Interview with Artist Deb JJ Lee

Deb JJ Lee is a Korean American artist currently living in Brooklyn, NY. They have appeared in the New Yorker, Washington Post, NPR, Google, Radiolab, PBS, and more. Books they have illustrated include The Invisible Boy by Alyssa Hollingsworth (Roaring Brook Press, 2020) and The Other Side of Tomorrow by Tina Cho (HarperCollins, 2024). They enjoy reality tv, sparkling water, and pretending to be an extrovert.

I had the opportunity to interview Deb, which you can read below.

What can you tell us about your upcoming graphic novel, graphic novel memoir, In Limbo? What inspired you to write this story?

On the surface, IN LIMBO is about the intersection of Korean-American diaspora and mental illness, and difficult maternal relationships. But deeper down, it’s about the trials of asking for and granting forgiveness to and from those you have hurt, including yourself. 

The roots of IN LIMBO started in 2018 in the form of a weekend project—a four-page comic about trans-generational language barriers that made its way around Twitter when Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast retweeted it! My agent Ed and I were working on a picture book pitch at the time when he suggested the idea of a graphic novel, which I never thought I’d be capable of doing. That four-page comic was my longest sequential work, so a 350-page graphic novel was unheard of.

But I knew I have always wanted to make a story like this, even back when I was in the 5th grade. I was so miserable even as a 10-year-old since so much has already happened in my life that I wanted to write something to let it all out, but I’m glad I waited. Then you had those draw-my-life videos on Youtube in 2012, 2013? I must have been around 16 or 17 around then. I didn’t partake even I wanted to so badly, but again, I’m glad I waited. But at the end of the day, I wanted to make this book for me—a letter, a therapy session for myself. I wouldn’t change a thing about it.

How did you find yourself getting into storytelling, specifically comics? What drew you to the medium?

Though I didn’t think I could make comics into a career until I literally started the pitch of IN LIMBO, I think there were instances throughout my life where I should have known it would happen. I remember making tiny little comics (early zines?) when I was very little, maybe around 7 or 8. I would fold a piece of computer paper into a book, write little fanfiction and draw fanart along with it and put them on display on my windowsill. I suppose that was my first solo tabling experience? But I think I stopped because my brother found them and told my friends, haha. But then afterwards I’d sneak into the comics section of Barnes and Noble when my parents weren’t looking and inhale as much material as I could. Though that, unfortunately, stopped at around 12 for a reason I cannot recall.

Growing up, were there any books/media that inspired you as a creative and/or that you felt personally reflected in? Is there anything like that now?

Continuing on from the previous question, I wasn’t allowed to read manga or any comic medium as a kid, so I had to find loopholes (sitting in the comics section of Barnes and Noble, reading Death Note or Fruits Basket on my iPhone 3GS before bed). But in 2007 I did convince my parents to buy me a copy of Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which is half prose, half illustrations, probably one of the first mediums that made me want to be serious about drawing well. I remember doing little studies of certain pages because Selznick was *the* artist I wanted to be back then! And even though Hugo Cabret isn’t a comic, I think the medium comes close.

However, there were no books that I knew of that I felt personally related to in the 2000s, the early 2010s. Obviously there a good deal now—I know I would have loved Almost American Girl by Robin Ha. Though Robin’s takes a different tone, the parallels on paper are quite similar to my own life—Korean in Alabama, art as solace, difficult familial relationships. 

As an artist, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration?

For IN LIMBO in particular, I had Inio Asano, Brian Selznick, Rosemary Valero-O’Connell, Jillian Tamaki, Mariko Tamaki, and Shaun Tan’s work sitting on my desk. But for art in general, I’m lucky to be in a community full of artist friends who inspire me with literally every piece they make, and to even take the time to blurb the book(!) Other sources of inspiration include Art Deco, Japanese woodblock printmaking, Moebius, and everything maximalist.

For those curious about the process behind a graphic novel, how would you describe the process?

Making a graphic novel gets emotionally taxing, no matter the topic. If a book has, say, 350 pages, with each page having 3-6 panels, that would be up to 2100 drawings. I worked on this book almost every day for three years, pumping out one page a day, and it was exhausting. However, to have it printed and in your hands has to be one of the most rewarding experiences, and a unique one too, especially for us digital artists. And when it’s out, it’s out—the book has a life of its own.

What are some of your favorite parts of the creative process? What do you find to be some of the most frustrating/difficult?

The best parts of the creative process has got to be the beginning and the end—writing the story, thumbnailing it out. The freedom is yours, the book can be everything and anything you want it to be. The possibilities are endless! And the end of the creative process is, well, you’re done, you can pop a bottle of champagne with your friends, and then start the next project.

The most frustrating/difficult parts is everything in the middle. Cutting things out, learning that parts of your story doesn’t land or make any sense. Figuring out what it’s like to work under the timeline you’re given, realizing that it’s unrealistic in this economy, and having to ask your editor for a 2-year extension and holding your breath as you wait for their response.

I made a promise to myself that my future graphic novels will be worked under my own terms of being given as much time as possible—it will be done when it’s done. 

What are some things you would want readers to take away from In Limbo?

As hinted earlier, forgiveness is really hard to earn and grant. You may never accept or want to give it. And that is ok. Our problems will usually never disappear, but we can learn how to tame them as they fade in and out.

What advice might you have to give to other aspiring creators?

To find or build your community! To have friends who understand what it’s like to struggle with yourself and the industry despite the level you’re at, and to have people you feel comfortable giving and receiving help from is an unparalleled experience. It’s a wonderful feeling to be able to recommend and share each other’s work, to bring each other up. Being a freelance illustrator and/or artist is a lonely practice, so to have people who you genuinely care about vastly improves the experience.

And on a similar note—kindness sometimes goes a longer way than being a good artist. There are plenty of people in the industry who are at the top of the game who have repeatedly been rude or mean to their peers, and word gets around. You don’t have to let your boundaries loose, just be kind!

In terms of skills, don’t be afraid to keep building your basic foundations. It’s always encouraged to break the rules, but you have to be very familiar with what those rules are. For instance, I think I have quite a ways to go in improving lighting and coloring—while I think I can tell what works and what doesn’t, there’s still a lot I am confused by. 

Also, avoid fixating on one artist to take inspiration from! Look back into history. Chances are if you have a visual problem you need solving, it’s been done 182379 times, multiple different ways. Looking into the past also helps you avoid emulating trends and saturated methods of drawing—it will make you stand out as an artist!

And when working on book projects, one of the most important things of the process is to have a good relationship with an editor, preferably one who understands the intense labor of drawing and can give you more time, which you should never feel shy asking more of. You only have one body!

Besides your work as an artist, what are some things you would want readers to know about you?

Related to IN LIMBO, I do see myself exhibiting similar patterns of hopelessness but I definitely improved a long way! My problems have never really disappeared, but I like to say that I’ve gotten much better at coping with them. 

And even though I’m a she/her in the book, I’m very much a they/them. The nonbinary bit came in after the book was finished, but I decided to keep it she/her in the book still because that’s who I wanted to be at the time. But a lot of people don’t know the difference, so I’m still misgendered in a lot of notes, unfortunately 🙁

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but wish you were (and the answer to that question)?

Question: How has writing a memoir make you look at your past differently?

Answer: Wow thanks for asking! Making IN LIMBO was therapy about a parallel universe. I’m much more comfortable talking about my past; writing about it for the public was the best way for me to process it all. The events that happened in the book vs in real life are as similar as I could make them, but the book version is much more palatable for readers. I wish I could have included every aspect (like how there were *three* orchestras I was part of instead of one, two different Korean schools, bullies in the New York art program, and how Quinn and I did meet up in Korea and were on good terms until 2018) in 350 pages, but that would make the story too complicated. The conclusions are the same, but the means to get there are slightly different. But I do worry that as time goes on I will start confusing one memory for one that I fabricated for the book. 

Are there any projects you are working on or thinking about that you are able to discuss?

I’m working on THE OTHER SIDE OF TOMORROW with Tina Cho over at HarperAlley, which is about kids escaping from North Korea. I should be done coloring it by the end of this year so I think it’s publishing in Fall 2024!

We also just announced MONSTER SEEK, a picture book with Rainie Oet at Astra Books about gender identity.

As for projects that only exist in my head, I do one day want to work on a book that mixes PACHINKO and CLOUD ATLAS. I have no idea how I would be able to accomplish that but that’s part of the challenge, isn’t it?

Finally, what LGBTQ+ books/comics would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

The classics: SKIM by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki, SUPERMUTANT MAGIC ACADEMY by Jillian Tamaki, DON’T GO WITHOUT ME by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell, MAGIC FISH by Trung Le Nguyen, STRAY by Molly Mendoza, and SPINNING by Tillie Walden.

Interview with Author-Illustrator Lewis Hancox

Lewis Hancox is a writer, illustrator, and filmmaker from North West UK. Mainly known for his online characters British Mum and Prinny Queen, he’s built a committed following and regularly produces viral comedy videos. He has been featured in the Channel 4 series My Transsexual Summer and co-created an ongoing film project about trans people called My Genderation. You can find him on Instagram and TikTok at @lewishancoxfilms, on Twitter at @LewisHancox, and on YouTube at Lewis Hancox. As a longtime fan of cartoons and comics, he’s proud to have created Welcome to St. Hell, his first graphic memoir.

I had the opportunity to interview Lewis which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

Thank you for having me! Hi, I’m Lewis Hancox, I’m a comedy creator and author-illustrator of Welcome to St Hell: My Trans Teen Misadventure. I grew up in a small, working-class town in North England, which definitely shaped my humorous take on life. I’ve always loved to entertain, so I started making comedy sketches where I play various characters (I’m mostly known as being “British Mum”). The videos unexpectedly went viral which led to an online following! I’m also a filmmaker and co-founded “My Genderation,” an ongoing film project celebrating trans lives.

What can you tell us about your upcoming memoir, Welcome to St. Hell? What inspired you to write this book?

Welcome to St. Hell is my memoir in graphic novel form, all about my life as a trans teenage misfit, growing up in the early noughties. In the first lockdown I was drawing a lot to pass the time and was suddenly inspired to draw my story! I realized the real lack of trans guy representation out there, and just trans stories in general that are told with humour and heart, in a totally non-political way. This isn’t just a transition tale, though. It’s a journey of self-discovery, whilst trying to fit in at a hellish high school, navigate family and friend dramas, cringey crushes and feeling like the only “fridge” (which meant you’d never snogged anyone). Anyone who is or has ever been an awkward teen will relate! And that’s what it’s all about for me, normalizing the trans experience and incidentally educating through entertainment.

How did you find yourself getting into comics? What drew you to the medium?

I’ve been drawing since I could clutch a pen. I remember watching all the Hanna-Barbera cartoons and reading comics like Calvin and Hobbes and dreaming that I could one day be a cartoonist! No matter what career path I’ve focused on, I’ve always been doodling away in my own time. I think I’m a very visual person, so telling stories through images comes more naturally to me than words.

How would you describe your creative process?

As a chronic self-doubter and perfectionist, I tried my best to let go and just have fun illustrating this book. The drawings don’t have to be perfect, in fact the imperfections bring the personality! I draw using my iPad and Apple Pencil, which gives me so much freedom (there would be a huge heap of scrunched up paper in the bin if I drew with an actual pen and paper!) With this book I didn’t overly plan it, I let the memories and ideas flow at their own rate and then sort of stitched the story together afterwards. A lot of the memories I’d buried deep, so I’d be drawing one scene and something important would suddenly resurface that I’d forgotten entirely! It was actually a genuinely therapeutic process for me, to revisit it all with a more positive outlook.

As an artist, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration?

I read a lot of graphic novels that are routed in reality but with a surreal twist. I loved the Scott Pilgrim series, that was when I realized comics don’t all have to be about superheroes—they can be about real human things like a character’s love life! I also take inspiration from film and TV, as I kinda see drawing a comic like creating a storyboard for a film. I’m a big fan of Edgar Wright films, they all have that cartoonish vibe. I’d also say just life in general is my inspiration! I like to write about the little, relatable things.

What would you say are some of your favorite craft elements to work on? What are some of the hardest?

This is a hard question because drawing in general is my meditation, I honestly enjoy every part. I like getting playful with perspectives, timings and expressions. I love when I get a really clear vision for a scene in my head, and seeing it come to life on the page. Obviously, I get creative block though, as everyone does. That is super frustrating, and the self-doubt massively kicks in! Sometimes I find structuring the story hard, especially if I’ve got all these clear ideas for scenes but I’m unsure how to make them flow from one to the next. I’m still learning!

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet, but wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)?

Something I often think about – if I could click my fingers and be born again NOT trans, would I? There have been times I would’ve said absolutely, yes, please let me be a cisgender man. But, actually, being trans has given me so many unique experiences. I’ve learned to turn the hard times into humour and art, which has brought me amazing opportunities. This journey has ultimately led to me achieving my childhood dream as a comic artist! I’m at peace now with the fact that I’m just a guy like any other, but with a different perspective of life.

Are there any other projects or ideas you’re sitting on and at liberty to speak about?

I can’t say much about this but Welcome to St. Hell definitely won’t be my last graphic novel! I’m also working on some exciting ideas with the My Genderation team, delving more into feature length fictional films. And I’ll be continuing to create my online comedy for as long as people are enjoying that!

What advice might you have to give to aspiring writers?

I would say just never ever give up! I’ve had countless scripts and ideas be rejected in the media world, but, similar to the knock backs in my transition, I just kept going! It still feels unbelievable to me now that I have a book being published with Scholastic. For me, writing about what I know has come the most naturally, so definitely take inspiration from real life (even if that’s in a more subtle way).

What LGBTQIA+ books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

Here are some awesome graphic novels I’ve read recently that contain LGBTQ characters: I Am Not Okay With This by Charles Forsman, Deadendia by Hamish Steele, Heartstopper by Alice Oseman, Fungirl by Elizabeth Pich, The Girl From The Sea by Molly Knox Ostertag, Kisses For Jet by Joris Bas Baker, and On A Sunbeam by Tillie Walden.

Header Photo Credit Jo Gabriel

Interview with Author Rebecca Burgess

Rebecca Burgess is a comic artist and illustrator working in the UK, creating award winning published and small press work. Along with drawing comics for their day job, Rebecca also loves drawing webcomics in their free time. Being autistic, they are particularly passionate about bringing more autistic characters into comics and stories! Outside of drawing comics and cuddling their cat, Rebecca also loves playing RPGs with friends, going on deep dives into history and growing vegetables in their humble Bristol garden.

I had the opportunity to interview Rebecca, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself?

Thank you for having me! I’m an illustrator and comic artist- I’m a little too obsessed with comics, I draw them both for a living and in my spare time too, and spend half my time reading other people’s comics haha

How did you find yourself getting into comics? What drew you to the medium?

I got into comics back when I was a kid in the late 90s/early 2000s- thanks to Pokemon blowing up, Japanese comics became really big over here in the UK and really drew me in more than any comics I had read before. In comparison to the UK comics of the time that were solely focused on gag strips or self contained sci-fi aimed at ‘boys’, manga had long running story lines, cinematic pacing and a wider range of genres/characters! When I was 14 I started selling small press comics and through that found the even wider range of art styles and genres that came out of indie and web comics! Back then these kind of comics appealed to me because they were telling stories and themes I hadn’t seen any where else, and I’d say this is why comics still inspire me the most today too.

How would you describe your creative background/ artistic education?

I have a Uni degree in ‘sequential illustration’ (basically comics lol), but to be honest the course was a bit of a mess for various reasons and I generally got more out of it socially than I did in terms of artistic development.

For me personally I would say I learned the most from the small press comic world. Way back before modern social media, all the small press/indie artists in the UK would use the same few forums to make friends and learn from each other. We would critique each other’s work, discuss/share published comics and give each other tips on new sources for printers or conventions. I learned how to develop my art through these friends, and as my older friends managed to get into the publishing world I then learned how to get into comics professionally too!

As an artist, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration?

In terms of overall inspiration, I think it changes over time depending on what I’m interested in. My drive to create comics generally comes from wanting to explore various things going on in my life!

Artistically, I have a few favorite artists that have really stuck with me in how I do comics. I love how Osamu Tezuka applies very cartoony/exaggerated expressions to big, serious stories. It’s a style that many people don’t get on with lol And I know some people don’t ‘get it’ with my art either. But after reading Buddha I realized that when an expression is exaggerated it just adds to the emotion of a moment or the personality of a character in those very serious moments and makes you care more, so I’ve always kept that.

Kaoru Mori’s style of pacing also has a huge influence- she effectively uses panel layouts that create very cinematic pacing. They look deceptively simple but flow beautifully. I admire comics with inventive and elaborate page layouts hugely, but for me nothing beats a comic where the layout is clear, simple and easy to read. If someone was able to eat through my comics within a couple of hours and all in one go, then I know that I’ve executed it well!

My other big influence is Posy Simmonds- she started as a satirical cartoonist and moved that style into long form stories. This makes her artwork and characters incredibly observational. She captures the variety both in how people look and how they move and act. I like to try to keep that attention to differences in body language in my own work! Posy Simmonds is also very loose and free in how she tells stories, she changes the medium and style a lot even within a single comic depending on what is working for the story. This has taught me to be more free in my process too  (over the years, as I get braver doing that haha).

What inspired you to write about your own experiences in How to Be Ace: A Memoir of Growing Up Asexual? Was there any conflict in how personal you allowed yourself to be with this story, particularly in regards to asexuality or mental health?

When the subject of asexuality comes up, alot of people both in real life and online say things like ‘Why do you need to make this into a big thing when its literally doing nothing?’ or ‘Its a sign that there’s something wrong with you, you should go to a doctor to see how to fix it’. I thought if I put the topic into a memoir, it would help asexuality seem more ‘human’ to people who dont see it as human, and more ‘relatable’ to people who think its about people just being over the top.

There was a lot of conflict over how personal to be. It was quite scary bringing the mental health aspect more into reality via the comic, its something I find hard to talk about in general. I also worried about shaping too much how other people in the comic were viewed (theres always more than one side to each story after all!). In that case though I was very careful to keep it all about me, change names and ask permission if I could from those who were featured more prominently in the comic.

Regards asexuality I was scared that even after the story was published people would respond as they often do by saying I’m being over the top. Thankfully I’ve only had positive comments about the comic, mostly from other ace people saying how nice it was to find something they could relate to! I’ve also had a few really nice messages from non-ace people saying they understand the experience better now which is especially nice!

What are some of your favorite parts of the illustration/ creative writing process? What do you feel are some of the most challenging or frustrating?

I like the ‘thumbnail/planning’ stage best- for me that’s the part where I basically write the comic, as I don’t generally write a script. It involves scribbling down interactions between characters and coming up with fun plot ideas, and then stitching that together into tiny thumbnail sketches where you can see the entire comic in front of you before its made. I also really like the ‘inking/line art’ stage. It’s very relaxing because its almost like drawing but without having to think too hard as you’ve already done the hard part in the sketch stage.

For me the hardest part of a comic is perspective and interior backgrounds. I still haven’t mastered either of these things and I also find them a little boring compared to drawing outside scenery or drawing characters- but they are often essential to telling a story and setting a scene, sometimes you just have to trudge through the things you find boring even when you’re being creative!

Aside from your work, what are some things you would want people to know about you?

I’m super interested in everything, it changes on a regular basis and always with the same intensity haha. Right now I’ve joined a Show Choir where we are singing musical numbers, and as spring comes round my yearly obsession with growing vegetables and flowers will return (I especially have a natural knack for growing good tomatoes!!)

As of now, are you currently working on any ideas or projects that you are at liberty to speak about?

I’ve been doing a few comics that are more focused on autism, another personal topic to me as I’m autistic!

I’ve been working on a graphic novel that’s coming out in September called ‘Speak Up!’- this is a comic about an autistic kid who is leading a double life. At school she’s treated certain ways because of how people assume her to be. But online she is a singer/songwriter who is going viral, and there she’s able to express herself more easily. Also in terms of lgbtq themes, one of Speak Up’s main characters is non binary (and very fashion-minded, I had a lot of fun coming up with various outfits for them haha)

I’m also making a webcomic called ‘The Pauper’s Prince’ that you can read online for free! With this comic I was watching Bridgerton last year and thought about how I want to see a light hearted regency style fantasy romance that looks like my own relationship with my girlfriend- I love regency dramas but they’re always with straight couples haha. The two main characters form a gay-asexual relationship, and one of the main characters is autistic too, so it deals with how that kind of romance might look. Being a drama there are various relationships in it, most of them lgbtq in various ways to keep with the theme!

In comparison to How To Be Ace, both of these comics are pure fiction and really focused on making fun, light hearted stories with these themes rather than tackling the hardships that come in real life.

What advice would you give to other aspiring creatives?

Learn to be okay with not being perfect, and to be okay with having ‘off days’. This is a very hard hurdle to get over, but once you do it helps in multiple ways- You improve more quickly because you learn to make mistakes and move on from them. If you’re looking to do art for a job, you will find it easier to maintain healthy boundaries and not overwork yourself/work long hours in order to make something ‘perfect’ (trust me the people paying you will not notice either way!) Most importantly, art becomes fun and a source of self expression, as opposed to a source of anxiety and pressure.

What is something you find enlightening or joyful about being asexual or being in the ace community?

Many people find this surprising, but I have found the asexual community to be extremely sex positive, and I’m really proud of that! I think this primarily comes from asexuality being so invisible, that asexuals have had to put quite a lot of work into researching sexuality in general in order to prove to themselves and other people that their experiences are ‘real’. We end up dissecting things like sexuality, kink, attraction, and libido a lot in order to better understand our under-researched experiences. So for me at least, I have found that I am often much more educated on sex in general than most non-asexual people I know!

I also think a lot of the concepts ace people are familiar with, such as the Split Attraction model or the different kinds of relationships you can have with partners, would really benefit everyone as a whole no matter what sexuality they are- so to me the asexual community has been contributing to sex positivity in a really meaningful way!

Finally, what LGBTQ books/comics (or comics in general) would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

My favorite asexual themed comic is ‘Shades of A’ (this is for 18+ only because of the themes). Its funny and cute, depicts perfectly the pressures of being ace and how you navigate relationships with someone who isn’t ace, and talks about the intersection between kink and asexuality- a topic that isn’t talked about enough or widely understood!

Buuza!! Is my current favourite lgbtq small press comic. Pretty much all of the characters are lgbtq in some way, and the creator is passionate about sharing their Central Asian/Middle Eastern culture within the comic, which gives it (for me, as a westerner) a fresh perspective in many ways in its story style and setting.

In terms of traditionally published comics I think my current favorite is ‘The Witch Boy’- beautiful artwork and so nicely paced, the themes are great and spun into a fantasy setting so that many different people will be able to relate to it in different ways.

Interview with Creator Laura Gao

Laura Gao is a 25-year-old queer artist, author, and bread lover. Originally from Wuhan, China, Gao immigrated to a small town in Texas when she was four. Gao’s art career began by doodling on Pokémon cards and has since blossomed to be featured on NPR, the MOCA in NYC, and most notably, her parents’ fridge. Her debut graphic memoir, MESSY ROOTS, was published on March 8, 2022 with HarperCollins.

Gao graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2018. She worked at Twitter as a Product Manager until 2020, when her webcomic, “The Wuhan I Know“, went viral on Twitter and ignited her art career. She swears on Jack Dorsey’s beard she did not pull any strings to go viral, and wishes people would stop asking her for tips. Besides drawing and complaining about early-onset back pain, Gao enjoys living nomadically and biking around the world, designing apps for nonprofits, bakery-hunting, and watching SNL. Laura’s pronouns are she/her and they/them.

I had the opportunity to interview Laura, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT. Could you tell us a little about yourself?

Thank you for having me! I am a queer artist and author of the upcoming graphic memoir, Messy Roots. I was born in Wuhan, China and then immigrated to a small town in Texas where I grew up. I’ve been drawing ever since I was a toddler doodling (and probably slobbering) on Pokemon cards, but I didn’t start pursuing it professionally until 2020 when a comic of mine went viral and got me a book deal. 

What can you tell us about your debut graphic novel, Messy Roots: A Graphic Memoir of a Wuhanese American? Where did the inspiration for this story come from?

Messy Roots is about my self-discovery journey as a queer, Chinese American teenager stuck between cultures, homes, and expectations of “who I should be” instead of “who I want to be”. It explores my differing experiences between Wuhan, where I was born and visited later on, Texas, where I grew up and experienced the most amount of racism and homophobia, and college and San Francisco, where I had to reckon with and love my entire identity.

Messy Roots started out as a viral comic I created called, The Wuhan I Know, which highlighted the beautiful things I loved about my hometown and shared my own experience with racism growing up and at the start of the pandemic. When the comic unexpectedly went viral, I received countless heartwarming notes from people around the world! The one that struck me the most was from an Asian-American mother whose daughters had read and were inspired by the comic, asking if I was planning on writing more. 

And that’s how this book began.

How did you find yourself getting into comics? What drew you to the medium?

I didn’t start drawing comics until after graduating college, although I’ve been reading them for as long as I could remember how to read. The most impactful graphic memoir I read, Spinning by Tillie Walden, was pivotal in helping me understand my own LGBTQ identity despite growing up in a conservative place like Walden did. After graduating college, I worked a standard corporate job but kept up drawing after work as a creative outlet. I’ve always loved telling stories, and had taken animation classes in college where I learned my favorite part was the storyboarding, so comics became a natural medium for me to explore.

For Messy Roots, I wanted to magically transport the reader into my shoes as they undergo the same identity-seeking journey I did. From squirming in embarrassment as the entire school mocks the Asian mathlete, to staring in awe at the beautiful Wuhan skyline reflected on the Yangtze river the first time I went back to my hometown, to my internal battle with identity portrayed by the white rabbit from Chinese candies and folklore. Comics enable me to marry my storytelling with my art to give readers the full, immersive experience.

As an artist, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration?

Makoto Shinkai’s works, Weathering With You and Your Name. Tillie Walden. Anime and manga I grew up on, like Yotsuba, Naruto, and Haikyuu. Comedy TV, like SNL, Parks and Recreation, and Sex Education.

In light of the pandemic and this being a memoir, this story seems like a highly intimate and potent project for you. Could you discuss some of the craft elements you utilized when trying to depict the personal?

Talking about personal and sometimes traumatic events is incredibly hard, especially when sharing with millions of strangers! However, in the same way I often cope with bad memories through humor, I balance out the heavier scenes with comedic ones throughout the book. It lets the reader take in all the Big Feelings while also allowing them a break before the next Big Feeling. 

I also depicted some intangible feelings through motifs, such as the dream-like scenes with the white rabbit from Chinese candies and folklore that symbolize my internal battle with my Asian American identity, and the moon being hidden by clouds as signs of my closeted feelings.

What are some things you would want readers to take away from Messy Roots?

I hope readers understand that everyone’s search for identity and home is different and complex. And that’s okay!

I just wrote a whole memoir about it, and every day I’m learning new things about myself. However, by letting your voice shine above the doubts, you’ll realize the right people and places will naturally gravitate towards you. No matter how messy your roots are.

What advice might you have to give to other aspiring creators?

Post terrible work! 

Yes, you heard right. The quicker you get over your perfectionism, the faster you’ll finish projects, get feedback, improve, and overcome imposter syndrome or “artist stage fright”. I give myself a deadline for when I must post the art, finished or not. Even if it has mistakes, after I post, I realize 99% of people never even notice. Ultimately my goal is to tell a story; I don’t need to be perfect to be impactful. 

When I look at “The Wuhan I Know” I see plenty of ways I could’ve improved it, and I’m sure I’ll feel the same about my book when it comes out, but if I kept the comic in my drafts trying to get it perfect, I’d never have published it and gotten the book deal to give me my dream career. 

Besides your work as an artist what are some things you would want readers to know about you?

I lived nomadically last year, splitting my time between Taiwan and Europe, and would love to continue exploring the world while drawing and hunting for the best bread. I also build websites and apps for various nonprofits. My bucket list includes biking every major long-distance trail in the world, and starting a media company that only creates queer joy content.

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but wish you were (and the answer to that question)?

What’s your favorite queer ship? Korrasami hands down.

Are there any projects you are working on or thinking about that you are able to discuss?

I’m currently working on my second book, which will be a queer rom-com about astrology throwing a group of teens’ lives into a hot mess! 

Finally, what LGBTQ+ books/comics would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

Any book by Tillie Walden, She Drives Me Crazy by Kelly Quindlen, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, Woman World by Aminder Dhaliwal, Flamer by Mike Curato, and Stone Fruit by Lee Lai.

Interview with Cartoonist Sophia Glock

Sophia Glock is a cartoonist who lives and draws in Austin, Texas. She attended the College of William & Mary and the School of Visual Arts. Her work has been featured in the New Yorker, Buzzfeed, and Time Out New York. Her latest book, Passport, is currently available for pre-order. She talks to her sister every day. I had the opportunity to interview Sophia which you can read below.

First of all, how would you describe yourself to new readers?

Considering that I just wrote a memoir that is ostensibly all about me I am always so stumped at how to describe myself. I guess I would say I am a comic book artist (or cartoonist or graphic novelist, whatever term works for you) who lives, draws, and raises babies in Austin, TX. At least that is where I live currently, but I move a lot and am used to being from nowhere in particular. When I am not working on my long-form comics I draw shorter funnier cartoons, often for the New Yorker. In my artwork I feel like I am always looking for contrast and paradox, and I like things that don’t fit neatly into categories, both visually and narratively.

Can you tell us about your newest book, Passport, and what readers can expect?

It’s a story about what it is to grow up away from your place of origin and confronting truths about one’s family and oneself. As a high schooler I was an American who never lived in US and that is the frame within I explore my attempts to differentiate myself from my family by adopting the very behavior they modeled in an attempt to hide their secret lives from their children and the world.  

What drew you to graphic storytelling? Were you always drawn to cartoons?

My fixation on comics started when I was 12 years old. Like many kids I’d always read comics (Archie, Garfield, Calvin & Hobbes), but when I discovered X-Men comic books it really broke my brain in a new way. I’d always been a compulsive drawer and storyteller, but here was this medium which did so much, made me feel so much. Comics are deeply satisfying, the interplay between the reader and the page is unlike other visual mediums. You are literally filling in the gaps, each page contains within it dozens of small connections and discoveries. Reading comics is not a passive experience and I find that exciting experience for readers. And they are so plastic, you can do so much with them. The budget stays the same, but where you can take it is unlimited. 

Passport is a recount of your experiences growing up in Central America, and later discovering family secrets? Was it hard to figuring out how much to tell and how much to simply allude to? How many restrictions came from outside circumstances or from one’s personal sense of privacy or feeling responsible for familial privacy?

Memoir is hard, period, but I couldn’t help but feel this was a particularly difficult process for me considering I had to parse all manner of secrets, some of them personal and some of them very official. I had to sort out which were the truths that I had the right to share, which truths I wanted to share, and which were not mine at all. Complicating matters was the fact that there was also an outside authority which had a legal claim on what I could and could not say and that added to the difficulty. I was also very worried about hurting feelings amongst some of my family members and former classmates. I also felt self-conscious talking about places and countries that were not “mine”. When I shared this with an old high school friend of mine, she gave me the advice that I had the right to talk about my truth, as I lived it, and that gave me a lot of peace of mind as I completed my story. I hewed closely to my own experiences, because ultimately that is all I can ever speak to.  

Though Passport is not an overtly queer story, the book does touch upon queerness, and your personal budding awareness of it? Could you tell us a little about that?

The were themes that continually cropped up in the writing of Passport, playing different roles, hiding parts of yourself etc., that dovetailed nicely with the parts of the story where I explore sex and sexuality. Like most of the things I was discovering in adolescence, sex was not a tidy or clear-cut part of my life and it resisted my expectations of what I thought it “should” or would be, which of course can be confusing, but also liberating.   

What advice would you have to give to creators, especially those who are artists or working on memoir material?

Write your first draft as if no one will read it. Editing can come later. Be kind to your past self, but also be kind to the people you knew then, even those who were not kind to you. It is very tempting to simply write about all the ways things were hard for us, but that leads to pretty flat characters and monotone storytelling. If you are going to write about other people you need to find their humanity as well as admit to your own shortcomings. Compassion is a powerful writing tool.

Are there any other projects or story ideas you are currently nursing and could tell us about?

Yes, I am working on my next book now and I am far enough along that I don’t mind discussing it. It’s still in process, but it’s a graphic novel about dreams and dreaming, not metaphorical dreams, but the literal act of dreaming and how it begins to affect my  characters’ waking lives.  

Finally, what are some LGBTQ+ stories you would recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?Oh so many! Off the top of my head, two books from the last several years that I am continually recommending to people are Flocks by L. Nichols and Spinning by Tillie Walden. The graphic memoir Fun Home and the graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby are also very important comics to me, both as a reader and as an artist.