Hellen Jo is sitting at her long work table in an all-black ensemble comprised of a tank top, shorts, and slides. Containers of apparel she sells lines much of the back side of her wall. The illustrator sits by her desktop which is perched at the far-left corner of her work table, adorned with stickers bordering the screen. A plastic tulip peeks from behind the monitor and a Trolli-keychain hangs off the left corner of her computer which catches my eye. I think, “How does one go about obtaining one of those?” It looks like it probably has significant meaning or value to it but maybe just specifically to Hellen. To the left corner of the room hangs a large-scale illustration of two Asian women kneeling on their left knee, opposite hands clasp each other with the phrase “Unite & Fight” written between them. I later learn she drew that for last year’s Women’s March. The far right of the table is the least occupied with a simple graph mat, and on the wall directly above it, a frame of what I can only describe as creative chaos. There hangs anything from googly eyes and a neon pink USB cable to various comic, cartoon, or comic illustrations. One could view the organized ‘mess’ as a reflection of Hellen’s own journey as an illustrator and comic artist–of its own world, seemingly chaotic with a method to its genius madness.
The Korean-American cartoonist is most well-known for her illustrative depictions of badass Asian American females skateboarding, smoking cigarettes, or simply hanging out. Despite what her artwork may depict, Jo’s demeanor is a bit more reserved. She’s much shyer and slightly self-deprecating, claiming to be “a loner as a kid” yet demonstrates a direct outspokenness through her art that fights for the representation of loners, outsiders, and non-conforming individuals.
Shaped by a lonely childhood, intense family expectations, and a toxic religious environment, her work reflects personal lessons and not only channels a fantasy version of emotions, but also the human condition from the perspective of a woman of color. “When I was a kid, I was nothing like what I drew. I was really shy, a huge nerd, and didn’t let myself do anything because I thought my parents would kill me,” says Jo. “I feel like these drawings are like romanticized versions of who I wanted to be, and that was a badass that was respected, that people would be afraid of on site, and did whatever she wanted. And isn’t that what everyone wants? Everyone wants to be respected and in control of their own shit.” Jo’s drawings emulate a truthfulness that hopefully resonates with people who identify as ‘loners’ or who are unable to fit in but will one day embrace and wield the same depicted confidence within themselves.
Jo was born in Mississippi to two graduate students. Since her parents went from school to school, she bounced around a bit but mainly grew up in the Bay Area of California, around Cupertino and San Jose. She had an affinity towards drawing since she could remember. Though her parents were not artists, they would draw for her as a little kid and she would copy them. Her aunts and uncles would send her manga translated into Korean and she would copy it. “I could kind of read it, but it was more about how I thought the characters were so pretty! Their eyes were huge! I would copy that shit,” reminisces Jo. “In high school, I would make comics for the school paper but at UC Berkeley, I discovered zines and graphic novels. There was a really big zine community there and a lot of Asian American people making comics, which was not that common in 2001. I could literally count the number of Asian American women making comics at that time; there were so few! I was like, ‘Okay I want to do this; I really like drawing and I like to write.’” She became involved in art nights or “comic salons.” Though it is “an outdated elitist term,” these ‘salons’ would serve as public gatherings for fellow artists, usually at an Indian restaurant near campus, and people would go to draw and meet other illustrators. She met people she idolized such as Jason Shiga, Thien Pham, Lark Pien, Gene Luen Yang, and Derek Kirk Kim. They all had their hands in self-publishing and DIY zine making, “except for Gene,” and Jo would learn by example. She loved the idea of doing everything herself and not having to worry about marketability or salability because “the thought of approaching a publisher is scary especially when you’re 18 with no experience.”
Jo ended up leaving Berkeley after two years to pursue her own work and she ended up getting her first comic, Jin & Jam #1, published by Sparkplug Comic. She assumed it would be her big break and she wouldn’t have to go back to formal education. However, she ended up eventually attending art school and dropped out after a couple years. The Jin & Jam cartoonist’s inability to follow a structured course or plan comes from an ineptitude to listen to people of authoritative power, relinquish control, and the fact that she is a self-proclaimed “major procrastinator.” Her aversion to authority and structure comes from an intense and arguably traumatic experience growing up as a young Christian especially within an ethnic church. “That was intense. I feel like that fucked me up forever,” Jo admits. “Growing up Christian, you feel like you’re using religion, your community, and God as your identity. I knew I wanted to be an artist but between my religious beliefs and family expectations, I just thought of art as a weird distraction or hobby. I think I thought I was going to be a professor because both my parents are or maybe even grow up to be a pastor. When I moved out and went to college, I realized there were more than two paths in life and why shouldn’t I be doing the thing that I want to be doing? At first, it was kind of scary because I always assumed that artists were crazy people with drug and emotional problems and the only thing I knew about art was the example of Van Gogh chopping off his ear or Picasso being a womanizer. Then I grew up and realized there are plenty of well-adjusted artists out there.”
Jo would question the rules and plans laid out for her, but also be fearful of repercussions if she acted out or against her community. She developed sort of a blind faith in God and her community, with the belief that it would all work itself out. However, as she got a little older and started realizing that things they were teaching such as “You have to get rid of your gay friends,” or “If you’re a girl, you can’t be slutty,” were incorrect, she realized her need to form her own opinions. As a result, she began cultivating her personal and artistic style that is genuine to the beliefs she truly holds.
“With a lot of mainstream comic art, a lot of female superhero characters are still drawn in a really sexy way. It doesn’t really matter that these women are saving the world; they still have huge tits and are still really fucking hot. Who is this for? Oh right, it’s for little boys. Fuck them, I don’t care about them.”
“It’s actually a lifelong problem that I can’t finish anything on time,” admits Jo. “I learned a lot in the three to four semesters that I was in art school, but at that point, I’d already been doing gallery shows for Giant Robot when it used to be in SF, other small galleries, comic/zine festivals, and some Asian American arts festivals. I wasn’t trying to get into some big MFA program; I just wanted to be making comics and stickers so I didn’t care about getting a degree. I was doing that for a long time and then my boyfriend [Calvin Wong] moved down here to Los Angeles, initially because he got a job with Cartoon Network. He went to Berkeley too but we met after and at that time, he had been working for a giant silicon chip manufacturer for about 5 years as a programmer and user interface designer, but it had nothing to do with his comic skills. He was also a self-published zine/comics maker. The creator of Regular Show bought his and my comic at San Diego Comic Con and emailed Calvin to see if he wanted to storyboard test. Calvin got the job, moved down here and then a year later, I moved down here too and he got me a job on Regular Show.”
Jo ended up storyboarding on Regular Show and Steven Universe where she learned a lot and had unforgettable experiences, but soon realized the cost of being a large network-employed artist.“Storyboarding is kind of similar to comics but the deadlines are basically every 5 weeks,” explains Hellen. “You get about 4-6 weeks to work on a storyboard with a partner and that’s one storyboard per 11-minute episode. On those two shows, they were premise-based storyboarding which meant you get a loose outline then you and your partner go through and board out all of the action, write and rewrite, then add the dialogue and jokes. You pitch it about three times during that 5-week cycle to your bosses, possibly to the network, and they tell you what they want you to change. You go and redraw 150 pages of it or whatever and then you repeat every 5 weeks. It’s like making comics but it’s so stressful.”
Struck with that harsh reality, Hellen began to reevaluate. “I thought when I entered animation that I was just going to flourish and be so full of creative juice and would be able to make tons of my own work as well. However, it’s more that you’re spending so much creative energy on that project that you’re constantly thinking about your board at night and can’t turn your brain off, making it hard to have a full-time practice outside of studio work. I know there are storyboard artists who have done that but I don’t understand how. One guy from Adventure Time was able to put out graphic novels while he was storyboarding. Another artist was able to maintain her sculpture practice. I don’t have the brain or emotional space to do both really. A lot of it is practice and discipline, but I don’t have any discipline, also I want to have fun. I’m sure they have fun too, but I like to travel a lot. I just like hanging out and I’d rather do that than focus on the work I’m supposed to be doing.”
It is crucial for Jo to maintain a personal and professional balance not only for overall self-care and health but to fuel her artmaking as well. “My art is centered around drawings of girls hanging out and that special feeling of friendship when you’re feeling alone. I’ve gone to cool destinations too. Calvin and I went to Tulum in February and I’ve been to Europe a couple times with my family. I don’t know if I take any direct inspiration though. The biggest inspiration for me is seeing different perspectives or approaches to art. One thing I’m afraid of is being stuck in an art rut, drawing the same stuff for the rest of my life. I’m kind of doing that now but it’s nice to try to meet other artists or see what other people are doing to remember that I can break out of whatever tiny world I built; that’s really important. I think illustrators get really stuck in their own head since it’s a pretty solitary job. If you’re like me and you’re an anxious person, you end up spinning your wheels a lot and kind of getting stuck so it’s good to see how other people are pursuing the things you are, or how they’re approaching things differently and I mean I think that’s the main goal of traveling. It’s like a really expensive form of therapy.”
In terms of Jo’s art style, she is profoundly affected by works that masterfully depict outsider characters; it’s what she connects with the most, having grown up in a fairly insular environment. “I have a shortlist of comics and graphics that are and will forever be my favorites,” says Jo. “Top of the list is the series Love & Rockets by Jaime Hernandez; he’s my hero. Anything he’s ever written or drawn is so beautiful and clean. He’s really good at conveying acts and emotion, which I think a lot of artists struggle with. He’s such a master at that and character development. He just builds these characters that are either really lovable or hate-able but you just know who they are. I’ve copied him more than anyone else but then the next person on that list is Taiyo Matsumoto, the creator of Ping Pong and Tekkonkinkreet. He’s a manga artist and draws in more of a loose style that looks kind of French but is clearly Japanese and he draws it with a loose pen almost. He’s a master of character development too. His compositions are beautiful and he writes really beautiful lonely children characters. A lot of my work is kind of influenced by nostalgia or a romanticism of the past, my past I guess. I’ve copied him extensively too. It was nice seeing comics with well-done character development of sad and lonely characters. Nowadays, there are tons of comics about identity politics and about nostalgia. You don’t have to read comics about superheroes, which is fine if you do, but you don’t have to. You can read coming-of-age comics and I just thought that was so wonderful. It’s the same with movies and novels. I think I just like being sad. With films, my favorite ones were always the old school Korean horror movies from the 90s. There’s this whole series called Girls’ Highschool Horror Story. They were pretty bad for the most part but I watched the very first one in Korea which is about a loner schoolgirl who makes a best friend who turns out to be a ghost. It’s ridiculous but the way it made me feel this sweeping sadness and it was also weird to see violence depicted as a metaphor for loneliness. I was this goth 12-year-old and a lot of the weird, sad, alternative crap that I consumed from the ages of 12-24 still influences me.”
The female Asian American characters that Hellen illustrates ooze lawlessness, angst, punk-like rebellion, almost aggressive confidence, and straight up no-damns-given mentality. It is still uncommonly rare to find Asian characters depicted in a powerful way that doesn’t fall under some of the overly-sexualized tropes seen in manga and other graphic novels, let alone illustrated by an Asian female artist. It was an active decision of Hellen’s part to have these characters drawn in a way that didn’t represent them as “subservient sex objects or over-the-top hyper-cute,” says Jo. “I always knew I wanted to draw girls who are powerful but I didn’t really know what that meant at first.” She played with the idea of these girls carrying swords or guns but quickly scrapped that approach because weapons did not equate to power. She then thought about the girls who would bully her in high school and junior high. She shyly admits, “Girls who have a really commanding presence only need their style or look and a facial expression. Someone just looking at you and able to make you feel like shit, that’s the kind of power I want to literally draw and figuratively wield. I would think, ‘Maybe if I draw them a lot I’ll become one, and if I keep drawing it I’ll be the biggest boss bitch ever.’ I think about the male gaze all the time and who am I drawing this for. I’m drawing this for other girls and women and to let them know I see them as this powerful being and not just an object. With a lot of mainstream comic art, a lot of female superhero characters are still drawn in a really sexy way. It doesn’t really matter that these women are saving the world; they still have huge tits and still really fucking hot. Who is this for? Oh right, it’s for little boys. Fuck them, I don’t care about them. They get enough shit encouraging them in this world. This is for all the women, girls, trans-girls, and nonbinary people who I want to view themselves as uncompromising displays of cool. You can be cool and not have to be sexy. It’s a sex appeal not for the eyes of a man because it emits pure confidence.”
The illustrator’s attraction to these traits and coming-of-age attitudes come from growing up with stress and anxiety over rules and restrictions. “It was confining and unfair. If I had been a Korean son or a white boy maybe, I’m sure it would have been really different in terms of how I entered art. I probably could’ve just been like, ‘I’m going to art school now’ or ‘I’m just going to make this comic, deal with it,’” Jo says. Creating art in any platform comes with it’s own challenges and debilitations, much of which is self-destructive because it can come from insecurity, fear of the unpredictable nature of creative media, and self-doubt. Jo too deals and fights this everyday. “Oh man, I would say maybe a good seven months out of the year I go through this,” admits Jo. “It’s really difficult to produce work when that happens and definitely hard when you’re basically chasing your jobs and paychecks. It sucks because it’s just the nature of a lot of creative fields. It doesn’t make you feel better about it when you’re already feeling down about yourself. When that happens to me, I do a lot of hiding out but what I tell illustrators when they feel that crippling, debilitating, self-doubt is to get out of the house or studio. I think the whole ‘fake it until you make it’ motto is huge. Go on a social rampage. It also helps to talk to other people in a similar position to see that you’re not going through that alone. This is a universal condition of being a creative person and there’s comfort in realizing it’s not just in your head.”
Jo is currently working on a group show for Subliminal Projects with two of her friends who also happen to be LA-based Asian American female artists. Their opening will be December 2nd. “We got a title which is Folk Medicine, but I don’t’ know what we’re doing yet. It will be a combination of painting and sculpture. We want to rotate around the same themes of folk medicine, prayer, and also communal memory. We want to make an interactive installation where people can touch and do stuff with but we’re still talking about it. I’m probably going to start working on some large-scale paintings which will be a new thing for me. I don’t normally draw bigger than 12×19 inches, and my goal is to draw at least a couple things that are 3×4 feet.” If there’s one thing Hellen consistently proves though, it’s that she will always defy expectations and fight against restrictions, even those self-inflicted.
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