In the far, far future, North America as been torn asunder and a new civilization, the Hudsoni, now populate the land, but war is brewing and young Mari might have found a weapon to help her people. But is the weapon the actual key to freedom, or is it something much more sinister? Is it the protector Mari thinks it is?
Co-writers Simon Roy (Prophet) and comics newcomer Daniel M. Bensen along with artist Artyom Trakhanov, letterer Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou, and colorist Jason Wordie ask these questions in Protector, out this week from Image Comics.
Newsarama chatted up Roy and Bensen as we get to the core of who the “protector” title is referring to, and what this fantastical and apocalyptic new world is like.
Newsarama: Simon, Daniel, so Protector takes place in the far future of North America. How did things get to where they are, or is that not really important to the story?
Simon Roy: Well, to be sure, this is not a story about an apocalypse. In some ways, the future of Protector is a worst-case scenario. The planet is much hotter, and what we think of as civilization has been dead for countless centuries. Whether this civilizational death happened rapidly, or over a long period of time, is not knowledge accessible to the people of this world. Nor, for that matter, to the reader!
Daniel M. Bensen: Honestly, if this had been a story about the apocalypse, I wouldn't have been able to work on it. For mental health reasons, I can't read about the end of our world. So, as Simon says, Protector is about something else. I think that what it's about is the straws that people grasp at as they scramble toward something better. Occasionally, they find it.
But if you just want to ignore the philosophizing and have fun speculating about the world-building, I advise you to take a look at the end material of #1. "Anthropocene Thermal Maximum"? "Unknown Biome"? "Godlike beings"? What's all that about? Hmmm.
Nrama: What can you tell us about the Hudsoni tribe and their relationship to the Devas?
Roy: The Hudsoni are the southern branch of a larger ethno-cultural group - specifically, climate refugees from throughout East Asia and Siberia that settled the much-warmer islands of the Canadian Arctic, centuries before the events of Protector. They are sea-going raiders, slavers, and fishermen, quick to adapt to changing circumstances and exploit new opportunities.
The Devas, who are god-like extraterrestrial beings, busy rebuilding the ruined biomes of Earth, are really just one such opportunity.
As part of their large-scale ecological repairs, the Devas dammed a large portion of Hudson's Bay, and built canals to take the water from this bay into the arid desert that once was the United States. As soon as they discovered them, the Hudsoni quickly followed these canals into territory that was previously inaccessible to them, and brought their favourite pastimes of war and enslavement along.
But despite being, for the most part, distant and unknowable, the Devas still hold some value for human life. Their approach to mankind is like that of a benevolent but dispassionate parks warden, on a game reserve. They will try to warn humans away from danger, but if drastic measures need to be taken - for example, if a slave digs up an ancient canister of weaponized smallpox and pops it open- the devas will not hesitate to decisively intervene.
Nrama: What were some of the biggest influences for the design and aesthetics, especially for things like the city of Shikka-Go?
Roy: Our influences came from a lot of disparate sources. The experimental body armor of World War I and II, for instance, informs some of the designs of the armor of both Yanqui and Hudsoni. But lots of traditional, medieval, european and asian clothing design elements are in there too.
Shikka-Go itself is very much inspired by the pyramids of Mesoamerica, and the cities that were built around them. Specifically, I imagined that the pyramids of Shikka-Go would have been built from the rubble of the ancient cities that they were built upon. For the newly arid southern shores of the Great Lakes, though, we also looked at traditional desert dwellings from the American southwest and Mexico, which, as the Yanqui are a culture derived from populations throughout the former USA and Mexico, felt appropriate!
Nrama: Would you say First Knife is the antagonist here?
Bensen: Yes. And so is Mari. So is the cyborg.
When Simon and I were hammering out the story, I was reading a lot of books about writing, such as Story Genius, Write from the Middle, and Save the Cat. One of their common elements was the formula of Protagonist, Antagonist, and Relationship Character. When we got stuck, I would use that formula to generate questions to get us unstuck: what does First Knife want? Who's stopping him from getting it? What inner transformation does he need to undergo before he achieves his outer goal?
So you see I was assuming that First Knife was the protagonist. I mean, right? Because he has to deal with this horrible cannibal cyborg and win this slave girl over to his side. But Simon was like "wait, this guy's a slaver! He's the BAD GUY!" For Simon, Mari was the protagonist, who needed the cyborg's help to defeat the evil Hudsoni war chief. But then again, isn't the cyborg just trying to find his way home? He has to protect some pitiful humans as he fights the real bad guys: those damned Devas!
The Protagonist-Antagonist-Relationship Character triangle is still there, but it's an equilateral. You can turn it around and around again, lock it into new positions against the triangles formed by all the other characters who also think this story is about them. To mis-quote Terry Pratchett, there are no good guys or bad guys, only bad guys on different sides.
Nrama: So I guess I have to ask who is the "Protector" title referring to?
Bensen: Right? We've got Mari protecting her people, but First Knife's also protecting his people, and the cyborg has all of human civilization on his shoulders. And then of course there's the Devas, who are protecting the natural world. When all these groups come into conflict, what actually gets protected? I can't answer that question without spoiling the story, but I think you'll enjoy watching the fireworks.
Nrama: Daniel, coming from prose and Simon you having been published before, what was the collaboration process like? Was there a learning curve for you?
Bensen: Simon was definitely my senior for this project, because while he already had Prophet and Tiger Lung and Habitat and a whole lot of other things under his belt, I was some dope with a web page back when we started writing Protector. So I was perfectly content to contribute what I could in order to get Protector into the world. Mostly that was asking questions like "what does First Knife want?" and "what choice did Mari make right before the inciting incident?" and doing some occasional heavy lifting along the lines of turning "they attack the city" into an actual script.
The process was much easier than writing solo. It was amazing to watch this thing grow and deepen as it bounced between us. When I read the completed comic, I discovered things I hadn't known were there before!
My learning curve has mostly been how to stay in my lane. I'm good at clicking together the skeleton of a story, but with Protector, Simon held the heart and Artyom the muscle. I suggested a whole bunch of different endings, but they only helped Simon because they showed him what he didn't want to do. I learned that every time Artyom and I disagreed about human expressions and body language, Artyom was right. And now that the whole process is wrapping up, I'm learning that when I write for comics, I need to include more dialogue. In a novel, it's all just words, but apparently in comics there are these visual representations of objects as well? In color, too. Wild.
Nrama: What was it about Artyom's style that felt like a perfect fit for Protector's world?
Bensen: Honestly, when I first heard Artyom was getting involved with Protector, I thought "yes, this is an efficient decision. Without another artist, Simon probably won't have the time or energy to get this project off the ground." Then it turned out I was way more right than I expected! Artyom didn't save energy for the project - he blasted energy through it from one end to the other! Artyom gave Protector this ferocious, wicked vitality that it wouldn't have had if the art was pure Simon. I mean, those lines! Those swaths of black shadow! Those juicy lumps and folds! People look at Artyom's art and then they buy the damn comic.
Nrama: How much story do you have planned out?
Roy: Our first five-issue arc is set in stone (for obvious reasons) but Dan and I are in the early-ish stages of cooking up the second arc now.
Nrama: With Image putting out so many titles, what is it about Protector that you think readers would be drawn to the most?
Roy: That's a big question - and a tough one!
I've always been a sucker for writers like Jack Vance, who spends a lot of time constructing adventurous, pseudo-medieval fantasy on top of partially-hidden science-fiction ruins. In Protector, we've built something very similar - a rich, layered world, centered around a struggle over power, leadership, and godhood. The combination of "sword and sandal" action, sci-fi beings clad in the names of ancient gods, and religious symbolism galore sets us apart from most other sci-fi comics on the shelves right now.