Jen Hickman Talks About the Cyberpunk World of Moth & Whisper

Moth & Whisper is one of the newest titles that will be coming out soon from AfterShock comics and is a tale of crime, intrigue, glamorous thieves, and a genderqueer protagonist that has to take up the family business(es) if they want to save their family. We had a chance to talk with artist Jen Hickman about the book, their processes and inspiration while working on it, and what we can expect in the future!

How did you get involved with Moth & Whisper?

Ted Anderson and I have been friends and co-conspirators for a while now. He mentioned a couple of creator-owned comics that he was working on, and when this one got greenlit at AfterShock, I jumped at the chance to be a part of it. He’s fantastic to work with, and this specific story is really in my wheelhouse: cyberpunk, espionage and character-driven drama.

What particular influences did you bring to this project, both from your personal artistic background and elsewhere?

When I’m drawing comics, I like thinking about the environment as a character in the story, and I like to think about what story that environment tells. I think this is absolutely vital to immersing readers in the cyberpunk, dystopian world of Moth & Whisper. I want to make it feel fully-formed and real. Giving the environment that kind of spotlight and creative energy is something that I only started doing after I started playing immersive-sim video games a few years back. It’s something I enjoy and also an area I can always improve in.

The art for Moth & Whisper has a very distinctive “spy” aesthetic. I particularly love the oranges and blues that you associated with the two characters and the stylized logos for their respective calling cards! What was your process like for creating that aesthetic?

So, for the heavily-stylized Moth & Whisper backstory pages I started out thinking about the ‘shadow girls’ in Revolutionary Girl Utena, and then I did some research into papercutting and specifically Lottie Reinger’s work. I wanted it to feel a bit like a fairy tale, but, like, a really swanky one.

I was also thinking a little bit about the James Bond intro sequences—I wanted Niki’s parents to come across as larger-than-life and impossibly cool. As far as the color-schemes went, it was just a bit of superficial color theory. The Moth is the social infiltrator, manipulating emotions and social connections to take what she wants, so a warm orangey-red made sense for her. And the Whisper is the silent, invisible burglar. So blue tones for him!

As a reader, it means a lot to me to see a book with a genderqueer main character. What does that mean to you as a creator?

I’m so excited about it! This story has a lot of elements that, as a teen, I would have responded to very strongly. Presentation politics are something I’ve been thinking about basically since the moment I realized they existed. And Niki wears many faces, sliding between genders in their disguises easily.

I don’t know how universal this is, because ‘genderqueer’ means different things to different people and no one’s life story is The Nonbinary Default, but as a teen I would mess with my own gender presentation constantly and pay incredibly close attention to how I was treated based on that. Niki’s constantly doing the same, but with a very calculated sneak-thief goal in mind. They’re manipulating social gender as much as they are hiding their identity. And that’s just really cool, to me.

There’s also some thematic synergy—Niki as a character exists outside the social system, and many genderqueer people feel outside the system as well. There’s a freedom and power in that, but it can also feel isolating. I think we see that in Niki, and I think the two aspects of Niki’s ‘outsider’ identity build on each other really well.

I also want to give Ted a ton of credit here; he wrote a character that, I feel, is compelling and embodies a genderqueer identity in a very wonderful and kind way. I am always going to cheerlead for more stories told by genderqueer creators, of course, but there is also value (and a great deal of hope) in knowing that people who do not share your identity have the empathy to see things from your point of view, to write characters that are different from themselves, and do it well. And, also, it’s a bit blurry because if there’s ever something that I see in the script that feels off, we’re going to have a conversation about it. We’re collaborators, and we both want to knock it out of the park.

Niki is depicted in several different disguises over the course of the book. How did you decide what their disguises should look like in different scenes?

That was so much fun! A part of it was just making sure that a change from one disguise to the next was visually dramatic, so the specifics of one disguise would influence the next. If one disguise was old, the next should probably be young. Upper class to lower class. That sort of thing.

Another part of it was trying to figure out what Niki would think a given interaction needed. The first time we ‘meet’ Niki they’re an innocuous woman in a red jacket—someone who wouldn’t get a second glance in an art gallery. Then in the next moment, they’ve disguised themself as a beggar, specifically because they are aware that people don’t pay attention to the homeless and this person could not possibly go into the art gallery without being stopped.

For the disguise tech, Weaver, to ‘make sense’ there are some constraints that I always think about. Niki can be taller, but not shorter. Bigger, but not smaller. But there’s a ton to work with, given those constraints. And a lot of what I’m thinking about isn’t the visuals near so much as it is Niki’s body language.

I pushed myself to make sure that when they’re interacting with someone, their body language keeps pretty close to the disguise they’re wearing. I wanted to subtly tell the reader that Niki is a very skilled actor. I think issue two actually has the clearest example of that—I’m excited for people to read it.

Can you tell us a little bit more about setting and the cyberpunk world you’re creating?

The central ‘theme’ of the world can best be summed up by the idea of identity as commodity. It’s definitely a dystopia: corporations have unchecked amounts of power, they and the government have the city covered in basically constant surveillance, and everyone in the city has their face tagged and tracked.

Organized crime has a huge presence in the city. There are massive environmental problems that have driven large numbers of refugees into the city, and there are humanitarian abuses resulting from that. We’ve tried to give a lot of visual information to tell the reader about the world: little hints at the unpleasant realities and larger socio-political movements that have created the harsh rules in the city, rather than have Niki just sit down and explain everything to the reader. And, for a lot of it, this is Niki’s normal. Niki’s face isn’t in the system, so they do view the constant monitoring as an antagonistic force that they have to combat, but it’s also the only world they’ve known.

As Moth & Whisper continues, what about the project excites you the most?

As much fun as it has been drawing all of Niki’s disguises and altering their character-acting to fit, my absolute favorite thing is when they’re just Niki. It’s a bit of a slow build, because the story follows Niki’s escapades out in the city where they need to hide in order to survive. But I’m very excited for them to come into their own.

There’s also a couple of interpersonal relationships that I’m incredibly excited to watch develop. Niki starts the story completely alone, searching for their missing parents. But that changes, and the people that they end up forming alliances with are already very dear to me. I don’t want to be vague, but I do feel like it’s better to just come along for the ride and meet them yourself.

Moth & Whisper #1 will be available from AfterShock Comics on September 12, 2018.

Jameson Hampton

Jameson Hampton

Jamey is a non-binary adventurer from Buffalo, NY who wishes they were immortal so they’d have time to visit every coffee shop in the world. They write code, like plants, record podcasts, categorize zines and read tarot cards. Ask them about Star Wars or Vampire: the Masquerade if you dare.