The overall buzz on Fred Chao‘s Johnny Hiro (Half Asian, All Hero) [AdHouse] frequently boils down to words like “genuine” or “fun” or both. What else can you expect from a series that involves giant monsters, stolen lobsters and David Byrne? Well that’s just some of the things encountered in the first three issues. So naturally I was eager to interview him about his work, as well as an upcoming exhibition of paintings he has this Saturday, April 5 at Charmingwall Gallery.
Tim O’Shea: In terms of the backstory, I’m curious with Mayumi, why did you opt to create a character (in Johnny Hiro) who clearly is still learning the nuances of the English language but she makes a living as a copywriter (or is she a copywriter in her native language)?
Fred Chao: Perhaps it’s a weakness in my writing–I’m not sure yet–but the indulgence I let myself fall into most is humor. So a lot can be put aside for a good joke, as long as it doesn’t go against the characters. That said, I just thought it would be funny for Mayumi to be working on the editorial side at a major publishing house despite English being very obviously her second language.
I also wanted, despite her love of cutesy things, for her to come across as intelligent and able to hold her own. I think this aspect comes across more and more as the series continues. As we see more of her character, her jokes are becoming a bit more intelligent, yet still within her sense of humor and timing.
I’m currently working on issue 4, and in it, we will see the more professional side of Mayumi’s world. We will get a glimpse of her responsibilities at work, which not only incorporate copy-editing, but also juggling contract outlines and author schedules. Her position as an editorial assistant will become more rounded and less focus will be put on her English-speaking ability.
Still, I don’t think it’s contradictory to have a good ability with the written word and less so with the spoken. I think we are all more eloquent when writing than speaking. And when I think of a language like Spanish with all the different conjugations, I personally can’t keep them in my head when speaking, as speaking is so automatic, unconscious even. Yet reading and writing, I have a better grasp of the language’s more subtle nuances.
O’Shea: Logistically, how hard was it to pull off the photography portion of the cover for issue 3?
Chao: It wasn’t hard at all. I used to work at a photo retouching studio, and though I was never a retoucher myself, I learned a few Photoshop tricks. Unfortunately, my digital camera isn’t a good one so I had to play with it a little. I ended up amping a lot of the colors for vibrancy. Then just scanned in the cartooney pics of Johnny and Mayumi and placed them on top. I put a slight shadow under them with the ‘darken’ feature. The only iffy thing is that, once blown up to page size, I realized I didn’t have enough resolution (most printers need at least 300 lpi). So I artificially split the pixels by a lot, creating more of a slight blur than pixelation.
O’Shea: With the first issue, you launched into the action fairly quickly. In terms of a supporting cast, the first inkling we got of it was in the second issue. Was it always paced out this way, or did you initially introduce more characters in the first issue. And where did you come up with a cat name like “DJ Fuckin’ Thanksgiving”?
Chao: The thing is, I wasn’t really planning a series; I just wanted to do a fun one-shot. While I was working on it, I started creating more backstories and supporting characters. Once I came up with Mr. Masago and his relationship with Hiro, I couldn’t not make another comic. If I’m able to continue with the comic, Masago will become a much larger part of the story. I’m also excited about exploring the Super A-OK Robot characters in a later storyline.
Now, I have this huge backlog of stories I want to tell. There is a very plotted out journey I want to take Johnny and Mayumi on. I want to take the young couple on a trip back to Japan (and retell how they met), I want to pit Johnny in a cooking showdown against Shinto Pete, and tell the story of how Mayumi essentially discontinued the Super A-OK Robot project. These stories are a lot of fun to create, I just hope I have the chance to tell them all in between jobs.
At this point, most of the cast members have been introduced. There are a couple more, but the concentration will continue around Johnny, Mayumi, Johnny’s parents, Mr. Masago and Shinto Pete, and the cast of Super A-OK Robot. There will be a bit more of David Byrne and Toshi. And a lot more of the cats.
Heh. I’m glad you liked DJ Fuckin’ Thanksgiving. I love that name. I never could figure out how it went over with most people. It just makes me laugh.
O’Shea: Johnny is half Asian, what are his parent’s background?
Chao: There is a small glimpse of Johnny’s parents in issue 2. His father is Japanese. He was born in the mid-1940s, growing up in a post-Hiroshima Japan. Hopefully, this will become a larger story in later issues. He came to the US to pursue a career in international politics, but ended up doing business. I’m not sure where his mother is from yet, though I’m thinking it might be rural Pennsylvania. They met in Chicago during college in the 1960s, at a time when racial tension is pretty high, and a white girl with a Japanese man still turned heads.
This is, of course, all fodder for later stories. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
O’Shea: Some consumers take issue at describing someone as Asian [rather than specifying Japanese or some other possibility] (consider this post on Cecil Castellucci’s use of an Asian character in her Plain Janes book). Do you have a response to folks who might take offense to defining a character as half Asian?
Chao: This is an interesting question and, being Asian, I could go on and on about it, but I’ll try to keep it short. In the aforementioned blog, the blogger criticizes the author for not knowing what the ethnic background of Theatre Jane. I have not read Plain Janes yet (though it is on my reading list), so I’m only applying this answer to Johnny Hiro.
I think it’s very obvious that both Johnny and Mayumi are Japanese. In the tagline, I don’t specify, but the context of the stories and their situations make it apparent. Their names are Japanese, their world is inhabited by sushi chefs, Gozadilla, and giant robots.
I actually don’t think it’s bad to not specify, but I do feel it is an author’s responsibility to know. Maybe, as the Plain Janes books continue, they will delve into Theater Jane, explore her background more. The thing about ethnicity is, it can play an important part in your identity growing up, especially in an environment where you’re the minority. I do think that is an important thing to take into consideration when writing characters that aren’t in the cultural majority.
O’Shea: In the first issue, we meet [New York] Mayor Bloomberg, in issue 3 we meet David Byrne. Visiting your blog, I see your a fan of Byrne. Any plans to introduce another musical favorite of yours, like They Might be Giants?
Chao: I kinda wanted to stay away from guest stars unless they have a larger role to play. Except for the cameos of Alton Brown (food expert) and Jeffrey Steingarten (food reviewer) in issue 2, I wanted to make guest stars really contribute to the story. That said, Mayor Bloomberg will be back, David Byrne will be back. Both characters play a larger role in the unfolding of the Johnny Hiro story.
I’ve always wanted to incorporate Grand Puba of Brand Nubian. I always thought he and Johnny Hiro would make good friends. I’m about halfway through the pencils of issue 4 right now and Gwen Stefani just showed up. She wasn’t in any draft of the script, but I added her in at the last minute. I’m not a particular fan, but her presence made the story richer. I think that’s the deciding factor for me, if a celeb appearance will make the story more moving, rather than simply entertaining.
My initial drafts are pretty loose, which gives me room to improvise. Being someone who has taken in a lot of popular culture, I’m not surprised that musicians, politicians, and food critics make their way into the JH comics.
O’Shea: In the second issue, a lobster plays a major role. In the back of the issue, you have a diagram of a lobster as pin-up. Do you like to cook, or did you have to research that bit?
Chao: Let me just admit that I’m a Food Network junkie. I love all the cooking shows and they’ve really helped me get the most out of simple cooking. I’ve always liked cooking, it’s relaxing for me. And the shows have gotten me a lot more into it.
I always thought that, if I knew culinary school was really an option, I would have gone that route. I’m glad I didn’t though. I’ve spent my time working in restaurants, I know how it works, and cooking can be some of the hardest and unrewarded work in the world.
As for what is researched, well, I really don’t count food knowledge as research. It’s more of a past-time for me. One of my favorite shows is Good Eats, in which Alton Brown breaks down the science of food. Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential is a great book. And I’ve just started Mark Kurlansky’s The Big Oyster, a book about New York and its Oyster beds. This is all stuff I enjoy, so I hesitate to call it research. For anyone interested, I sometimes update food news on my blog, robotchao.wordpress.com. Yeah, I’m addicted to the NY Times Dining and Wine section.
O’Shea: Issue 3 has a blurb from one of the Found magazine folks, while issue 2 features praise from David Mack. Did Adhouse score those endorsements for you, or did you gather them yourself?
Chao: I’ve known Found’s Davy for a couple years now. At the time he was starting Found, some friends and I had started an independent publishing company called V52. It wasn’t comics, it was prose and occasionally poetry. It was hard to find contributors, and V52 eventually folded after very few books. One of the poets we published, Dewayne Dickerson, recently received a grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts. All of us at V52 were ultra-happy about that. Anyway, so Davy and I kinda knew each other from the indie publishing days. He’s a great guy, I was pretty stoked when he said he’d be happy to give me a testimonial.
I tend to like having people I know write testimonials; it makes the comic feel more personal.
As for David Mack, he’s simply one of the kindest people in the comic book circuit. He really makes time for everyone. I went up to him at a convention to thank him for the Kabuki Alchemy series. I don’t know why, but while we were talking, I asked for a critique of JH (this was long before the first issue was published). He asked me a bunch of questions about what I planned to do with it, gave me some advice, and let me know it was okay to contact him. After deciding to go with Adhouse, I decided to contact him, not only to ask for a testimonial, but also to let him know how much his advice helped me out.
O’Shea: Looking over your first three issues, can you point to certain storytelling aspects that you think you’ve steadily improved upon in these early issues?
Chao: That is a great question. I always feel like I’m working towards something specific with each individual issue. A lot of the first issue was juxtaposing image with narration for maximum humor, the second issue was attempting to create a sense of intimacy even during action scenes, and so on. As for what has steadily improved though, I think the simple act of drawing backgrounds has contributed the most. The scenes that happen around the drama really help fill it out, give the drama a clearer feel. There are times when I rush my way through or fake a background, and I see it instantly. I’m trying harder not to do that anymore. I’m working on issue 4 and nailing all the backgrounds. I’m feeling pretty good about it.
Perhaps the biggest thing I’ve improved on is character development. It’s one of the fun things about writing a serial, you get to return to characters, keep exploring them. As I said, Johnny Hiro started out as a fluffy one-shot. For a long time, I didn’t know I was even interested in exploring these characters and their relationships. But as the issues go on, all of it gets just a tiny bit deeper. I’m really hoping to be able to do more issues. I mean, honestly, they’re a lot of fun to write.
O’Shea: How did the project land at Adhouse? Does Chris Pitzer serve as the editor on the book–or are you editing your own work?
Chao: Once I had finished with the first issue, I sent it out to a couple different publishers. Chris was the first to respond. I was familiar with Adhouse from the wonderful Project anthologies. And I absolutely love Skyscrapers of the Midwest. I’d say I ended up in good company.
As for editing, Chris and his wife give the book a good copy-edit before publication. For the bulk of editing, I work closely with an old college friend, who I’ll just call JP Hootiger. Hoot and I used to write short stories. We trusted each other’s opinions and eventually started no-holds-barred critiquing and editing each other’s work. I’ve always thought of him as my writing partner, everything goes through Hootiger.
I’ve known a lot of talented writers and editors, but not all of them will work great with you and connect with you. Those people are few and far between. I’ve always valued Hootiger for that.
Chao: I am doing a small gallery show of paintings and illustrations at the Charmingwall Gallery (West 4th Street between 6th and 7th) in Greenwich Village. Gallery opening will be from 6-8 on Saturday, April 5th, anyone is more than welcome to drop by and say hello. The paintings will show all that month. More info will be at www.charmingwall.com.
Otherwise, it’s more Johnny Hiro and trying to get some illustration jobs. And of course, more work. Man, it just don’t stop, do it?