Buckle your seatbelts, because Knight Rider is steering towards a comic book comeback.
Thanks to a partnership between IDW Publishing and Lion Forge Comics, the '80s classic TV show is returning with a new trade paperback, written by Geoffrey Thorne and drawn by Jason Johnson, with an extra story by editor Shannon Eric Denton and artist Brian Benham. The comic kicks off a brand-new origin for the classic automated automobile, given new powers - and new weaknesses - thanks to the ensuing jump in technology over the past 30 years.
With the trade due out in May, we caught up with Thorne, Johnson and Denton to talk about this new iteration of Michael Knight and KITT, what Knight Rider means to them as a series, and a surprising endorsement they received from a classic cast member.
Newsarama: Geoffrey, Jason, just to start off with - this trade paperback is a new spin on Michael Knight and KITT - almost a Knight Rider Begins. For you, what was the most important element of the original Knight Rider TV series that you felt it was important to keep?
Geoffrey Thorne: The most important element of the original is the relationship between Michael and KITT. The creator of the show had initially wanted to create something that mimicked the favorite radio adventure of his youth, The Lone Ranger with Michael Knight as the Ranger and KITT as sort of both Tonto and Silver mixed together (Um, yeah, that sounds weird when you say it out loud but, whatever).
So, that's where I started. This was always meant to be a buddy adventure, a swashbuckler, and that's what it will remain.
Jason Johnson: I agree with Geoff on the relationship part, but as a visual artist, the most important for me was to maintain the look of KITT and try to stay as close to the original design as possible while updating it to the here and now. KITT was the coolest vehicle ever to me as a kid, and still is.
Nrama: On the flip side, Knight Rider is such a product of the '80s, one with a cult following that hasn't been able to translate in sustained ratings during NBC's 2008 relaunch. With that in mind, what were the challenges for you two in translating this iconic series to modern audiences?
Thorne: Honestly my only challenge on that front was that many fans are intractable when it comes to change. And let's face it, they've been burned a couple of times when the TV folks tried to reboot the series. I had to field a lot of snark about my intentions because several people were expecting i'd come in and crap all over their favorite story. I wasn't hired to do that and I like to think i'm not the sort of person who would do that in any case. So I had to spend a lot of time assuring people that my version of the Knight Rider story wouldn't be like the last couple of misfires.
That said, I don't do nostalgia. I'm not interested in doing a straight continuation of the original series, like Season 20 of something that went on 30+ years ago. To me that would be deadly dull and, more importantly, it wasn't what I was brought in to do.
I actually find the Knight Rider world refreshing. Michael is a classic hero, a Pulp hero, really, like the Lone Ranger who spawned him. I was happy to be able to dig into something that clean.
Johnson: Honestly, I didn't feel it was much of a challenge since growing up as a big fan of the show. Capturing Michael's swagger and KITT's awesomeness seemed to come as second nature.
Nrama: Delving into the characters a bit - Geoffrey, can you tell us a bit about Michael Knight, Agent of FLAGG? And can you talk a bit about his dynamic with his smartcar?
Thorne: Well. In that respect, this is basically the Michael Knight we all know and love, the one ably embodied by Mr. David Hasselhoff. He has a checkered past but any disobedience or "off the books" activity he might have had in his previous career was always in the mode of doing what was Right (which is not always the same as following orders or the Law). So he was in the military and he was a cop but be left those identities behind to follow Wilton Knight's vision of a better world. He's a swashbuckler in a era that doesn't create many of those and, for me, that's the fun.
By the end of this first book we will see Michael and KITT "taking the wheel" in their lives in a way neither has before in the story but which fans of the series will find welcome and familiar.
KITT, on the other hand, is a bit of a new thing. In the original, the KITT AI was a fully formed personality that knew its own capabilities and was, often, portrayed as the wiser or more sober of the two. This was partially a function of how TV was made in the '80s and how little actual knowledge of computers and cybernetics the creators of the show (or nearly anyone) had at that time.
I've modified KITT to be an evolving intelligence, still learning what it can and can't do and what it wants to ultimately be in the world. KITT is amazingly intelligent but not as wise as previously portrayed. There is a difference and that difference makes drama. Drama is good.
I also wanted to make him more unique. In reality, KITT is just an AI, meaning it's software and could, in theory, be housed in any medium large enough to hold all his code. in order to keep KITT, well, KITT I had to marry it to the chassis in a more permanent and integrated way. Basically, KITT's origin makes him and the chassis the same thing the we are in our human bodies. When the chassis takes damage and KITT needs repair it is like putting a person on an operating table. Also the matrix that forms his intelligence is an unintended consequence of a couple of unforeseen events that play out in the opening story. There is no guarantee, if KITT is shut down for any length of time, that it will return as the same person, meaning the other KITT would, effectively be dead.
So this means we care when KITT crashes or gets a bit blown off in a way we wouldn't if it was just a machine.
Their relationship evolves. My version of KITT is more headstrong and less inclined to obey Michael just on his say-so. They will argue more, and Michael will not always win those arguments. But they are bound over a shared tragedy and will do or die for each other. They begin with Michael as sort of KITTs step dad but will eventually end as brothers.
Michael's big hurdle is to really start seeing KITT as a person and not a super-intelligent smart device.
This first story gets him a good way towards that but there will be lots of bumps along the way.
Nrama: This book also has a romantic hook in the form of Dr. Katherine Beachum. Can you tell us a little bit about her, and what might draw Knight to her?
Thorne: She is the lead cyberneticist on the Rider Project and Michael was assigned to be her bodyguard. They are both "alphas" in their fields and are drawn together by that mutual recognition and by Michael's need to get her to relax and have some real world fun. In theory, as soon as the Rider project was complete, they would be an official couple but, due to workplace restrictions mostly, they have kept it mostly quiet.
Who doesn't love a smart, capable woman who only wants to do good in the world? Nobody I know.
Nrama: Well said. With this iteration of Knight Rider, there seems to be a bit of an arms race going on, with the Rider technology playing a key role in why Knight is on the run. Can you guys tell us a little bit about the technology you're putting into this book?
Thorne: Everyone wants "the Rider" because the tech KITT represents (at least according to the original design specs) is so much more than just a smart car. That is the central conceit of the opening story and will be a theme throughout my time on the book.
I try to base everything i'm doing on existing or soon-to-exist cyber or stealth technology. there were a lot of things KITT could do in the original series that either don't need doing now, can't actually be done or are done better by our modern cellphones so I had to go to really cutting-edge things (thank you, Internet) to incorporate into its chassis. Satellite Leash. "Invisibility," holographic disguise and communication and a bunch of other things that will come into play as we go. KITT's top speed will approach mach 1. Basically KITT can enslave nearly any computerized device in its set distance parameters.
KITT is incomplete in this first story so it will be fun to give it the various upgrades as we go forward.
Johnson: From a visual standpoint, I try to keep up with modern and futuristic tech design for Knight Rider. But, as a child of the 80's I tend to see myself occasionally subconsciously adding visual concepts such as Star Trek: The Next Generation computer consoles and such. It just sort of oozes out since that era was great in terms of future design concepts.
Nrama: Jason, you've got an interesting challenge for Knight Rider, in the fact that you not only have to portray figures in action-packed settings, but you've also got high-speed chases when it comes to KITT. Were there any big racer movies that you used as an influence for this book?
Johnson: Oh, yes! As I kid I loved the chase scenes in movies like Bullitt and Two Lane Blacktop. Those two flicks especially wrote the book on how to best convey car chases in film, in my opinion. Some of the scenes in Miami Vice and the Fast & Furious movies were inspirational, as well. I also, as a Tarantino fan, loved how Death Proof was a call back to those old 70's car chase movies.
Nrama: Now, I understand you two got a pretty big endorsement on this comic, from the original Michael Knight himself, David Hasselhoff... can you guys tell us a little bit about that, and how that made you feel?
Thorne: [Laughs] I was blown away. The Hoff made a video message endorsing the book and our take on the characters and story. It came out of nowhere and I was truly bowled over. Mind = Blown.
Johnson: I have to say, it has be a highlight of my career, and even of my life! The man is an icon. It was such an honor to have him hold my artwork and endorse this book. Truly an amazing moment for me. Here's the video:
Nrama: A question for the both of you - do you each have a favorite episode of the original series? And if you could have KITT in any car, what make and model would you pick?
Thorne: Everybody who knows me knows I'm a sucker for ninja. So, you tell me. What's my favorite episode? Hmm. When I finally get my Tesla, I hope KITT is in it.
Johnson: It may sound corny, but when the series was on I just couldn't wait for the next episode...the whole series was my favorite. It would be wrong to just pick one! And I've always been a sucker for a Lamborghini; probably a Veneno. It looks like it's about to fly into space!
Nrama: Let's bring in Shannon Eric Denton, the editor behind this project.
Just to start off with, what made Geoffrey and Jason the people to work on Knight Rider?
Shannon Eric Denton: With Geoffrey’s work experience as a TV writer as well as all the fabulous digital comics work he’s done with our pals over at Thrillbent, he was a first choice for Knight Rider.
We’re not trying to change Knight Rider. We love the property so we wanted someone who could take that love of the property but bring into the modern day without changing what has worked so well for so many years. We’re in an era where the phones we use in everyday life have more computing power than KITT and NASA combined at the time the show came out. The person to handle this transition from the '80s to present day so perfectly was Geoffrey. As for the look of the book, partnering with Geoffrey on this mission is former WildStorm artist Jason Johnson. Jason has a very kinetic energy to what he does and we really needed that in this book. He’s got an amazing ability to give the technology just as much attention as he does the characters which is good in a book where the technology is one of the characters.
Nrama: And I understand that you have a story in this trade as well, with Brian Denham on art. Can you tell us a little bit about the premise, and how it links into the rest of the Knight Rider universe?
Denton: My story takes place shortly after the events in Geoffrey’s story. Brian Denham worked with me at Extreme Studios (where we both started out as artists) and he illustrated the X-Files comic for me over at WildStorm. He’s an amazingly talented artist and his Marine Corps background was great for all the action we have in our issue. Once again this is a very character driven story but with loads of tech playing an integral part! Without giving too much away it’s really our first episode-of-the-week issue that will lead into a series of one-shots we have coming up with writers like Chuck Dixon. Those one-shots will be stand-alone stories but they will build up to the events in our upcoming Knight Rider/Airwolf crossover written by Adam Warren! Lion Forge is kicking off 2015 with our Turbo-Boost in full effect! Forge On!
Nrama: Finally, for those who are still on the fence about Knight Rider, what would you say to get these people on board?
Thorne: I think it's fun. Yes, there are a few new bells and whistles but it's the same tone, the same adventure-y flavor you love and expect. And Jason is drawing the hell out of it. You will believe a car can speed and talk and insult the driver.
Johnson: Whether you are a fan of the original series or not, this book has it all... action, suspense, romance, beautiful people and a beautiful car... a terrific story that sucks you in and won't let go. Hop in and go for ride.