Kean Soo and His Jellaby

Kean Soo and His Jellaby

Kean Soo is a Toronto cartoonist, creator of the award-winning Jellaby series. Dave Howard had a chance to catch up with Kean earlier this week and talk about the comics medium, his history and some of his influences.

Dave Howard: Tell me Kean, when did you start drawing?

Kean Soo: Probably fairly early – like when I was about four or five, maybe earlier. I’ve been drawing poorly for as long as I can remember.

Howard: You’ve always been cartooning?

Soo: I don’t know about cartooning. I remembered recently that I had done something for a school assignment – in Grade Five or something – and the assignment was to do a “choose your own adventure” book. I’d done it in this kind of pseudo-comic format. That might’ve been my first real comic. That was 30 or 40 pages – thinking back about it now I realize that was a pretty big deal for me.  But yeah, I didn’t really take it seriously until I guess the early 2000s. I wasn’t actively trying to be a cartoonist until that point.

Howard: How old were you then?

Soo: It was late university. I was actually starting to take comics pretty seriously around the very tail end of high school, the beginning of university. I’d picked up Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and then I started picking up comics that were just slightly off the mainstream track. Dave McKean’s Cages. Sandman at the time was also there. But earlier, in my early teens, I was gorging myself on Dragonball, Asterix and Tintin. You know, sort of a pretty wide range of different comics. I didn’t really get into the North American comics mostly because  I’d been raised in Hong Kong, so I had access to all different kinds of comics.

Howard: What kinds of comics did you access in Hong Kong?

Soo: There were some translated manga that I was following. There was Dragonball – Dragonball was huge for me, I still love Dragonball. The first couple of volumes were brilliant, but then it sort of goes downhill around the middle of the series when it becomes non-stop fighting. But I loved that stuff when I was younger. Now I love it much more for the humour from the early books.

Howard: What kind of comics were you reading in university? You went to Queen’s University? Were the comics you were reading then drew you into drawing comics?

Soo: Oh yeah. At that point for me, because it was more accessible, I was reading the indie North American stuff. Cages was one of the key ones. And then there was stuff like Bone.

Howard: You were studying to be an engineer at the time. And you graduated as an engineer.

Soo: During this time a friend and I – we were really big into comics and we would share our comics back and forth and stuff like that – we had heard about this open call for the SPX compilation comic. This was like, 1998, 1999? And so we collaborated on this comic and it was just .. awful (laughs). And we submitted it, and we didn’t hear anything back. But after that, for me, I think because we just had so much fun doing it and it was so far outside of what I was doing at the time that I kept at it. I was doing an engineering degree and there was absolutely no room for humanities courses. I think I was taking one English course, in the entire year, which was absolutely nothing. I was just looking for that outlet.

Howard: Comics seem to fall directly between disciplines – we have philosophers writing about comics, we have linguists writing about comics, literary criticism about comics, we have people like Chris Ware who are coming from the designer world, someone like a Seth is coming from an illustrator world. You were studying to be an engineer, was there any part of the construct of the medium that attracted you? I’m interested in your connection to comics, your interest in the mechanics of how comics work.

Soo: Yeah, I think that stems back to how I’ve been trained to think. Even when I look at stories now – movies, TV or reading books – I’m always analyzing what’s going on, how the story’s being told. I think that goes back to my engineering training – let’s figure out how this thing works.

Howard: Comics work on so many different levels. The artist is controlling the reader’s experience in a different way than with just words. You’re controlling where they look, it’s mechanical in a way.

Soo: It’s really interesting to look at comics that are explicitly technical and then compare them to comics that follow the emotional map of the story they’re telling. Like David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp. You’ve read his adaptation of City of Glass? My connection is very much in the same vein, though I actually felt distanced from the story in Asterios Polyp. But reading it, and looking at it technically, at every little trick he pulls out of his sleeve – it’s really amazing, on that level. Everything has been planned out. There are clues planted all throughout the story that come back and give meaning the next time you read it.

Howard: Mazzucchelli was the one who really drove me to read Batman. I picked up Batman Year One, and then I went to Rubber Blanket.

Soo: With Dark Knight Returns, I really like the conceit. The entire comic is based on the 16-panel grid. As the story progresses, the panels start to mesh together until you get the wider and wider splash pages of action. That’s an element that really interests me, the panel layout. I probably spend the most time on my thumbnails. In fact, I think the part that engages me the most is the layout part. I feel the actual art is sort of a grind for me.

I think one of the reasons I went into engineering was connected with the process of creating something. At the end of the day, you get to hopefully say, I’ve written this piece of code, I’ve created this circuit board, I’ve created this…thing. I get that same satisfaction with comics. You know, here’s what I’ve done. And I think for me that sort of urge to create is there, to make things. It almost doesn’t matter what, as long as it’s something. As long as I’m doing that, I’m happy.

Howard: Is that when you started getting in to the journal comics (a journal in comic-strip form)?

Soo: Largely through Scott McCloud’s website, I came to know Journal comics from Drew Weing and Les McClaine and Neil Babra. I was getting into those and eventually I thought that this might be something I could do. Something grabbed hold of me.

Howard: What was your journal comic called?

Soo: It was a journal comic at I didn’t really have a name for it. And then from there it spun out to be sort of what I call the Exit Music series, where I wanted to expand on some of the ideas that I had been toying with. At that point, I had been doing the journal comic for about a year and I was starting to get a little frustrated with the constraints of the strip format. So I wanted to expand it out into a longer form. It was sort of…a comfort level thing. You know, two different muscle sets, one to write something in a strip format and one to write something in a longer format. I feel the same way about writing short stories now and writing full length graphic novels. If you’re writing a 150-page thing, there’s a lot more to consider than if you’re writing a short story. It’s the reverse with a short story – having to set up the characters quickly and succinctly, you don’t really have the time or space that you might have in a graphic novel. You need to make every moment count in a short story.

Howard: You were a fan of Calvin and Hobbes?

Soo: Yeah, I was – am – really in love with that series. And it really was a conscious influence on Jellaby, starting out at least.

Howard: Can you tell me something of the difference of working on a piece in colour as opposed to black and white? What is the difference as you approach it as a cartoonist?

Soo: I definitely think black and white is a lot harder to make images “read” compared to colour. I think people who can work in straight black and white have much harder time, and so require a lot more talent to do it. Being able to spot blacks is still something I have trouble with. And I feel with colour you have another tool in the toolbox – you can use it to add shading and to add more depth. I feel if you’re working in black and white you really have to be in full control of how to make something look fully formed and rounded. You can take some liberties with colour. They’re two different things, but definitely, people who work in black and white, I have the utmost respect for.

Howard: Can you tell me about the creation of Jellaby and your work on the Secret Friend Society (a joint project with cartoonists Hope Larson).

Soo: I was sort of getting frustrated and I wanted to work on a longer form project. I was looking back at all the doodles I had done in my sketchbook, and there was this one image that had this girl hugging a grub-like monster – and I thought there was an interesting story there. And so I started to develop the characters, and working on the idea more.

Howard: Your connection with that image: was it a conscious idea, or was it an idea you were sort of feeling out at the time? I’m interested in that idea – that concept of an artist connecting to an image and taking something from it that’s not necessarily verbal.

Soo: I think there’s certain images that do stick in my mind. It’s…the mystery of it. Here’s an image, and I’m not sure what this means, but it seems to me there’s something that attracts me to it. I’m asking questions about what this image is. I think that’s what really good illustration does. There are elements that raise questions that start forcing the reader to ask what is going on, what is this saying?

Howard: How did you get hooked up with Hope Larson?

Soo: I think Hope had just moved to Toronto at the time to be with her husband. It was sort of weird, I had known her work on the web, but then we started talking in person, and talking about our ideas in parallel. The story she was working on was about a girl and her imaginary friend, which was basically the story for her first graphic novel, Salamander Dream. I was talking about Jellaby, and then we noticed how similar our two stories were. Hope had her mind set on getting a graphic novel published, and I was starting to think along those tracks, too. I was starting to see other people who were in webcomics starting to get picked up by publishers. I was thinking this could really be a way to go, to take a career down this path. So we basically decided to launch the website to act as a venue to try to sell our books to a publisher. But we had structured it so that it would be a daily updating webcomic. Hope would update every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and I would be updating Tuesday and Thursday, so there would be content every week day. The first couple of weeks after we launched the Secret Friend Society website – in the very start of 2005 – Hope got contacted by Chris Pitzer at Adhouse books, and she pretty much got published right out of the gate.

I was toiling away for a good year or so after that, until I finally got an email out of the blue from someone at Disney. At the time it was Disney Press that was interested in publishing Jellaby, but it eventually worked out to be published by Hyperion, the book arm of Disney.

Howard: Jellaby is basically about a young girl and her non-imaginary dinosaur friend who she conceals from others. What kind of themes are you dealing with in Jellaby – consciously, that is?

Soo: Well, consciously, I was interested in talking about my own childhood, moving around a lot, going to different schools. For me it was difficult to lay down roots and make friends, and I think that’s a pretty big running theme through a lot of what I do. I think that was the primary motivation right there.

Howard: I see the connection there to Calvin and Hobbes.

Soo: That was definitely one of the things that attracted me to Calvin and Hobbes as well.

Howard: Imagination, childhood – that’s pretty authentic. I admit I read Jellaby as an adult and I took it home and showed it to my daughter, and she just freaked out. She loved it, and insisted I read it end to end to her.

Soo: That’s really good because I sort of feel like…

Howard: …that you’d really hit on something?

Soo: Yeah, I feel like I really got lucky with Jellaby, because I’m not 100% sure I really knew what I was doing or what I set out to do. I knew I wanted to hit on something about how kids can actually feel terribly lonely – that’s not a mainstream idea of what kid’s entertainment should be about. I feel really lucky that people still respond to it. I think I really could have fallen flat on my face with it, and it totally could have backfired for me. But again, like I say, now that I’m working on this new project, and now that I’ve had a chance to talk to a lot of kids and even work with them in workshops and things like that, I’m much more consciously directing the story at kids. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but I do feel it was a bit of a crapshoot with Jellaby.

Howard: You’ve sold lots and lots of books – 18,000 books. That sounds like a lot to me.

Soo: I think if it was an indie comics publisher, I think those would be respectable numbers, but in the book trade world, those numbers aren’t huge. You have to take into consideration the book’s printed in full colour and it’s priced at $10 so kids can buy it. The profit margins are a lot smaller than what they could be. So – it’s tough. I know I am the tiny fish in the big pond.

Howard: A lot more swimming to do! Can you tell me a little bit about your day, your routine?

Soo: AI find that with inking, I’m usually at my best when I first wake up. I literally roll out of bed and I sit down and just have a batch of penciled pages that need inking. I’ll just ink though those, sort of the mechanical part of my routine, and I’ll do either writing or penciling new pages in the afternoons, and usually into the late evenings. Generally I try to keep a regular eight-hour schedule, starting at about 10 or 11 and then working into the evenings.

Howard: When did you realize you wanted to go full time with this? When did you make that commitment?

Soo: Basically it wasn’t until I had that publishing contract with Jellaby.

Howard: How did you make it through? Just saving up?

Soo: There was an advance that came with the book and that helped out a lot. Also from my time in engineering, my old regular job, I had a small cache of money squirreled away. And I also applied for and received a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, which was a huge help. It was definitely a struggle, though.

Howard: Can I ask where you get your art supplies?

Soo: I generally don’t use a lot of fancy art supplies or anything like that.  I just hit one of the chains, like Curry’s or whatever’s closest. But Woolfitt’s at Queen West, they have some great technical pens that I’m using now that none of the big chain stores carry. That’s a neat little spot for me.

Howard: Do you connect with other cartoonists around Toronto?

Soo: I mostly just hang out with the webcomics crowd, that’s sort of local.

Howard: So you work at home, and connect over the web?

Soo: Yeah, mostly over the web. I’ll get some face time with people like Ryan North of Dinosaur Comics. Look at me, now I’m just shamelessly name dropping.

Howard: What are the differences you see between comics that are on the web, and those that are in print. What do you think are the chief difference, aesthetically?

Soo: It’s kind of a tough question, actually. It’s not like I’m knocking webcomics, but I do feel the successful webcomics are still predominantly in the strip format. It’s a gag a day, a joke a day. There’s a couple of exceptions, things like Octopus Pie – I think Meredith is starting to shift away from that format. But I still feel webcomics are still predominantly driven by people who come into work, check their email, read webcomics for maybe a couple of minutes to start their day, then go on to the next thing. I feel that the long form graphic novels are a little more of a – I don’t know if specialized is the right word – reading experience. It’s hard to read an actual book for one or two minutes, you’ll want to sit with it at the very least for 10, 15 minutes. I think readers will consciously spend more time reading a book. I think that’s two different mentalities. I don’t think one is any better than the other, that’s just sort of the way it works, the way those formats make people engage them.

Howard: I’m thinking again – I don’t want to harp on this – Calvin and Hobbes is a beautiful work of art, and that it’s a strip doesn’t take away from it at all. It plays to it’s strengths.

Soo: You can pick up a Calvin and Hobbes book, and flip though anywhere – you can flip to the middle – and just jump in and read any strip. I think that’s really special you can do that.

Howard: Do you think Bill Watterson (C&H creator) and his innovations opened the field for other panel cartoonists? Since he was so popular and was able to force changes upon the format, like the expanded Sunday comic, were there other cartoonists who benefited from that?

Soo: I think Calvin and Hobbes at the time was more the exception rather than the rule, and if you look at strips today, it’s incredible what kind of space limitations they have now. And I think it’s understandable why more people are turning to the web, where you don’t have those kinds of constraints. You can go back to doing whatever you want. I don’t know – have you read Cul De Sac? I think that’s now my only favourite – it’s a really great strip. For me it’s sort of up there with Calvin and Hobbes. It’s about a four-year-old girl and her family, and she goes to pre-school. Its in the same vein, almost.

Howard: Like Peanuts, all these comics with kids as the characters.

Soo: And there’s a talking hamster. Well, the way I’m describing it, it sound cliché, but it’s not. It’s fantastic, I love it.

Howard: I find I want to look more towards the collections when I want to read a good strip. I’m enjoying Gasoline Alley and Little Orphan Annie. Are there any cartoonists that really influenced you, as opposed to ones that you really liked and read?

Soo: I’d say Akira Toriyama, who did Dragonball and Dr. Slump. His humour is still something I appreciate. I’ve been rereading a lot of Osamu Tezuka lately, and Phoenix. I really love that series. There’s a lot of amazing things that he does with panel layouts, for some of the science fiction stuff that he did. Some incredible stuff.

Howard: Where do you get your books? This is a book column, I’m interested in your habits, how you get them, where you get them, where you read them.

Soo: With comics it’s mostly from The Beguiling. They’ve always, for the most part, made some really great recommendations, something I may not have heard of. That’s how I first came across Taiyo Matsumoto’s Tekkon Kinkreet (Black & White). And I’ve really loved that. Book-wise, I listen to a lot of audio books while I’m working, especially when I’m inking, since my brain is mostly on auto-pilot for that. I feel like I’m being doubly productive when I do that.