Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Interview with Comic Artist Queenie Chan

How would describe yourself as a creator?                                                                                            I'm a comic book writer-artist, and I identify myself as such even when I produce work that is in a mix of prose and comics. I draw mostly in a manga-style format, which is a style of comics popular in Japan and much of Asia. My background is in visual story-telling, and while I like to experiment with different types of narrative forms, it's very important for me to be able to tell my own stories. Because of this, I generally prefer to describe myself as a “writer who draws” rather than any kind of visual artist or illustrator. At heart, I'm a writer – namely one who likes to express myself in a mix of words and images.

What is your artistic background?                                                                                                          Whether in writing or drawing, I'm completely self-taught. Most comic book writers or artists of a certain age tend to be – it wasn't until these past 10 years that comics have become a dominant part of the literary and pop-cultural landscape. Personally, I never drew as a child – I only started drawing when I was 18, and only because I had stories I wanted to tell in comic format. I just picked up a pen and started drawing, and visual story-telling has been a hobby for me ever since. Since my motivation for drawing is to tell stories visually, I rarely produce art outside the context of a story, and this remains true today.

How do you make a living?                                                                                                                        I've been working for the family business since I was a teenager, so that is how I earn my keep. Many comic book writers and illustrators work outside comics to make ends meet, whether it's in teaching or graphic design, but thanks to my family background I've been able to avoid that and concentrate on what I love doing. There are a handful of comic book artists and writers who are able to make a full-time living from comics alone, but they are in the minority because drawing comics is such a labour-intensive and poorly-paid job. I don't mind this – for me, producing books at my own pace is far less punishing than working to a tight schedule, which is what you need to do in order to make a living in comics since a lot of the paying work is in serialised superhero comics.

When did you begin as an illustrator? What was your first publishing success?                                      I started writing and drawing my own comics as a hobby in university, but what propelled me into the comics industry was the 2002 dot com bust. I had just graduated from university with an IT degree, and was unable to find a job, so I began to look at the other marketable skills I had.
At the time, manga was beginning to take off in America. Almost out of nowhere, it became a sizeable and growing portion of the bookstore market. The company spearheading this success was TOKYOPOP, an LA-based company that was looking for international manga-style artists at the time, which is how I got my foot in the door. TOKYOPOP published The Dreaming in 2005, a 3-book mystery horror series about a haunted school in the Australian bush where schoolgirls disappeared. It was a quintessentially Australian story which sold fairly well and got translated into multiple different languages, so that was my first published work.

What books have you so far published?                                                                                               Like most comic artists, I have works published with publishers (in my case, both American and Australian), and also self-published works. In order of published works, my first published work was The Dreaming series (from TOKOYPOP), followed by three graphic novel prequels by Dean Koontz which I illustrated called “In Odd We Trust”, “Odd Is On Our Side” and “House of Odd” (from Randomhouse Del Rey). After that, I did some art for “Boy's Book of Positive Quotations” (from Fairview Press), and then I collaborated with Australian author Kylie Chan on a prequel called “Small Shen” (from Harper Collins Voyager).

Of my own self-published books which I publish under the name Bento Comics, I have the “Fabled Kingdom” series, followed by “Short Ghost Stories: The Man with the Axe in his Back.” I've also collected my older short stories into a book called “Queenie Chan: Short Stories 2000-2010”.

What is your starting point when you are about to create a graphic novel?                                                                                                                                                       If I'm writing the story, I always make sure that there are solid world-building and interesting characters. The characters should also have good rapport with each other, which will allow the world and the relationships to be expanded upon in an on-going format. Even if the story is a stand-alone, I have to make sure that there is enough fertile ground for the characters and/or the world to bear multiple different stories and story threads since comics is a serialised form of story-telling. Lastly, I make sure that there is a strong central story that will gird the characters and their motivations. Without a strong core story, the graphic novel may be a tough sell to readers even if you have a well-built world and characters.
If I'm just illustrating and not writing, then I always make sure I speak with the original author and understand their intent for their characters and story. Usually this starts with the character design process – I often ask authors to “cast” a story using Hollywood actors so I can grasp how an author “sees” a particular character. You'll be surprised at how often an author can give an incorrect visualisation of what a character is meant to look like.

Can you tell readers about your experience with your publishers?                                                        I've worked with a number of publishers and their imprints, including TOKYOPOP, Random House Del Rey, Fairview Press, Harper Collins Voyager and Hachiette Yen Press. As such, I've worked with a number of different editors too, and mostly I find that the publishers take a hands-off approach with the exception of Yen Press. One of the reasons is possibly because comics are such a new format in publishing that there are very few editors who know how to edit comics properly. Since I'm one of the few creators who can write, draw and edit, they seem to  mostly leave me alone and check in on me only once in a while. The one editor from Yen Press who had some input was mostly about character designs.

On the other hand, Bento Comics is my own publishing imprint, so I get to do what I want with my own stories. Oddly enough, there isn't much difference between working for myself and for established publishers, except for having to hire copy editors probably because the publishers have had such a hands-off approach all along.

How active are you in the comics’ world?                                                                                             I'm quite active with the Australian comics’ scene, which despite having a fair amount of talent is quite scattered across the country. I'm currently helping to procure a booklist for a comics library festival called “Comic Con-versation” which is a week-long festival involving 20 Sydney libraries that celebrate local comics. It was started by Karen Dwarte of Ashfield Library, and is in its fourth year of running, so it's great to see librarians be interested in Australian comics.
Apart from that, I exhibit at various comic and pop culture conventions across Australia, including Supanova and Comic-Con. I like going to the smaller cons especially, such as ComicGong and the Comic Con-versation Artist Alleys. I've also presented papers at academic conferences about the International Manga scene, and I sometimes run workshops too.

Are there any particular illustrators whose work inspires you?                                                               I think my greatest inspiration is still Osamu Tezuka, who is best known for being the creator of “Astro Boy” and “Kimba the White Lion” in the west. However, it's not his kid's work that I'm enamoured with (though it's perfectly fine), but his more challenging adult work. What I like about him is his humanism and his willingness to write for adults at a time when manga in Japan was still considered for children. Also, as a comics’ storyteller, he still does things with his panelling that I've not seen any other comic creator do.

I also like Eichiro Oda, the creator of “One Piece”, which is the best-selling manga in history. The breadth of his imagination is incredible; “One Piece” is the only weekly comic I've read that has been going on for 20 years, yet is still fun and interesting to read.

Which are your favourite books for young readers?                                                                                  I would recommend One Piece, since it's a fun, goofy adventure story about pirates that a lot of kids can get into. In terms of Western graphic novels, I can recommend a lot of work from the Scholastic Graphix imprint, which has a lot of great graphic novels for younger readers.

What are your future plans as a book creator?                                                                                          Now that I've finished Fabled Kingdom v1-3, I've considered continuing the story with another three books, but for now, I think I may take a break and work on shorter projects instead. I've been experimenting with colour (finally), and am looking to do some zines and mini-comics just to hone my skills. I'm also currently planning a longer graphic novel for teen audiences which will be in colour, so hopefully I will be able to nail down the colouring and the art style before I move onto that.


Anything else you’d like to add?                                                                                                               I have a lot of free comics, articles, tutorials, and random art on my website at www.queeniechan.com, so please feel free to drop by and contact me if you wish. I also have an online webstore with free shipping for Australia and the US, so you can buy some of my books for those who are interested in hard copies of my published work! 

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