Fans are used to strange new worlds, but the realm of Image Comics' new book The Family Trade, the first issue of which comes out this Wednesday, is about to introduce them to a place full of pirates, politics and pussycats. Not to mention ninja assassins.
Set in an alternate history on a massive wooden city in the middle of the ocean nicknamed 'The Float,' The Family Trade tells the story of Jessa, a schoolteacher by day who’s getting drawn into the machinations of her family...a.k.a. 'The Family,' self-proclaimed defenders of this world. And with a dangerous new politician - who happens to bear a striking resemblance to a certain real-world president - rising to power, Jessa’s about to be caught in the middle of a deadly conflict that will rock her world to its core
Writers Justin Jordan and Nikki Ryan are working on The Family Trade with artist Morgan Beem, and Newsarama spoke with both Jordan and Beem about the new series.
Newsarama: Justin, how did the initial concept for The Family Trade’s setting, the Float come about?
Justin Jordan: If you read The Family Trade it’s in the Free Republic of Thessala, a.k.a. the Float, a city in the Atlantic built on top of, originally, wooden boats. The city itself was a result of seeing how people were utilizing the space on small islands. This got me to think about a man-made island, and how and why such a thing would exist.
Some of this was from watching movies about, and reading books about, the age of sail, and particularly how life on boats actually worked. So, all of that sort of mished around, as these things do, in my head until Nikki and I came up with the basic idea for what would become The Family Trade - this seemed like a cool place to set it.
And plus, we knew it would look awesome for Morgan to draw, and we had her in mind from early days on this.
Nrama: What made you want to work together on the book, and what's your collaborative process like?
Jordan: So, the origins of The Family Trade go back to me and Nikki talking about her cousin, who was bouncing around Europe for what I considered suspiciously vague reasons. Naturally, I thought her cousin was probably an international assassin. Which Nikki said was indeed "the family trade."
We got to kicking around the idea of a family of assassins, which eventually evolved into the Family in our book. They’re not all assassins, most of them aren’t, but the roots of the story were in that exchange.
But while Nikki and I were kicking it around, we realized there was a story there, and that this could be a thing. So, we decided to make sure it was a thing. Nikki and I both liked Morgan’s art a lot, and I’d known Morgan for a few years and actually liked her as a human person as well, so we decided to team up for mayhem.
Morgan Beem: I have always been a big, big fan of Justin’s stories - they’re just so good - and so when the opportunity to work together came about, I was extremely excited. Even more so when I got a peek at the awesome setting that was the Float, and read how effortlessly fun the script was. I hadn’t met Nikki yet, but working with her has been a real treat. The way she thinks through a lot of the world building aspects blows my mind, and she is also just a truly one of a kind human. I think so far, the three of us make an A+ team.
As for collaboration, I am not sure what kind of magic bruja occurs between Justin and Nikki to get such a great story, but on my end I receive the script and paint the thing and we shoot emails back and forth the make sure everything makes sense.
Nrama: Morgan, I'm particularly interested in the look of the book - tell us a bit about how you conceived the artistic style, and the looks of Jessa and the Float in particular.
Beem: Oh man, I have had so much fun designing this book, especially the Float itself. For me, it always helps to think of the setting as the most important character, and to design it with all the personality and detail you would give an actual character.
When designing the Float, Justin, Nikki and I talked a lot about Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong, as well as other dense, stacked cities all over the world. When I initially began researching the Walled City, my mind went immediately to the aesthetic style of Tekkonkinkreet, which I have always been a big fan of, and has been an inspiration for the Float. Using those as jumping off points, I tried to make a world that captured a densely packed metropolis with a “ocean-punk” feel, but in a way that would be unique and iconic to our story.
As for Jessa, we wanted a design that felt functional to her work as a member of the Family, and that captured her free spirit and personality. The hair is key. We may have also discussed its cosplay appeal. [Laughs]
Nrama: So...I'll just avoid dancing around this too much...Berhardt, the evil rich guy causing problems in the Float, looks and acts an awful lot like Donald Trump. And has a name phonetically similar to 'Brietbart.' How much of this was a conscious decision, and are you at all concerned about blowback on this?
On a broader note, what are the unique challenges in telling stories of politics in an alternate reality, where there's a different history and set of standards governing society?
Jordan: The Berghardt/Breitbart thing is….probably a coincidence? We definitely didn’t do it consciously. But the Trump allusion is intentional. I’m not worried about blowback. It’s not as if my thoughts about the man are any kind of secret.
Basically, Trump himself is a representation of a certain kind of populist persona that tends to emerge. Alexander Hamilton cautioned against a man just like him coming to power by exploiting flaws in the democratic system.
Berghardt is Trumpesque, but he’s not Trump. He’s an actual successful businessman, for one thing, and he’s got a focus and intelligence I’ve never seen in Trump. But his visuals and mannerisms make for a convenient short hand.
That’s a tricky thing to navigate from a story standpoint, actually. With any luck, the book will be read by someone a decade or two down the road, someone who isn’t currently neck deep in politics.
Writing politics in an alternate reality setting is tricky. Actually, it’s probably always tricky. This is not, fundamentally, a political book. What you need to know is that Berghardt is on the verge of upsetting the power structure in a way that would put the city in danger. This is about action and adventure, not political manuvering.
Having said that, I did, because I am me, actually need to work how the political system on the Float worked, and how Berghardt would fit in. So it takes some thinking and worldbuilding.
Nrama: What are your favorite parts of the Float (in terms of people, creatures, etc.) Are we going to see other parts of this alternate world as the series goes on?
Beem: Definitely the Toms. I love the idea of a whole man-made island just covered in essentially stray cats – who may or may not be their own underground spy network. It fills me with joy when drawing an establishing shot to just have them lazing about everywhere.
Jordan: I mean, we probably all love the Toms. But I like the little details. So, for instance, there’s no fire to speak of on the Float. The place is made of wood and they have nowhere to go, so they’ve got a cultural taboo against it. As a result, when they need light, they use bioluminsecent fish in bowls. This is both amusing - to me - and fantastic in a way that gives the world flavor. And we mostly don’t tell you why this stuff is happening, so the reader can work it out.
As for the rest of the world, our focus is going to be on the Float. As it happens, the place is a hub of trade and travel, so you get to see more of the world through Jessa’s eyes as it comes to her. The second arc, actually, is all about that.
Nrama: Of the different members of the Family, why did you want to use Jessa as the point-of-view character, and what do you think makes her a unique protagonist?
Beem: Justin once said Jessa is the type of character who “is basically fearless about doing the right thing.” And that has always stuck with me. She is open and genuine about her wants, beliefs and her goals, which makes her very easy to root for. That paired with her head-strong, leap-before-looking personality makes her lot of fun to follow.
Jordan: Jessa is young enough and strong willed enough to question the Family’s traditions and decisions, so that alone makes her a good POV. She’s new to the actual work, so we’re able to lead the reader into the world along with her, and she causes a lot of trouble, both of which are fun.
Jessa is very much a proactive character with close to no physical fear. She’s afraid of failing, she’s afraid of her loved ones getting hurt, but she’s utterly unafraid to do the right thing or the possibility of getting hurt. I think it makes her a very cool character to follow with.
Nrama: What were some of the biggest challenges in putting the world of the Float together? How thoroughly do you have it mapped out?
Jordan: There’s a loose literal map. But we’ve worked out pretty solidly how the Float actually works. Like, where does the food come from? How do they cook? Where do they get stuff? How do they remain independent?
Which, those questions lead to some cool stuff. Nikki worked this vertical farming stuff that’s actually really rad. But truthfully, I don’t know that any of this stuff was actually challenging. World building, especially when you can just do it from scratch, is fun.
Beem: Knowing Justin and Nikki, and the extra tidbits we’ve tossed around, I’d say they have it very mapped out. As for me on my end, I have an actual (very crude) map of the float, that I try to reference and navigate that every time we show a big chunk, like a market or important political building, so I know where everything is.
This sometimes gets messy, but I think ultimately will help us build a more believable world. One of the biggest challenges for me, especially in the beginning, was trying to accurately convey the size of the thing, while still highlighting narrow alleyways and crowded tall buildings.
Nrama: Most favoritest pirate/high seas stories of all time? Any media! Bonus points if you like A High Wind in Jamaica.
Jordan: I am a big fan of the Aubrey/Maturin books, which is probably best known for the Russell Crowe adaptation Master and Commander. Which, actually, was also excellent.
I also really liked The Ends of the Earth, which is about a long voyage by sail, but is not otherwise an action or pirate type thing.
Beem: It’s not necessarily a movie/book or anything - though I am sure many have been made about it - but I love the actual real life story of Cheng I Sao, or Ching Shih. Talk about a badass pirate! She started in a Chinese brothel, and worked her way up to become one of the wealthiest most successful pirates of all time. She commanded hundreds of ships and somewhere around 50,000 men - that is just awesome.
Nrama: How well do you think you would fare living in a place like the Float?
Jordan: Probably fairly well. I do like cats and indoor places, of which there are plenty on the Float.
Beem: I think I would love it. I am pretty much obsessed with the sea, and I do very well living in small places in crowded cities.
But, unfortunately, I don’t think I would be a member of the Family or anything cool like that. I would probably be selling fish or something pretty mundane. [Laughs]
Nrama: What made Image omics the right place for this book?
Jordan: Image offers you basically total creative freedom, and they are also willing to take chances on books. The Family Trade is fairly different from most of what you see on the shelves, so we wanted to make sure the book got its best chance to thrive.
Beem: I think both the story and the traditional media/watercolor style make this a unique book, and Image is really great at bringing new and interesting ideas to the forefront of comics and letting them be their own thing. Because of that, I think our fun, crazy, unique book fits in very well with the Image family.
Nrama: What can readers expect over the course of the first arc? Do you have a long-term projected story in mind?
Jordan: Action, adventure, narrow escapes, and cats. I think the book is fun and funny, and I think the readers will probably not have seen a world much like Tthe Float, so I am hoping everyone digs it. It’s crazy fun to write, and I think that comes across in the finished book.
The first arc is Jessa finding out that there is a traitor in the Family who is helping Berghardt, and threatening the Family as a whole, the Float as whole, and Jessa personally. That story is wrapped in the first arc, but the consequences of that play in the rest of the book.
Beem: A lot of action, A lot of sass, and really just a lot of fun. Also cats.
Jordan: The Family Trade is designed so that each arc can be read as its own thing. You don’t have to read them all, but you’ll get a deep story if you do. That said, if sales are there - always a question - we have an overarching story that goes 30 issues, or six books.
Nrama: Give readers the har d sell on the book.
Beem: The writers are usually better at this, but here is my stab - I know I’ve said this a ton already, but, you should pick up this book because it is just a lot of fun. The book is filled with dialogue I literally laughed out loud at, and the unique characters and world make this a very different kind of fantasy book that will really stick with you.
Nikki and Justin have come up with a truly unique fantasy world in The Family Trade, and I’ve been lucky enough to draw such a cool place like the Float. With a network of magic-spy cats, winding, intricate alley ways, streets lit by magic fish and of course, the Family itself, there is a lot of magic to be felt while reading this book. We’ve all enjoyed the hell out of making it, and I really think that will really come across.
Jordan: The Family Trade is seat of your pants action, derring do, with a kickass lead character, awesome art, and it’s a whole lot of fun. If you like Rat Queens, Monstress, Motorcrush or just plain entertainment, The Family Trade is the book for you.
Nrama: What are some other books/creators you're currently enjoying?
Jordan: Well, anything Tom King writes is pure gold. He’s certainly the best writer of my generation, and if he’s not the best writer in comics currently working, he’s damn close. So, you know, his stuff. Mister Miracle is super rad.
I also really dig Monstress, Black Cloud, and The Few from Image. Honestly, I’m a total mark for Image books, so the comprehensive list would go on for a while. I also really like Mother Panic from DC’s Young Animal.
Beem: There are so many, but one of my favorites right now is Monstress by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda. It’s such an interesting world, and I love how thorough and intense the history of it is so far. Also, I am so into Sana Takeda’s god/monster designs.
Also, Giant Days by John Allison, Lissa Treiman, and Whitney Cogar. I’m not usually super into slice of life, but the combination of the dialogue and Treiman’s amazing facial expressions literally cracks me up.
Nrama: What's next for you?
Jordan: As per the usual, I’ve got a bunch of stuff, thank god. I have a cat to feed. We’re wrapping up Spread for Image, the final arc starting in October. I’ve got Sideways and Brimstone coming out from DC next year. I’ve got another Image book, Death of Love, starting in February, and I’ve got a couple of greenlit but unannounced books in development.
Beem: Well, ideally The Family Trade will keep us busy for a while! I also have a graphic novel in the works with writer Jacob Semahn, which will be coming out from Image probably sometime late next year, or early the next. As well as a couple other cool things that I can’t yet talk about- you know how it goes.