Alasdair Stuart writes for Bleeding Cool;
The fourth issue of Artful Daggers just came out, which means now's a good time to take a look at one of Monkeybrain's best books. Written by Adam P.Knave and Sean E. Williams, with art by Andrew Losq, letters by Frank Cvetkovic and logo by BJ Witts it's one of the oddest, and most interesting titles in Monkeybrain's already wildly diverse and interesting range.
The book is a sequel to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Set fifty years after that time traveller brought science and technology to the court, it explores a world where corporations have replaced kingdoms, science and knowledge are the true rulers and war is moving ever closer. Stuck in the middle of this are the Tricksters, part thieves, part con-men, part assassins, hired by whoever needs the nastiest work done. Arden is one of the best tricksters, splitting her time between missions for them and her deep cover position as a Princess at one of the corporations. At the same time she has to deal with her past, the machinations of her colleagues and looking after Piper, the newest Trickster. So, think cyberpunk style corporate intrigue with a healthy dash of Rome, The Borgias and classic-era Shadowrun for good measure and you're close. It's a great series and here are six reasons why;
1.No Easy Choices
A sizable portion of the first couple of issues deal with the consequences of Arden getting stab happy on her first job with Piper. It's an interesting, and welcome, beat that grounds the book as being about a courtly war and also keys us in early to Arden's character. She's very good at what she does, but sometimes that's all she's good at. The panels below perfectly capture this, Losq putting her eyes at the top of the page, her swords behind the panels and Arden behind the two guards. She can kill these men without breaking a sweat but, as she slowly realizes, that doesn't necessarily mean she should.
The Tricksters are a really interesting organization, not quite working either side of the law so they can work both. The gradual unpacking of their hierarchy, what they do and how they do it is one of the foundations of the book, as are their facial marks. The Trickster logos, beautifully designed by Losq, echo up and down the book, the coloring scheme mimicking them as the Tricksters come and go almost as they please. This particular panel is a big moment as Piper gets her Mark for the first time, given to her by Arden. But what does it mean? What does Arden's mean? Who gave Arden her mark? The more we know, the more we find the Tricksters are an empty cloak, which seems to be just how like it.
Because an empty cloak can't be stabbed. A job inevitably goes wrong and Arden makes a deal to get Piper and her out alive. We don't know what the details are yet, and you'll notice Colin, her boss, isn't asking in this panel. Tricksters do what they have to do, always looking at the long game rather than the short term consequences. Arden got them out which means they can keep working which means sooner or later they can find a workaround to whatever she had to agree to. Tricksters Lie. Tricksters live.
4.The Cost of Doing Business
That small world is perfectly demonstrated by this scene, where Colin meets with a representative from First of Cornwall, the corporation they've just stolen from. It also shows that the real parting gift the time traveler left is ambiguity. The First of Cornwall rep is still struggling to come to terms with people not bowing and scraping to him, let alone the idea that the Tricksters might not care about their criminal acts. Colin on the other hand isn't just happy living in the shadows he can barely contain his scorn at having to deal with the immature young noble. Also not the echoes of the Trickster marks in the coloring and the difference in posture. The First of Cornwall rep is tense, hunched forward and Colin is completely relaxed, sitting all the way back with his hand on his sword instead of next to it. I know who my money's on.
Marcus is a memorably horrible character, a Trickster completely concerned with his own personal gain and nothing else. His actions across the first four issues cause countless problems for Arden, Piper and Colin and in the latest issue he's finally called out for what he did. He's also given a new job which, in turn, follows up on Colin's meeting in the last panel. Tricksters will do anything, and use anything, they can to survive and Colin is under no illusions about either his contact at First of Cornwall or Marcus. However, whilst Marcus may be a blunt instrument where Arden would like to think she's a scalpel he does have his uses.
6.Workin' 9 to 5
The idea of Arden having a cover identity at one of the corporations is inspired, firstly because it forces her to socialize and secondly because it gives us an insight into how the Corporations work. That in turn allows Knave and Williams to explore the impact technology has on this world and to tie each character's actions together in a way that's reminiscent of TV shows like Rome. This is a hugely bustling, innovative version of the past certainly but it's also one still based around surprisingly small groups of people. Deaths matter, reputation matters and anything that gets stolen won't be invisible for long. It's moments like this that show that Arden may be in a boardroom for her cover, but that just means she's in a different war.
Artful Daggers is a wildly inventive series. It combines swashbuckling, science fiction and corporate intrigue to something like Mad Men would look like if it was set in the past and involved a lot more stabbing. There's no other book like it and the first four issues are available now for $.99 each.