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Dave Cook lands a critical hit with KILLTOPIA

Comic Book Yeti: Thanks for joining us today, Dave. It is a distinct honor and pleasure to discuss the brilliant Killtopia and hopefully much more. How are things going in Scotland?

Dave Cook: Things are going great here, thank you. We’re currently enjoying the three weeks of actual summer we get here each year before the grey skies and rain begin again. But hey, we’ll take what we can get! That aside, I’m currently working on a few new pitches and projects now that Killtopia has come to a close, while doing final edits on my second video game history book for Bitmap Books. It’s all very exciting.

CBY: We'll have to dig into the focus of your game industry work a bit more in further conversation. First, I'd like to start with an exploration of the title, as Killtopia is both evocative of inherent violence (which you deliver!) but also obfuscates how much character-driven relationship building motivates the action. How'd you land on Killtopia amongst all the potentially appropriate titles? What else did you consider (if anything) before locking it in?

DC: A lot of people have told me that Killtopia is the perfect title for this type of story and setting, so thanks for the great feedback on it. To be honest, I didn’t have a title for the longest time back in 2017, when I was working out the kind of story and world setting I wanted to tackle. Like most of my ideas, it just sort of popped into my head while I was thinking about the dystopian nature of the world I was conceptualizing and the brutal bloodsport at its core. Everything in the story (in some way) revolves around the Killtopia bloodsport and its influence on society, so the combination of ‘dystopia’ and ‘kill’ felt like a great way to sum up our story and the combative nature of Neo Tokyo. It was the only title I considered and it just felt so perfect that I decided to roll with it off the bat.

CBY: The influences on Killtopia are manifold, with the cyberpunk Neo Tokyo setting peppered with visual and narrative nods to Akira and Ghost in the Shell, with little hints of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Streets of Rage, and so many other references strewn throughout the pages. I don’t want to spoil anything for those yet to dig through the five volumes, but beyond what I’ve mentioned, can you tell our readers what touchstones within the multimedia landscape, both comics and beyond, were cycling through your mind as the world took shape over your drafting process?

DC: Before I started thinking about Killtopia, I had already Kickstarted my first comic series, Bust, in 2014. That was a post-apocalyptic story, and at the time I had also started my dark fantasy series, Vessels. I wanted to do something in a different genre and I immediately thought back to the series that got me interested in writing my own comics while I was in university, which was Transmetropolitan. I’m also a journalist (it’s my university major!), so that story and its bizarre cyberpunk world definitely spoke to me. There was something so appealing about that kind of setting - with its strange cultural tics, social media fads, powerful influencers, and saccharine colour palette. The basic foundation for the world, story and characters started to emerge from that point.

This aside, the real driver for the Killtopia story was the UK’s National Healthcare Service (NHS). At the time, the media was reporting that our terrible government wanted to privatize the NHS, which would mean that everyone would have to start paying for treatment. Thankfully, it still hasn’t happened, but as I’m both asthmatic and on ADHD medication, I started to think about what would happen if it did, and how all of our lives would change as a result. That’s why most people in our version of Neo Tokyo have a nanomachine disease called The Rot, and why we see people risking their lives to hunt mechs and earn money through the Killtopia bloodsport, as a way of funding their anti-Rot healthcare. Breaking Bad was also an influence on the character of Shinji, as he lies to his sister about where he’s getting the money for her Rot vaccines. She has no idea that he’s secretly a Wrecker, which is what mech hunters are called in our world.

Tonally, the biggest influences were my favourite Japanese action video games, most notably No More Heroes by Grasshopper Manufacture, and Bayonetta by Platinum Games. No More Heroes is literally about a down and out loser who decides to try and slaughter his way to the top of the assassin league table, while battling a huge cast of killers with their own weapons, tech and brash personas. That’s where the idea of the Wreckers and the Killtopia bloodsport really clicked into place, as they all have their own gimmicks, larger than life attitudes and corporate sponsors.

And to rattle off a few more; the dry British humour was inspired by TV shows like Brass Eye, The Day Today, Nathan Barley and the works of Scottish writer, Armando Ianucci, while the overall vibe was partly-inspired by Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Macross and my favourite anime ever, Cowboy Bebop. In fact, in each issue of Killtopia a character will say “Let’s Jam!” which is a nod to Cowboy Bebop’s opening theme song, "Tank!"

CBY: Ah, I'm acquainted with Bayonetta, but I'd only heard mention of No More Heroes, so I think you just bumped it up my priority list of games to play. Now I just need to find time for all the UK material you just pushed into my orbit. Regarding the drafting process, can you tell us what the development of Killtopia looked like? Did you have the entirety of the story arc ironed out before the release of Vol. #1 in 2018, or did you make course corrections between each installment? How did you assemble the initial creative team (art by Craig Paton, letters by Robin Jones, colors by Ludwig Olimba) and what did getting the first publication drafted entail?

DC: It started with just me coming up with the foundation of the world, the core cast and a loose plot arc. I had the beginning, some vague plot beats in the middle, and the ending pretty much nailed down before I started putting a team together and taking the idea further.

I guess everyone works their own way, but for Killtopia I didn’t write the scripts for all five books right away. Instead, whenever a book was funding on Kickstarter, I’d be writing the next one in parallel. I did it this way due to the satirical nature of the series, and I wanted to write each installment ‘in the moment’ by working some real-world parallels into the script. The fourth book was written during the pandemic while the protests in support of George Floyd and other causes were happening around the world, which is why that issue has a lot of activism and equality themes. Ultimately, the story is about the impact of various inequalities on society, be it healthcare, basic human rights, tolerance for our fellow humans and the wealth gap. I felt the only way to do those themes justice would be to write in the moment, and I think it maybe worked? Our readers will ultimately be the judge of this *laughs*

I probably won’t write another series this way, as a lot of things moved around and changed when I came to write each book, and at times it was quite stressful to keep shifting the arc around. Once the basics of the plot were in place, I reached out to Craig Paton, who was the cover artist on my first series, Bust, and we got chatting about our influences and art styles etc. Craig’s a big old-school manga and anime fan, and his art style is inspired by the likes of Moebius, Geof Darrow, and Frank Quitely, so right away it was clear we were aligned in many ways. Rob Jones was an easy pick on letters as we knew each other online and Ludwig Limba was a flatter that our publisher - Glasgow’s BHP Comics - had used in the past, so they recommended Ludwig for the job.

From there, Craig and I spoke a lot over messaging and video calls about the feel of the world and personalities of our cast, and he sent me sketches of characters in various outfit options, and images of Neo Tokyo, to help us both cement the look and feel we wanted. We told ourselves early on that we should treat Killtopia as if it was our one and only chance to pitch a comic to a publisher ever, and we really took so much time (I think a year?) before the first book’s Kickstarter to promote it, get artwork out there, introduce our cast and world. It really did pay off. The first Kickstarter surprised us by hitting over £16,000 in total, and it caught the eye of BHP Comics, who approached us and asked if we’d like to be published by them. We didn’t expect things to go as well as they did.

CBY: Unfortunately, I am rubbish at coding, and dropped out of Computer Science in 10th grade after three days, so from my point of nearly complete ignorance, can you tell me a bit about what sort of background research you did into network and information technology to take the actions within the story beyond the sort of technobabble seen in a lot of pop sci-fi (i.e. - Star Trek’s oft lampooned “reversing the polarity” trope)? What internal logic did you adhere to in order to make sense of the narrative within your own mind as you considered how readers would interpret the plot points and ensure they came along for the ride?

DC: This is a genuinely great question, so thanks for asking! While I was working on the series I started to listen to a podcast called Darknet Diaries, which I’d encourage everyone to check out. It’s presented by a guy called Jack Rhysider, who is an information security expert. He talks about real hacking incidents and how the law eventually caught up with the perpetrators, but he really helps you understand the terminologies. By the end of Killtopia I felt more confident in the tech and hacking jargon I’d learned from that show, so it creeps in a bit more as the series progresses. It was all stuff about botnets, white hats, black hats, zero days, all the good stuff! The trick is to not confuse readers with jargon, so we use those terms sparingly and in a context that makes sense to people who have never heard them before.

I’m also such a fan of world building, due to my obsession with video games, and I always feel that the best game worlds feel like characters themselves - such as Half-Life 2’s City 17 and BioShock’s Rapture. I wanted Killtopia’s Neo Tokyo to feel lived-in and established, so I absolutely wanted the cast to talk in slang from the very start, but I didn’t want to get too cheesy or obvious with it, because I’ve seen many examples of media shooting itself in the foot by trying to be too clever or cool with slang.

Another great narrative trick I used was to throw Shinji into a world to which he’s not accustomed so that when people explain things to him, those things are also being explained to the reader. We see it in Killtopia #2 when Shinji and his sister, Omi meet the Koshiro-23 hacker group. Heavy exposition really bores me in any type of media, so whenever I write dialogue I always approach it as a logical conversation. For example, what questions would a person ask in this situation? What would the people on the other side tell them in response? Instead of a big information or plot dump, how much can you reasonably get away with to orient the reader and help them understand the plot or a new aspect of a world without it feeling unnatural?

There’s no easy answer for this other than, ‘lots and lots of dialogue rewrites until it all feels natural.’ This might sound arduous, but I also happen to really love writing dialogue so it’s win-win for me!

CBY: Narrative utility and economy is an important element of good storytelling - only saying what you have to in a manner it would arise naturally is key to not pulling readers out of the flow, and I think you nailed it throughout. Regarding the art, over the course of the Killtopia run, you saw some shifts in the creative team, with Micah Myers taking over lettering from Robin Jones, NL Ashworth picking up coloring duties from Ludwig, and most notably, a significant stylistic shift when Clark Bint stepped in on art with Vol. #3. You also had cover art from the inimitable Frank Quitely on Vol #2, so I’d be keen to hear how those changes came about and how everyone picked up along the way. Can you detail how these changes to the team arose, and what it meant in terms of your workflow and creative direction?

DC: Killtopia #2 was a real lesson for me. It was a whopping 64 pages in the end, which admittedly was ludicrous. Each of the five books (aside from the first) are at least 50 pages long, which is something we chose to aim for seeing as we could only reasonably Kickstarter one entry a year. We felt that doing one 22-page floppy a year would leave people hanging, and that it would take too long for us to complete the full arc we’d set out.

With the second book, we went from taking our time with the first book, to having publisher deadlines, over £22,000 raised on Kickstarter and over 900 backers depending on us to deliver a worthy sequel. The deadlines were fair and hugely generous, but even though we had plenty of time we definitely learned some harsh lessons about project management, mental well-being and producing a comic of that scale and quality while trying to hit a completion date. We were still relatively rookies at this point, so we kind of killed ourselves to get it all done on time, which led to a great deal of burnout, anxiety, and stress between us that really shouldn’t have happened.

Craig and I amicably decided to part ways on the project rather than fall out as friends or burn ourselves out when really, making Killtopia should have been a blast. We felt it wasn’t a blast any more, so we took that step. I then put out an open artist call on Twitter and our current artist, Clark Bint was one of the first to make contact and send over a test page that I paid for. That’s also how I found our incredibly talented colourist, Lou Ashworth, and letterer, Micah Myers had already worked on my series Vessels, so I knew I wanted to bring him on board. They really are a dream team and I can’t thank everyone enough who has helped make the series - from book one to book five - for putting up with me and helping to bring it all to life.

CBY: From an editorial and publishing perspective, you had Sha Nazir (BHP’s Publisher) and Jack Lothian (BHP’s Editor-in-Chief) involved throughout the print run. What sort of guidance and continuity did they impart throughout the production process, both creatively and professionally? How did the relationship with BHP begin, and what did the discussion around releasing Killtopia entail, particularly in consideration of utilizing Kickstarter for each book? How did production and publication differ from a traditional publishing arrangement to accommodate the crowdfunding component?

DC: Interestingly, BHP Comics came to us after they saw that Killtopia #1 had made over £16,000 on Kickstarter. They said it looked like we’d hit upon something great, and they wanted to chat with us about being our publisher. They run a few comic cons here in Scotland that I table at, so we had spoken before then about pitches and such, but since signing with them they’ve become more than our publisher, but great friends too! They helped us get through the stressful times of Killtopia #2 by making us project plans, delivery milestones and other models to help us course-correct and get the book done on time. I think we really needed that guidance to see us through to the finish line, so it was really appreciated.

In terms of creative input, Jack edited and gave subjective feedback on the first two books, but it was ours to use or not. That’s because the Killtopia IP still belongs to us and the nature of the plot and each book was up to us. Essentially, we crowdfund and make each book independently, then BHP publishes and distributes it for us across comic and traditional book stores. It’s a really great model that’s worked out well over the years. But beyond this, the BHP team has been great at helping me understand the comic and literary industries a lot more, and in helping us understand ways to take Killtopia beyond comic books, so we can grow it as an IP. So even though Killtopia #5 is the last book in our series, there is much more work to be done in that world.

CBY: Given the amount of thought you’ve put into crafting a dystopia where human ingenuity, solidarity, and determination are central to resisting annihilation, what parallels do you draw from the story you’ve crafted to the current threats facing humanity? Class stratification, human greed, and the threat of AI proliferation are all very immediate challenges in contemporary society. Stepping beyond the bounds of Killtopia, in determining how to neatly tie off your narrative, have you derived any insight into how you’d like to see some of these issues practically addressed to shift the narrative within the existing global paradigm?

DC: This isn’t a spoiler for those who haven’t read Killtopia #5 (I promise!) but I did worry that the book’s overall message was perhaps foolishly optimistic. The planet is in such a precarious situation at the moment, with global warming, inequality, misinformation and other challenges threatening us on a daily basis. But I do believe that when we want to, we really can put our differences aside and work together for the greater good. Or, maybe, I have to convince myself of that so I can sleep more soundly at night? Either way, we have to hope that common decency and our ingenuity will prevail in the end, because otherwise we’re all doomed.

I’m currently working on a new project set within the Killtopia universe that focuses on misinformation, which I feel is one of the most damaging threats to our society today. If someone, somehow could work out how to solve this, I think we’d all stop hating each other so much that we could find the common ground we need to work together and improve our world. But how can anyone possibly moderate that much content? Should one company have the power to moderate it all? Where does the responsibility lie? Can that responsibility be abused or weaponised?

In the end, I feel that education and self-moderation is the only real answer. Educate yourself, don’t be afraid to seek second or alternate opinions before jumping to conclusions or believing something at face value. Do your research, take time to speak with more people from a broad range of backgrounds and orientations to become more tolerant and expand your worldview. I genuinely believe that if everyone could do this, our lives would be far richer, and our brains would be better at detecting bullshit that’s only been designed to segregate us further. I have to hope we can do this and work together in solidarity so we can tackle the biggest threats to our planet before it’s too late. I have to stop now before this answer gets too depressing. *laughs*

CBY: Yes, the quality of education and channels of access to information a person receives are certainly instrumental in shaping their worldview. The close of Killtopia provides a promising teaser for more content from within this narrative world you’ve built. Is there anything you can reveal around what we might expect regarding a return to this universe? What other projects are you excited to bring to the public going forward?

DC: Absolutely! I’m currently working on issue #2 of an unannounced Killtopia sequel that’s set five years after the events of the fifth book. It stars an all-new cast, aside from one returning character and a few quick cameos sprinkled throughout. The plot this time focuses on the misinformation angle, as the main villain is a serial killer that has found a way to hack into the cognitive implants inside the brains of every person in Neo Tokyo. Not only does this allow the villain to control people like puppets to carry out murders and other crimes on their behalf, but they can make people see and think things that aren’t real, like convincing them to believe bullshit conspiracy theories, or making them experience their worst fears. Are they merely toying with society for kicks, or is there a method to all of this madness they’re unleashing? That’s something we’ll explore throughout the plot.

Tonally, this is far darker than the first Killtopia arc. I’d say it’s more of a psychological cyberpunk horror this time around, thanks to the serial killer forcing people to face their worst fears, sow paranoia into their minds and more. There are some parallels to the iconic anime movie Perfect Blue in there, as well as Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, which is more of a detective noir story than a straight-up, hard cyberpunk story. I’d never seen a pure cyberpunk horror before, which convinced me that this would be an interesting direction to take for the sequel.

The other main aspect of the plot revolves around the ‘gig economy,’ due to the fact that the younger generation today is absolutely getting shafted by low paying jobs, and by on-demand, nickel and dime gigs, such as as Uber drivers, food delivery and so on. To reflect this, the main character works with a police unit that is investigating the villain’s mind hacks. However, the police force has also become a gig economy career, with speedy bonuses for quick arrests, pay penalties for accidental perp kills, and more. I’m going to have fun working this into the plot and hopefully highlighting just how dehumanizing this trend can be. As before, this will definitely be a satirical story with plenty of real-world parallels throughout.

And lastly, I’m very slowly working on the first Killtopia anthology, which will be called Nano Jams. All of the creative teams are in place, but I’ll be taking this one very slowly as I’m keen to get as much of it made and self-funded as possible before we go to Kickstarter. I’m very mindful of how much work anthologies can be and how much can go wrong along the way, so I’m keen to take my time and work with everyone to make it the best thing we can. There’s also the matter of Frazer Brown’s Tales From the Quarantine project, which ended up being a total PR shit-show and alleged scam. I’m aware that his failure to deliver the project on time has dented a lot of peoples’ trust in anthologies, so that’s why I’m keen to get this one right, even if it ends up taking a long, long time for us to get there. Watch this space!

Outside of Killtopia, I’m currently writing issue #3 of an unannounced pitch I’m co-developing with artist Laura Helsby that we hope to pitch around in 2024, and I’m editing my second video game history book for publisher Bitmap Books, which is a complete history of the run ‘n’ gun genre. It’ll cover games such as Contra, Cuphead, Gunstar Heroes and Metal Slug. That’ll be out in 2024 as well.

CBY: I'm very excited for anything Laura Helsby does, so I can't wait to learn more! It also sounds like the new Killtopia title may evoke some similarities to Brandon Cronenberg's 2020 film, Possessor, so I can see where you'd say the tone would delve into darker territory. The gig economy issue is certainly pertinent as we watch the creative industries strike in the US, and hopefully draws attention to the need for vastly strengthened labor power at a global level to fight the oppression of capital control mechanisms. Now, to turn to your other work, I know you’ve got a multifaceted career, so I’m particularly interested to hear your response to the question I always close with; once our readers have finished going through all five volumes of Killtopia, where should they turn their attention across the world of comics, film, television, music, art, and literature lately? Where have you been finding inspiration and what have you been enjoying this year?

DC: In the comics space this year, I’ve really enjoyed reading through the trades of Dan Watters and Caspar Wijngaard’s Home Sick Pilots, as well as the trade of Alex Paknadel and Caspar’s All Against All. Both are exceptional, with ingenious concepts and fantastic production from all involved. I tend not to read as many comics when I’m in the thick of writing them, just so I’m not over-influenced by what I’m reading. That’s when I usually start playing more games instead. This year so far, I’ve really enjoyed the remake of Resident Evil 4, as well as The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, Street Fighter VI, and Final Fantasy XVI.

I also started reading my very first long-form manga series, two in fact! First up is Berserk by Kentaro Miura, which is legitimately one of the best things I’ve ever read. It’s such a dark, finely crafted world with deep characters and a nihilistic worldview that can be a lot to stomach at points, but it just continues to be compelling from volume to volume. The second manga is Buronson’s Fist of the North Star, which is one of the most hilarious and awesome things I’ve read, and of course it appeals to me as a huge fan of action and martial arts movies, as well as side-scrolling beat ‘em ups.

CBY: Dave, you've given us so much to digest, and we appreciate you taking the time to delve a bit deeper into the world of Killtopia. If there are any publication or social media links we haven’t covered yet (both for Killtopia and your other material), please share them, and we’ll include them below.

DC: Sure thing! My socials are:

Twitter: @davescook


Insta: @davecookcomics

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