Exploring How Stories Are Told with Ted Anderson

Orphan Age #1 cover, AfterShock Comics

Something that’s really fun in the world of comics is realizing that several of your favorite comics are being written by the same author. That’s how I felt about Ted Anderson when I realized he was writing not only Moth & Whisper (my favorite charming YA cyberpunk spy story) but also several very enjoyable recent runs of the Adventure Time comics.

With his newest creator-owned book, Orphan Age, fresh off the presses from AfterShock Comics, we were able to catch up with him about his recent projects.

I’m excited about Orphan Age after just issue 1! What kind of story do you have planned?

Orphan Age is, at its heart, a road-trip story. Our protagonists are going to be traveling through a wide variety of towns, meeting all kinds of people, experiencing all sorts of different stories. The setting is part post-apocalyptic, part Western, but the actual structure of the story is more episodic.

I just re-read that last paragraph and boy, that got pretentious. It’s also a series that’s got gunfights and swordfights and chases on horseback and stuff will even occasionally blow up! It’ll be fun, I promise!

It’s a series about societies and communities, at its core. The basic idea of it, that all the adults died and the children have had twenty years to rebuild society, means that every community that our heroes will visit is based upon some kids’ notions of what was important in their parents’ world. And that means it’s really about how our children are taught and raised now: what are they learning, consciously and unconsciously, in a thousand different ways, about how the world works? How are we shaping them? It’s a story about growing up: one day you’re an innocent child without responsibilities, and then one day you’re dumped into a world built by generations before you and expected to participate according to rules you never learned and don’t understand. It’s a scary process, and the worst part is, you don’t know if you’ve done it right until the very end.

I just re-read that last paragraph and boy, that got pretentious. It’s also a series that’s got gunfights and swordfights and chases on horseback and stuff will even occasionally blow up! It’ll be fun, I promise!

One thing Moth & Whisper and Orphan Age have in common is dystopic future settings, but they’re very different futures. Can you talk a little about that?

Moth & Whisper was my attempt at a cyberpunk future, which is to say the present, but dialed up to 11 with all the safeties off. All the most worrying trends of the present are there, amplified, and probably not getting better any time soon. (In fact, a couple of dystopic future elements Jen [Hickman] and I had discussed ended up basically happening in the real world while producing the book. So that was a pleasant experience.) Whatever progressive social strides have been made are still occurring in an atmosphere of extreme repression: the cops may respect your gender pronouns, but they’ll still lock you up for days without trial just for breathing at them. It’s a very depressing future, in a lot of ways; it’s my most pessimistic view of what the future will look like.

Which means, weirdly enough, that I see Orphan Age as much more optimistic. It’s a dystopia in the sense that a lot of knowledge was lost, and billions died, and the most successful societies are generally either small and insular or large and warlike. But it’s also a world with a clean slate, a chance for the next generation to fix all the mistakes of the previous—if they can grasp it. Global warming isn’t an issue. Overpopulation isn’t an issue. All the technology of the old world is still there to be resurrected, but without the worst elements, with the potential to be handled in a more careful way. If the kids can get their act together, they have a chance to build something wonderful in the ashes of the world. I still wouldn’t want to live there, but overall, there’s a lot of hope!

Orphan Age #1 cover, AfterShock Comics

You have been working on an interesting combination of original stories, as well as popular existing properties like Adventure Time. What is that like for you?

Enormously fun! I love both kinds of work for very different reasons: licensed work means I don’t have to worry about explaining the world or establishing characters’ backstories and can get right to the meat of the story, while my creator-owned books give me far more freedom to build exactly what I want. I love being able to switch between the two kinds of stories; it’s like working a different set of muscles. And when I get sick of writing a depressing post-apocalyptic land of guns and scavengers or a cyberpunk dystopia, I can switch to writing stories about friendship and adventure in the magical land of Equestria or Ooo, or vice versa.

Who’s your favorite Adventure Time character?

This is a really tough question, because literally every character in that world could be the protagonist of their own stories—they’re all so richly textured and distinctly weird. I like Princess Bubblegum for her surprising depth and growth, but I also love BMO’s childlike spirit of exploration and adventure, but I also love Finn’s goofy determination … they’re all so good! I might have to give the edge to Susan Strong, just because I really liked her character arc, but again, they’re all great. If you ask me on a different day, I’ll probably say someone else. I will say that Jake was my favorite character to write, just because he’s always coming up with goofy euphemisms and strange phrases. His voice is so distinct! Every time I wrote a line of dialogue for Jake, I tried to imagine his voice actor, John DiMaggio, saying it, just to check if it sounded right for him.

As a nonbinary person myself, it means a lot to me to see genderqueer characters in comics. Niki (Moth & Whisper) is the obvious example, but I also really liked seeing the other Adventure Time characters using they/them pronouns for BMO! When I spoke with your co-creator Jen Hickman, they spoke very positively about the thought and care you put into writing Niki. How do you approach that, when you’re writing for a character who you know is going to mean something to people?

The short answer is: research. I’m a straight white cisgender guy, but in a lot of my friend groups, I’m the only straight white cisgender guy. I want to try and create characters that reflect the lives and backgrounds of my friends, because there’s definitely been more than enough characters with my backgrounds. But what I’ve also learned is that it’s not enough to simply slap on a character trait like it’s a bumper sticker; if I’m going to write a realistic character with a specific background, then that background needs to be a part of that character from the beginning, shaping what kind of story they’re living and how they react to it. And that means doing my research: reading up on people with that background, talking to those people, getting their reactions to my work, preferably getting sensitivity reads, and so forth. The good news is, I’m a librarian and a nerd, so I really like doing research!

The good news is, I’m a librarian and a nerd, so I really like doing research!

With Niki, I knew that I wanted them to be nonbinary, but I wanted to approach them carefully: often, a story with a character in a marginalized group ends up being a story about that group, usually written for those outside the group. It ends up being a story about the trait, rather than a character with that trait. So I wanted to make sure that Niki’s gender identity was essential to them, a major part of their identity, but that it wasn’t the defining element of the story. It’s especially important because right now these types of characters are still rare: people who are trans or non-binary don’t get a lot of stories to begin with, and even in the ones they get, those characters are more often victims, or the story is solely about their gender identity and how it affects their whole life. I wanted to make sure that Niki’s story could stand on its own: a coming-of-age spy heist thriller, rather than just “a genderqueer story.”

And I also have to accept that sometimes I’m going to get things wrong! With Moth & Whisper, I may have erred on the side of caution: I didn’t want Niki’s gender identity to overwhelm the story, but instead it may not show enough of Niki’s unique experiences. And all I can do is learn from that, moving forward. If Jen and I get to tell more stories with Niki (which may happen!), I think we’ll try and delve deeper into what being genderqueer means to Niki, and how they found that identity in the first place, because it’s definitely important to them.

Moth & Whisper Vol. 1, AfterShock Comics

What influences did you draw from for the spy aesthetic of Moth & Whisper? What about the western aesthetic of Orphan Age?

Moth & Whisper draws a lot on video games, actually. It turns out that Jen and I play a lot of the same games, and they ended up influencing both the story and the look of the book. Dishonored is a series we both really love, and Niki’s design as a masked thief with cool abilities owes a lot to those games. Deus Ex and Prey had a lot of design elements and ideas about technology that inspired us—there’s at least one Prey easter egg in the book, actually, which I know Jen has posted about. There’s some superhero in Niki’s DNA, too: Batman Beyond had a definite influence on what kind of skills and gadgets Niki has, and Sophie Campbell’s excellent series Shadoweyes also shaped Niki and their environment. And I have a lot of fondness for the not-very-good Val Kilmer film The Saint, circa 1997, about a master thief who constantly disguises himself and adopts new personas. Probably because I saw it when I was 12 years old and was not very discerning in my tastes.

As for Orphan Age, westerns were obviously a big part of the design process—classics like Stagecoach, Shane, Red River, and spaghetti westerns like the Dollars trilogy, and even newer stuff like Tombstone, Unforgiven, or the more recent True Grit. But that part of the aesthetic research came later; initially I was much more familiar with post-apocalyptic stories. I looked more at the realistic, limited apocalypses, instead of the more fantastic ones—The Postman or I Am Legend as opposed to, say, Mad Max—because I wanted the old world to be recognizable under the overgrowth. (That’s not to say The Postman is a better movie than any of the Mad Maxes, because it definitely isn’t, just that its vision of the post-apocalypse was closer to what I wanted. Seriously, don’t watch The Postman.) I also dug into nonfiction about the decay of human structures, in particular Alan Weisman’s excellent The World Without Us. And I also read a fair bit about survival practices, pre-industrial living, sustainable farming—the Foxfire magazine collections were actually really interesting in that regard. I was considering reading up on doomsday preppers—the kind of people who build their houses into fortified bunkers and buy giant drums of freeze-dried beef stew—but for a variety of reasons, that wasn’t a direction I wanted to go in. Maybe in a later story?

Also, I have to give credit to one of my very favorite works that combines the Western and the post-apocalyptic: the game Fallout: New Vegas. I’ve played it through four or five times and I still fire it up every time I want to relax in a nuclear wasteland.

Also, I have to give credit to one of my very favorite works that combines the Western and the post-apocalyptic: the game Fallout: New Vegas. I’ve played it through four or five times and I still fire it up every time I want to relax in a nuclear wasteland. In a weird way, that game is actually the opposite of what I’m trying to do with Orphan Age: it’s a post-apocalyptic setting with a Western veneer, whereas I’m trying to make my book feel like a Western with a post-apocalyptic wrapper. But they’re very close in spirit.

It’s so critical to hook people into your story from the very beginning and both Moth & Whisper and Orphan Age do a great job of being intriguing and mysterious right off the bat. What goes into writing a compelling issue 1?

A piece of advice that I heard from … actually, I don’t remember where: in an issue of comics, you have three pages to hook the reader. Within those three pages, you have to show whatever about your book is unique, whether it’s the setting, or the protagonist, or the story, or whatever. I think it’s partly because creator-owned, issue-based comics rely a lot on novelty; there’s so many series out there playing with all sorts of genre conventions, and you have to give your reader an idea of what you’re doing as quickly as possible. You can subvert expectations one way or another once they’re hooked, but you have to grab them first, and if you can’t do it in those first three pages, you’ve lost your reader.

Beyond the hook, I want to show readers a slice of what they can expect in the story as a whole, like showing the book in miniature: what kinds of actions will happen in the book? what types of characters? what sorts of scenes are going to show up? In that first issue of Moth & Whisper, we’ve got thefts and heists (some of which go wrong), Niki disguising themself, bits of Niki’s parents’ backstory and their legend, and Niki being skilled but not quite mature yet. All of those elements play out in the story as a whole.

Similarly, in the first issue of Orphan Age, there’s a community we’ve never seen before, characters discussing their trauma, the threat of the villainous New Church, some gunplay, and our three main characters showing bits of their personalities. The first issue is like a sample platter of what readers will get in the whole series.

It’s a lot to try and cram in! Which is partly the reason why both of those series have longer-than-average first issues: they’re supposed to be around 20 pages, but the first issue of Moth & Whisper was 25, and the first of Orphan Age is 27! That’s way too long. If anyone out there is writing comics, please: don’t be like me. Treat your artists well and don’t dump seven extra pages on them. Or at least send them some nice alcohol if you do.

Who are some of your biggest comics inspirations?

I grew up watching the animated X-Men series, because that was the nerd show of choice in the early ’90s, but I didn’t really get into comics until high school, when the British Invasion had already conquered my library’s shelves: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Warren Ellis, etc. Those writers definitely shaped my tastes in comics, and even if I’ve moved on to other works, I still have a taste for dense plots, long arcs, the really literary stuff they brought into the medium. But recently I’ve really been getting into middle-grade and YA comics, which I’ve been appreciating for their focus on the craft of storytelling, the moment-to-moment choices that keep the flow going. Creators like Raina Telgemeier, Svetlana Chmakova, Victoria Jamieson—they’re all doing such amazing work, and I’m blown away every time I read one of their books. I love a really deep, thought-provoking story, but these days I’m more interested in how the story is told. There’s always more to learn about the craft.

Do you have any advice for newer authors who are interested in getting into comics?

Sort of related to the previous answer: don’t worry so much about the enormous world you’re building, or the dense allegory, or the complex web of symbols and references you’ve created; worry about what the reader sees. You might have the most amazing and complex mythology since Tolkien, but it doesn’t matter if the reader can’t get into it. Not that worldbuilding isn’t important, because it is, but you’ve always got to keep in mind what your audience is actually experiencing in the moment. Maybe you’ve built the most beautiful castle in the world, but nobody’s going to care if they can’t get through the front door.

… don’t worry so much about the enormous world you’re building, or the dense allegory, or the complex web of symbols and references you’ve created; worry about what the reader sees.

I guess that advice is applicable to a lot of different media, so here’s something specific to comics: don’t forget that you have two forms of information on the page. You can give information through dialogue and text, or you can show it visually, or you can even do both simultaneously. A character can tell us how they’re feeling, or they can show us, and which way is best depends on the moment. I think a lot of writers who come from another media forget that you can do just as much with images as with text. It’s tempting to fill up every panel with dialogue to explain everyone’s plans and motivations, but a single wordless panel can tell the reader so much more. (That old cliche about a picture being worth a thousand words is pretty true, as it turns out.)

Any shout-outs you’d like to give?

I want to give a shout-out to all my librarian friends for everything they do! Libraries are starting to realize that people of all ages want comics, and I know a lot of very cool librarians at schools and public libraries who are working their butts off to fulfill that need. They’re buying comics for their libraries, doing comic workshops and programs, inviting creators to speak, and overall doing amazing work to promote comics. Check out your local library and support the work they do, because chances are they’re putting comics in the hands of readers of all ages.

In Ted’s words, “Turns out, if people buy a lot of my books, they let me make more books. That’s capitalism for you.” Orphan Age #1 debuted from AfterShock Comics on April 10th. Moth & Whisper Vol. 1, also from AfterShock Comics and containing issues #1-5, hit shelves on April 16th. Unfortunately, Adventure Time Season 11, from BOOM! Studios, was recently cancelled, but a trade paperback of the first 6 issues is due out in the fall.

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.