We sat down with Janice and Naomi, the co-creators behind Project 40 Collective’s latest Col.lab Incubator project, Chicken Soup and Goji Berries to talk about the inspiration behind the comic, their creative processes and what it was like to work together.
This interview was conducted by Jasmine Gui, and has been edited for clarity.
N: Naomi Cui | J: Janice Liu
What was the original inspiration for this project?
N: I’ve always loved fantasy. From Harry Potter to His Dark Materials, the works that appealed to me specifically were ones where there was a degree of realism, the ones that made you go, “Maybe there is something like this in our world.” When I was older I discovered magical realism, and I was really taken by the idea that rather than just being a happenstance consequence of the setting, magic can be a narrative vehicle for exploring themes of culture, politics, identity. The focus on the different generations of an extended family came from the many portrayals of families like those in films by Edward Yang, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Ann Hui, etc. Finally, Janice’s own illustration style and background in children’s illustration helped me decide on the tone of the story, and how it should capture the lightheartedness of a Ghibli film.
What are some major themes that framed how you decided to tell this story?
J: I would say the major theme we wanted to write around was immigrant family and intergenerational relationships. We also wanted it to be lighthearted. We often see the narrative of un-belonging, and being torn between two worlds, in pieces exploring Asian diaspora identity, and decided early on that wasn’t the direction we wanted to go. We wanted to not take ourselves so seriously – that’s probably where the magic aspect came in.
Why a bilingual comic?
N: My own background is in language and linguistics, and I’m very interested in the role of the heritage language in the diaspora. English and Chinese language media have always felt very separate, even though so many of us live our everyday lives in both. We wanted a depiction of this bilingual experience more true to our own everyday lives. I also thought about my own experiences as a CBC (Canadian-born Chinese) and how easy it is to lose my heritage language when there’s so little Chinese-language media relevant to our own experiences. A bilingual comic could be a tool with which one can keep up or improve one’s Chinese.
Who does what in the project?
J: The initial chunk of the project was very collaborative! Nao and I pretty much brainstormed together on plot and characters, fleshing out the general direction of each chapter through camping out at a cafe and bouncing ideas off each other.
N: When it comes to actual workflow, I do writing, lettering, and first draft storyboarding/paneling, Janice does editing and all the final artwork and illustration. Janice also does a bit more of the correspondence with others, since I’m not as good at checking my messages (lol).
J: Nao also does all the coding and design for the website, including implementing that sweet hover-to-translate feature. As for the translation work, Nao translates the Chinese to English as she goes along, and I do most of the translating from English to Chinese (which partially consists of me texting my family for help, haha)
What does work flow look like for the both of you? (Speak about your specific experiences)
N: We had already worked out the general direction of each chapter together at the beginning of the project, so we have a Google doc. of character profiles, story outlines, and so on. Now that it’s underway, I work on translating those story outlines into actual scripts and dialogue. I usually do this in conjunction with sketching out outlines of page layouts, which we call a storyboard. Sometimes I get quite detailed with how the characters look within their panels, other times I leave a lot of room for interpretation for Janice.
I then send these over to Janice and we discuss any changes we want to make. Sometimes Janice will make a more polished second draft of a storyboard before beginning on the actual page.
J: Nao sends me the first draft of the storyboard she’s come up with and we’ll discuss it together over Facebook. I’m glad that it’s very collaborative, so I don’t purely feel like just the artist bringing a writer’s vision to life. I’m also able to contribute to the conceptualization of the story!
Once we feel like the storyboard’s ready, I open up my custom page template with a grid and bleed guidelines, and I do a rough sketch of the whole page that follows Nao’s storyboard (and make any changes we agreed on). The whole comic is drawn digitally – I use Paint Tool SAI.
We also decided that only chapter 1 is going to be in colour, so my work flow has been pretty smooth since. I just line the drawing, add speech bubbles, and send it back to Nao for lettering.
How do you make creative decisions for paneling?
N: I’m usually the one who begins the rough idea for paneling, since I also do most of the writing and the visual flow of the page is very intertwined with the storytelling. The panel positions are mostly determined by me but I leave a lot of room for Janice’s own visual interpretation otherwise. After my first draft, Janice will often also provide invaluable input on the panels and whether they flow well enough.
J: I’d say that both of us get a lot of our paneling ideas from manga!
Do you ever disagree on direction, content or layout? How do you negotiate?
J: I remember one thing we disagreed on was the direction of the writing. I thought of the comic as a “tool” for Chinese-Canadians to connect with their Chinese culture. As a teen, I often had the experience of feeling I knew so little about my own culture, and I remember wishing there was more English information about China out there that wasn’t written from a Western person’s perspective. So, part of my original vision for Chicken Soup was that it should bridge a gap and educate Chinese diaspora on Chinese culture. There’s a segment in Ethan’s story about Sun Wukong, and I wanted it to be told accurately so that people could feel like they learned something about Chinese literature. But Nao disagreed with the idea that we needed to “teach” Chinese-Canadians something about themselves.
N: Right, I wanted to move away from the idea that there is this true, standard, singular Chinese culture that we as Chinese Canadians need to move closer to. There are, after all, so many Chinese people around the world and Chinese culture has been preserved and built upon in different ways across Taiwan, Southeast Asia, etc. and even within mainland China itself. I didn’t want the story to be overly pedagogical, but rather a representation of one particular Chinese Canadian experience that was compassionate to a variety of Chinese identities and experiences.
I’m glad I was able to explain this in a way for Janice to understand where I was coming from. It is a lot easier moving forward when your collaborators are fully on the same page as you rather than half-heartedly following along.
We still encounter minor disagreements on things like content and layout, but this usually consists of one of us explaining our original intentions or understanding and accepting the other’s critique right away. In the end, we always reach a mutual agreement and it’s never felt like we’ve had to make significant compromises. I think it helps that this has been a collaborative project from the very beginning, rather than one person’s pet project that the other was invited into.
Do you have experience with the comic form? Why did you choose to use this medium?
J: I made a comic in middle school about animals who are transformed into humans (it’s about what you’d expect from a 15-year-old who used to be in love with Animorphs). I’ve also made a couple of short comics since then, usually 1-4 pages, but nothing of this scale. We decided on our medium by looking at the skills we wanted to work on or showcase, and what we wanted to bring to the table with this project. I definitely wanted to have something to put in my illustration portfolio, so early on we knew the project should take the form of something involving illustration.
N: I’ve always dabbled in comics and many of my artist friends are involved in comics, so it’s always seemed natural to gravitate toward! I’ve also been getting more and more into film, and comics have always seemed like the only medium that comes close to capturing what film does without the same number of resources required.
What has been the most rewarding part of doing this project?
J: This is unexpected, but to me the collaboration has been the most rewarding part. I think I understand Project 40’s vision of collaborative art so much better now. I’m definitely the sort of person who, in school, would LOATHE group projects. I’ve always liked doing things on my own, because there’s no one I trust more than myself to get a job well done. I think a lot of us are perfectionists – especially with art – and we want total control over everything. But working with Nao has totally changed my perspective on collaboration. It’s been very humbling, seeing the way an idea has so much more energy and life when you have someone to bounce stuff off of. And the support Jasmine and Abby have given has been so invaluable… it’s awesome when you’re not just one person trying to pull everything out of yourself.
N: I couldn’t agree more. Janice and I hadn’t actually known each other that long nor that closely before she reached out to me about this project and this definitely brought us closer together. It’s been really rewarding to see the ways our differences have been complementary. For instance, Janice has an attention to concrete detail and execution that I’m prone to overlook, and I tend to be the one brainstorming new ideas when we feel stuck. The collaborative process also extends beyond just the creative side between me and Janice, but also the logistical side with Project 40. I think as artists it’s easy to reject the idea of accountability to others because it takes away from a romantic notion of creative freedom, but in actuality it’s been great to have Jasmine and Abby checking in with us. Having the structure and third-party support from Project 40 has helped us both stay on track and stay motivated.
What has been the most challenging?
N: What’s been the most rewarding has also been the most challenging. I’ve never worked on a creative project of this scale before, and if I didn’t have all these people I was accountable to, I definitely would’ve fallen behind by now. When my schedule becomes busy, it can be difficult to remind myself that I really need to get that script to Janice by the end of the week, that that profile needs to be sent to Jasmine and Abby by Friday, etc. But again, it’s thanks to all these people around me that I can push myself to do things I didn’t think I could do before.
J: Definitely agree as well! Keeping on track with a personal project like this is so hard when you’ve got, you know, your own life as well.
Any suggestions for people who want to jumpstart a creative project of this kind?
N: Know whose project you’re working on. A creative project is like a baby and its caretakers’ roles should be clear. Know the difference between co-creating something that is truly a joint effort, versus being enlisted to help someone else’s project. This is not to say that you can’t be truly committed or passionate about a project that is really someone else’s baby, just that the roles and expectations should be understood by all involved.
Additionally, deadlines are good! Structure is good! Allow some room for flexibility but have a rough outline of just how long things should be taking and set both easy-to-reach goals, as well as broader goals.
J: If it’s a passion project, work with someone who is philosophically like-minded. Nao and I agreed on so many things right from the start because we were able to understand each other’s ideas very well, and we wanted to explore similar things in our work. It’s very nice the way it worked out, that we are able to have the same vision for the project and both honestly be 100% committed to its direction.
Also, if you know someone who you think is talented and trustworthy, and you find yourself thinking you’d like to work on something meaningful with them, don’t be afraid to reach out! I’m so glad I messaged Nao one day and asked if she’d want to apply for the Col.lab Incubator together… we’ve come such a long way since then!
If you would like to read the comic, follow along for biweekly updates at Chicken Soup Comic!