandma character which I am extremely fond of personally. Ah, and also – we’ll have a bunch of talking animals and birds!

S: There’s a certain element of “running a simulation” with this sort of sci-fi story that I find very gratifying. For the story we’re working on, I’m most interested in that aspect – how will the world of “First Knife” have changed and evolved, since the events of the first story? 

Image refers to the series as “Equal parts Conan the Barbarian, Nausicaä, and Zardoz.” Those name checks and First Knife are all set in a new world, after our current one has fallen/changed. With so much in flux in the world, have current events changed the way you approach or look at any of the upcoming stories?

D: I’m very much looking forward to seeing how Artyom and Simon answer this question.  

For myself, the interesting times we’ve experienced over the last four years have coincided with my personal struggle with cancer and its aftermath. Putting myself back together, I realized I no longer enjoyed post-apocalyptic stories. This was a problem, since by 2016, Simon and I had been working on First Knife for years already.

The only way I could move forward on First Knife was to make it part of the process of coming to terms with my own death. So I tried to show that the people who will live after us will love their own world as much as we love ours. Like the rest of us, First Knife and Mari are just people trying to make the best of a chaotic situation. Once the pain is over, we might end up in a better place than we were before.

A: That’s a hard one for sure. At the moment we have so many things we need to process and reflect on as human beings, as more idealistic “creators” AND as participants of an actual industry with it’s financial and practical limitations… all while still trying to remain working and functional!  

At some point during this terrifying pandemic, I found myself promoting our post-apocalyptic book and also working on a very apocalyptic story written for my self-published anthology, “Slavic Nihilism”. A very unfortunate coincidence, but at least it’s a fun anecdote to tell in the future! Not sure what the takeaway from this could be, tho. First Knife has many optimistic undertones, but I think it’s also quite angry about the current state of affairs in our stupidly technocratic world. And if we get to make another volume, it will probably continue to be this way.

S: Artyom has a good point here – we will all be doing a lot more hoping, and grieving, and raging, before this pandemic (and it’s various unforeseen knock-on effects) has passed, and having art that expresses some of these negative emotions alongside the more positive, healing emotions will probably continue to be important. I don’t know that I’ll be able to explain how these times will change the story as we write it, since (perhaps thankfully) we can’t experience the alternate timeline where none of this happened. 

At the very least, though, there will be themes that we will continue to explore in these new stories that will no doubt resonate, at least with us!

First Knife began being sold before the Covid-19-caused comics shutdown. When returning to market, the comics landscape had certainly changed. Was this something you all, and the series, felt in a big way?

A:Yeah, we did. Everything Covid-related in the comics industry was quite disheartening, but thinking about it now, there’s no way it could’ve went any other way. I think in the first two or three months we all became fatalistic about dying gigs, canceled books, and witnessing our struggling peers and publishers everywhere you look. Protector/First Knife went on hiatus right after issue 3, and soon after that me and Simon agreed just not to look at any of the sales numbers when our series finally returns to print.

Of course, at some point we accidentally still learned about the numbers. And in a very gentle and small way, it was better than we expected!

Did anything change about the way that the comic was produced or marketed, as a product of these new circumstances?

S: I don’t really want to get into this one, since all it really did was make our already difficult conventional approach harder…. And I am not too excited to admit we didn’t innovate any new styles of promotion!

A: On the other hand, with everyone around the globe staying mostly indoors, the only way of promotion available to us with our next to zero “marketing” budget became slightly more effective! At least this is how I justify the fact that for the last few months half of my usual working week consisted of just being on multiple social media all the time, writing and talking all things Protector/First Knife – all while Simon was constantly messaging retailers, writing entire epistolary novels about our book and our misfortunes.

While comics as an industry have experienced a big shake-up with how many stores there are now, an additional “new release” day on Tuesday and more, do you see any positive things that have arisen in this new post-Covid comics industry?

A: I’m quite skeptical about future of direct comics market in general, but rather than caring about it, I choose to remain optimistic about local comics communities and art collectives. This summer was very big for bringing authors and readers together through discourse, non-toxic nostalgia, and then also through crowdfunding. We should explore the direct ways of communication available to us at the moment. Maybe we also need to become aware of how archaic the actual comics publishing is and how it could be saved and improved.

S: I tend to agree. Things like Patreon and Kickstarter are marvelous, but I get a sense that they too are only a temporary phase in the growth (or decline) of the comics industry as a whole. They provide a good way for people who are established, or at least partially established, to reach their audience, make work, and pay rent, but where does that leave new creators who are trying to clamber in? If your work doesn’t translate well to Twitter or Instagram, how does a comic artist get traction without a healthy, communal marketplace? Of course, these problems aren’t unique to comics, but they’re worth ruminating on.

At the time of publishing this article, it’s Wednesday and people should be going into their local comic shops to pick up the week’s harvest. It’s ALSO just a couple days from the August 31st final order cutoff date for the collected trade release.

If people have missed out on buying the single issues, do you have anything to catch their attention and maybe convince them to order the trade?

D: Do you like to watch people getting pulled into pulpy chunks while swallows frolic in the birch trees? If yes, you’ll like First Knife.

A: Also stick with us if you’re looking for a good fun adventure with devastating meltdowns and religious epiphanies in the end, followed by reflection on free will and human agency.

S: What more could I possibly add to all that? Buy our book!

First Knife has been a fantastic ride and I’ve loved every minute of it. Get to your local comic shop this week and pick up the trade paperback! Keep reading comics and may your geese grow fat! -Stephen

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