Dungeons & Daggers: A Conversation with Sean E. Williams and Adam P. Knave

You may know Adam P. Knave from his work as one of the editors of the "Popgun" anthology, or from his novels like "Stays Crunchy in Milk" or "Strange Angel," or from his role as co-host of "The Glory the Glory" podcast, or from comics like "Amelia Cole" or "Action Cats." He's a busy guy. He's also the co-writer of "Artful Daggers" from Monkeybrain. We'll get to that in a minute.

You probably don't know Sean E. Williams from his "Wars: The Battle of Phobos" novels or from his appearance at Fabletown and Beyond a couple of weeks ago but you will know him soon enough because he's writing the next arc of "Fairest" for Vertigo Comics, launching this May. He's the other co-writer of "Artful Daggers" from Monkeybrain.

We talk about "Artful Daggers" a lot in this conversation.

"Artful Daggers," which just saw its second issue appear on Comixology last week, is part unofficial sequel to Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," part medieval fantasy espionage thriller, and all juiced up with the stuff Knave and Williams love to write about. It's a good comic. And they are both good guys, well worth talking to. So here we go, with the first ever Callahan/Knave/Williams roundtable, with a whole lot of "Artful Daggers," a little D&D, and plenty of enthusiasm.

Tim Callahan: We should probably start with "Artful Daggers," but that shouldn't be the only thing we talk about. Between the three of us, we're sure to have opinions about comics, and movies, and novels, and games and, well, the majesty of life itself. So don't hold back just because this is an "interview" about a comic book series. It can be so much more than that. If "The Comics Journal" can fill 180 pages of its new issue with a listserv transcript featuring old guys debating children's comics, then I'm sure we can spend a few thousand words wasting everyone's time on some really important issues.

So let's begin with the most pressing matter: "Artful Daggers" is a series that takes place after Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" but the title of the comic is a play on a character name from a Charles Dickens novel. How dare you, sirs! Twain and Dickens, smashed together in one comic book series? You've gone too far already.

Sean E. Williams:A good title is a good title, so I didn't have any problem borrowing from two of the greatest authors of all time.

Adam P. Knave: It's sort of an accidental League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, except it contains two people, who aren't in the book and have nothing to...you know what - sometimes names happen. And they're right. And think of how pissed off Twain would be that we worked on something spiritually a sequel to his work but named it closer to something of Dickens. I think if he's gonna haunt us it'll be for that, not the book itself.

Williams:Exactly! I expect to have his ghost show up any minute. The main thing with the title was that we wanted to hint at the content as well. We're going to let you behind the curtain, a little bit here: first, by playing with the Dickens character's name, we immediately show that it's a period piece, and potentially literary in nature (since it's referencing literature) and that whoever is wielding the daggers does a good job of it. It's a one-two-three punch. Or we might just be overthinking it. Haha! In reality, we were just playing around with ideas for titles, and got on the road to "Artful Daggers" and eventually got there. And by "eventually," I mean "about an hour after we had the idea for the comic." That'll totally be the title to the prequel to AD, by the way: "The Road to Artful Daggers."

Knave: "Before Artful," it'll be a mini-series where everyone is really clumsy. And only have butter knives. I dig it. Let's write this.

Timothy Callahan: Twenty-five years from now, Monkeybrain is going to be really sorry they didn't hold the "Artful Daggers" rights captive so they could make tens of dollars off this genius prequel idea. Monkeybrain regret is the worst kind of regret.

Knave: It's a dangerous idea to cause Monkeybrain regret. Dangerous, I tell you.

Timothy Callahan: Before we lament too much (or come up with too many brilliant ideas years ahead of their time), let's spend talk about the guts of this "Artful Daggers" comic. As I mentioned, it takes place after the famous Connecticut Yankee visited the famous Court of the famous King Arthur, but it doesn't take place immediately after. It takes place decades later, in a society that's not recognizable as what anyone might think of as "Arthurian." This isn't a fancy-pants Camelot with pastoral magic and knights in shining armor. It's grittier and more urban than any Arthur-related story I've ever read. So what's the deal with that? Assuming you started with the idea of setting this story in the post-Twain fictional world (and maybe you didn't start with that idea), how did you decide on how much time should have passed and what "rules" did you build into this variation on the setting you created? Is the Arthurian history an essential part of the backstory or is it part of the flavor a world that has progressed beyond it?

Knave: We moved around how far after the book the comic would take place while initially figuring everything out. I think at one point it was 100 years? But we didn't want it to far out that everything would be kooky/crazy, rather a nice 50 years made the most sense. Far enough away that people would treat the Arthurian stuff like legend, but close enough that some people were still alive from the actual time.

It let us play with the technology, and there were a ton of discussions to trace tech from where Twain brought it in to where we wanted it to be - we had to justify everything to ourselves if no one else. We ended up at a point we could do a spy/assassin book, still have immense fun with the setting and be able to pull out some surprises.

Growing up, I at least, loved Arthurian legend. I mean I liked Sword and the Stone so much I went back and read Le Morte d'Arthur. Now by modern standards that is a fairly unreadable book. It was just the style. There are whole long sections just recounting various variations on "And then X did dismount Y and Y was unhorsed by Z." It's dry.

Anyway! Arthurian legend is an awesome thing. This, mind you, is not that. This is, at most, Arthurian legend the way Twain used it. No magic. Just a thing that happened and, 50 years later, is becoming exactly that, a legend. The world keeps turning, and in a world with advanced technology throwing off the whole social evolution of England, it can get pretty dark pretty quick.

Williams: The big thing with having the book set fifty years later, instead of a hundred, was that we're dealing with our fantasy equivalent of early 1920s technology and science. If we'd gone a hundred years, it'd have meant 1970s tech at the latest, which was far more advanced than we wanted to go. We didn't want computers showing up in our world, even big castle-sized ones.

To be fair, though, Twain did an amazing job of breaking down the Arthurian pastorals himself. We just kind of took it from there and ran with it.

Knave: Oh, also as far as rules go - we just tried to work out what made logical sense technologically and socially over the course of 50 years. What could they replicate, what would they evolve and how. I'm pretty sure we won't get a PhD for our work, but neither would we turn it down. (PS - Columbia - call us, you know you want to)

Timothy Callahan: Where did the spy/assassin stuff come from? If I poll the people in my neighborhood -- let's pause while I do that -- yup, not one door I knocked on was answered by a person who said, "I bet a comic set up in a world based on A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is actually about some high-tech medieval assassins." Nothing about Mark Twain's implies that spies and assassins are the next logical step. Well, besides "Tom Sawyer, Detective," which connects to the James Robinson/Stephen Norrington "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," but I assume we have all made a silent pact never to speak of that movie.

Williams: A big part of it came from the original premise, which was for Adam and me to do "a dark medieval fantasy spy series" together. The "Connecticut Yankee" part came from that, instead of the other way around.

We were able to tie it in even better after re-reading "Connecticut Yankee," and realizing how much emphasis Twain put on corporations in the book. The question of "who is Arden spying for and/or on?" was immediately answered.

Knave: There's something so cool about spy stories. I'm a big fan of the old Bond novels. The movies are good, too, but the old novels where Bond is an assassin, and just this broken guy who kills people for a living and sees no issue with it, those stories make me smile. And that makes me sound like a deranged guy, but I'm fine with that.

Really though, spy stories are just fun. The sneaking about in shadows, the smooth killing, the constant guessing of who actually knows what and how will they use it against everyone else - it's all great material to play with.

I was thinking about working with Sean, we'd met about a year before and kept a friendship up via email and twitter, and I really liked the way he wrote and thought about story and I found I really wanted to create with him (lucky for me he thought the same, I honestly thought he would just fly to NY and hit me with a sack of oranges for daring to assume he would deign to work with me). And spies! Spies are cool. But why do the same modern spy story everyone else does, maybe it could be set in medieval times, that could prove to be something big and fun. Lots of set pieces and period stuff to work in. So I made a joke about it and Sean thought we should really do it and then he had this flash of genius and tossed in "Connecticut Yankee" and suddenly everything just made sense. To us, at least. Just clear perfect, wonderful sense.

Timothy Callahan: When I read the first issue of "Artful Daggers," I definitely got the sense of the secrecy and the intrigue, but I also got a strong sense of place, even if everything isn't explained quite yet. You throw us into the world, and though you give us some touchstones -- like the Twain connection -- there are some other familiar elements to the story that, in my mind, tie it into the whole culture of world-building and fantasy role-playing and, in general, just a whole bunch of stuff that I just tend to really enjoy.

So let's talk about that side of things: role-playing games and their influence on your writing. What's your background in playing or running role-playing games and what's the connection between that kind of world-building and exploration and what you're doing in "Artful Daggers" and maybe even some of the other things you're working on?

Knave: When I was in High School a friend said he had this thing I would like. He showed me an old Player's Handbook for D&D and we tried to play a quick game so I could get a feel. But it was just the two of us. That didn't go so well at all. In college I fell into a bunch of people who loved RPGs and played a lot of Paranoia and Palladium's superhero system. Over the years I tried to keep up playing RPGs, mostly that Palladium stuff, and a few friends and I had two alternating games. One of them was run by me.

I took this seriously. I had a binder. Even the one use thugs had names. I took it, frankly, way too seriously. But most of us in the games were also writers so we spent really long sessions in my apartment just telling stories together. It was a great time. I even got us into deciding on a theme song for each session (the DM would decide) and we would create playlists for the games. Music and writing, man, they're so intertwined for me.

About six or seven years ago though I started really pushing my writing and so I stopped playing RPGs. They use the same muscle for me I needed to choose. Running, or even playing in a great game, takes up the same brainpower I can use to write a novel. So I chose writing over RPGs. I still have a bunch of my source books though - because you never know, and I do miss it. It is a fantastic way to learn about world building and storytelling and, for comics especially, a great thing to get used to collaboration if you aren't naturally inclined to it.

Also I love pretty dice. I do. They're pretty. Also dice.

Williams: Funny you should ask, because the first substantial writing I did was for a "Star Trek" online RPG in high school. We'd write stories and email them back and forth, and the biggest headache was that if someone emailed their story before you finished yours, theirs was the one that everyone rolled with. And of course, this was back in the dial-up days, so if you lost a connection mid-email, you had to rewrite the whole thing. So I learned to type quickly, and how to tell a story and play with other people in a collective (and pre-existing) universe, all at the same time.

Timothy Callahan: And now you actually play Dungeons & Dragons with Bill Willingham, right? That is probably better than dial-up play-by-email Star Trek games in every possible way.

Williams: I think Bill puts as much work into his world-building for D&D as he does for his prose and comics stories, so yeah, it's pretty immersive.

Timothy Callahan: Other than channeling the creativity from role-playing world-building into your writing, have either of you actually employed any of the rpg-prep mindset to "Artful Daggers"? In other words, are you making maps of this fictional world? Any binders full of details about the characters and setting of your comic? Or do you stick to a rough outline and let the script?

Williams: We've got spreadsheets of science! Seriously. I went through and catalogued all the technology and developments, including social ones, in "Connecticut Yankee." While I was doing that, Adam was researching technological developments from 1879 through the 1920s, and we got together and compared notes afterward.

Knave: Sean is hyper organized about this stuff. I try to be - and fail.. But yeah we have spreadsheets and documents with all sorts of notes. There are enough of them that during our weekly creative team meeting one of us often has to ask which bit of information is in which file again because ... well ... it's somewhere. All right I admit it! The last few meetings it was always me asking. Always. Me. Damn it.

Williams: Hahaha! Luckily no one has accidentally deleted any of them yet. We just wrote the script for the fifth issue, and we've definitely expanded into the world enough that we really need to get on putting together a map.

Knave: Yeah, we will need a map or two fairly soon, I know Andrew has mentioned it as well. So they're done and then one day down the road we can share them with the readers.

Timothy Callahan: Okay, so besides being collaborative anthropologists for this fake reality you've created (or discovered), how do you two actually work together on the scripts? Sean writes the consonants and Adam writes the vowels? You each write scenes and throw out the worst ones? You record your Google + late night chat transcripts and send it to the art team? How does the magic happen?

Knave: I sleep. Sean writes and I use the blackmail goods I have on him to toss my name onto the book. No, it's funny, we started off trying the same method D.J. Kirkbride and I use for Amelia Cole scripts and have been adapting it to work better for us on this book since Sean, I found out last week, isn't D.J.

Honestly - Sean, Andrew and I meet on Google+ every week and chat, and we'll plot out an arc at a time, breaking it down into issues. Just sort of a "This stuff needs to happen in this issue" and then Sean and I trade off who does the first draft of every issue. After a first draft is done whoever wrote it mails it to the other and we begin revising. There's a bunch of back and forth then until it feels seamless with the other issues in terms of tone and voice.

Or it might be that blackmail thing.

Williams: I just revised his answer, so yeah, what he said.

Timothy Callahan: And besides "Artful Daggers" -- which is planned to run...forever? (I mean, if you're thinking about making maps, it's gotta be big, right?) -- what else do you guys have in the works together or individually? Where should CBR readers go to check out your stuff? And why should they check it out? This is a tough crowd, you know, with discerning taste and they already spent most of their their money hoarding "X-Statix" omnibi.

Williams: Not only are we planning on "Artful Daggers" to be on-going, we're actually in talks with a couple of different people about taking it into different mediums as well! So yeah, expect more to be showing up in the future!

Aside from "Artful Daggers," I'm also writing the third arc of "Fairest," starting with issue #15, which starts May 1st. It's going to have some major repercussions to the Fables universe, so we're trying to get the word out to people who wait for the trades to pick up #15, if you don't want anything spoiled. And I have to say, the art for the arc is flipping gorgeous, with Stephen Sadowski penciling, Phil Jimenez inking, and Andrew Dalhouse doing the colors.

Knave: First of all they better not come for my personal "X-Statix" omnibus copy. I love that kooky thing. But right, outside of all the Artful Daggers stuff coming (oh so many things we can't reveal yet) I've got the return of Amelia Cole in May. It'll be returning with a new title ("Amelia Cole and the Hidden War"), a new price (99 cents), and a new page count (12 pages per issue) but the story directly follows volume 1 ("Amelia Cole and the Unknown World"). D.J Kirkbride, Nick Brokenshire and I are super-excited about this as we've each upped our respective games. D.J. and I also have a Dark Horse mini-series coming this summer I am not allowed to talk about past that, I don't think (though it does have art by Robert Love...) and uhm... well there are a few anthology bits that will be easing out slowly, the first and closest being a story with D.J. and Thomas Boatwright in "Unknown Territory" volume 3. So, you know, hey kids! Comics!

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