Chatting with Jen Wang, In Real Life

Image: Jen Wang, First Second Books

Last week I interviewed Cory Doctorow about the new graphic novel IRL (In Real Life). This week, I’m catching up with his artist co-creator, Jen Wang, to see what she had to say about this project. Please help me welcome her to GeekMom!

GeekMom: So Cory Doctorow said you did all the heavy lifting on this project. Would you say that’s true?

Image: First Second Books

Jen Wang: The way this project worked was I was given free rein to adapt the script however I wanted so as to offer my own vision to the story. After that Cory would go over and offer ideas of his own and help guide the script into something that matched us both. We went back and forth like this for a couple drafts before settling with what we have. So yes, I made most of the changes in the story from the original to the graphic novel version, but it was a melding of both our sensibilities. And of course I did all artwork!

GM: Could you tell us a little about the artwork in IRL? What inspired the images in your mind? Was there something you felt was important to capture in the images?

JW: The most obvious decision in the design was the contrasting color palettes between the real world and the online world of Coarsegold. This is all from Anda’s perspective so it makes sense that her real life is uninteresting and the online world is colorful and exciting. I ended up using a “brown” filter over the real life images to reflect a serious (but not depressing) reality, while I used a multicolored filter to heighten the colors in Coarsegold. Other than that, I was given free rein to illustrate the book however I liked so I just had fun making up a coloring landscape that I felt would be appealing to someone like Anda.

GM: What is the process like, making a graphic novel, and perhaps, working on IRL in particular?

JW: I start with a script, which in IRL‘s case involved both Cory and I. My scripts are roughly four pages of comic to one page of script so from there I have a rough idea how long the book is going to be. From there I do really rough thumbnails one chapter at a time. I like the thumbnails to be as rough as possible, enough to give me an idea of where to go, but leaving it open to experiment during the actual drawing process. The next phase is the pencil drawing, and after that the inking, scanning, and coloring.

GM: I lived in Flagstaff for a few years, and I noticed the couple frames where you have some background imagery, like the outside of the school, for instance and the landscape behind it, are just spot on. They really capture just the right things about the atmosphere of Flagstaff. Have you ever been there? Or were you able to catch that just from pictures and ideas?

JW: I have been there! I was actually on a trip to the Grand Canyon when I first stayed in Flagstaff. I thought it was the perfect place for Anda to live. It’s so beautiful and peaceful, and you’re next to one of the great natural wonders of the world. And yet I could see how all this would be lost on a teenager. The town is small and there’s not a whole lot to do. Someone like Anda would easily be compelled to spend a lot of time online in a fantasy world.

GM: I loved the expressions on the characters faces throughout the book. I think you’ve captured so much of the dynamic teen personality in this book. How do you think you managed to do that?

JW: Expressions are a thing I love to draw, so it’s fun for me to indulge in. It’s like a form of acting except it comes out through a drawing instead of your body. I don’t like being the center of attention so I feel like having the emotions one step removed and projected onto a character is one way I can conjure these feelings vicariously without having the focus be on me. Who knows, maybe in alternate universe I would be an actor!

GM: This is your second book. Has anything changed for you in the way you approached the work between your first and second books?

JW: I definitely started writing full scripts after my first book Koko Be Good. With Koko, I scripted a chapter and drew it chronologically one at a time. Meaning I didn’t get to the ending until I got to the ending. I used to be more into stream of conscious writing and allowing myself to feel the surprises as they come. Now I much prefer being able to edit and improve on things and look at the piece as a whole.

GM: What was your favorite part about working on IRL?

JW: Finishing it! But no, kidding aside, the writing process for this project was hard but it taught me a lot. I’d never worked with another writer before and I’d never rewritten so much before, but I’m a much more confident writer now than I was at the beginning of it.

GM: We know that Cory Doctorow is a very active… well, activist. Would you classify yourself as such? What things are important to you?

JW: I wouldn’t say I’m as active as Cory, but I definitely feel very strongly about issues particularly with women, queer identity, and race. Sometimes I feel a little unsure how to approach activism because I know there’s an inherent privilege to being able to do that. It’s presumptuous to be in a position of education and outreach and tell people how to think even if I believe it is right. On the other hand, I’m in the unique position of writing literature for young adults and I definitely care a lot about what I represent as a creator and as a person. I hope at the very least as a woman and person of color my voice adds something of value to the young adult and comics readership.

GM: How do you think gaming can affect a teen’s life?

JW: Games are very time consuming and immersive. It can affect a lot! I don’t say that in an alarmist way because a lot of good things can come out of it too like friendships built, identities born, and creativities sparked. Like I think it’s so great kids are playing Minecraft and building their own worlds. On the other hand I wish there was more diversity in games and more variety in the types of games being made. That’s changing every day though as game-making becomes more accessible and I feel very optimistic.

GM: Do you game? If so, what do you play?

JW: Not a whole lot. I have a bunch of games on my phone and once a while I’ll play something off Steam everyone’s been recommending. Games are like comics in that the mainstream hasn’t appealed much to my demographic, but as the making and self-publishing becomes more accessible to creators I’m seeing more and more stuff that appeals to me. Gone Home, Analogue: A Hate Story, and Dear Esther are fantastic story-based indie games. I also like a lot of text-based games likes the ones made for Twine like Howling Dogs and Horse Master.

GM: Do you have any advice for a younger person trying to break into art or gaming?

JW: I can’t speak for gaming, but for art I’d say the best thing to do is just start drawing. Start drawing and have a lot of fun. It can be intimidating comparing yourself to others and what being an artist means for your future, but the best way to be an artist is to really love what you’re doing. Have fun and meet other artists online and at conventions. They will motivate, inspire you, and make you feel less alone as you toil away at your drawing desk.

GM:  Any thoughts for younger people who might be interested in helping others like Anda does?

JW: Get to know all different types of people! Listen to their stories and let their experiences inform you how to help them. Maybe some people don’t want your help, but they appreciate your support. Also, if you don’t see enough outlets for an issue you care about, feel free to make your own. Start a blog or a project that helps raise awareness like the Ice Bucket Challenge. Not only can it be fun, but it might inspire new people to your cause.

Thanks so much for chatting with me, Jen Wang! And for the rest of you, please check out IRL, available now wherever books are sold!

jen wang
Image: Jen Wang

Jen Wang is a cartoonist and illustrator currently living in Los Angeles. Her works have appeared in the Adventure Time comics and LA Magazine. She recently illustrated Tom Angleberger’s Fake Mustache. Her graphic novel Koko Be Good was published by First Second. In Real Life is her second book. 

Melanie R. Meadors is the author of fantasy and science fiction stories where heroes don’t always carry swords and knights in shining armor often lose to nerds who study their weaknesses. She’s been known to befriend wandering garden gnomes, do battle with metal-eating squirrels, and has been called a superhero on more than one occasion. Her work has been published in Circle Magazine, The Wheel, and Prick of the Spindle, and she was a finalist in the 2014 Jim Baen Memorial Science Fiction Contest. Melanie is also a freelance author publicist and publicity/marketing coordinator for both Ragnarok Publications and Mechanical Muse. She blogs regularly for GeekMom and The Once and Future Podcast. Her short story “A Whole-Hearted Halfling” is in the anthology Champions of Aetaltis, available April 12, 2016.