RCCC 2017: Artist Morgan Beem on the all-ages action of The Family Trade

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Sep 14, 2017

Legendary oceanic cities have been a subject of storytelling for nearly as long as there have been stories, and this October, you'll be able to explore a whole new nautical world in the pages of Image Comics' new all-ages adventure series, The Family Trade. The series follows a clandestine group that goes to great lengths to protect The Float, an enormous artificial island metropolis.

As announced earlier this year at Emerald City Comic Con, the series is co-written by Justin Jordan and Nikki Ryan, with beautiful watercolor art by Morgan Beem, and SYFY sat down with Beem for a few minutes at Portland's Rose City Comic Con to chat about the exciting new project, as well as her distinctive art style. Check out the preview in the gallery at the bottom.

Let's start off easy: What is The Family Trade about?

[Laughs] That is easy, I guess! So, The Family Trade is an upcoming comic coming out through Image, [the first issue] will be out October 11, which we're pretty excited about. It's a pretty fun all-ages — I guess technically fantasy — book. Justin Jordan likes to call it "oceanpunk," which I definitely thought was a term he made up, but I guess it's a real thing! [Laughs]

You follow this place called The Float and it's a man-made island that serves in this fantasy world as like a neutral zone, so a lot of trade and commerce and different things happen there. And it is governed by these seven clans who are the descendants of the original ship captains who built The Float. Then, aside from them, you have this sort of mysterious organization that's called The Family that will do whatever they have to do — including lying, cheating, and stealing and occasionally killing — in order to make sure that The Float stays floating. And that the power stays balanced between these families.

So we follow one young member of The Family as she tries to pick up the family trade — which is why it's called that — but she's not very good at it, she gets herself into a lot of trouble. And that's mostly where our story goes.

So the main character, Jessa, does she want to be part of the family business, or is she more reluctant to take part in it?

Very much so. She really does want to be out there doing "field work." She wants to do it so badly, in fact that she kind of rushes ahead into things, she's a very headstrong character with a strong sense of justice, and a very strong sense that she thinks she knows what's right. And that's what creates some of the blunders in our story, on occasion, is her almost over-eagerness to pick up the family trade.

Both in the story and artistically, how was The Float constructed? Is it just a bunch of connected boats?

Kind of. The way I designed it aesthetically was to look like this patchwork, sprawling, urban metropolis. In the beginning stages, when myself and Justin and Nikki [Ryan] sat down and we were talking about things, we definitely referenced the walled city of Kowloon which was this crazy dense kind of urban block that just endlessly built on top of itself using whatever it could find.

So it does still feel like a city. You've got these tiny micro-apartments and balconies and clothing hanging from lines everywhere. But it's predominantly made out of wood. You know, as you're breaking apart ships, that's a lot of what you have to work with. It's kind of just this stacked, endlessly vertical tiny city. I think it's supposed to be roughly the size of Manhattan.

And we wanted it to have sort of a steampunk feel to it, but without really being that very generic kind of steampunk look, was kind of how I tried to design it. [Laughs]

No gears on top hats then?

[Laughs] Yeah, no. It's like steampunk, but it's our own.

Justin is known as a writer who does a lot of big action books, is that something he has been pushing you to do a lot of in this series? Have you been experimenting with how to portray action on the page?

Yeah, definitely! You know, one of the great things about working with Justin and Nikki is that they're very trusting of their artists, so they write all kinds of scenes. Sometimes they're a lot more open-ended, sometimes they tell me "hey, if you think something should be changed," or if I want to fenagle the angle on this, or different things, they leave it pretty open to me.

But there's definitely a lot of really fun action in this book. Considering we have a young assassin-type character, so it's a lot, y'know, climbing up buildings and fighting bad guys and getting out of really tight situations. So there's a lot of really fun action moments. And it's been great to work with Justin, who does have such great story pacing for action, he really knows what he's doing, as we've seen from other books, Luther Strode, etc., etc. Being an all-ages book, I think it's been a fun challenge for both me and Justin and Nikki to try to keep this action still fun and vibrant and intense, but without going too gory or too violent or too crazy. And I think it works out to be really fun.

You have a very unique illustrative style, combining watercolors with a more cartoony style. How did you land on your current style, and what's your process like?

I kind of do standard comics: I do thumbnails first and then pencils and then I do go through and ink first and use waterproof, like a shellacked, ink so I can just color right on top of it. The only thing that's different is I know that some of my friends who work a little bit more digital or just a little bit more traditional comics tend to either start digital or blueline their pages, but either way they're not drawing and inking on the same page, but mine, from penciling to inking to drawing, all happens on the same paper. I you screw up, you gotta completely start over. Which is good, though, because I feel like that really helps keep a lot of the energy.

I started water coloring when I first started getting into comics. I was really picking up certain things well, like story flow and trying to figure out anatomy and whatnot, but I could not ink. I was a terrible inker. It seemed like no matter what I did or how hard I practiced, it was just awful. So I discovered watercolor, and for a while, I abandoned inking altogether. Nothing even had it, it was sort of just these flat shapes on top of each other, but I've sort of slowly brought it back in. But yeah, watercolor is really sort of my niche. There was actually a really great interview with Tyler Jenkins who's another kind of watercolor comic book artist, in which he said "when I sit down I try to tell myself: just paint the damn thing." And I try to channel that too! Because you don't want to overwork it.

Does the setting of the book allow you to use watercolor in different ways than you had before?

Definitely. It's been really fun to play with. There's so much going on in The Float between all the crazy structures, and again all the balconies, and all the people — there are a ton of people who live in this tiny man-made island — and all the toms, which are like stray cats that are everywhere. Kind of adding all that detail in my ink work, to make sure everybody's got a little y'know, fan in their apartment, and all this different stuff, so when it comes to the watercolor, I want to make sure the reader doesn't get lost from whatever the focus of that panel is — whatever the character is doing, or whatnot. So it's kind of fun because then I can almost gloss over all that detail and make the background all one color, or the background people are all one color, and then just push and pull it from there. There's a really fun experiment in that, in using color to help the story flow.

So to wrap it up, and obviously without spoiling anything, what's the biggest reason someone should pick up the first issue?

Oh man … It's just … it's really fun. At the end of this comic you're going to be smiling. The main character is really easy to root for, she's really easy to love, and the dialogue is witty, and the whole world has a very fun vibe, so I think that's why you should definitely pick it up.

Also because Justin Jordan may have written his cat into the comic, and that's worth reading also.

The Family Trade #1 is on sale October 11 from Image Comics. All art by Morgan Beem.