Canada Day Posting: Talking With Kean Soo
When you think of Canada you may conjure up images of lumberjacks, snow, maple syrup, snow, odd French accents, snow, and McDonalds meals that serve gravy on their fries. When I think of Canada? I think of monsters with sweet dispositions. Yet that is EXACTLY what came to mind when I decided to interview my favorite Canadian graphic novelist. I had the chance to ask Mr. Soo a couple questions recently, which he was kind enough to answer.
Fuse #8: It’s no secret that I think that Jellaby (a comic about a girl who finds a friendly purple monster in her backyard) is what every graphic novel for kids should aspire to. So where’d you get the idea? Do purple monsters haunt your sleep?
Kean Soo: Aw, thanks! Jellaby and Portia started life as simple doodles in my sketchbook. At the start, Jellaby was much more monster-like (and at the time, was named ‘Cuddles,’ as a more direct contrast to his uglier appearance), and they just got stuck in my head the more I played around with them. I found that I really liked the idea of a girl teaching this monster Proper Manners, even though he’s the kind of monster that’ll eat just about anything that’s not bolted down. It’s that contrast that I found really interesting and worth exploring.
But really, I think Jellaby was simply the monster I always wanted to have when I was growing up.
Fuse #8: What’s remarkable to me is that this book started out its life as a webcomic. The popularity of Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid has proven that webcomics make for profitable little items. Do you see this
as a trend that’s going to continue to get bigger and bigger?
Kean Soo: I certainly hope so! Webcomics have definitely levelled the playing field for a lot of people — just about anyone can produce a comic and post it to the web for all to see, and that’s still a wonderfully
At the same time, there are a lot of successful webcomics out there right now that have the audience to sustain themselves without ever needing to be ‘published’ in print, and some of them even thrive on being on the web. However, the majority of these webcomics are still very strip- oriented, and I think comics with a more serious tone or a longer running narrative (like Jellaby) can find that it’s very difficult to find their footing with webcomic readers and to sustain any kind of regular readership.
In that regard, I do think comics like Jellaby or Gene Yang’s excellent American Born Chinese that start out on the web have a better chance of finding their audience in print — ultimately, it’s just a matter of finding the right avenue for your work, be it on the web or in print, but the web is definitely not a bad place to start. 🙂
Fuse #8: Your book stars a big purple thingy, a boy, and a girl. And the amazing thing about Jellaby is that it manages to appeal to both girl and boy readers. Was that something that you were shooting for when you
Kean Soo: To be honest, when I started writing Jellaby, I had no idea that Jason was ever going to develop into a major character. I had only intended him to appear in a couple of opening scenes and then have him quickly exit stage right. But he was a pretty tenacious character and just kept wanting to stick around and hang out, much to my (and Portia’s) annoyance. So I ended up writing him into the story, and in doing so, I found that he provided a great counterbalance to Portia’s point of view.
So I suppose what I’m trying to say here is, no, I didn’t really set out knowing exactly who the story would appeal to. I think having Portia and Jason there as characters has been a huge help for me, because they’re both there to pull me back if I start going too far in one direction or another. I don’t think either of them would stand for it if I wrote only a ‘boy’ book or a ‘girl’ book.
Fuse #8: Graphic novelists sometimes have certain themes that crop up in their work over and over. For example, Shawn Tan likes talking about being "the other" and suburbia. Are there any particular themes that keep cropping up in your own titles?
Kean Soo: I’ve found that I tend to gravitate towards stories about loyalty and friendship, and on the flip side, loneliness and isolation, and how people cope with it. Having moved around a lot earlier in life, I’ve found it quite difficult to build any lasting friendships over the years, and it’s a condition that has fascinated me for quite some time now. Those themes have even cropped up in the newer projects that I’ve been tinkering with on the side, and it just doesn’t seem to be something that I can escape from just yet.
Fuse #8: Jellaby is, according to my sources, going to have just one more sequel. But can we possibly hope for even more Jellaby adventures someday? Puh-leeeze?
Kean Soo: Well, it’s true — I had always intended Jellaby to be a self-contained 300 page story, and the way the second book ends, I feel it wraps up Portia and Jellaby’s story nicely.
But I do have a backlog of short Jellaby stories that I’m developing for various comic anthologies (and possibly for the web as well), and already two of them will be appearing later this year, in the all-ages Flight Explorer at the end of March, and in Flight Volume 5, which will be in bookstores sometime this summer. So there’s nothing to fear yet! There will still be plenty of Jellaby stories to go round for at least the next couple of years.
The interesting thing about working on these new stories is that Jason is coming to the fore as a character that I’d really like to explore further, so who knows, maybe there will be another big Jellaby adventure to come in the future! I’m definitely open to the idea, but it’s just a matter of finding the right story to tell.
Fuse #8: Finally, you’re the assistant editor of the Flight series, which is an anthology of various comic artists. The volumes don’t contain any particular overriding theme or subject matter, so I’m clear on that much. You also have something called Flight Explorer coming out, though, so what’s the deal with that?
Kean Soo: While we’ve been promoting Flight over the past few years, we’ve talked to quite a few booksellers and librarians, and we began to get a sense that there was a real demand for comics specifically geared towards
younger readers. Flight‘s mandate had always been to publish all-ages comics, but we did feel that there were a few stories that were maybe a little more cerebral or complex for younger readers, so with Explorer, we’re really hoping this will fill the gap where our youngest readers are concerned.
With Explorer, we’ve really packed in some really strong stories and characters that I think kids (and even non-kids) will enjoy. I hope with Explorer, we can bring back a little more fun to comics that everyone can enjoy.
For more info on Kean Soo and Jellaby check out The Secret Friend Society. Be sure to also check out this Photo Report of Kean’s tour with Kazu Kibuishi, creator of Amulet (the graphic novel being turned into a movie with Will Smith’s kids).
For the full round-up of all the other magnificent Canadian posts, go on over to our resident guru Colleen at Chasing Ray and see what she has to offer.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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