Interview conducted by Nick Couture
Cover Art by Sonny LeFaive
Simon Roy first popped on my radar when I saw his work in Prophet years back. He has a detailed yet noodly style that just stands out from the others. I then devoured most of his work from Jan’s Atomic Heart, The Field, Tiger Lung, and Habitat, to every piece of art he posts online. He’s now spearheading a new book at Image Comics called Protector. Protector is the collective work of Simon Roy, Daniel Bensen, Artyom Trakhanov, Jason Wordie, and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou. Artyom, in particular, seems to be a perfect fit for the sprawling old worlds Simon likes to cook up. Artyom’s previous work in Undertow, The 7 Deadly Sins, and many others, are a master class in comics illustration.
We were lucky to chat with Simon, Artyom, and Daniel about their work on the hot Image Comics series, their time in the industry, and what fuels them creatively.
(Simon) Looking at your body of work, from Prophet, Habitat, and now Protector, I see a lot of old world tribalism mixed with future tech and mechs. Is that something you’ve always been a fan of or something that really solidified while working on a book like Prophet?
I’ve always been drawn to history-rich settings, where the past is in conversation with the present. In high school, something about the recent history of the post-Soviet sphere really spoke to me. That complicated, brutal re-emergence of a past that had been suppressed and ignored by the communist authorities, lighting fires all over the world, drew me in - not to mention the strange, potent historical figures that rose and fell in the 90s throughout these regions. But one thing you find, when you dive into history (especially recent history) is, like all specialized research, the past is endlessly complicated.
Rather than trying, as a foreigner, to try and accurately portray someone else’s history, I’ve always preferred to then take these historical, anthropological themes and explore them in a more flexible, isolated science fiction setting. Prophet was an especially appropriate job to develop some of these themes more, and gave me a lot of room to dig in. Lots of the ideas I couldn’t explore in Prophet, too, went on to inform and inspire my later work.
(Everyone) What other works, whether it be in comics, film, music etc, have inspired your work?
Daniel: Oh! I have a Spotify playlist for Protector! It's got Iron & Wine, The HU, and MIKA.
An author that I know inspired both me and Simon is Jack Vance. Vance's Dying Earth series also seems to have inspired Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, which was probably wriggling around in my mind as I imagined the Earth a thousand years in the future.
Artyom: Lately I've been filling the gaps in my “education”, reading a lot of manga – old stuff, like GUNDAM... And it's a real riot! Also I'm watching tons of 80-s/90-s anime for the same reason. This “Japanese kick” influenced the last couple of Protector issues in a few not-so-subtle ways, and I could only wonder how much my current GUNDAM marathon will influence my future work.
Simon: For Protector, especially, Jack Vance and Hayao Miyazaki were definitely my biggest inspirations. Both are masters at exploring the themes you mentioned in the first question - stories where there is an active conversation between the past and present, between mundane and transcendent technology, and the like.
(Everyone) Do you feel you’re taking most of your inspiration from other comics?
Artyom: I guess usually I'm taking more from movies and books, especially when it comes to my independent works (zines and everything). Sometimes reading a good book about Orthodox eschatology or a very bitter old essay written by midlife-crisis Hayao Miyazaki is a better push and inspiration. And don't get me started about Na Hong-jin's movies!
Simon: Nowadays, I definitely get more inspiration from sci-fi novels, non-fiction, and online biology/paleontology groups than from other comics, usually. Gipi’s “Notes for a War Story” is the book I usually credit with my return to the fold, showing as it did the ability of loose non-super-heroic artwork to tell a powerful tale. But as a teen, I was a huge Transmetropolitan fanatic.
(Simon) After the breakout that Prophet was (at least in the small space that is comics, heck let me know if you don’t view it as a success) did you find it easy to continue in the industry? What led you to patreon and exploring new ways to be an artist vs a monthly comic book artist drawing 22 pages a month?
Well, my experience working on Prophet, where I had lots of room for getting into the writing of my own scenes, and where the workload of making the pages themselves, really soured me on working more standard monthly schedules. Mainly because of the minimal control and the heavy workload - 22 pages a month, when I have had to do it, is not exactly pleasant! Instead of making comics into a more conventional job, I’ve tried to keep all my comics work personal (ie written either by myself or with close collaborators) while moving into more illustration based work to pay the bills. The patreon was the perfect addition to this sort of negotiated compromise - I had a small audience, short self-imposed deadlines, and just enough of a monetary incentive to keep me cooking - while leaving my work-week open for illustration and other paying work.
This system is always changing, though, and I think it’s almost time for an overhaul...
(Artyom) How does Simon, a fellow artist, help you in the process where other writers might lack that skill and insight?
Let's put it this way... Simon did a BUNCH of ghost-layouting for the book, greatly helping me to increase my narrative skills with some scenes which I usually find troubling to break down. And most importantly, having a bunch of old layouts by Simon himself for the opening of Protector helped me to get the feel for the book at the earliest stages (much better than a written script or synopsis possibly could have.)
(Artyom) From your Twitter, I know you’re a fan of Uncut Gems. Can you just speak on that for a minute? Any thoughts on the other films from the Safdie’s (Good Time, Heaven Knows What, etc)? Does a great film ever make you want to run home to the drawing table or does film occupy a totally different part of your brain?
I trade in hot takes, so here's one – GOOD TIME is basically AKIRA! Hehe. But with all seriousness, I think Safdies are exceptionally good storytellers, movie makers and – on top of that all – humanists. Which is probably the most transcendent of their qualities? Their love for every single human being they put in their works is very contagious, 5 minutes of the movie and you're already browsing Yussi's Instagram page. And at the same time, those movies are very angry, very political – which I value a lot.
As I mentioned earlier, films are a huge part of my daily ration and inspiration. I don't necessarily feel like DRAWING after a good movie, but if I want my brain to start working, a movie is what I need to get the cogs turning. I felt ALIVE after watching The Wild Goose Lake, right? Almost levitating over the asphalt.
(Artyom) I absolutely love your style, but how do you respond to people who might want a more traditional style? Do you find certain comic fans strange in that regard?
Aw, thanks! I'm always puzzled when in review my art is called “sketchy” every time a new #1 of my stuff hits the stands, but it's probably just a lack of artistic vocabulary. Other than that, I know that my art is not everyone's cup of tea, and I'm perfectly fine with that. I think there's a certain “entry level” for my stuff, so the people who are HERE are REALLY here for it? I don't get creepy requests for commissions, I don't get weird comments, I don't feel the urge to draw dudes being buff or ladies being sexy to fit the “market”. I probably should be thinking about a wider appeal, but getting more abstract and rough is just more fun!
(Artyom) How labor intensive are your pages?
I certainly do a lot of dancing around and trying to sit myself down for work. My penciling is always sporadic and overall is a big struggle... But then I get to the best part - a few hours of meditative inking, putting my favorite textures and abstract patterns on the paper. I think I found some sort of “zen” for my inking process – now all I need is the same mind state for penciling.
(Artyom) What’s keeping you motivated these days? Has it changed since breaking in?
Waiting for the printed copies of our work to arrive. I get more and more weirdly attached to physical manifestations of my existence, hehe.
(Everyone) Why do you choose to work in the creator owned space?
Artyom: Because here I don't need to draw skyscrapers and motorbikes.
Simon: Almost the same answer, actually. I want to be the boss of what comics I draw!
(Daniel) What’s it like co-writing with Simon? What’s your process like working together?
It's great! We're both interested in some of the same things, but there are other areas that one of us knows and the other doesn't, so our reach gets wider.
Early in the process, Simon made a shared google doc called "Master Script" and just plopped down all the stuff he was thinking onto it. The beginning of the script was very detailed, but then it became vaguer -- "they fight a battle" -- and vaguer: "some kind of ending??"
I took that document and added details where they occurred to me. For the "??" parts, I asked Simon questions about the characters and themes, and suggested lots of different ways things could go. We focused on one scene after another, batting it back and forth until we were satisfied. Then new questions arose as Artyom drew the pictures, and answering them made the script even richer. It was a very painless process, more like watching something grow than building it.
(Daniel) As a novelist, was comics always a goal? Or did that come on later as you explored different ways to tell stories?
I didn't really have a goal with my collaboration with Simon. I just enjoyed talking about story development, and Simon was kind enough to let me sharpen my skills on his work. Then Protector came along and we thought that it would be a good way to test collaboration. It looks like it worked!
And now that I have co-written a comic script, I definitely want to do more. I really like the objective point of view. Compared to novels (where the standard is 1st or close 3rd person point of view) comics are very freeing.
(Daniel) How do you view the book space vs the comic space? Do you see much overlap in that audience?
There is more overlap than I thought, and interestingly, it looks like comics actually have more street cred. When I tell people about the novel I wrote, they're like "yeah, everybody writes novels." But when I tell people I co-wrote a comic for Image, they're like "woah! Is it like Saga??"
Maybe it's just that when someone tells you they're a writer, you start to worry you'll have to spend the next month reading their stupid book. A comic only takes like ten minutes to read, even if you don't like it.
(Daniel) What makes you and Simon compatible as storytellers?
Like I said, we like a lot of the same things, but there's more to it than that. We both do a good job of not identifying too strongly with our own work, so we feel comfortable reaching into that work and changing it. There are things we don't agree about, but we both put the story and its world before ourselves. If we had all the same opinions, our collaboration would be much less interesting.
(Simon) With Habitat and Tiger Lung both being collected in serialized anthology/magazine books with Island and Dark Horse Presents, what drew you to that format?
In all honesty, they seemed to be the only accessible place to get paid to do original work! The anthology is an inherently unstable/unreliable format, though, since it’s very difficult to balance quality control, deadlines, and personal obligations, so it does seem anthologies always run the risk of having an excessively high poop to gold ratio. Not every time, mind you, but it’s a real danger - and a real turnoff for consumers, who often lament getting burned by anthologies overloaded with drek. But despite this, anthologies are still often the best place for artists to get a foothold in the industry! I know I’ve benefited greatly from participating in them.
(Simon) As a huge fan of your story collection Jan’s Atomic Heart, what are your thoughts on it today? How important were short comics in your development?
If not for those short stories, and the good reception they got, I doubt I’d be making comics still! When I was a teen, I had a giant space colonization epic - but the scale and scope of it all was so large, I only ended up drawing the juiciest 3-page sequences. After sporadically working on it for a good year, I ended up with only a handful of disconnected scene fragments, a few splash pages, and a weighty synopsis - but little else. It wasn’t until I shifted towards making smaller, self-contained stories that I was able to actually complete anything.
Short stories are still a key component of my work, too. Over on my patreon, I’ve been making a huge heap of short stories (at this point, over 200 pages worth) with collaborators like Damon Gentry and Jess Pollard, and story-wise, these collaborations are both easier to produce and often end up better quality then what I can do alone. My future may be fully collaborative...
(Simon) Do you feel that lifting up new creators is a vital part of comics today?
Definitely! The paths into comics are varied, though, and despite being a direct market man, generally speaking, I would probably advise new creators to try and get a literary agent (somebody with boots on the ground in Brooklyn, able to go to brunch with the right connections) and try to get into the YA market. We’re still in an awkward period where comics for children and teens continue to thrive, but the big publishers of the direct market seem largely concerned with squeezing the last drops of cash from their slowly dwindling older adult male audience. Those wednesday warriors carry the industry, and the Big 2 ride ‘em hard and put ‘em away wet! If someone could, say, make work that would connect new readers to the traditional direct market (like ongoing superhero series that a kid would be interested in reading, or monthly floppies from scholastic available in the comic shop) maybe more people could actually make a living doing comics!
(Simon) Protector features a fair amount of world building in the back matter of the book, why is that stuff so important to you?
Mainly because as a reader, I dig it! When you look at stuff like Watchmen, or Nowhere Men, the inclusion of in-world advertisements, articles, and the like, go a long way in defining the culture, history, and, well, WORLD that the story lives in. Especially if that extra material is additive, rather than required. It gives the engaged reader more to dive into, but as long as it’s not homework, you’re probably doing it right.
(Simon) Why set Protector in the great lakes region? Does location and geography often inform your stories?
Location and geography definitely inform my stories - or at least, I like to try and make a strong connection between the two. One of the conceits of the “Tiger Lung” stories I worked on (with our Protector colorist, Jason Wordie, back in art school - sharing some writing duties there too!) was that the paleolithic human societies regarded the various over and underworlds of the dead as having concrete physical locations, which informed how they regarded their physical landscape. Similarly, I love the idea of locations being important characters in their own rights, as opposed to just being backdrops for talking heads to blabber over.
But Protector is set in the Great Lakes Region precisely because of the geography. Those giant lakes straddle the border between Canada and the US; they are the descendents of a huge super-lake, borne from the melting of the Ice Age’s glaciers; they were the backdrop to much of the formative histories of both my own nation and that of America. From the fur trade of the 1700s, to the Auto industry of the 1900s… what better location for a great conflict between the past and future of North America?
Protector #1-3 are out now and available at your local comic shop or online via Comixology. Issue 4 is due out July 1st, 2020
You can keep up with Simon, Artyom, and Daniel and their work on social media. @simonroyart @ohotnig @Evil0Dan on Twitter