The mysterious Kek-W is the writer of The Order, a very unusual series from the good folks at 2000 A.D. Recently I had the chance to interview Kek-W over email to discuss the series; as you can see it’s extremely intriguing.
Josh Green for Comics Bulletin: The Order has overtones of religion, mysticism, and secret societies – none of which was necessarily uncommon in the time period you’ve set the story. How will this affect the plot of the story?
Kek-W: Yeah, religion, mysticism and secret societies are all pretty central to the story. It’s set in the Pre-Enlightenment 1200s, which seem rife with ignorance and superstition when seen from our 21st century viewpoint. There’s that old Arthur C. Clarke nugget which goes along the lines of “any sufficiently advanced technology will be indistinguishable from magic”, so the SF elements in the series would seem like sorcery to most of the locals, and I riff off that idea a bit.
But having said that, there were also people alive back then who were extremely well educated in philosophy, politics and the natural sciences, and some of them were adept in using that knowledge to manipulate the more superstitious masses.
I guess the Teutonic Knights are an example of that. They were a militarised religious order – ‘crusader’ types – though they mostly fought fellow Christians. They besieged various European towns and cities, hired themselves out as muscle to the Pope, etc. They were basically religious mercenaries – there was nothing particularly benign, noble or holy about those guys – they ‘taxed’ the peasants of various regions as they saw fit, enforced tolls at ports, etc. They were basically a sort of medieval Mafia – a private militia that operated under the protection of the Cross. I hate bullies, so including them in the story was a no-brainer.
But the Order that the series is named after are a very different bunch to the Teutonic Knights. The Order is a super-secret society that operates beneath the surface of History without leaving a trace – a rag-tag mixture of character types and nationalities. They’ve been beavering away in secret for centuries, and have access to knowledge and various ‘technologies’ that are in advance of that era – but they have to keep it all hidden and underground as doing something like, I dunno, introducing steam-engines into medieval Middle Germany has the potential to completely screw up History.
One is of The Order an uptight, deeply virtuous German Protestant / Lutheran type, while another is a herb-sniffing medieval Polish stoner – a ‘holy fool.’ It seemed logical to pair them up as an ‘unlikely buddies’ double-act. So, yeah, I’ve tried to balance out the Christian and ‘mystic’ strands of those times by having a bit of both and seeing how they rub up against one another.
CB: You’ve paid homage to historical figures in your stories before like Alan Turing and George Orwell. Do you have any persons in mind to include in The Order directly or indirectly?
Kek-W: Oh, yeah (laughs). Not that he’s famous, but the real-life alchemist Cornelius Nettesheim puts in an appearance. History remembers him as living a couple centuries later than this time period – there’s a deliberate reason why I inserted him in this earlier era, but you’ll have to read the story to find out why (laughs).
The local leader of the Teutonic Knights – Hermann Balk – was also a real historical character, and since his life roughly coincided with this time-line, he got folded into the tale too. Iron John is based on the Grimms’ fairy-tale character – Eisenhans – who is, in turn, based on various myths about the “hairy man” – the grizzled old wandering warrior or wild man who stalks the huge, endless forests of Dark Age Europe. More recently, the name “Iron John” got co-opted into modern Self-Help Book Mythology as a riff on lost masculinity. There’s some other stuff in there… but, yeah, it’s fair to say there are a few ‘real’ and mythical people popping up in this series (laughs)…
CB: Genre blending can be difficult to get right, but the robot as a knight in shining armor works perfectly. Where did you draw inspiration for the sci-fi element in The Order?
Kek-W: Believe it or not, I’d been thinking about the idea of Medieval SF for a couple years – what might it look like, how it might work – and when John Burns and I started talking through ideas for a series it surfaced and quickly became a jumping-off point. John was really up for setting something in the thirteenth century. I’d also been thinking a bit about the idea of a time travel story that didn’t overtly involve time travel (laughs) – and trying to figure out how that might work. That was one of the other concepts that underpinned The Order.
The robot – Ritterstahl – was designed entirely by John from some very rough notes I’d made ages ago. Rather than ‘shining’, I was thinking of rusty, half broken and barely functioning, something that fitted the grotty, muddy, disease-ridden medieval aesthetic we were going for. Something that might double as a suit of armour. I think I had something clunky and iron-clad like Robot Archie in the back of my mind – an echo of all those great weekly Brit Silver Age strips I grew up with – and John came up with a really great and unique-looking design.
CB: Can we expect more advanced technology to trickle into the story or is the robot a lone anachronism? Please tell me there’s more to come.
Kek-W: There are a lot of SF elements in The Order (laughs). The robot is just one of them. On the surface, it’s a fantasy / historic adventure strip, but it’s like an iceberg – there is a lot more going on underneath that we don’t fully see. We get glimpses and hints of a wider tale as we go along – one that features characters and time-periods way beyond what is featured in these episodes. But rather than shoehorn everything into this, I’ve let the bigger picture float beneath this series. I’m hoping folks will enjoy The Order enough that John and I will get to show other parts of the broader, longer story that I have in mind – one that’s theoretically spread out across several thousand years, perhaps longer.
CB: For those that might be hesitant with cross-genre books, what would you tell them to stick around for with The Order?
Kek-W: Because it’s a lot of fun! (laughs) As much as I love pure Fantasy or Sword & Sorcery, my favorite books back in the day were by people like Michael Moorcock, M. John Harrison and Jack Vance, writers who blurred the lines between SF and Fantasy. I’m not sure anyone uses the tag “Science Fantasy” much these days, but I think a lot of the interesting and fun stuff gets done in those blurry zones where genres bleed into one another. I also think 2000 AD readers are very open-minded and adept at genre-hopping.
Genre tags aside, I’m really hoping people will read it for the characters. I think we’ve got a really nice little cast in this series – John has done an amazing job and has brought them to life in ways I could never have imagined when I originally started thinking about them. If you were pitching The Order as a movie it might be something like “The Expendables, but set in the thirteenth century” (laughs) – on the surface, it’s a bunch of old guys coming out of retirement for one last hurrah, but it’s ended up being a sort of meditation on mortality and growing old – at how crap human beings are at dealing with all that, especially a bunch of grumpy old men with oddball talents and extended life-spans who’ve got very set in their ways. What happens when a woman joins their gang? (laughs)
I’m hoping folks will find it funny and occasionally poignant, that the characters will resonate with people beyond the swordplay and the SF.
CB: John Burns is doing great things for this book already. The images of the robot’s head on page 6 sticks with me. What image drives this issue home for you?
Kek-W: John is, without doubt, one of the all-time great UK illustrators. I grew up reading his strips; it’s an honour and a joy to work with him. I think he’s been knocking it out of the park on this series: his line-work and colour choices are exquisite. He’s been sending me copies of each episode as we’ve gone along and his artwork has been blowing my socks off.
Yeah, I love the robot head too. It’s great. But that scene with the wolves circling and attacking is just, well, amazing. It’s like a scene from a crazed fairy tale that has come to life. Wait ’til you see what else is coming down the line!
CB: What other projects are you working on right now that we should be on the lookout for?
Kek-W: Well, I make music and art and do weird coding projects, as well as writing fiction and music journalism, so life is never dull (laughs). I’ve literally just come back from a mini-tour of Iceland with Hacker Farm and recently released a couple of albums, including the “Crass in Africa” electronic punk CD.
On the comic-book side of things, I’ve just written an issue of Commando that will be coming out in 2015. Shaky Kane and I are hoping to do some more issues of Cap’n Dinosaur for Image – in fact, there’s a Cap’n D short in the bag for Dave Elliott’s rebooted Monster Massacre anthology, but not sure when that’s happening.
Lots of development work and pitch-planning going on for various things… oh, and I’m gearing up to put out a mini-eBook anthology thing called The Traffic Inspector’s Daughter with short stories set in a weird, satirical Soviet-like police-state.