Fred Chao: Building Your Everyman's Hiro

A comics interview article by: Matt Sargeson
Is the great 21st century graphic novel ensconced in your brain, screaming to be born like some unholy, verb-smeared Alien-style chest-burster!?! Once you summon the courage to believe that it might, buckle up ladies, now comes the hard part -- giving birth to the mutha! The battle is long and hard, and all the forces of self-doubt, day-to-day living and an indifferent audience are marshalled against you. Creation is scary. No wonder most rest easy in the back seat, content to let the professionals take the wheel.

Which is exactly why Fred Chao's story is so inspiring.

Seemingly appearing from nowhere, Chao's comic Johnny Hiro stormed the 2008 Eisner Award nominations, vying for victory in four categories including Best Single Issue and Best New Series.

Fronting both script and art duties, Chao had managed to craft a book that was charming, funny, poignant, and a breath of fresh air to all of us searching for a hero that really knew our troubles. Johnny Hiro's heroics don't lie in leaping tall buildings in a single bound or webbing up costumed bad guys; they come from holding down a steady job, looking out for his girl, being a nice guy...and, okay, punching out the odd 50ft dinosaur. It's a sublime everyman adventure that invokes the spirits of Spike Jonze and Michael Gondry in its weave of kitchen-sink reality and dream-like whimsy -- and all crafted by one man, short of spare time, but rich in dedication.

For those of you that might have missed out on the ride the first time ‘round, fear not! AdHouse books have now released the new trade collection for the series, comprising of the original first three issues and two new chapters printed exclusively for this release.

Recently, we caught up with Fred to discuss the new collection, the perils of life as an independent creator, and a look forward to some interesting future projects:

Matt Sargeson: To those who've not read Johnny Hiro before, what's the book about?

Fred Chao: Johnny Hiro and Mayumi are a young couple living in New York. Mayumi’s mother, Ami, was a member of Super A-OK Robot (a Japanese action robot much like Voltron or Power Rangers). Because of this, Johnny and Mayumi have to deal with the repercussions of her parent’s life, fighting off the giant lizard Godzilla in the first chapter. From there, the comic spirals out of orbit with the repercussions of apartment damage, the struggle to keep above water on a waiter’s pay, and an attempt to answer a question on my mind: Where the f**k’s the silver lining?!

MS: What inspired you to write the book -- was there a particular message you wanted to put out into the world?

FC: Mostly I had wanted to make a comic about a loving couple. It seems like there’s so much drama in comic book relationships these days. People are always cheating on each other, or someone is killed out of vengeance, or Mephisto is wiping a relationship clean off the map.

I dunno, I’d like to think those things aren’t needed to create a fun relationship to read. I wanted to make a comic where the relationship was pretty healthy, and to have the obstacles be the things in our everyday lives: jobs, the effects of misunderstandings, odd law suits you never expected to be involved in, and trying to relax and have fun with everything on your mind.

Of course, because it’s a comic book, I had to amp those dramas. But I would like to think most of what I deal with is rooted in true scenarios.

MS: How important was New York to you in your writing? It seems like a character in itself throughout the series.

FC: New York has been absolutely crucial to this comic. The thing is, this city is constantly frenetic, from its day-to-day operations, to its laws, to its economy. And those things rub off on the average person simply trying to make a living. The city is so vivid, and I’ve really learned to embrace it and try to relay that experience in my comic.

MS: Do you see Johnny Hiro as an ongoing series or is there a complete story arc in your mind?

FC: I would love Johnny Hiro to be an ongoing series, but I can’t draw this comic in my spare time anymore. It’s just about killed me.

If something crazy does happen and I am able to get funding for it -- if I ever do get an advance or a page rate of some kind -- I would love the chance to complete Johnny and Mayumi’s story. I know pretty much how the characters are going to grow and where they’re headed. It would take about 35 more single issues, each in 5-issue story-arcs.

I love these characters; it would be an absolute joy to work with them again, to have the opportunity to tell the remaining Johnny Hiro stories in my head.

MS: What's your background? Was comic book art always an 'extra-curricular' activity'?

FC: I’ve always read comics but had never really thought about it as a profession. I also drew a lot, mostly because it was fun and often meditative, again, never thought about it as a profession.

I went to college for Theatre Arts; at the time I was mostly interested in playwriting and directing. I realized I wanted to have a more technical education so I switched my major to Film. I graduated and moved to Los Angeles.

After a difficult time in and around the film industry, I decided I needed to reassess how I was going about my life. So I moved to London where things were really awful. I barely made enough money to survive, to the point where I was dumpster diving for food. It was brutal. This lasted about a year.

I moved back to the US and, after my experience, felt inspired to work in homeless services. I worked as a counsellor, volunteered at a soup kitchen, and eventually worked for a non-profit magazine to benefit the homeless. I really thought that’s where I wanted to be. I was debating applying for Psych school when I decided to give creative writing one more shot, in a more DIY way. With plays, you need a cast and a crew and a theatre, it’s all very overwhelming to organize. I decided to utilize my drawing abilities and make a comic.

But here’s the meat of the thing. I think most of us don’t have any idea what we’re doing, whether we’ve made the right decisions in life or if we should be going down a different path. It’s like, grandiose self-doubt is always there, just underneath every supposedly empowering decision we make.

I’m 31 now, and I feel like my professional career is just getting started. I feel like it’s a little late to feel that. Would I give any of it up? Well, maybe some of the dumpster diving. But otherwise, Hells No!

MS: What was the creative process like? Your editorials made it sound like you had to fit in the work around work, family, friends etc. which must have been complicated.

FC: Like most independent comic book creators, I made this comic while having a full-time job. The whole process was definitely exhausting. But after a certain point, I just had to finish it. I wanted to give comics a real shot. And you know, if this trade completely fails, at least I’ll be confident that I gave this story the energy it deserves.

As for the creative process itself, I think I work somewhat differently than a lot of comic creators, mostly because I do both the writing and illustration. This allows me the freedom to completely improvise within my loosely planned story.

There’ve been a lot of times where I had something scripted, but while drawing it I realized it would be funnier or crazier if my character did something else, which may have laborious repercussions, like re-writing whole scenes. It’s really taught me how entangled writing and drawing can be, how much the pictures can directly influence or even completely change the script, and how a character can really make his or her own decision independent of the author.

MS: Which do you find more enjoyable, and what do you find more hard work; writing or illustrating?

FC: The writing is absolutely more enjoyable. I get to make up fun stupid things for my characters to do and say, I get to incorporate stupid things I read in the paper, and get to imagine the craziest of scenarios.

The illustrating is all the work and most of it is pretty exhausting, but it’s just as rewarding as the writing. Visuals make up so much of the comic, and convey so much of the moods and emotions. I love being able to see my own illustrations in the comic. I think I’d feel less connected to Johnny Hiro if someone else drew it.

MS: What are the pros and cons of being responsible for every aspect of the book?

FC: A big pro has been working with an editor of my choice. Jesse Post and I have been writing partners since college. He’s able to work with my semi-improvised scripts and invests a lot of energy into each bit of dialogue. But mostly, I feel like he really understands what I’m going for, and is able to help me flush these things out and make me feel like I’ve told it in the best way I can, within my own somewhat odd sensibilities.

Another pro is knowing that it’s my work. I feel a certain accomplishment and ownership being responsible for so many aspects. Like if I messed up, it’s my fault, but if it does move a few people, it’s because of my storytelling.

One thing that’s disappointed me is how long the wait is between issues. This is because I’m responsible for the writing and research, drawing and inking, and some production aspects as well. It would have obviously come out so much faster in a more assembly-line like setting. Not that I intended this comic to be a monthly series, but I did expect more than one issue to come out in 2008. Oh well, it’s an indie comic. Whatcha gonna do?

MS: How did the new trade collection come about?

FC: We had published the first three issues in the traditional comic book format and I was working on the fourth when Diamond Distribution had upped their benchmark orders. My comic book has always had relatively small print runs and orders so we knew we’d never make the numbers. With that in mind, we decided to go straight to trade paperback.

MS: How do you feel about the 2 new chapters?

FC: As with all the Johnny Hiro comics, the last two issues are a bit eclectic, going from high-action to the contemplative to sitcom-like writing with celebrity cameos running throughout and so on.

But within all the crazy genre-mixing, I mostly hoped to tell what is simply an honest story. I trust my editor implicitly, and when he got to the end of it, he told me that it really choked him up. I think just that small remark helped me feel satisfied in having told this particular story to the best of my ability. Mostly though, I’m glad to have the last 2 chapters done, to have told a complete story. And I’m really anxious to hear what others think of it.

MS: What are the benefits of working with an Independent publisher like AdHouse, and how's the support that you've received from them been?

FC: I’m so glad that my comic was published through AdHouse. Chris Pitzer is a great guy who allows me the freedom to essentially do what I want with the story, which has been invaluable. I don’t know if I would have gotten that same kind of freedom or understanding through a larger publisher.

Chris also has a great design sense. Designing the trade collection with him was often exhausting (mostly because everything was via email) but equally as rewarding. I just got a physical copy of the book today and I’m extremely happy with it.

MS: How much of a surprise were your Eisner nominations and what doors did they open?

FC: Holy Crappoli! Yeah, that was pretty nuts. It didn’t open any doors professionally, but it was a great experience. My family lives in California, so we all went out to the awards ceremony together. (My mom was my date!) It was so great to have my parents there, really hopeful for me.

Mostly, the Eisner nominations let me know I should really see this whole Johnny Hiro thing through; it showed me others were moved by the story, which is all I set out to do with this comic. Before then, I had just known a handful of people who liked the book. It was such wonderful encouragement.

MS: What projects are you currently working on in and out of comics?

FC: I just finished a short 5-page comic for a book called Found: Requiem for a Paper Bag. It’s an anthology book with an amazing contributors list including Dave Eggers, Chuck D, Del tha Funkee Homosapien, Sarah Vowell, Stuart Dybek, Damon Wayans and a whole boatload of others. I’m pretty psyched about the project. It probably won’t make it to most comic book stores, but it should be easy to find in your local bookstore.

I also illustrated a short 8-page comic for the upcoming Awesome 2: Awesomer anthology put out by Top Shelf, edited by the good dudes behind the Indie Spinner Rack podcast.

Mostly, I’ve been working hard on short comic book project for a younger audience. I’m halfway into the pencils, so I don’t think it’ll take too long to finish it. I’m hoping to find a good home for that project later this year.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to return to painting.

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