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DF Interview: Ted Anderson brings YA readers a crime story with a twist in Moth & Whisper
By Byron Brewer
Everyone knows that the two greatest thieves in the city are the Moth and the Whisper. Very few know that the Moth and the Whisper disappeared six months ago. And what nobody knows is that the new Moth and Whisper are actually one person pretending to be both of them. One supremely skilled but uncertain young genderfluid thief: Niki, the child of the Moth and the Whisper.
A YA cyberpunk thriller starring a genderqueer super-thief, Moth & Whisper is the brainchild of writer Ted Anderson (My Little Pony, Adventure Time) and artist Jen Hickman (Jem and the Holograms, The Dead). DF caught up with scribe Anderson to get more info on this intriguing new AfterShock series.
Dynamic Forces: Ted, tell us the genesis of this comic. How did Moth & Whisper come about? Is it something that you have been working on for awhile?
Ted Anderson: Moth & Whisper came from a couple of different ideas that were bouncing around in my head. For one, I was thinking about heist and thief stories, and tinkering with the idea of a story about a family of thieves, or a legacy thief character, but I didn't really have a solid enough hook at first. The other thing in my head at the time was the question of representation, particularly when it comes to gender identity. Now, I'm a straight cis male, so I'm not exactly lacking in representation in comics, but I have a lot of friends who are trans or non-binary who don't often get to see characters like themselves. So I wanted to create a character and a narrative that my friends, and others, could see themselves in. At the same time, there's a valid point that's been expressed by trans creators in many media, including comics—for example, Magdalene Visaggio or Jay Edidin—that while a cis author can (and should) create and write trans characters, they should not attempt to tell trans stories, because we don't share those experiences and can't accurately depict them. Which is completely true, and applicable to authors writing about any marginalized group to which they do not belong. So when I was building this story, I wanted to make sure I was telling a story about a character who is genderqueer, whose experiences are accurately depicted, but not to tell a story about being genderqueer, because that's not my experience. What I ended up realizing was that a character with a fluid gender identity, who is comfortable in a variety of presentations, would work well as an infiltrator or spy, someone who is aware of how others perceive them and how to manipulate those perceptions.
That initial idea was about 90% of the work—the rest was fleshing out Niki's story, where they came from, what kind of world they lived in, which all flowed pretty easily by comparison. I'd been working on it for maybe a couple of years before bringing it to AfterShock, but things happened pretty quickly after that point.
DF: What can you tell us about the dystopian world you and artist Jen Hickman are building here?
Ted Anderson: Jen and I are both huge fans of classic cyberpunk media – writers like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, movies like Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell (the original, not the new one), video games like Deus Ex and Shadowrun. A lot of the trappings of cyberpunk are common in sci-fi now – cybernetic implants, brain-computer interfaces, advertising everywhere – but what we love are the deeper underpinnings of the genre: corporate control, identity as a commodity, dehumanization and social isolation. So that's where we started with world design.
The story revolves around questions of identity, so one of the most visible elements in this world is the constant presence of facial-recognition and biometric scanning systems, which constantly track and identify people. You're constantly being watched everywhere you go. Climate change and political upheaval has resulted in a huge refugee population in the city, and refugees are only allowed out to work if they're wearing tracking collars. It's not a world designed for people.
One element I'm especially proud of is the signage Jen and I have incorporated into the world. These are hazard or warning signs, like you'd see in the real world, but reflecting the new technology or social mores of this world. So you'll see a sign near a public bathroom that says YOUR WASTE MAY BE SAMPLED FOR ANONYMOUS PUBLIC HEALTH DATA, or a sign in a public space reminding you MUNICIPAL DATA NETWORK - DATA USAGE WILL BE MONITORED. There's a lot of little clues in the background as to what kind of world this is, and I'm looking forward to readers discovering them!
DF: Can you give us the elevator pitch for Moth & Whisper?
Ted Anderson: Teenage genderqueer cyberpunk super-thief.
Okay, a little more detailed: Everybody knows that the two greatest thieves in the city are the Moth and the Whisper. The Moth was a master of disguise, a manipulator of unparalleled skill; the Whisper was an invisible infiltrator, a thief you'd never know had been there. They're rivals who'll work for anyone: CEOs, criminals, presidents, anyone who could pay. But secretly, they aren't rivals, they're partners—and what nobody knows is that they have a child together. Niki's been raised in secret, kept off the grid, trained in all the arts of stealth and deception. Six months ago, the Moth and the Whisper disappeared, leaving Niki to fend for themselves. Now Niki has to use all their skills to keep people from discovering the truth about the Moth and Whisper, and to find their missing parents.
DF: Introduce readers to Niki, please, and can you give a little background as to her relationship to the original Moth & Whisper, and why she is motivated to do what she is now doing as a thief.
Ted Anderson: Niki had an odd upbringing. They were trained from birth by the two greatest thieves in the city, but they were also raised in complete secrecy, to make sure their existence was never discovered. So they're incredibly skilled but socially isolated: they can pick a lock in three seconds or identify rare gems by sight alone, but they've never attended a school or hung out with someone their own age. They love and admire their parents deeply, and always hoped to follow in their footsteps, but definitely not like this. Niki is probably the most talented thief in the city, but they're still just a teenager, scared and on their own, desperately trying to survive.
DF: What other characters should we be aware of as this book starts?
Ted Anderson: At the start of the book, the only other "character" who's playing a major role isn't a person, it's a suit: Niki's high-tech super-suit and AI, called Weaver. Weaver is their parents' secret weapon, a shape-shifting nanotech garment that can transform into any outfit you can imagine. With Weaver, Niki can alter their appearance in the blink of an eye and blend in with any crowd, look like virtually anyone.
Another major character that we'll meet as the book progresses is Walter Waverly, son of the head of the Non Grata, the city's second-largest criminal organization. As the heir apparent to an enormous criminal empire, Walter wields a huge amount of power, but he's got goals of his own – goals that may conflict with his father's, and align with Niki's.
DF: In Niki’s eyes, who are the big-bads of the tale?
Ted Anderson: The villain of this story is Ambrose Wolfe, the most powerful crime boss in the city. Wolfe is wealthy, influential and ruthless, and the only person in the city that Niki's parents refused to work for. As far as Niki's concerned, Wolfe is the only possible suspect in the disappearance of their parents, and as such he needs to be taken down. But that's going to be more difficult than Niki thinks.
DF: What can you say about collaborator Jen Hickman’s art? What does Jen bring to this series?
Ted Anderson: Jen is an amazing artist and friend! We first met a few years back at a con and bonded over a lot of the same interests and media. We've been looking for a project to do together for a while—we did a short comic for BOOM!, we put together a graphic novel pitch—so when this project came around, I knew they'd be perfect for it. Jen's style is fluid and really expressive; they love playing with shadows and angles and using ink in interesting ways. They love doing cool action scenes, but they've also got a great sense for emotion—their style is really innovative and beautiful.
Another reason that I thought Jen would be interested in a story with a genderqueer protagonist is that Jen is also genderqueer themselves. Having Jen on the team to help create Niki and their identity was incredibly valuable, to make sure we were getting the details right and give Niki's story added depth and accuracy. Jen's talent and style were perfect for the project to begin with; the fact that they can also help ensure good representation for our main character makes them absolutely ideal for Moth & Whisper.
DF: Ted, what else is going on project-wise for you that you can tell readers about?
Ted Anderson: Currently I'm writing a miniseries for BOOM! Studios, Adventure Time: Beginning of the End, which ties into the end of the TV series this summer. I'm also still writing My Little Pony issues for IDW, along with a stable (ha!) of other talented people. I do have some other projects in the works that I can't quite talk about yet—keep your ears peeled! If Moth & Whisper ends up doing well, Jen and I definitely have ideas for continuing Niki's story. And I'm also on a Dungeons & Dragons podcast with a few friends, Natural 4, which is an excuse for four dorks to pretend to be fantasy heroes and make fun of each other. It's a good time.
Thanks so much for the interview! I hope readers enjoy Moth & Whisper!
Dynamic Forces would like to thank Ted Anderson for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions. Moth & Whisper #1 from AfterShock hits stores Sept. 12th!
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