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Vice Blog

NEW YORK - HELLEN JO'S COMICS

August 17, 2009, 4:50pm

Hellen Jo is a Korean-American cartoonist who lives out in San Francisco and is one of the few new great comic artists. Like the one you saw yesterday, her comics are usually about girls wasting time, and then, all of a sudden…an amazing fight scene. She gets around in the drawing world and did that great comic, Jin & Jam #1, which everyone loves and a videogame about herself, which few have seen. She recently did some special decoration for your iGoogle page. I had the pleasure of meeting her at MoCCA this year and can verify that she is almost as fun as her characters.

What is this comic you did about?

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"GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS I DO ADORE" is about the dangers of underestimating teenage girls. Fear them!

Way to draw cute girls. Yours are cute as hell.
Thanks! I think drawing girls is the greatest thing there is. I'm more of a gross lady myself but I think all of my inner girliness is expressed in my illustration.

Tell me about Jin & Jam #1, one of my favorite new comics. Where'd those characters and situations come from? Restrictive Christian Korean upbringing gets left behind for the freedom of being a dirty kid who eats garbage and gets into fights.
Jin & Jam #1 is a coming-of-age comic about a couple of teenagers who meet, become friends, and do shit together. It's based really really REALLY loosely on a few of my own experiences and those of a few close friends, but I've amped everything up with violence, surrealism, and fantastic lies. Eventually the comic will take a more mysterious turn. As for any similarities between the comic and my own life, I also grew up in a Christian Korean home, surrounded by high expectations, but my own "coming of age" was more mundane, typical of a lot of suburban teens. I think Jin & Jam presents a more romanticized, tragic, thrilling version of adolescence than normal, but "coming of age" is this universally profound human experience that I've wanted for a while to explore in a comic book.

It seems like Black and White/Tekkonkinkreet's level of reality and enjoyment of line made an impact on your work. What else has inspired and excited you that you see as influencing your work.
I do love Black and White (I've stolen tons of stuff from it!), and I think I've been just as influenced by Taiyo Matsumoto's other comics as well, particularly "Ping Pong" and "Blue Spring." Xaime Hernandez's Love & Rockets stories and Charles Burns' Black Hole have also influenced my most recent comics greatly; I particularly love that Black Hole expresses the horrific aspects of the coming-of-age experience. It might not be so obvious in Jin & Jam, but I'm also inspired deeply by horror manga by Junji Ito (Museum of Horror, Uzumaki, Tomie) and the neo ero-guro of Suehiro Maruo (Ultra Gash Inferno, Mr. Arashi's Amazing Freak Show, The Strange Tale of Panorama Island). These are my more obvious influences, but I've read so many comics that they've all influenced my work to some degree.

I heard you made a video game about yourself.
Yes, like a true egotist! Giant Robot magazine worked with video game label Attract Mode to create ArtxGame, which partners illustrators with popular independent game developers. I don't know shit about indie games, but one of my good friends is Derek Yu, a darling of the independent gaming community. Through ArtxGame, Derek and I created a game with my boyfriend, Calvin Wong, and we threw together this weird game where Calvin and I are the main characters and we mosey through a mish-mash of environments, hit naked dudes, and steal their masks to wear and wield as weapons. We can never die, the game has no goals, you can't really win, nothing happens. But it's really fun and it looks weird! All of the backgrounds and sprites are hand-drawn, watercolored illustrations done by me and Calvin. We want to put it online so people can play it, but we're lazy and haven't yet. So far we've had limited success in bringing the game to our table at comic conventions, but the laptop batteries always die on us!

You live in San Francisco right? How do you like it out there?
Yeah I live in the Mission District. San Francisco is pretty great; there's lots of cool shit to do, excellent people to meet, tasty burritos all over the place. I grew up in South San Jose, and when I was in high school the cool kids hung out at the rich people mall, Valley Fair, while the coolest kids drove up to "Ess Eff" to hang out wantonly. So San Francisco has always held this idealized, ultra-metropolitan, urban sophisticate image in my mind. Of course, now that I live here, I think it's a really angry city. San Francisco is cool and all, but sometimes city life seems really furious and high-strung. I'm a suburban wimp; lately I've been spending more and more time in Fremont (where Calvin lives) and Gilroy (where my parents live), enjoying the clean air smells and random animals frolicking in the streets. I will probably stay in the Bay Area forever, so I'll never be far from San Francisco, but I think the boring suburbs where I grew up help balance the terrifying city I live in now.

I just got your iGoogle theme. I never heard of it before. What the hell is this iGoogle bullshit?
I've never used iGoogle either, dude, so I'm just as befuddled as you. I hear comparisons to My Yahoo! (another product I'm not familiar with) but the Google people get angry when you say that. It's like a homepage you can customize with your email, local weather forecast, postal service package tracking, horoscopes, etc. I don't know. Google just decided to launch 50 different cartoonists' iGoogle themes in time for San Diego Comic-Con, and they threw me in to round out the group with a few small-press cartoonists, which was very cool of them. Once it launched, I downloaded my theme to show my parents, and I haven't used iGoogle since. That shit's for nerds.

What's it like going out with also pretty good cartoonist, Calvin Wong? Is there ever rivalry or do you both acknowledge that one of you is the better comicker?
I think when we started going out, we envisioned a symbiotic relationship of comic mastery, as if dating each other would make each of us a greater and more productive cartoonist. Unfortunately, the real result is that we bolster each other's complete lack of motivation. "Hey, d'you draw any comics this week?" "No, did you?" "No, let's go to Claim Jumper and eat four pounds of sub-par ribs!" "OK!" and on and on. However, when we do work, it's great; I think Calvin's art is wonderful and very French-looking, and his girls are beautiful and inspiring. Actually, I totally owe a lot to Calvin; if it weren't for him, I never would have taken up watercolor. Before we were going out, I colored everything really poorly in Photoshop, without a tablet or even a mouse…I just used the trackpad. My only experience painting had been a still-life class in oils and a color and design class in gouache, and I hated it because I totally sucked! Calvin kept encouraging me to try watercolor (he is a watercolor MASTER) and I kept refusing, until I finally tried it out, and I learned how wonderful watercolors are. I also learned that I hated Photoshop, so this was pretty timely. I think Calvin and I are pretty well-matched, because we're both good. He likes my shit just as much as I admire his art. The only time there's been some rivalry was when we were working on the video game with Derek; I was greedy and wanted all the credit, so I bitched about how Calvin's drawings were just too good, and they made mine look rushed and poorly colored. This wasn't even in a joking, modest way; I was sincerely mad at Calvin for "showing me up." (Yes, I am in fifth grade.) Of course, Calvin is just too good-natured to fall prey to my stupid bait, and I realized what a complete bitch I was, so there you go. Do you feel like you're working towards something big? Are you just making little things that aren't building towards some large opus?
My ultimate goal is to create a comic book or graphic novel so moving and wonderful that it inspires scores of knock-offs. Then I can die. But before that, I'll keep making lots of different comics; I treat each one like it's bigger than the last one, so gradually, I hope to build up to something really great. NICK GAZIN