'Capers, Crime, & Heart' in Genderqueer Cyberpunk Thriller MOTH & WHISPER

Moth & Whisper
Credit: Jen Hickman/Marshall Dillon (AfterShock Comics)
Credit: Jen Hickman/Marshall Dillon (AfterShock Comics)

The world's two greatest thieves are missing - and in the question-marked shaped hole their absence leaves a surprising thing: an adult child raised by their thieving parents in their family profession, now looking for answers.

Scheduled to launch September 12, Moth & Whisper is a "YA cyberpunk genderqueer heist thriller" according to writer Ted Anderson. Niki is the genderqueer child of Moth and Whisper, and is taking up their parents' name for new jobs while also looking into their disappearance.

Newsarama spoke with Anderson and artist Jen Hickman about his evocative new series from AfterShock, the world it lives in, and behind the mask of Niki.

Credit: Jen Hickman/Marshall Dillon (AfterShock Comics)

Newsarama: Ted, Jen, how would you describe Moth & Whisper, the series?

Ted Anderson: It's a YA cyberpunk genderqueer heist thriller. That's kind of a mouthful, I know!

Jen Hickman: Moth & Whisper is an action-packed heist/spy story and a character-driven coming-of-age story. It's got capers and crime, and it's got heart.

Anderson: It's a story about Niki, the child of two great thieves, now on their own after their parents disappear. It's a story about identity and self-knowledge, set in a dystopian cyberpunk nightmare. It's a face-swapping heist story, with gadgets and infiltration and gunfights.

Nrama: I'd ask about Moth & Whisper - but I want to know more about Niki.

Hickman: We're meeting Niki at a particularly intense moment in their life- they're extremely well-trained in all things sneaky and steal-y but don't yet have a ton of on-the-ground experience. This is their first real adventure completely on their own, and the stakes for this escapade could not be higher. 

Credit: Jen Hickman/Marshall Dillon (AfterShock Comics)

Anderson: The Moth and the Whisper were legendary thieves, rivals who would work for anyone who paid: politicians, crime lords, corporations. Often they'd be hired by two sides of the same conflict, but the truth is, they were partners, and they'd always work to play both sides off each other. And the result of their secret partnership is Niki: a child raised entirely outside the system, trained from birth to be an invisible thief, incredibly skilled in the arts of infiltration and disguise but having never spent time with kids their own age. Niki is also genderqueer, which means they don't identify as either male or female, use they/them pronouns, and are comfortable in any sort of gender presentation. (Something I want to be specific about: Niki isn't genderqueer because it's a useful disguise tool; they've learned how to turn their gender identity into a disguise tool.)

So Niki is an amazing thief, but hasn't really spent much time in the real world: they can pick locks and disable alarms with their eyes closed, but they don't know a lot about holding a normal conversation and have never gone to school. They're talented, but still somewhat naive; skilled but inexperienced. The world is bigger and more complicated than they know, and they're going to run into bigger obstacles than they expect ... 

Nrama: What has the thought process been like in designing how Niki looks and is presented in comic books?

Hickman: Ted and I talked quite a bit about what our genderqueer protagonist should look like - we both gravitated towards keeping their design simple, and leaning a bit on the concept of androgyny as something that is visually neither masculine nor feminine, rather than a look that includes both masculine and feminine signifiers to lead the reader towards understanding that Niki is genderqueer. 

Credit: Jen Hickman/Marshall Dillon (AfterShock Comics)

If I recall right, my main contribution was giving Niki dyed hair. I was thinking about being a teen, and playing around with presentation and identity, and the light green hair they ended up with felt right for their age and personality.

Niki is also fun, for me, because their character-acting has a really wide range. With most characters, especially most protagonists, there's going to be some hard limits to the kind of body language they'll use, or the kinds of expressions they'll make. But Niki can be anyone. When they are in disguise, they're very good at playing their part and that gives me a near-endless variety of character 'types' to act out. When they're not in disguise, or when they are in disguise but no longer acting, they're a headstrong and somewhat emotional teenager, and that's a kind of character-acting that I find incredibly fun to draw. Plus there's some built-in comedy to someone who looks like a grown adult acting exactly like an angry teen.

Nrama: What is going on with the disappearance of Niki's parents?

Credit: Jen Hickman/Marshall Dillon (AfterShock Comics)

Anderson: We're keeping it vague for this first story, but: they disappeared six months ago, leaving behind a few safehouses, a handful of their assets, a lot of questions - and Niki. Niki doesn't know exactly what happened to them, but they believe that Ambrose Wolfe is responsible.

Nrama: Who is Ambrose Wolfe, and what does he have to do with Moth and Whisper's disappearance?

Anderson: Ambrose Wolfe is the city's most powerful crime lord. He's got fingers in virtually every industry, legal or otherwise, and has vast resources at his disposal. He's also completely ruthless. Niki's parents always said that, if they ever disappeared, he'd be the one responsible - but they also warned Niki to run if that ever happened, rather than confront Wolfe directly. Obviously Niki isn't taking that path, which probably isn't the wisest thing to do ...

Nrama: So why is Niki masquerading as Moth and Whisper?

Hickman: Niki discusses their reasoning in the first issue, but basically, the Moth and the Whisper are the most infamous superthieves the city, and their identities carry a huge amount of clout and will attract attention from all corners of the underworld. Niki has all of their parents' skills, so stepping into their shoes is definitely something they can do successfully.

Credit: Jorge Corona/Marshall Dillon (AfterShock Comics)

Anderson: Niki's parents didn't leave them much: a safehouse, some money, and some of their files. They wanted Niki to flee in the case of their disappearance, but Niki has other ideas. In fact, the biggest asset Niki has going for them right now is the reputations of the Moth and the Whisper. Their names command a lot of respect - but also have a lot of baggage associated with them - and Niki using those names is going to attract attention ...

Nrama: What is this world of Moth & Whisper like?

Anderson: It's straight-up classic cyberpunk, where corporations are more important than governments and technology is a tool of the powerful. Specifically, it's a world where surveillance and identification technologies are omnipresent: everywhere you go, your face will be tagged and tracked, used to analyze and predict your every action. This is particularly dangerous for Niki; because Niki was never entered into any official system, they don't have an identity, and any camera that spots them will bring the police down on their head. Jen and I put a lot of detail into the backgrounds, the objects and places in this world, to give a sense of what living in this future will be like. In particular, keep an eye out for warning signs and public service announcements - we put a lot of thought into how the laws and regulations of this world manifest themselves.

Credit: Jen Hickman/Marshall Dillon (AfterShock Comics)

Hickman: It's not a nice place, I would say. A cyberpunk dystopia. Surveillance is omnipresent, corporations and government have more rights and powers than citizens, and organized crime is running a very healthy operation. I've had a great time implying what the world is like with the visuals- there's some dire signage, background folk often wear breathing masks, and a whole bunch of cameras and drones watching almost every corner of the city.

Nrama: How did you two connect for this series?

Anderson: Jen and I have been friends for a few years - we met through a mutual artist pal, Morgan Beem, at a con. We've worked on a couple small projects and pitches, but we've been searching for something bigger to do.

Hickman: We'd worked together on a couple of other things, and when he pitched me the story concept I was immediately obsessed- this is the kind of story and world that really appeals to me so I was onboard to create the book with him basically from the moment I knew about it.

Credit: Jen Hickman/Marshall Dillon (AfterShock Comics)

Anderson: When I was first coming up with this series, I realized Jen was the absolute perfect collaborator: we're both really into cyberpunk narratives and heist stories, and Jen definitely has the style and range for a thrilling YA sci-fi action series.

Nrama: AfterShock announced this as an ongoing - no small goal, for independent or Big Two books. What are your goals for Moth & Whisper?

Hickman: Ted's got more specific things in mind, but I think that while this first arc does a really good job of introducing us to Niki and their perspective we've got a very big and complex world to explore and future arcs will, ideally, tackle more of the socio-political themes that we've introduced here.

Anderson: This first five-issue series is a complete story in itself - it doesn't answer every question about Niki and their parents, but it's a start! Obviously there's that big central mystery that'll shape Niki's journey, but Jen and I really want to explore broader issues and ideas in this world. This first story is very personal, since it's about Niki's relationship to their parents, but we'd love to do stories about the way technology has shaped this world, or how social issues are manifesting in the future. There's lots of places to go, and I'm really excited to show them to readers!

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