GINA GAGLIANO: Freestyle dancing is obviously a big topic in your new middle-grade graphic novel (as is clear from the title). How did you get into freestyle dancing? Do you dance yourself?
GALE GALLIGAN: My first exposure to breaking was this kid I knew at Thai temple who would improvise the coolest moves while playing Dance Dance Revolution, which just blew my mind. Then when I moved to New York City in 2010, I was enamored with all the b-boys and b-girls I saw. I found a dance studio that offered classes, and I still remember walking back to my dorm with my iPod afterwards, trying out steps in the moonlight. I was not cool. It was very embarrassing. But I love the individuality and energy of breaking, and I really admire people who are good at it.
Same question about yo-yos—also a big focus in Freestyle!
Sometime in 2014, I stumbled across a competitive yo-yo video. It was nothing like the yo-yo I remembered from the '90s! They had this whole routine set to music, throwing in time to the beat, sending the yo-yo behind their back, over their head, between their legs. I was absolutely blown away. Five billion videos and a few forum searches later, I owned a new yo-yo. Much like with breaking, I’m still very much a novice, but it’s so much fun.
Your main character Cory watches a lot of yo-yo vids, and I’m assuming you did too in your research! Can you share a favorite? (Is there a real-life inspiration for your book’s yo-yo shop owner/mentor Mr. B you can share a video of?)
Oh my gosh, there are so many! One that I keep rewatching is this video of Shu Takada throwing along to BTS’s "Butter". It’s really accessible and full of joy. I saw it after I’d already drawn most of the book and was like wait, this is so inspiring! It would have been really helpful to see last year!! I also love this video of Betty Gallegos in competition. It’s a great showcase of the 1A style of play (using one unresponsive yo-yo), which is what Sunna teaches Cory. You get really invested in Betty’s performance—I find myself holding my breath when the beat picks up.
A lot of the conflict in Freestyle is about balancing the time commitment of friendships and sports with parental scholastic expectations. What inspired you to write about that subject?
This is really interesting—while I was writing Freestyle, I was mostly thinking about all the different kinds of expectations people can find themselves grappling with, external and internal. The time aspect hadn’t occurred to me. But that really is a factor, isn’t it?
It probably has something to do with my own experiences as a kid. When I was in high school, I threw myself wholeheartedly into all kinds of activities. I co-founded an anime club; I played varsity tennis; I was on the competitive robotics team and played piano for the spring play. And then I’d be going to Thai temple, trying to enter manga competitions, and hanging out with my friends in between all of that. It didn’t feel unusual at the time, but in retrospect, that is maybe a lot?
Middle grade books famously have a lot of orphans (or parents who are otherwise absent) because authors tend to push adults to the side so that kids can have adventures without interference. But parents are a huge presence in your book for both your main characters. Why was that important to you?
You know, I get it! Kids have their own huge interior lives, and middle grade books tend to clock in around 150, 200 pages. There’s only so much time to cover everything, so sometimes parents just have to see themselves out (sorry, parents). I wanted to give Cory and Sunna’s parents some space because, well, I was using them to process my own stuff. Selfish of me, I know.
While I was working on Freestyle, I was thinking a lot about parenting—both in respect to the way I was raised, and in my own life, having given birth while working on the book. What does it mean to want the best for your child? How do you express that in a healthy way? What little things are they going to remember a decade from now? I wanted to use Cory and Sunna’s parents to explore different approaches to those questions, and to show the impact they might have on Cory and Sunna as middle schoolers. When I was their age, I assumed that my parents were the law and everything in my life was normal; it wasn’t until I talked with more people and learned more about the world that I understood there were many different types of parents. So it was partly my hope that including characters like this might be useful for readers who were sorting through their own experiences and feelings.
Cory and his dance troop fight a lot about the importance between choreography and improvisation/going with the flow. Do you have your own preference here?
Ooh! It’s gotta be both for me. I want a solid foundation to build off of, but if you feel something in the moment, you want the flexibility to go with it. Compromise!
And I’m curious if that’s something that translates to your comics-making process as well—is there a tension between a planned script/layouts and inspiration that comes in along the way?
Haha, that’s exactly where my mind went for your previous question. I do a lot of planning in advance—I write detailed scripts and then thumbnail everything out, so I won’t feel stuck down the line—but there’ll always be moments where I realize something just isn’t working the way I wanted, or I get the feeling that a scene would read so much better with one extra page. That can be frustrating, because it’s extra work and deadlines are always on the horizon, but I love having the author-illustrator flexibility to say “wait, there’s a better way.”
Freestyle is set in New York City—what was it like to draw the city?
Sweet, sad, and hopeful. I drew most of Freestyle during 2020, when I was pregnant and quarantining at home 40 minutes outside of NYC. I missed the city, I missed my friends. If you look at the first spread, you can see a little drawing of me sitting on the steps at Union Square with three good friends; this book kept me going in a lot of ways.
That’s the meaningful answer, but can I also just say that the round structure covering that one subway station entrance at Union Square is so annoying to draw in perspective? It’s a circle, but not. It’s pointy and round. I did so many different passes on that thing.
You draw people communicating a lot with their phones in this book. What was it like to figure out how to draw internet communication? Are there any visual representations of this that you draw inspiration from?
After four Baby-Sitters Club books, I was ready to draw some group chats!! I’m always fascinated by how people communicate, online and off. I’d read Gretchen McCulloch’s Because Internet right around this time. It’s a really fun linguistic exploration of how online communication styles have evolved (anyone remember ^_^s?), and I did feel personally attacked during a lot of it. So that was a jumping-off point on the character side, I think—how are these individual kids going to use their phones? More gifs, emojis, silly misspellings? I wanted their texts to feel like an extension of their personalities. And then I wanted to incorporate all of that into the art as much as possible, so I hand-drew a lot of their chat balloons and emojis.
As for points of visual inspiration, you will be shocked—shocked!—to hear that I pulled Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me off of my shelf more than once during the process. I love Rosemary Valero-O'Connell’s layouts; two of her penciled pages are actually on the wall right in front of me right now. I also really love Pseudonym Jones’ comics. They’re so appealing, and the way she draws communication really speaks (ha!) to me.
Kids books get a lot of criticism from adults for being message-forward—focusing on a message or moral, sometimes to what can feel like the expense of the character or plot of development. Reading Freestyle, I feel like your book escapes this criticism entirely—is that something you consciously aimed for?
I appreciate that! I will say it’s a tough one, because, like... kids’ media is for kids. Is the story working for the kids? Then maybe it’s okay if the message is a little on the nose, even if I personally as an adult reader would have preferred more nuance. I think there is space to recognize that some stories are written with a particular audience in mind and will be more effective for that audience, even if critics have other expectations. That said, I also think that sometimes adults don’t give kids enough credit. They assume kids won’t pick up on nuance or appreciate more complex stories, and as gatekeepers, they can make it so that message-forward stories are more likely to make it out into the world. My personal recommendation would be to put a copy of Animorphs into the hands of every child and see what happens from there.
To answer your question... I think that, while I wanted to explore a lot of the themes we talked about above, my main goal was to make a story that felt satisfying to me personally. And as a person, I am far too chaotic to go all in on one message. I wanted to talk about five billion different things while also drawing a big group of tweens dancing and learning about yo-yos.
It’s a miracle that this book even exists.
How did you end up working on the Baby-Sitters Club graphic novels?
A lot of factors aligned for me. I was at SCAD pursuing my MFA in sequential art from 2013-2015 (and I have a lot of complex feelings about private art schools, student debt, and the viability of cartooning as a career in America, so please do not take my experience as a full endorsement). One thing that SCAD does is a yearly event called Editor’s Day, where editors from a variety of comics publishers come to review portfolios, hear pitches, and talk to students about the industry. I knew that I wanted to make comics for young people, so my portfolio was entirely composed of samples with that in mind, and I was very lucky that (Scholastic Graphix Creative Director) David Saylor happened to be visiting during my final year at SCAD.
I followed up afterwards, as every earnest student does, and we kept in polite touch for months after I graduated. Then on a whim, I asked if Scholastic had ever considered adapting a certain prose property of theirs that I was a fan of. To my surprise, David replied saying that they hadn’t—but now that he knew I was interested in adaptations, would I like to test for the BSC? This was after Graphix had released the color editions of Rainav[Telgemeier]’s four books and they were talking about continuing the series. David introduced me to (Scholastic Graphix Editorial Director) Cassandra Fulton, I sent over test pages, they ran the pages by (Baby-Sitters Club original author) Ann M. Martin, and everyone gave their approval. I cannot tell you with words how many feelings I had about all of this. It was a really intense period of my life. They ended up signing me for two BSC books as well as the two pitches that I’d shown them on that Editor’s Day, one of which was Freestyle.
Did you read the books as a kid? Did you baby-sit as a kid?
Yes and yes! I was a big fan of the series growing up, although I was more of a casual baby-sitter. I still remember being very annoyed at a seven-year-old who kept making up games that only he could win. Every time I thought I had it, a new rule would appear. Rude!!
Friendship is such a big theme in these books! How did it feel to work on a series of books that center friendship so prominently?
Here is a list of some of the stories that made the most impact on me growing up: Baby-Sitters Club, Sailor Moon, and Yu-Gi-Oh! The thing that they have in common is friendship. I don’t know what makes me this way exactly, but something about friendship stories—especially when that friendship manifests in magic or a special strength that you wouldn’t have on your own—really gets me right at the core. I loved being able to participate in this tradition, both as a fan of the BSC and as a cheerleader for the concept of friendship.
Scholastic does a lot of events for the Baby-Sitters Club—introducing the series authors to kids, at conventions, in schools and libraries and bookstores, at festivals, at book clubs. How has that experience been for you? Are you traveling a lot?
I absolutely loved doing BSC events when my books were coming out, and I’m excited to continue doing them in future! One of my favorite memories is of a signing I did with (original Baby-Sitters Club graphic novel adaptor and best-selling graphic novelist) Raina Telgemeier and Ann M. Martin; first, because it was wonderful to spend time with two people I admire very much, and second, because it really drove home how much of a long-lasting impact this series has had. Twelve-year-olds and forty-year-olds were coming up at the same time saying, “I love The Baby-Sitters Club, it changed my life.”
I’m not traveling as much as I was in 2019, for the usual reasons. I’m just now starting to get out again with Freestyle promo. So it’s interesting—I feel rusty, but I’m also so excited and grateful about everything I get to do. Getting to talk to young readers always puts me over the moon. They’re so sweet and earnest and creative, and they indulge me when I demand book recs (I hear Wings of Fire is hot right now). I’m really excited about getting to table at MICE in Boston the week Freestyle comes out—it’s one of my favorite comics events.
How did you feel about the television adaptation of the series?
I loooove the Netflix adaptation. I firmly believe that adaptations should have a driving purpose beyond “translate the thing word for word into a different medium,” and this one absolutely did. It has so much heart and humor, the actors were wonderful, and I felt like it really got at the core of what Ann was doing with the original series without feeling too bound up by small details. I will say that sometimes I got a bit huffy when I wished I’d thought of something first.
You were featured in the Baby-Sitters Club documentary The Claudia Kishi Club [2020, concerning the fandom surrounding the longstanding Japanese-American Baby-Sitters Club character]—what was that like? It seems like it must’ve been very different from the day-to-day of the cartooning life!
Sue Ding, the documentarian, reached out to ask if I’d be interested in interviewing for a short film that she wanted to Kickstart. As a long-time Claudia fan myself, I was delighted to be involved, but also very nervous. You know! I draw things, I don’t sit in front of cameras, and when I do it’s my own camera and I get 50 retakes because Scholastic has asked me to film one (1) minute of me talking about visual literacy. So I wore my most powerful bunny print shirt to compensate for those nerves, and Sue was really warm and welcoming. I ended up having a lot of fun and I loved watching everyone else’s interviews later. I had no idea that it would end up with Netflix—that was a huge surprise!!
The Claudia Kishi Club segment with you concluded with a quote—“I want to see people like me doing cool shit.” Can you talk about some of your favorite cool things people are doing? Are there more cool things you’d like to see?
Ohhhhhhhh goshhhhh. So many! So many!!
Recently, Sunmi and Mar Julia self-published a queer josei anthology zine called Datura, which I love. I’m also reading through all of the incredible comics I bought at the Shortbox Comics Fair, which is a digital event that runs through October and it’s just so groundbreaking and wonderful and deserves some kind of genius grant.
There’s so much movement in all your comics! Can you talk about how you envision movement and action when you’re drawing?
I love movement. I love acting. I studied animation in undergrad, and a lot of my approach is derived from that experience. We did a lot of motion studies and gesture drawing, where you’re trying to quickly capture the core idea of a pose. The goal isn’t necessarily to be exact, but to communicate an action to your audience in an effective and interesting way. You’re pushing the pose further, trying to show a mood, making it visually appealing, looking for a line of action and letting your pose flow around that. So I’m trying to do all of that, but I’m also trying to be conscious of how the comic itself is looking—is there a way I could draw this that would also help the page read better? It’s a really fun balance.
Your sound effects are great! You have so many different hand-drawn type styles throughout your books for everything from stores to phones ringing to sighing.
I love creative sound effects and I really want to keep pushing myself there. I love Tatsuki Fujimoto’s approach to sound effects in Chainsaw Man, where they feel like a part of the action themselves. I love the way Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou talks about effects. And Tess Stone’s effects are just the coolest. I’m chasing after all of them. It’s such an incredible and versatile art. Letterers deserve many, many more flowers.
Your graphic novels tend to have collage-like pages with drawn objects, calendars, photos, schedules, and excellent washi tape patterns. How do you think about those pages as you’re making your book?
One thing that I really enjoyed about working on The Baby-Sitters Club was all the problem solving I got to do. When you’re adapting prose, you’ll have some segments that are necessary but also kind of wordy. For example, “here’s a list of all the ways Stacey thinks she and Mary Anne are different.” I could have done that as a caption over two panels, but I thought it’d be a fun opportunity to showcase Stacey’s personality a bit. Maybe she thinks in bullet journal style, with cute washi tape and little notes to herself. So I think that approach is something I’ve carried forward from my time with the BSC: if there’s something I have to show, how can I make it fun?
It also helps that I love washi tape and cute stationery.
You’ve worked with colorists for your graphic novels—Braden Lamb for the Baby-Sitters Club, and K Czap for Freestyle. What has that process been like?
I am so, so grateful to have been able to work with Braden and K. One of the reasons I love school visits is that I get to tell the kids all about the amazing colorists I work with, and then they go, “wait, that’s a job! That’s amazing! I want to do that!!”
Our process is set up so that I’ll send ink files to my editor Cassandra, sometimes with little notes like “hey, this character is a secret cameo, please color them like so,” and she’ll pass them along to the colorist. The colorist will send finished pages back to Cassandra and the design team, who will give their notes, and after that I’ll get to look at the pages and share any thoughts I might have (all-caps praise, mostly). It’s interesting, because sometimes it’ll make me realize that I had a preconceived palette in my mind while I was working, and that’s never what comes back. It’s always so much better than I would have been able to do on my own!!
Tell us about why Sonic is awesome!
He’s confident, he’s funny, he’s totally extra and something about him is just really joyful for me.
My sister and I used to check out the 1996 OVA movie from our local video shop and watch it over and over again. We’d quote it back and forth at each other. Then a few years ago, I started trying to draw him on a whim and realized that I’m just obsessed with his character design. He’s so appealing. There’s nothing like a well-drawn Sonic. I’m constantly in awe of people who can draw him well. If you haven’t read the IDW comics, I’d really recommend those—there isn’t a long backstory to catch up on, they’re well-written and fun, and the art is just gorgeous.
How did you come to write your Sonic comic "Dr. Eggman’s Birthday"?
So when I was figuring out how to draw Sonic, I started posting the sketches online, going “man, I love this little guy, he’s my best friend, look at him.” Sometime after that, David Mariotte at IDW reached out to my agent. Something along the lines of “hey, we like Gale’s work, and it appears that they also like Sonic, let’s collab!” They asked me to pitch a few ideas for their 30th anniversary anthology. And, well, if it’s Sonic’s anniversary, that means it’s Eggman’s too.
I thought it’d be really fun to tell a goofy-but-heartfelt story about how much Eggman’s Badniks love him, and the artists, Thomas Rothlisberger and Nathalie Fourdraine, ran with that and absolutely killed it. The panel of Eggman after his shower still delights me to this day.
What inspired your Jon-themed minicomics?
I’m still not quite sure what happened. Much like how I decided one day that I wanted to draw Sonic, there was a day when I said, “how on Earth do you draw Jon Arbuckle?” I have pages of sketchbook studies with little notes scribbled down like “sausage fingers, hair lump.” During all of that, I found myself on the Wikipedia page, learned that his middle name was Quentin, and was reminded that canonically, the man is a cartoonist. The first few strips have him at a drafting table, and then it never comes up again.
I got to thinking—what kind of cartoonist is this guy? Does he go to cons? Is he on Instagram? Does he just post stories of his cat? How is he paying the bills? And I spiraled out from there. It definitely turned into more of a vehicle for me to express some personal feelings, and it means a lot that those minicomics ended up resonating with so many people. I love that we got to connect over Garfield.
Your love for the small press comics convention scene really shines in these minis—can you talk about that, and about putting Jon into that space?
When I started getting into comics, events like SPX and TCAF really made me feel like I had a place and a purpose and a community. Everyone was always excited to be there and they were excited about comics. The craft, the stories, the physical objects. You could pick up a zine about anything and talk to the cartoonist about what they were going for, what they used to make it. Small press comics conventions and festivals are where I feel the most in love with comics. They rekindle my excitement and make me want to try new things. They get me stoked for all of the wonderful places comics are going to go from here. Comics are so cool and the people who make them are incredible.
So I dropped Jon Arbuckle from Garfield right on in there.
It’s funny because Garfield on its own is about as far as you can get from a one-sheet mini. The cat has phones shaped like him. But... if Jon were making comics today, what would bring him joy? How wonderful would it be for him to sit next to other people who shared his passion and learn from them? To see that his comics had made an impact on someone? If I’d drawn any of that as a regular autobio comic, it would have felt so extra and self-serving. You would have torn the thing in half. But adding the absurd layer of “hey, it’s that Garfield guy” let me be a little more sincere. Funny how that works.
What’s your favorite Garfield possession? Did you ever get to the Canadian ‘Garfield Eats’ restaurant?
I’m wearing it right now! I bought a Garfield watch recently. The watch face is his face. My child looks at it and goes “cat, cat.” My second favorite after that is a tie between all of the strange and wonderful Garfield things that people have handed to me at conventions over the years. It’s like when you know your aunt likes elephants and everyone gives her elephants. I have a little sticker sheet from 1997. I have a 3D printed Garfield inspired by Ozymandias. And the zines! The zines!
I did not ever make it to the Garfield Eats restaurant and regret that immensely. Please come back. There is demand, and the demand is me.
With both Garfield and Sonic, you’ve written stories about a character who’s not the central protagonist. Why is it interesting to explore these less prominent figures in existing properties?
It feels like there’s more space to just play around, since your reader’s expectations aren’t quite as set in stone—kind of like how the Marvel screen adaptations I tend to like best are the ones where they grab a character that fewer people are invested in and just have fun with them. It’s also less likely that someone’s already written the story you’re thinking of, haha.
THE FANS WE WERE
You run an interview series with comics creators about the fandoms that they love and were into growing up. Talk about the fandoms you were into as a kid!
Yu-Gi-Oh! was my big one! I watched the series as it aired on Kids WB from the very first episode. This started during a time when I wasn’t super-online—I’d learned how to make an email address in school, and I emailed my friends sometimes, but that was most of what I did. Then I looked up information about the show. I stumbled across fanfiction sites and Yahoo groups where people would share their fanart. I found out about LiveJournal and deviantART. I started posting my own fanart and fanfiction and making friends online because of that, which really did change my life.
Why were you inspired to do The Fans We Were interview series?
Some of the best conversations I’ve had with people have been about the stuff they were super into as a kid. There’s something very special about that really pure enthusiasm, before you grow older and get too interrogative or self-aware about what you’re doing. So sometimes you come across these Twitter threads like, “Visited my parents for the holidays, look at my old fanart, haha!” And the affection for that past self, the pride in them, is always so evident. I thought it’d be so fun to grab some friends and bully them into dragging out old memories for me, and it’s been the absolute best.
Have you learned anything cool or surprising?
I never really got too deep into Homestuck, so I loved hearing about Victor Martins’ experience - they became a fan, got online, decided being online wasn’t for them, logged off, and started a local fan club. The initiative!! I love it. I’m always really interested in what happens when people connect with each other over shared interests, how that affects our growth as people, and the ways in which our modes of connection continue to evolve.
Have you gotten into any new books or media through this?
Yeah!! These cartoonists have incredible taste. Highlights include the podcast You’re Wrong About, the game Sayonara Wild Hearts, and the manga Blue Flag.
You’ve done a few autobio minicomics called Weeb. I’m curious about that choice of title—it’s a term I’ve often heard used negatively. Can you talk more about that?
Haha, yes! Weeb is short for “weeaboo.” I don’t know how (or whether) it’s used now, but in the early 2000s, I’d hear the word used to describe someone who was way too invested in anime and Japanese culture. And, well, I was a little dweeb in high school. I was buying shirts that said “otaku” on them, drawing Inuyasha posters for class presentations, calling my friends so-and-so-chan, and that last one causes me physical pain to think about. My original concept for the Weeb minicomics was, I wanted to tell some short stories about my relationship with anime as a teen, because it made such an impact on me and the way I expressed that was very heartfelt, even if—and especially if - it was embarrassing at times. “Weeb” seemed like a good way to put it: a loving dunk from me, to me.
In your first Weeb comic, you use manga-style storytelling and conventions as a framing for your high school romance history. It’s really fascinatingly done – I’d love to hear more about how you think about the kinds of stories we read affects the way we think about life.
I love this!
I started noticing in middle school that often, when I read a really good book, it would affect my internal monologue for a few days afterwards—kind of like how you pick up an accent if you listen to it for a while. I was really into Orson Scott Card around that time, before I found out about his whole deal, and my adverb use spiked exponentially. I’d be internally describing my actions, like, “Gale said, quietly.” I think that the way comics are structured can lead us into this, too, like how Honey and Clover has these long, heartfelt narrative captions that pace themselves out slowly. If you read that for long enough, you find yourself taking the time to reflect on your own life in a similar way.
So I’m lucky I got into romance manga and not the really gritty stuff, I guess.
I can see your manga inspiration in your work, especially in your line and your panel composition and in your characters’ expressions of emotion. Can you talk about how reading manga has impacted your comics?
Thank you! I’ve definitely absorbed a lot of manga conventions over time; both the easily discernible ones, like sparkly eyes, and the more subtle stuff, like layouts. I love that you can see this inspiration in a lot of cartoonists working today—we can access and absorb so many different kinds of comics that would have been harder to get into 30 years ago, and all of that finds its way onto the page.
One big takeaway for me has been pacing. I love stories that let themselves breathe, the ones that take the time to luxuriate in a big feeling or show moments passing by or even just land a good joke. It’s balance. It’s music. The drums pull away, you pause, and then everything rushes back in and feels more powerful for the absence. A lot of my favorite manga really pace things out and trust you to stick around, and I love them for it.
Another is the idea that comics can be about literally anything. When I was a teen, I saw so much more variety in manga than in the American comics I had access to, just because of how our industries were set up at that time. Publishers were targeting different kinds of audiences and putting work out on a different scale. Tennis, card games, demons, office workers and children living their everyday lives, wine competitions. Anything was possible.
Obviously there was other stuff going on in American comics that I didn’t know about, not to mention the rest of the world, but again, early 2000s.
Your autobio comic, Farang, about a trip you took to Thailand as an adult, is wonderful. What about that trip specifically inspired you to make a comic about it?
My memory isn’t always the best, and one of the ways I deal with this is keeping records of things. If I draw it, if I take the time to make it into a comic, I’m more likely to remember it. But I also adore travelogues and journal comics, and I love drawing wherever I go. So when I was invited to a relative’s wedding in Thailand, I knew that I wanted to draw the experience.
It wasn’t until partway through that I realized there was an overarching personal story there, about my relationship with this place and people, my feelings of belonging-but-not, my love and my yearning.
My mom ended up showing it to my grandma, which is mortifying.
The title, Farang, means foreigner, and the comic really centers around your experience of belonging-but-not-belonging in Thailand. Can you talk more about that?
The word farang can have some baggage, depending on who you are. For Thai people, it’s more matter-of-fact. For me as a mixed kid, it was a word that came out when I did something not-Thai, like, say, not being able to eat super-spicy food. So it was this fond but distancing word, like, “aw, look at you, farang.” It’s a word that kind of encompasses the feelings in the comic for me.
When I went to middle and high school in America, the white kids would try to figure out why I looked different from them. Where are you from, where are your parents from, what are you? You know. So I was dealing with a lot of feelings about my personal identity and belonging-but-not. But then when we went to Thai temple or visited family in Thailand, I felt like an outsider in other ways. I barely knew the language, I had a different cultural upbringing.
Going back to Thailand for the first time in 15 years was an opportunity for me to examine those feelings as an adult. I’d really missed being there, I’d missed my family, it felt like home; but there was a bittersweetness as well. Reacquainting myself with cousins who had grown up and cobbling together conversations from our shared vocabularies. Telling my grandma I loved her and holding her close, wishing I could say more. Knowing that I would leave and not knowing when I would be able to return. It’s a lot, man.
And: what were your favorite snacks?
Shrimp chips forever, baby! Calbee, if you’re reading, let’s talk.
You do diary comics and sketches. (Are they in your daily planner?) They’re so fun! I love that you post these on Twitter—what’s it like to share these glimpses into your life/process?
I got a Hobonichi planner as a holiday present just in time to ring in 2021. It has a page for each day, and I started drawing a little comic entry on each. I liked it enough to keep doing it this year, and I’ve already bought next year’s planner, so it’s a thing now.
I’m really fond of doing diary comics in this way for a few reasons. It’s hard to get precious about them, since they’re on thin grid-lined paper. It’s easier to get into the habit of sitting down and doing a five-minute sketch about one small thing. And having them all together in one book is really rewarding, especially since I have a bad memory. Oh, that’s what I was up to! Oh, our child was just learning this one word! We have a baby journal that I ended up never touching—it’s all just in the planner.
As for the sharing part, it’s a lot of fun! I love it when something I draw can spark a conversation or make someone laugh. And it’s nice to have something to share when I start to feel like I’ve been penciling a book for 500 years. Hey, I’m still here! Hey, I still make things!!
That said, I do try to be mindful of who I’m making these diary comics for—my main goal is to have a space where I’m in conversation with myself, where I can process things and record them for later. There are pages I don’t share on social media or Patreon, and that can be rewarding in its own way. It’s good to have some things that are just for you.
How did you get into comics?
I loved reading comic strips as a kid. Garfield, Calvin and Hobbes, and The Far Side were my favorites—I’d clip them out of the newspaper and paste them into a big binder to read over and over again.
Then in the early 2000s, manga and anime started to become way more accessible where I was. I got really into Sailor Moon, Pokémon, Cardcaptor Sakura, everything that was airing at that time. And from there, I was introduced to webcomics like MegaTokyo and Mac Hall. I got into Scott Pilgrim because the magazine Shojo Beat did a feature on it and I kept finding new stuff from there.
Through all of that, I was drawing comics. I made short joke comics which evolved into longer stories as the media I consumed became more complex. I’d go through sketchbook after sketchbook. There were a lot of puns and a lot of people standing with their hands behind their backs, but hey, it’s a journey.
What were some of your favorite books as a kid?
I read voraciously as a kid. I was especially drawn to sci-fi and fantasy books. The ones that made the most impact on me were Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic books, the Chrestomanci quartet by Diana Wynne Jones, and K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs.
Looking back, I can see some throughlines to my storytelling style today. Diana Wynne Jones was wildly creative and funny and weird. You could tell that she trusted her readers to come along for the ride. The moment when the Circle of Magic kids wove their magic together—a physical embodiment of the power of friendship!—grabbed me by the heart and never let go.
And Animorphs! You take the creative and funny and weird and add deeply miserable to the mix and it’s just the perfect story. Where else are you going to get instant oatmeal hijinks with world-ending stakes, time travel, tragic romance, cool animal facts, and children making impossibly painful choices while dealing with wartime trauma? Nowhere. Nowhere!! A book in the hands of every child, I’m telling you.
What was your comics education like? I know you went to NYU and SCAD.
I did! As a teen, I loved drawing and I loved comics, but it really didn’t occur to me that people were making comics for a living. Like, I’d pick up comics, read them, go “I love this cartoonist,” and not put those pieces together. It was a wild disconnect.
So when I started college, I went in as an undecided major with the thought that I might become a linguist. That lasted until I made friends in the animation department and realized it could be a career option for me. I transferred in right after my freshman year. I already talked a bit about this, so I’ll add one other interesting thing: because NYU’s animation program was part of their film school, I had to take the same prerequisites that the aspiring directors and cinematographers were taking. I made a number of absolutely abominable short movies using real cameras and real film that we had to pay to get developed ourselves and then splice together on Steenbecks. I didn’t feel very charitable towards those courses at the time—something about lugging 40 pounds of equipment back and forth from your dorm isn’t the best for inspiring kind thoughts—but they were a useful introduction to many aspects of effective visual storytelling that carry over to comics, like framing, lighting, and cutting between shots in a way that’s less likely to confuse the viewer (or reader).
By the time I graduated from NYU in 2010, I was an avid comics reader who was still drawing comics for fun. I’d honed my career goals a bit more and set my sights on storyboarding. It seemed to have everything I was looking for: storytelling with drawings, somewhat comics adjacent. I sent out my portfolio and got zero bites. I started an autobio webcomic because I didn’t know how to live without deadlines any more. I picked up a bunch of temp work and applied for internships.
And I landed two internships! One was for an animation studio that, unbeknownst to me going in, was in its death throes at the time. People weren’t getting paid. They were leaving every day. I got a little better at Flash and became gently terrified of the industry.
The other internship was for a graphic novelist named—this is the part during school visit Q&As where I pause for effect—Raina Telgemeier. Basically what happened was, Vera Brosgol recommended the graphic novel Smile on her blog, I picked up a copy from Forbidden Planet and absolutely adored it, and I looked up Raina’s LiveJournal, because again, it was 2010. She had put out a call for production assistants on her next book, Drama. I applied, we clicked, it turned out that I lived a few convenient blocks away, and that was that.
It was the first time where I really saw someone making comics for a living, where it occurred to me that could even be an option. And I knew it was what I wanted to do. I shifted gears from applying for storyboarding jobs to just having any job, making comics on the side, and putting them out there. After a few years, I felt pretty firmly that I would be making comics whether or not I was getting paid for them, so I might as well give myself the best possible shot at a career. For me at the time, that meant pursuing a master’s degree. I figured, I’d have access to resources, I’d be able to network, I’d learn how to learn about comics, and no matter what, I’d be qualified to teach. And, again, I have thoughts about the whole thing and would not necessarily recommend a mountain of student debt if you’re considering getting into an industry driven by inconsistent freelance work. But that is what I chose to do for myself.
So my formal comics education happened at SCAD Savannah. I had a lot of the toolbox already, but this was where I learned to think more critically and intentionally about the craft of comics. I had the time to make a pile of things and learn what tools and techniques worked for me. And, most importantly but also unpredictably, the human element: I was fortunate to be part of a class of incredibly creative, thoughtful, driven people who were also great critics. Learning how to communicate about comics and how to use feedback were some of the most useful skills that I came away with, and I’m very grateful for that.
You’ve been an outspoken advocate of mentorship on social media—can you talk about the importance of mentorship, both to you when you were a younger cartoonist, and what you see now?
How many paths are there to get into comics? A billion. They’re changing every day. Book publishing, the direct market, webtoons, crowdfunding—there are so many ways to make comics and hopefully make a living on it. But how do upcoming creators figure all of that out? How do they learn their craft?
The Internet is great for this. There are creators sharing tips and resources. There are local groups and online groups. The downside is that it’s all decentralized; you have to find the information that works for you and plan out your own path. Or you can go to art school, which is often prohibitively expensive.
Mentorship isn’t going to solve all the problems that we face when trying to make comics into a stable, steady career, but I believe that it helps to pull down some of those barriers to entry. Reaching out to a cartoonist whose voice resonates with you and talking with them about their goals, sharing your perspective and helping smooth the road ahead, can make a huge difference—both to them and to you. Having Raina as a mentor helped me to find my direction. I want to see all different types of storytellers continue to flourish, and you get that by sharing knowledge and opportunities and resources wherever you can. We have to take care of each other.
You now have a kid of your own! Has that changed your comics-making process?
Haha, yes! I used to ink traditionally, but switched to full digital on Freestyle. I swapped my smaller iPad for a larger one and picked up a Sketchboard Pro so that I could have more freedom to work away from my desk—say, next to a bassinet in the early hours. While it was an adjustment, I found that working digitally shaved weeks off of my schedule, since I wasn’t spending time scanning or cleaning up pages. I love nib on paper, I love the imperfect lines and fun surprises I get from that process, but that’s a trade I’m happy to make right now.
Now that the child sleeps more regularly (knock on wood), most of the change in my process is just related to how I balance my time between comics, leisure, family, and friends. I still work a lot, but I want to be in this for the long haul, and that means taking care of myself.
Are the bunnies (and the new kitten) helpful in the comics-making process?
On the one hand, they can be distracting; on the other, they uplift the spirit. If you take a break to pet a soft creature, that’s a hand stretch. It’s self-care. You are maintaining the instrument of your body.
…is what I tell myself.
What’s in store next for you?
I’m working on my next original middle grade graphic novel. It’s about a kid whose family moves around a lot—and they love it!! Every move is a fresh start and a chance to escape any embarrassing memories or friend fights. So when their family decides to settle down in the States, they don’t know how to cope. It’s a story that draws loosely from my own memories, and it’s going to be absolutely ridiculous and goofy and full of love. Please look forward to it.