My former classmate Jonathan Hop is doing a Kickstarter for his graphic novel series Journey to the Middle Kingdom. The premise sounded fascinating, and as we attended grad school together, I couldn’t let him get away without asking some burning questions regarding addressing race and gender in the world of comics and graphic novels.
Ancient China is in peril. The heroes of Chinese legends and myth are missing, and without them, the entirety of Chinese history could go terribly wrong. Three American High School students are pulled out of their ordinary lives and thrust into China’s mythic past. The powerful and mysterious Jade Emperor has used his powers to call our heroes from the modern world, back in time to right a great wrong. Journey to the Middle Kingdom is a series of graphic novel action-adventures meant for everyone from young adults, to adults who remain young at heart.
Jason, Sabrina, and Michelle are the three children who journey back in time to fight the mysterious evil threatening ancient China, and they are guided by a young phoenix, and aided by three magical brushes. The brushes write Chinese words, and whatever you write, becomes real. With each new adventure in the series, which cover Chinese folklore and fairytales, they will get closer to the heart of the mysterious evil at work, learn new Chinese words as their powers grow, and journey across stories of legend in order to get back to present day America.
Creating Complex Characters
So when thinking of the plot and characters for the graphic novel, I considered characterization first, race and ethnicity second, and gender third. I never planned from the beginning to have two female protagonists, but it once the characters started shaping up it felt right.
When thinking of my cast, I knew I wanted a team and I knew I wanted three characters. I was emphasizing in my mind “harmony” and “discord.” I wanted their world views to be independent and unique, but to mesh well together when the situation called for it so they would have natural chemistry. There would be dischord when their personalities clashed and harmony when they were in sync with one another. This would be the way I could make the story move and create dramatic conflict naturally.
I don’t like doing characterization based on “loves” and “hates.” Everyone does that. “My character loves Mongolian throat singing, but hates Twinkies and Tootsie Rolls.” [Ed. I am crying a little at this description.] It’s not a realistic way to construct a character in my view, unless you want a caricature. Instead, I did things based on personality and world view. Characters have set personality traits and set ways of dealing with the world around them, which governs their actions. If a character is highly confident, doesn’t consider others opinions, and believes there is only black and white in any moral decision, then the way they act in any given situation is set and their “likes” and “dislikes” flow naturally from that world view. It’s a much better method in my opinion.
Creating Characters in Regards to Race and Gender
So after I worked on what kind of people should be on the team, I then thought about race and gender. Since I constructed the characters based on attributes, I could create “real” people and not stereotypes. I’m of multiracial descent, so I really have a first row seat of how race is a social construct. It papers over a person’s natural attributes. I always wanted to be considered a smart and considerate person irrespective of my race, so if those are the dominant traits, then race isn’t the defining characteristic and the stereotypes become muted. I’m aware you can’t fully escape race, but you can at least point out its flaws as a concept.
Here I asked about the “white guy saves Japan” trope:
The main character, Jason Xia, is half Chinese. In my mind the lead character needed an ancestral relationship with China. The leader of the “Journey to the Middle Kingdom” should be from the Middle Kingdom in my view. However I wanted the characters to be a vehicle for the reader to experience more of Chinese culture. The graphic novel is, after all, aimed at an American audience that probably has never heard of “Legend of the White Snake Maiden.” So, I wanted Jason to know some things about China, but not at the level of a native. I really wasn’t going to go for the Tarzan effect, where a non insider would go to the insider country and then be proclaimed king. That’s not the case at all with Journey to the Middle Kingdom. Yes, they are heroes and they will eventually save history, but when they are first dropped off in ancient China, the main characters are most certainly NOT in control of the situation. They get a guide, a magical phoenix, but the Jade Emperor gives them no instructions as to how to go about saving history or figuring out what mysterious force is behind the disturbances. They can’t even fully use their powers. There is a world of societal norms, cultural values, and history that the main characters must learn and conform to before they are even functional. The Middle Kingdom will become their monarch, not the other way around.
Jason knows the most Chinese, and can speak it, but because he’s lived in the United States all of his life, his writing ability is limited and his cultural knowledge has some holes. Sabrina, the girl with glasses, is a beginner in the Chinese language and takes it as her foreign language course, but wouldn’t know anything advanced, and Michelle knows about as much as anyone off the street. By starting each character off at a different skill level, I can then make each of their respective “journeys” different. Jason will smother himself with the responsibility of being an “insider” when in many ways he’s not. Sabrina will have to be a more flexible person, and Michelle will gain a level of self confidence she’s never experienced before. The brushes represent each character’s will to learn and assimilate a new culture and new ideas, not to dominate it, but to use it to grow.
As you can see in the character descriptions, I focus more on what makes them people and far less on the fact Michelle is African American and Sabrina is Caucasian. Their race doesn’t determine who they are as people. In fact, I made them the races they were so that they break apart any attributes their race would have otherwise imparted on them. There are socioeconomic factors in their characterization at play too, but I want to save that as a surprise for the first book where it does come into play in a way.
On Sexism in Comics
Since you’re the writer, how do you communicate with the artist about drawing the characters?
We were both on board without having to discuss it at length. I basically tell Gabriel what I want for a scene and he essentially does it. I’ve seen his work, and he does have sexualized females in some of it, but that’s because it’s part of the story or character. I have yet to tell him “No, don’t be gratuitous.” I again stick with the characters characterization, which for some reason the artist and I always seem to be in tune with without having to do too much fine tuning. For example, the White Snake Maiden mural on the front page, the White Snake Maiden looks regal. She’s not pouty or all like “Poor little ol’ me stuck in this pagoda never to see my lover again.” She has this quiet, noble resolve to eventually defeat Fa Hai. Michelle as a perceptive gets this, and that’s why the mural looks so good :P.
As far as the two female leads, you can see that they are fully clothed and perfectly human. I never even thought of having half naked amazon women in skin fitting gold spandex holding two automatic machine guns one handed. I think it’s perfectly fine to have super heroines who can show off their sexuality (being sexual shouldn’t be just the sole purview of a dominant male who lets them be sexual for his enjoyment), but only if it’s in character and fits with the storyline. The female figure shouldn’t have to be hidden away in a closet, but it also shouldn’t be a cudgel for objectification. In comics I think that it’s really obvious when they are just using the female figure to sell comic books to their audience. The characters are usually one dimensional, and their sexuality is the one defining trait. It’s gratuitous and painfully obvious.
On Creating Complex Characters
I wanted positive female role models who were basically just people: they have a way of looking at the world that is based on their past experiences and their latent personality traits. Sabrina is intelligent, self assured, kind hearted, yet a bit inflexible at times and forceful when she shouldn’t be. She’s one of those people that would call the manager if a waitress brought the wrong food out, or if the service were sub par and then talk with them in a loud voice until she came up with a way to improve service next time. If you were with her you might feel embarrassed at her forwardness, but you know people like her will always continue to be that way because so long as pushing gets her results, she’ll just keep doing it. Sabrina, like Jason, has a jump into the fray personality, and she also has a knack for sizing up a situation logically and clearly.
Michelle is rather the opposite. Michelle is highly introverted, perceptive, instinctive, and has a rich inner world few people see. The artist really captured this on the cover. In the cover, I wanted the characters to use their body language to show off their character traits and connect with the audience. Michelle’s eyes are filled with this pinpoint, laser-like energy. It’s her to a T. The flipside of Michelle is that she can be reserved and would rather take a “wait and see” kind of attitude with any given situation, which comes off as unconfident or cold, but really, is just her inclination. She’ll see things most people don’t and she will not be the one to exacerbate any dangerous situation.
Jason is the leader of the group, but to be honest, the “leader” shifts very fluidly from character to character even within a few pages. That seemed natural to me. No one is dominant, but no one is submissive either, and each situation calls for a different way to look at it. Everyone still shares the same goal, so when there is “harmony” between the characters, it leaps off the page. You can see this on the cover. Each character has a pose independent of the other and they are looking at the reader, trying to make a connection, rather than looking at each other. They are confident enough to know they are a team, and that they each are their own individual and are made better by being in a group.
Ed.: Having a comic for teens that focuses on cooperation, friendship, and learning about a new culture sounds pretty important to me. So often we have homosocial groups of boys battling without a lot of introspection, and this series sounds like a good start to having more representation across the board.