Ignatz-Nominated Cartoonist Jonathan Hill Discusses Newest Work: ‘Odessa’

GeekDad

Sean
Okay, so to start us off, could you introduce yourself?

Jonathan
Yes. My name is Jonathan Hill, and I am the cartoonist on Odessa, which I will be talking about today.

Sean
I understand Odessa isn’t your first graphic novel. You’ve been nominated for an Ignatz Award, you’ve received a new Atlantic Independent Booksellers Award. Could you talk about some of your previous work?

Jonathan
Yeah. My first two books were both with the writer MK Reed, and they were both published by First Second.

The first book was Americus, it came out in 2011, and it was a coming-of-age story about this boy in a small imaginary town in Oklahoma. His best friend has to move away, and his favorite book series is being challenged in the library. The events were meant to parallel some of the book challenges that were happening at the time, specifically against the Harry Potter series. The character comes into his own defending this thing that he loves. That was my first book, and that was when I met MK and we became really good friends.

And then, after Americus came out, I took a couple of years off, unwillingly. I just had a lot of life stuff happen. Both my brother and my father passed within the same year, and then a couple years later I was diagnosed with kidney failure. And so, I had to go through all of that and get a transplant and everything. And so, that’s kind of a roundabout way of saying I was out of it for a little bit.

The last book I did was for the Science Comics series, also with MK, and it was about the weather. As I was feeling better, I thought, “Oh, I want to get back… I’ve been out of the game for so long.” And it felt very like taxing. I thought, “I don’t have to break into the industry, I have to remind everybody that I exist again,” which is almost, I think, more exhausting in a way. But MK was working on this book and they needed an artist, and she asked me, “Why don’t we just see if you can do it because you do good work, they like you.” And that’s how that second book came about.

Sean
So, Odessa is your third graphic novel then?

Jonathan
Yeah, it will be the third one, but it’ll be the first one that I’ve written and drawn myself, which is both really exciting and kind of nerve wracking, too. It was interesting because I think I’ve gotten used to working with MK and working from a script. In working with Odessa and I think, “God, there’s like five pages of people talking.” And I’m like, “Oh, I don’t have MK to blame anymore. That’s my fault.” So, I’m pretty excited about that.

Sean
Since this interview will come out before the book comes out, could you tell people about Odessa?

Jonathan
Odessa is about three siblings who go searching for their estranged mother in the ruins of America. It kind of takes place after the big one, the big earthquake everyone here on the West coast is worried about. It’s set eight years after that, and the oldest sibling, Virginia, gets a package from her mother for her 18th birthday. Up until then, Virginia and her siblings weren’t sure if their mother was even alive, and so she decides to go look for her.

A little bit after Americus came out, my wife’s sister was getting a divorce. And her sister had three kids. And just seeing them go through that process reminded me a lot about what it was like when my parents split up and just how, in a way, your whole world just changes. Your whole world is like destroyed. And so, it’s a not so subtle metaphor, your world’s left in ruins, and in a way, you have to learn to survive. We had to learn to depend on ourselves and we had to learn to kind of take care of ourselves a little bit more. Just because dad was working a lot, and mom had left.

I saw them going through that same struggle, and then it made me think about that and how… I guess I wanted to make a story that was a love letter to that experience that my brothers and I had to go through.

Sean
That was one of the things I wanted to bring up: the depiction of the divorce in Odessa, and the questions the children ask, specifically the, “Why is this happening?” felt very real and very familiar to me as someone who also had their parents divorce. So, it’s interesting to hear that was based on.

Jonathan
I’m glad that you brought that up. One of the challenges about this being the first story that I’m writing own my own is there’s so many things that I’m trying to get across, and of course, I can’t be the judge of if it comes across well or not. I need readers to tell me if I did a successful job of that.

Another thing that I wanted to have in the book is that, even though the children spend the book searching for answers, sometimes the answer is going to be mundane or it’s something that like there isn’t really an answer to. Sometimes things just end, sometimes people just split up, and I think, in some ways, you can mythologize who that person that left. And sometimes the person who stays or the person that you stay with, they kind of get the short end of the stick, even though they’re the ones that are there day to day.

Despite that, you sometimes fantasize and make up what this person who isn’t in your life is, and that’s what the characters in Odessa do. And so, their search is kind of gambling on that fantasy. Who knows if their mom will even want to see them? And so, that was definitely something that I wanted to explore. So, to hear that you felt like it was successful in a relatable experience, like within those characters, actually means a lot.

Sean
It was very, very well done.

If I can double back on your comment about this being your first time as a writer, and about hearing feedback, what has your process been for this new work? I imagine it’s very different than when you’re just working as the illustrator.

Jonathan
Yeah. I’ve written in comics for myself, but they were shorter or just more personal or things for other folks. But to plan it out, I have to write by hand; I can’t write on a computer. I will just take eight and a half by 11, like typing paper, and I’ll just write down story beats, and then dialogue that comes to mind. The reason I do that is because if I type, and if the sentence isn’t perfect or if the idea isn’t perfect, I just delete it, and I don’t make progress on the draft.

Sean
I believe sometime told me that’s perpetual editor syndrome – I also suffer from that, and I know exactly what you’re talking about.

Jonathan
Even when I thumbnailed from MK’s scripts or things before, I have to do the process stuff by hand, because I think there’s something about pencil to paper that helps me think through. And it also helps me live with those mistakes and realize that I can just cross out… Like if I write some dialogue or write a beat that I don’t like, I just cross it out, and then I just keep writing. It’s just, that keep flowing.

Sometimes if there’s something visual, I’ll thumbnail it out, but generally I’ll kind of take that draft page and then I’ll do thumbnails for it. And that’s how I sort of wrote and thumbnailed the whole book.

Sean
When you say thumbnail, you mean like a quick sketch of what this scene should look like?

Jonathan
Yeah, though it’s not just what that scene should look like, but also how it looks like on the page. The panel design is related to storytelling, too.  There are times I’ll design the layout with the idea, “Oh, I need a page turn…I need this panel to end the page so that it makes someone want to flip to the next page.” That is the big thing for me, the storytelling and the pacing and controlling that via the artwork.

Sean
On the design, the book is done in black and white and shades of pink, and I thought that was really just kind of an interesting design decision, and one I liked. How did you decide on that design style?

Jonathan
Well, for one, it’s just time, because if I was going to be doing this myself, I wanted to be able to make it and make it not quickly, because I’d been drawing this for three years.

I love single tone comics. I teach at the Pacific Northwest College of Art, and one of the things I talk about is the specificity of comics as a storytelling medium. I’ll use like movies and novels as two ends of the spectrum.

This is going to be recap for anybody that has read like Scott McCloud, but we can both read the same novel, and the novel will give descriptions, but we really have to use our own creativity or imagination to figure out how everything looks and what things sound like.

A movie, on the other end of the spectrum, is kind of passive in that we’re given what costumes are, what the set looks like, what the sounds are, et cetera.

Comics kind of exist in this this middle space where we’re given some things but we also have to use some of our creativity. For an action, what does the action look like? We’re given two parts of an action, but then we piece it together. What does sound like? Things like that.

And so, in a way, I also think that using a single tone is a nice balance. It’s giving you less explicit depictions than full color, but it’s playing to comics’ strength in that it allows you to design, to show light and form and create some atmosphere, but it still allows the reader to put some of themselves into what they’re reading as well.

Sean
That’s a brilliant answer.

In the press materials for the book, you mentioned how important it was for you to depict in Asian family in the story. Could you discuss that a little bit?

Jonathan
Yeah. I’m Vietnamese American and I was born in ’81, so I was ’80s, ’90s kid. It’s kind of a cliche at this point for me to just say there wasn’t any representation.

I think my favorite movie growing up was Big Trouble in Little China by John Carpenter because it was unlike anything I had seen. It’s this sort of East meets West story, but Dennis Dun’s character, Wang Chi, he’s not just the sidekick. Kurt Russell is the main character, technically, but he’s actually kind of this bumbling goofball and Dennis Dun’s character, Wang Chi, he’s the one who is saving his wife. He’s competent, he knows what he’s doing, and for me, that was unlike anything I had ever seen.

You have all these racial stereotypes, like Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles, and things like that. For me, I didn’t want to make it like a big deal. I feel like sometimes representation now is made into a big thing, and not that it’s bad, but…

It’s like, “Okay, here’s the book about Chinese New Year. Now, here are characters going through Chinese New Year.” But why can’t it just be the character going through the situation? And for me, that was a big thing. I’m going to make these main characters just like my own experience, where they’re going to be mixed race, and it’s just going to be part of the story. It’s not going to be a focus of the story. Hopefully, some middle school Vietnamese kid can pick it up and think, “Oh, hey, I see myself as a main character. I can be the hero of that story. I can be a hero of any story.” But, also, for anybody else that reads it, seeing these characters also can hopefully help normalize it. We can remind people it doesn’t just have to be sort of the dominant culture that can only be the hero and be the savior and that sort of thing.

Sean
Building on that, one thing I often discuss with queer creators is the difference between “the gay character,” which is inauthentic and tokenistic, versus the character that happens to be gay, which feels inclusive. For Asian characters, what do you think are some important things to have good representation in a work versus inauthentic or stereotypical material?

Jonathan
I can only kind of speak from my experience – some of it is inserting myself into the story. There’s a scene early in Odessa when the father is yelling at the kids, and they have Vietnamese names, like middle names, because that’s what my brothers and I had. We have white sounding names, but then our middle names were Vietnamese.

But really, it’s just letting them be characters. I don’t want to say I’m not thinking about it, because I am trying to be respectful, and I do think about how to be respectful on this topic. And not only with Asian characters, but just inclusive of any of the different types of characters that I have in there. Like you said, making sure it’s not tokenistic or just like a checklist. I want to make sure it doesn’t feel like, “I need to have this character so this is represented.”

I could have even pushed it a lot more maybe.

Sean
How so? What would be pushing it?

Jonathan
Just in terms of when I’m drawing.

Honestly, it’s just rewiring of my brain, because it’s this realization that I didn’t have until a couple of years ago, my default was drawing white people. I did a story in The Believer, I think two years ago, and it was just a short story about of my realization of struggling with my cultural identity. I was just like, my default was white people. That’s not even me. Why is that my default?

And so, I’ve been consciously trying to be like, “Okay, when I draw people, or if I just have to draw an illustration, why does it have to be like a dominant culture? Why can’t I put an African American man and an Asian woman in this illustration?” And so, it’s been this constant rewiring, and being aware when drawing this book where there’s certain crowds. I mean, habits are hard to break, right?

Sean
One of the strangest moments for me, professionally, was when I started doing queer criticism, I kept asking one of my editors, “Well, what will happen if a straight person reads this and is turned off?” And at one point, one of my editors, who was queer, asked, “Why do you spend so much time as a queer critic discussing queer media worrying about how straight people are going to read it?”

And it was this moment of going, “Oh my God, why do I do that?”

Jonathan
Yeah. It’s such a weird experience because it’s kind of the same thing. I mean, now, I think we’re starting to question it, where it’s like, “Oh wait, there’s ten characters in this show, and nine of them are white.” You know what I mean? Why does it stand out if there are Asian characters mostly in it?

I kind of had that same thing where it’s like, “Why am I even thinking about that? Why aren’t I just trying to draw it and just trying to be more inclusive and not care what other what other people might think.”

Sean
As you said it’s your first time writing, it’s a new graphic novel for you, what has been your favorite part of the entire story? Has writing been the big thing that’s different for you? What components do you think you’re most excited about?

Jonathan
As far as just creating in general? My favorite part is thumbnailing, which I think if you ask cartoonists, only 10% of them will say that. 90% of them will say they hate thumbnailing.

But for me, thumbnailing, where I’m laying out a page, I’m sketching in the compositions of where the word balloons go, that sort of thing, that’s my favorite part because that’s the part where it becomes real. It goes from being a thought in my head or just words on paper to becoming something readable. That’s my favorite part of making the book.

As far as the story goes, it’s interesting because comics take so long. I’m still finishing the book right now, I only have like 20 pages left, and I’m drawing the climax of the book right. But at this point, it’s just like any job, it’s kind of a grind.

Sean
Just to give people a sense of scale, how long does a comic normally take?

Jonathan
My book is also pretty long; it’s 282 pages. I’ve been drawing this for about three years, but that’s while juggling other projects. There was a year where I had to put this on hold to draw that Weather book with MK. I also teach and juggle other freelance stuff.

I would say, one to two years for maybe 200 pages of books. Some folks might be able to do it faster, but I think that’s been about my speed.

But I think something I really learned during this is writing scripts is learning to let go a little bit. Because for when I was writing the books for MK, sometimes I’d think, “This isn’t how I’d solve this problem.” But instead of getting really caught up with that, I’d have to say, “Okay, no, this is how it is. I just have to get it done. I just have to draw it.”

Now that I’m working on my own book, it’s not so much, “Oh, this isn’t how I would do it,” because I’m the one doing it, but, you still need to get the drawing done. Maybe this picture could be drawn a little bit better, but I don’t have time to sit and practice for a couple of days how to draw this sort of thing. I just need to get it done. And it’s kind of freeing in a way; you do the best you can in that moment. And yes, you could do better, but you just have to keep going.

You can see me getting better as you read the book. I kind of like when I see that in other people’s work, and hopefully people will enjoy it when reading mine. My chops now here at the end of the book are better than the beginning of the book.

Sean
One final question, because I assume you live in the Pacific Northwest too. Are you prepared for the big quake? Do you have earthquake retrofitting on your house?

Jonathan
We don’t. We actually just bought a house a couple of years ago, but it doesn’t have the retrofits. I can’t fathom like an event like that. You kind of read it and you scare, but like I can’t actually imagine what it would actually be like if it happens.

I wanted to mention because I think is kind of apt for a lot of youth now, because I teach in the illustration program in college, I also teach a lot of other youth programs, and that anxiety is on those youth… That youth mind is just worrying about like the world ending, but then how are they going to live through it? Because this is the world that they’re going to inherit.

But I think something that’s interesting, and something I think comes up in the book, is that like life kind of goes on, and that… I mean, I guess there’s nothing more to say than that. Yes, it’ll be scary, and yes, there’ll be things that we’ll have to do one way or the other to be more engaged and more active to make sure that we’re creating a place that we all want to live and safe for everybody. But at the same time, the end of the world isn’t really the end of the world. It keeps going on and people have to keep living.

Odessa, by Jonathan Hill, will be available in November 2020.

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