Interview: Jen Wang
Current Mood: awake
Current Song: Flashlight by Ellie Goulding
If you like multiplayer RPGs and graphic novels, then you should pick up IN REAL LIFE by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang when it hits the shelves on October 14th. This full-color graphic novel, which has a front-cover blurb o' praise from Felicia Day of Geek & Sundry, is based on Cory's short story. Thanks to Gina at First Second Books, I had the opportunity to read the book early and then virtually meet writer-illustrator Jen Wang. Let's dive right into our interview:
Creative types the world over have had to take day jobs to pay the bills, and many have stories about their worst day job - but let's stay positive here and ask, what has been your favorite day job?
My favorite day job was working the front desk at a hostel in San Francisco, sometime after college. Every day was a different set of people and it was fantastic for observation. Being the host can be challenging but you also got to talk to a lot of cool people who want to know all about your city. I was actually inking KOKO BE GOOD at the time and would try to do a page or so during the slow hours of my shift. There weren’t that many!
What are your favorite mediums and tools of the trade?
I’m pretty standard when it comes to tools. I draw comics with a mechanical pencil and ink with a #2 Raphael 8404 brush. I also have an assortment of Pentel brush pens at various stages of dryness that I like to play around with. I held off for the longest time but I’m ready to get a Cintiq. I think that’s the next step for me!
KOKO BE GOOD, your first full-color full-length graphic novel published by First Second Books, is set in San Francisco, your old stomping ground. What are/were your favorite San Francisco haunts?
I haven’t lived in San Francisco for a while so things have probably changed a lot, but I still love the Castro Theater. They have great programming and nothing is better than that pre-show organ player.
Any cool writing courses, groups, or spots you'd recommend to aspiring authors and artists in the Bay Area?
Unfortunately I didn’t take advantage of many art and writing resources in the Bay Area when I was there, but there’s always volunteering for 826 Valencia, which does great writing workshops for students. There’s also events like Litquake and SF ZineFest that can get you in touch with other creative members of the community. A met a ton of peers just going to A.P.E. (Alternative Press Expo) every year!
What inspired KOKO BE GOOD?
KOKO BE GOOD started with the main character in a short comic I drew my second year of college. Like most people that age I was going through a lot of big changes in my life and she encapsulated all those feelings I couldn’t quite articulate and gain any sort of perspective on. After college I wanted to expand on the story and close out that period of my life with a big project and KOKO the graphic novel was born.
How was it writing a full-length book versus single comics and anthology contributions?
The main difference between the full-length book and the short comic was it took a super long time! Drawing the short comic took maybe less than a week but the book took more than a year to complete.
IN REAL LIFE was based on a short story by Cory Doctorow. Tell us about the journey from short story to graphic novel.
After KOKO I was struggling with my follow up project and First Second approached me about doing the adaptation for ANDA’S GAME, Cory’s short story. I’d never talked to Cory before but he had previously written a great review of KOKO for Boing Boing and was looking forward to working with me and that was super exciting.
Was this your first adaptation based on someone else's story?
Yes! I’d never adapted anything before and part of the appeal was First Second allowed me a lot of flexibility in translating the story to comics. Cory’s prose is very dialogue driven, which would’ve been a little visually static, so I was able to move it in a more action-driven direction. It allowed me to use my skills as a writer too, which made the overall experience more fun for me.
Describe the collaboration process - Did you and Cory review the original short story together, decide what would be changed and what had to be kept, and then you put pen to paper following an agreed-upon beat sheet or storyboard, or did you launch right in and get notes as you went?
I wrote a couple different drafts of the script, and Cory would go over each one and make notes and suggestions. Interestingly the first draft was a very literal translation of ANDA’S GAME, and it was clear I wasn’t very good at faking a Cory voice. The more I followed my gut instincts and wrote as myself the more natural the story became. The final story is very different from the original but it is a combination of my voice and Cory’s vision.
I love the shift in the colour palette between the story's real world and the gaming world. Which colour scheme did you decide on first? Which world was "easier" to create and plot?
The real life material came more naturally, so it was easier to draw as well. I liked drawing real life Anda with her fuller figure and messy hair. For the color palettes, I put a more monochromatic filter over the real life stuff and in the gaming world I just added more textures and didn’t skimp on the color!
Which parts of Anda's story resonate with you?
On a very basic level I indentified with Anda as a teenager who spent all her time afterschool holed up in her room talking to internet friends. I started meeting other cartoonists online at her age and having a place where I could meet peers and indulge in my interests really changed my life. But also Anda is naïve and learning a lot about how the world works. She doesn’t have a lot of life experience, she’s just reading about everything on the internet and thinks she understands it all when she doesn’t. The idea of being well-intentioned but still making mistakes and learning from that is something that really resonates with me.
Are you a gamer?
I’m not that much of a gamer, but I like a lot of indie games.
What games do you play and recommend?
More recent ones I’ve played that I’ve liked are Gone Home, Analogue: A Hate Story, and Monument Valley. There’re also a bunch of cool interactive fiction games out there like the Twine game Howling Dogs by Porpentine. Of course I also play a lot of games on my phone. IN REAL LIFE would not have happened without a lot of Tetris and Plants Vs. Zombies.
I love Tetris. What artists -- musicians, actors, painters, authors -- have inspired your personal style?
My drawing style came out of reading lots of manga and watching Disney cartoons as a kid. The weirdest thing about that is I don’t really watch Disney movies or read manga anymore but those roots are so strong they’ve stuck.
Who would you love to collaborate with, if such things were possible?
I think it would be super fun to collaborate with a game designer! Indie games and comics have a lot in common and they’re both exploring new and exciting ways to tell stories. Doing it on my own seems daunting, but working with someone would be so cool!
You hear that, game designers? Contact Jen! :)
Do you have any beta readers who read your early drafts?
I don’t share early drafts with peers because I don’t want too many opinions muddling my focus, but I do share them with my boyfriend, Jake. He’s the perfect sounding board because we have different individual tastes but we tend to agree on what does or doesn’t work. It’s a good way to have perspective on what I’m doing.
Any words of encouragement for female artists and/or gamers who love being creative but are hesitant to realize their potential, who think of their art as a hobby but ought to really turn it into a career?
I can’t really speak for games but the advice I’d give to female artists is, just do it! There’s no reason not to! Indie comics are a very robust and female-friendly community. Put your work online, go to conventions, meet people online, and I promise you’ll find lots of people who will support your creativity. Everyone just wants to read more cool comics!
Visit Jen at http://jenwang.net
Get a sneak peek at IN REAL LIFE at firstsecondbooks.com!