interview by David Brothers, originally published in IMAGE+ #16
Morgan Beem, Justin Jordan, & Nikki Ryan have teamed up to create THE FAMILY TRADE. What is it? Well, it’s set on the Float, an island city in the middle of the ocean that serves as neutral ground for politicians and businesses alike. The Family and the Clans on the Float vie for supremacy and safety, but exist in a state of balance...until a young thief named Jessa, a good-hearted member of the family, accidentally kicks off a civil war. Beautifully drawn and evocatively written, THE FAMILY TRADE is a surefire must-read.
DAVID BROTHERS: What does "the Family Trade" mean in the context of this story?
MORGAN BEEM: "The Family Trade" refers to the various skilled activities that “the family,” an underground network of descendants of the original float inhabitants, utilizes in order to keep peace and order on their man-made floating island.
JUSTIN JORDAN: Jessa’s (very) extended family is in the business of making sure their city keeps running. If they need to, they’ll spy on, con, and even kill people, all to make sure that the people making the decisions don’t cause the city to sink or burn. And all of that is the Family Trade.
BROTHERS: Morgan, you're handling all of the art except for the lettering, I believe? When you've got complete control like this, how do you make sure the project is still fun for you?
BEEM: I think for me, having complete control over the artistic style is a lot of what makes it fun! I get to bring the pages to life pretty much how I envisioned them from the start, and that is very rewarding. I have a lot of fun with doing each stage of the process (pencils, then inks, then watercolor), because the pages look pretty sparse after I ink them, and it is only after they are colored that they really stand out as completed and polished. It is really satisfying to hold the completed and colored page in your hand.
BROTHERS: What is it about Taiyo Matsumoto that you find so interesting, Morgan?
BEEM: Oh man—pretty much everything! I love his style! His character and concept designs are so unique—I find the gritty style is really engaging. I am in love with the sprawling, winding, and detailed vision of his urban world in Tekkonkinkreet. So it was definitely an influence when I envisioned the urban and packed world of the Float.
BROTHERS: THE FAMILY TRADE has been described as "oceanpunk." What's that mean? Morgan, what are you doing in your art to get that idea across?
BEEM: Hahaha, well, this became a good little creator joke—since I definitely thought that Justin just made up that term. As it turns out, it is indeed a real term. Sorry, Justin. You were wrongly accused.
Upon researching what exactly oceanpunk meant (once I knew it was a thing), I found a statement that I think captures the idea of what we are going for: “An adventure-friendly world, which, no matter how technology marches on, remains firmly rooted in the cultural and political sensibilities of the age of wooden ships and iron men.” This idea has been really fun to play with in concept design, and I try to reflect it first and foremost in the urban-ship-esque design of the Float itself, and also in the clothing and items that are used around the Float. I aim to have a steam-aged, low technology feel to our world, while still making it feel original.
JORDAN: Morgan totally nailed this answer. My go-to explanation has been "like steampunk, but with boats,” which is a lot less eloquent. But it’s a genre where you take the best bits of pirate movies and build a world around them.
NIKKI RYAN: Morgan has done an amazing job bringing the world of the Float to life. I have to agree with Justin on this. I don’t think that I could have put it better myself.
BROTHERS: THE FAMILY TRADE features the Family and the Clans. What's the difference?
BEEM: I would say, the Clans are descended from the original leaders and captains of the ships that built the Float. They always have been, and like being in charge. But the Family, being descendants of the crews of those ships, makes sure they don’t screw it all up. The Clans rule, but the Family makes sure the Float stays floating—no matter what.
RYAN: The Family runs the Float and keeps the balance. The Clans think they run the Float. The Family works for the people, and the Clans are more likely to work in their own best interest.
JORDAN: The Clans are the people who are in charge of the Float, descended from the officers on the ships that originally formed the Float. The Family are people who secretly make sure that the Clans don’t cause the whole place to burn down to the water line, descended from the sailors on those same ships.
The Clans are the aristocracy, the Family are the blue collar folks who make sure that the whole place keeps running, even though the Clans take all the credit for it. It’s a dirty job, but it’s them that have to do it.
BROTHERS: Jessa Wynn is the curly-haired main character of THE FAMILY TRADE. What is it about her that makes her the one the story had to revolve around? Building on that, what do you like about her as a person?
RYAN: I love Jessa. To me she is this glorious woman who I don’t think really understands or sees just how important she is to her world, to the people around her. She is so clever and brave. She has this way of seeing the world for what it really is, and she doesn’t ever let those painful truths take the joy of living away. She loves her family and is willing to do anything to keep them safe. Not to mention, I think she could likely take you out with a tea cup.
We based Jessa off my amazing cousin Jessie. Jessie is my younger cousin, but I still look up to her in so many ways. It makes me smile every day knowing that Jessie let us use her likeness—even if she did chop off all of that gloriously curly hair [laughs].
JORDAN: Jessa is very, very smart and very, very capable. She also thinks she’s even more smart and capable than that, so she gets herself into, and hopefully out of, a looooot of trouble—which makes her a very good character to follow.
She’s also brand new to the actual Family Trade, which gives Nikki and I a chance to show people exactly what the Family Trade and the Float are all about. She’s also young enough and thoughtful enough to question what she’s been taught, so you get actual perspective on what the Family is doing.
I think my favorite thing about Jessa is that she’s proactive. When she sees injustice or a bad situation, she immediately tries to solve it. This doesn’t always end the way she wants, but it’s fun to write a character who is basically fearless about doing the right thing.
BEEM: She is the definition of headstrong and free spirited, and in that sense, I think a really good example of the Family itself. Through her stubbornness and yearning to prove herself, we get to explore the Float from every angle. I love characters like Jessa, who have strong hearts, and are unwavering once they lock on to something (eeeeven if that does land them in trouble, more often than not). She is the right mix of sarcastic, stubborn, and genuine that just makes you want to root for her.
BROTHERS: You've invented a history for the Float, charting its progress toward eventually becoming its own nation. What role does the Free Republic of Thessala serve in this world?
BEEM: I’m going to let Nikki and Justin tackle this one...
JORDAN: Basically, the Float is the trading and political hub of this version of the Earth. If you want to trade, it’s much easier to come to the Free Republic of Thessala in the middle of the Atlantic than to go back and forth between continents.
But even more importantly, if you want to negotiate with an enemy, the Float is remote, fully cosmopolitan, and very, very heavily armed. It’s the safest place in the world to broker treaties and negotiate deals.
Entirely coincidentally, this also makes it the sort of place where adventures are happening all the time, as people from all over this version of the Earth are passing through. That’s very convenient for us writers. We were lucky the Clans and the Family built the city that way.
RYAN: The Float is like the neutral zone. This is where you come to talk peace. Foreign officials like to conduct business here because the rules state that Thessala wants nothing to do with any outside politics. The Float is also a bustling hub of trade, but coffee is still hard to come by.
One of my favorite things to do is to build the world that is the Float. I think the greatest accomplishment (at least in my mind) is the Grow and the salt water gardens. You don’t waste any space on the Float—you can’t afford to. Morgan always amazes me when she brings our silly ideas to life.
BROTHERS: Just to be sure—does THE FAMILY TRADE take place in a version of "our" world, or is it an all-new world with all-new rules?
BEEM: I would think like a version of our world, with a few added quirks (like that the Float has some low-level alchemy going on).
JORDAN: It’s Earth. Just not quite our Earth. The presence of the Float itself has changed history there, so the countries and stories are different from what happened here, and there is indeed some light alchemy.
For instance, if you look closely, you’ll note that the lamps are actually lit by bioluminescent fish rather than flame or electricity—specifically by glowing lampreys because I am really unable to let a good pun go to waste.
But the fishlamps are the result of that alchemy, which only seems to work on the Float, which is another reason the Float is important to the world. There’s some magic going on in the rest of the world, too, which we’ll get into. Nothing as dramatic as fireballs or bags of holding, but subtle stuff that replaces or extends the tech. Imagine if people managed to make their superstition into science.
RYAN: The “magic” of the Float is a fickle thing. Float tech only works on the Float.
BROTHERS: Tell me about your cowriting process. Do you share the entire script, or have you found that each of you has your own specialties when it comes to putting the story together?
BEEM: Actually, I am curious about how this goes between Nikki and Justin as well [laughs].
JORDAN: Basically, how it works is that Nikki and I talk about the overall arc for a while. Well, no, what happens is we talk about everything else for a couple of hours until we feel guilty, and then we talk about the arc.
Once we get a general sense of the story for the arc, we break it down into the individual issue. After that, we talk about what needs to happen, what would be fun, and what we need to make sure the readers know.
And I do mean talk—THE FAMILY TRADE is unique for me in that we’re actually doing the collaborative parts in person, so we come up with a lot of notes and ideas, which has really added a lot to depth of the world. It feels like a real living place to me, and I think that’s down to how we’re working on it.
Then I do up the script, and then Nikki gives me notes on that, and we kick it back and forth until we both have something we like. The end result is a story that’s much different, I think, than anything either of us would come up with on our own.
RYAN: On many occasions, Justin will get a message in the middle of the night from me about something I think would be “wicked cool” to incorporate.
When it comes to working on the script together, Justin really only left one part of the process out. We eat. I think I eat my weight in Indian food every time we work on a story arc. He is not wrong either, when he says we will talk about anything else but THE FAMILY TRADE. We will even come up with other projects to work on before we get started. I find it to always be a fun process.
Co-writing can be difficult, and miscommunication can run rampant. I think I am very lucky to be writing with Justin. He is very patient and always hears me out, or takes my argument into consideration. We have found, I think, a very good balance in our ideas.
THE FAMILY TRADE #1 debuts 10/11 and is available for preorder now.
David Brothers was born in the South, became an adult in Oakland, and edits Image+ when he's not sitting by the dock of the bay. IMAGE+ is an award-winning monthly comics magazine that's packed with interviews, essays, and features about all your favorite Image comics and your first look at upcoming releases.