'I Definitely Relate To Anda As A Once-Teenage Nerd' – Exclusive Interview With In Real Life Artist Jen Wang

By Cameron Hatheway

October 14th marks the release of the fantasy video game graphic novel In Real Life from First Second Books. Originally starting as a short fiction story on Salon.com by Cory Doctorow, it has since become fleshed out and adapted to the comics medium with the help of artist extraordinaire Jen Wang. Mesmerized by her art throughout the book, I begged the fine folks over at First Second for an exclusive email interview with Wang to find out what makes her tick.

jen_wang_imageCameron Hatheway: How did you first become involved with Doctorow? Were you aware of his books or columns, specifically Anda's Game, before the collaboration?

Jen Wang: First Second approached me with the idea of adapting Anda's Game. I was aware of Cory's work as a blogger but I hadn't read any of his fiction until then. At the time I wasn't particularly interested in adapting another's writer's work but I was really struck by the story and subject matter for Anda's Game and thought "This is really worth doing!"

CH: When did you first know you wanted to be an artist? Who were some of your influences when you first started illustrating?

JW: I always loved to draw so I don't remember a point at which I decided I wanted to be an artist. It was something that was already part of my life. But I think the first inkling I had of being a commercial artist, someone who got paid to draw for a living, came from watching cartoons as a kid. I saw The Little Mermaid for the first time when I was 6-years-old and it became everything. The idea that someone can literally just draw and bring a character to life is the purest form of magic I can think of. To this day I still find it very moving and every single time I go to the theater to see a new animated movie, I cry.

jen_wang_flightCH: You first came on my radar with the Flight anthologies. What experiences/techniques did you take away from Flight and expand upon in future projects?

JW: Hands down the best experience of working on Flight was getting to know all the incredible people. I got to know Kazu and Amy Kim Kibuishi, Raina Telgemeier, Hope Larson, and so many more people I'm still friends with today. Back then it was just a small group of young people trying things out and wanting to take their work to the next level. Knowing there are other people out there with the same hopes and dreams helps keep me focused and inspired during those lonely nights at the drawing table. I also met my agent Judy Hansen through Flight and I don't know what I'd do without her.

CH: Are you a video gamer? Were you able to relate and sympathize with Anda and her struggles?

JW: I'm more of a casual gamer. I have a bunch of games on my phone and I'll play a few things recommended by friends on Steam. However I definitely relate to Anda as a once-teenage nerd. Like her I had a life online that I connected to way more than my real life and I spent all my time after school on the internet. For Anda it's gaming, for me it was fandoms and art communities.

CH: What graphic novel or comic(s) have inspired you recently?

JW: There are so many! Off the top of my head, for graphic novels: This One Summer by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki, Through the Woods by Emily Carroll, How to be Happy by Eleanor Davis, and Seconds by Bryan Lee O'Malley. Other cartoonists who're totally killing it are Sam Alden, Sophia Foster-Dimino, Michael DeForge, Steve Wolfhard, Lisa Hanawalt, and Simon Hanselmann.

CH: What kind of research did you do when creating the characters and environment of Coarsegold Online?

JW: I did play World of Warcraft for a couple of weeks, which is probably the biggest influence on Coarsegold. But I also looked at Final Fantasy Online which aesthetically was more up my alley. Mostly I just tried to make a game that seemed believably appealing to a wide range of players. I'm super into customization and resource management when I play games so I tried to include that a little bit in Coarsegold.

CH: Both your style and colors are absolute eye-candy. Do you find yourself enjoying illustrating more, coloring, or does it depend on what kind of day it is?

JW: Thanks! And definitely illustrating. It's the part of drawing that's most like writing. Through working on this book I've learned to become more comfortable with coloring but it's a completely different experience. With illustrating I'm executing a concept that's in my head. With coloring I'm filling in the details based on a context that already exists. It's less conceptual but that's why it can also be really relaxing.

CH: What kind of character would you be if you played in Coarsegold Online? Would you kill the cute gold farmers, or leave them be?

JW: I would probably play as an animal character and I would definitely leave the gold farmers alone. I'm a sandbox type so I'm completely happy to ignore everyone else and focus on finding cute objects to put in my fake virtual house. I don't think I would even notice the gold farmers are there.

CH: What's next on the agenda for you? Are you currently working on another graphic novel, anthology, or comic?

JW: I can't really say too much about future comic projects for now, but I'm co-organizing a new independent comics festival in Los Angeles. It's called Comic Arts LA and it'll be taking place December 6th in Downtown LA. Los Angeles is teeming with cartoonists right now and we're pretty excited about it. If you're in Southern California that weekend, please come check it out!

In Real Life will be available to purchase October 14th. Special thanks to Jen Wang for taking time out of her busy schedule and Gina Gagliano for helping put this together.

In Real Life (First Second Books)
Written by Cory Doctorow
Illustrated by Jen Wang
192 pages, FC, $17.99
On sale October 14, 2014

Cameron Hatheway is a reviewer and the host of Cammy's Comic Corner, an audio podcast. You can tempt him to return once again to Azeroth on Twitter @CamComicCorner.

About Hannah Means Shannon

Editor-in-Chief at Bleeding Cool. Independent comics scholar and former English Professor. Writing books on magic in the works of Alan Moore and the early works of Neil Gaiman.