An Interview With Post-Apocalyptic Eco-Thriller ‘Knee Deep’ Creator, Joe Flood
by Rachel Bellwoar
Growing up, Cricket was always told her parents had gone missing. Then her friend, Doctor Mathis, let her in on the truth. Now Cricket is finally going to the Underground to look for them, if the powers that be at Perch don’t find a way to stop her first. The first book in a planned trilogy from creator, Joe Flood, Knee Deep takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where mining for phosphorus has been deemed essential for keeping people fed.
With coloring flatting by Mariane Gusmão and additional coloring assistance by Emily Elmer, find out how Flood learned to draw Cricket’s Sou’wester hat and more in the following interview:
Rachel Bellwoar: Book One opens with a quote by author, Naomi Klein: “…build a frontier, you get cowboys and robber barons.” While lawlessness has a negative connotation, Knee Deep shows how important rulebreakers can be. What made you choose this quote to start with?
Joe Flood: Wow, right off the bat with the political stuff, eh? Well, I did put the quote right at the beginning of the book, so what did I expect? Naomi Klein’s writing really hit a nerve with me, particularly the way she writes about systems of injustice. The quote is from an interview where she was discussing her book; The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. In the book she sets up several examples where large corporations act unethically when there is little-to-no oversight. In places where the “law” has no reach due to geography, war, a natural or man-made disaster. This is the “frontier” she is referring to. They exploit, extract resources and enact a toll of human suffering all in the name of profit. To quote Klein from the same interview: “these companies are acting like “cowboys” in a “wild west.” In Knee Deep, the sewer has smatterings of a wild west town, but Cricket and the sewer folk are “rulebreakers” not because the underground is a lawless hellhole. They are standing in opposition to a powerful and unjust system that wants to subvert or eradicate them.
Bellwoar: Knee Deep takes place in a future where ecosystems have collapsed. While it’s a small comfort sometimes in movies when this future is not meant to not take place until years from now, Knee Deep has problems starting in 2024. How important was it to you to stress the urgency of these issues?
Flood: Great question! My answer will expand on the previous question a bit. Klein writes about how corporations take advantage of natural and man-made disasters to increase their bottom line. It is most definitely a current problem, not a future one. I’ve brought the rapacious mining company PERCH to an absurd extreme where in the post-apocalypse, they’re still trying to emulate industrial agriculture and venture capitalism. They engage in mineral extraction just because it’s there for the taking. But that is not far from what Nestlé does when acquiring water rights and out-sourcing slave labor. We just experienced a global pandemic where vaccines and health care supplies were hoarded and not distributed to where they were needed most. Time and time again, profit is put ahead of human beings. So you can see the urgency. Will the Amazon rainforest be gone in a year due to global warming? I’ve been hearing about the decimation of the rainforest since I was five, so it’s getting there slowly but surely. In the book both the Amazon and the nation of Japan are completely obliterated in cataclysmic disasters for dramatic effect. That is why Cricket’s mother is Brazilian and her father’s Japanese. Their descendants are survivors of those events and the trauma is carried from that generation to the current one. There is no direct one-to-one analog to the events in Knee Deep with any real-world catastrophe. It’s more of a fun house mirror to reflect my own fears and anxieties.
Bellwoar: Besides this trilogy, you’ve also done multiple books for First Second’s Science Comics. Did that experience help with laying out the science behind this series’ post-apocalyptic world?
Flood: One hundred percent! I’ve been fascinated by the natural world since I was small. I never pursued any formal science education beyond high school biology, but I love to watch nature documentaries to read articles about recent scientific discoveries. Writing my first non-fiction educational science comic was very instructional on how to take research, which can be a bit dry, and transform it into something entertaining, without losing its scientific merits. I do this by taking the subjects I find fascinating and distilling those down into the elements of a narrative I can share. I tend to gravitate towards paleontology and zoology. I’m very passionate about plants and animals and learning how they evolved and how these biological systems are intertwined. My post-apocalyptic world isn’t close to being scientifically accurate, but it does acknowledge how vast and complex natural systems are, especially those that contain tool-manipulating sentient beings who are so adept at altering their environment, they’re changing it in ways they can’t even comprehend.
Bellwoar: Looking at the cover for book one, the first thing that caught my eye was the Rasputin-looking fellow in the middle. What can you tell us about Doctor Mathis, and was Rasputin an inspiration for his character design?
Flood: I love that you mentioned Rasputin, because he’s a historical figure that is surrounded by lots of misinformation. He can be looked upon as the villain, a deceiver and manipulator or a talented mystic and a martyr. Again, there are no one-to-one analogs in the book, more of a smattering of familiar archetypes and references. Mathis is one part Rasputin, two parts Obi-Wan and some Jesus thrown in for good measure. At this point in the story he is clearly framed as a good guy, a brave soul standing up for what he believes is right. But there’s a darkness to him. Mathis being infected with poisonous spores is not just to be taken literally, it also represents a poison and hatred in his heart.
Bellwoar: Every hero needs an iconic accessory and, in Knee Deep, Cricket’s Sou’wester hat fits the bill. Were you always sold on that hat or were multiple styles tested?
Flood: Cricket had the Sou’wester from the very start. My initial thought was, “What would be the most useful item of clothing to wear in a sewer?” Rubber Wellington boots, of course. And a “yellow rain hat” would be the perfect accessory. That’s what I called it initially, I had no idea it was even called a Sou’wester. This was long before Google image search was the massive resource it is today, so I wasn’t even sure what the hat really looked like. My only point of reference was the Gordon’s Fisherman. There were even debates about the proper spelling of the word among my friends who read my early comics featuring Bill, Cricket and Frankie. It wasn’t until my good friend and roommate at the time, Matt, gave me a real Sou’wester for my birthday. He got it specifically so I could use it for reference. He was from Maine and was very familiar with that type of hat and apparently my depictions of it needed to be more accurate. I was very grateful for the gift and still use it for that purpose, to this day.
Bellwoar: Almost as a way of offsetting the loss of plant life outside, many of the interiors in Perch’s mining facility have a touch of green about them, or the walls are green. Did you always want to make green such a prominent color?
Flood: I really, really love green, as a human being with eyes and an artist. It is one of the most useful colors imaginable from a design perspective. It sits in that sweet spot between cool blue and warm yellow. It can be used to emote vibrancy and life or sickness and decay. But mostly I mostly love how using green in a background makes skin tone, regardless of the complexion, pop. It’s such a go-to design trick for me, I’m surprised I limited myself to just the PERCH interior scenes. I wanted the interiors to feel a little unsettling and nauseating. I used a sickly pale green, especially for the cafeteria and kitchen scenes, because it is a very unappetizing color. You’ll rarely see a restaurant, especially a chain, use any kind of green in its motif. Red and orange stimulate the hunger centers in our brains, green, not so much.
Bellwoar: Many of the series’ moments of levity revolve around music. The first time we meet Cricket is listening to music on Dr. Mathis’ headphones, and there’s also a memorable karaoke sequence. What was it like integrating music into this series (and does writing parody lyrics come naturally to you)?
Flood: I definitely had to find my inner Weird Al for the parody songs, because that was not originally the plan. Lots of my favorite comics incorporate popular music and characters singing, Jaime Hendandez’s Love and Rockets and Peter Bagge’s Hate spring to mind. So strange because, here’s a real shocker, comics are silent. But you read some familiar song lyrics in a comic and, boom! the song is in your head (or you don’t know the song so you Google the lyrics, and there you are, a new musical discovery!) So I was under the impression when writing Knee Deep, that I was allowed to use partial lyrics, without the expressed permission of the songwriter. My editor, at first, was like “I’m sure it’s okay, but let’s check with our publisher’s legal dept.” Later, the answer was, “No, not a great idea, it could get us into hot water.” The pages that had already been drawn, so I had to come up with alternate song lyrics for at least six different songs used in the book. “Sam Hall” was the one exception because it is in the public domain. I found using a thesaurus and an online rhyming dictionary exceptionally helpful, because writing parody songs does not come naturally to me. Sure, we all swap out a word or two when singing along to the radio. Especially as little kids, we’d replace similar sounding words for something dirty. But doing a whole song verse, and still having the original be recognizable without the reader being able to hear the melody was a real challenge.
Bellwoar: Thanks to her knowledge of kendo, Cricket gets to be an active participant in all of the action. How do you feel about fight scenes – most fun to draw or most difficult?
Flood: The action scenes are the most fun to draw. The panel transitions are moment to moment, the characters are expressing movement through space. Their forms and actions are dynamic in a way that draws the eye from panel to panel. Objects and characters smash into each other, Things explode, debris flies everywhere! All of these elements make the sequence visually exciting, and it is also exciting for me to draw.
Pages that are heavy in dialogue or exposition are necessary to move the story along, and as a storyteller I do my best to make these pages interesting. It can be difficult to make a page visually engaging when you have to fit ten to fifteen word balloons in there. I’ll go off on a tangent and write 15 pages of a conversation between two characters, to really flesh out how they interact and respond to each other and then stop and think, “Great, how am I gonna make this work in an actual comic page that isn’t just all word balloons.”
I also really enjoy the quieter moments, where characters just silently move through the environment. It’s a great way to show the passage of time and explore the world these characters inhabit. I’m amazed that fifty percent of my comics aren’t just scenes like this.
Bellwoar: Too often stories don’t stop to show characters being phased by the traumatic events they’re experiencing. Why was that something you wanted to acknowledge here with Cricket?
Flood: Because she is sixteen years old and a human being. Reacting to traumatic events isn’t mutually exclusive to either of these. I wanted to highlight Cricket’s youth and relative inexperience by focusing on her reactions to the things happening to her and around her. The other humans, no matter how augmented or mutated, also feel the weight of these events, they’re just better at hiding it. She is also the center of the story, so I wanted to focus on her. To make the majority of her reactions be direct actions, whether it’s running away, fighting back or telling someone how she feels. I also wanted her to pause and have moments of reflection. Cricket rarely speaks to herself aloud and she has no inner monologue, so these moments are to allow you to get into her head and let you know, you’re with this character every step of the way.
Bellwoar: With Knee Deep set to be a trilogy, will we get to see more of Cricket’s relationship with her sister, Amy, in books two and three?
Flood: Amy has been set up as an obvious foil, sisters raised in the same environment with two very different outcomes. Cricket is restless, impulsive and has an insatiable curiosity and sense of adventure. Amy’s responsible, level-headed and a bit of a stick in the mud. This dynamic is established early on in flashbacks of their childhood, so there’s no need to hammer the point home with additional ones. Whether they will interact at all in the present timeline of the story in the following books, that would be giving too much away.
Bellwoar: Thanks for agreeing to this interview, Joe!
Knee Deep: Book One goes on sale May 30th from Oni Press.