The Marvel exclusive color artist and writer of the new webcomic The Fox Sister takes a seat in The Outhouse to talk about her life and career in the comics industry!
After studying graphic design at Louisiana State Universtiy, Christina Strain entered the comics industry as an eager young artist who still had a lot to learn. After short stints at Crossgen Comics, Udon Studios, and Aspen Studios, she grew into one of the most prolific colorists in comics. As a colorist working exclusively for Marvel, Strain helped define the look of such surprise hits as Runaways and Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, as well as working on the such event comics as World War Hulk and buzz books like Jonathan Hickman's SHIELD.
Strain recently announced that she would be leaving comics in order to go back to school, but she hasn't ventured too far away. She has re-emerged, this time serving as a writer, with a new webcomic called The Fox Sister, with artist Jayd Aït-Kaci. Serving as Strain's reaction to traditional Korean folklore, The Fox Sister is something of a mystical thriller with some horror and even some comedic elements thrown in.
Christina Strain recently stopped by The Outhouse to talk about growing up in Korea, making the switch from visual artist to writer, and why she refers to Runaways penciller Adrian Alphona as her "comic book husband."
The Outhouse (OH): Is writing something you've wanted to do for a long time? Was that always an aspiration for you?
Christina Strain (CS): Yeah, it's funny. When I was in high school, I wrote a lot. It didn't really occur to me how much I wrote just because I wanted to do comics, and in Asia you have to do a little bit of everything. I wrote a lot, I drew a lot of really crappy comics, and I also wrote a lot of prose that I totally forgot I did, because the moment I realized I wanted to work in American comics, I picked coloring and the rest of it fell by the wayside. For years, penciling was the one thing I kind of wished I hadn't given up; not because I wanted to pencil for a living, but because I wasn't terrible. If I hadn't stopped drawing, I would have been halfway decent, but now it's a pain to draw. But I kind of got into writing to do something other than coloring, just to give my brain a break because I had been doing so much of that. I kind of rediscovered [writing]. I knew I wanted to do personal comics, but I always assumed I'd always end up plotting them, and then working with a writer. I respect writers. It's such a hard job. I don't think just anyone can do it. Which is why I'm going back to school, to try to do it well.
OH: When did you decide that comics would be what you want to go into?
CS: I always knew that I wanted to. Growing up in Asia, I read a lot of them, and a lot of my friends read them, and we all kind of liked them. But, I have a Korean mom, so... [laughs], I didn't really think it was a job I could do for a living because she was very set on my doing something very academic. It was kind of a pipe dream until I was nineteen and I went to [a convention] in New Orleans and met Amanda Connor, and I showed her some of my stuff, and she said "You need to do art. Why are you doing programming, that doesn't make any sense. Do art." I decided then and there that I would be doing comics, I'm not going to pussyfoot around it anymore.
OH: Who are some of the other people who have helped you out in comics?
CS: [Peter] Stiegerwald! That's always the first one who comes to mind. When I worked at Aspen, I worked directly under him in the studio. He made me cry! A lot! [laughs] He was really good at knowing what I needed to work on, and some of the crying wouldn't be from him being mean but from knowing the things I need to fix. [...] He was a really good teacher. Everyone likes to be instructed in different ways. I like to have a little bit of positive feedback, but more than anything I like to know what I need to work on.
Laura Martin was fantastic. She was kind of the opposite side of the coin, but in a very "Let me sit you down and walk you through this" kind of way. I remember sitting down and watching her color for three hours at Crossgen when I was really young. That was such an amazing lesson because there were so many things I didn't even think about trying or asking about on a technical level in Photoshop. I was like, "I didn't know you could do that! What was that?" I learned all kinds of hotkeys, and my workflow changed completely because of that. Peter too. Peter sat me down and looked over my files and said "this is not efficient, let me show you a better way to do it."
So those two, and Justin Ponsor. God bless Justin Ponsor! He emailed me and I don't even know how he had the patience to put up with me, because he was trying to teach me how to do flats. I understand from his perspective now how difficult it is to explain to somebody who doesn't color daily what a flat it, and he was so sweet. He had so much patience. I was like "I don't get this, I don't get channels." But those three have definitely molded me.
OH: It sounds like being in a room with other creative professionals at Crossgen was an effective way to learn how to problem solve with color.
CS: I got there a little too late to know whether it really was helpful. For me, I would immediately say yes because I was really green. All of these guys were there, I could look at their files, I could see how they did stuff, and they were always really available for me if I had any questions. For me, that environment was really helpful. I know there was a lot of politics involved that I never really got to see unfold. I know a few things, like on a social level, there was a weird pecking order in some places. In general, I think I'm one of the few CrossGen employees who says "I liked it." I learned a lot, I made a lot of friends, it was a really cool place.
OH: How long were you there for?
CS: Two months [laughs]. It's awesome, because I can legitimately say I was the last person they hired and moved there, and then they let me go right after I signed my lease. It was terrifying. I was like twenty-two, there was a lot of crying. It was good, though. There was this little artist's community, and even to this day there are still a lot of people who live there.
OH: Did you stay in Tampa afterwards?
CS: Only for ten months. About a week after everything fell apart, I was really lucky enough to get a job at UDON, and working on Runaways for Marvel. And I got to work for Aspen on a Superman series called "Godfall." After working with them for a few months, they were like "Come to L.A. Work in another studio environment, you liked it!" So now I'm in L.A.
OH: How did you get about getting those jobs? Submissions?
CS: It's so weird. Ok, Aspen originally wanted to hire me, and I went to CrossGen. If I had to do it again, I would do it in the same exact way. But with Aspen, I was really lucky because they hired someone else, and I guess that person dropped the ball, so I was able to pick up where they wanted to hire me in the first place.
At Marvel, I got that job (I hate to say with social skills, but) totally with social skills. I met [UDON Studios Editor-in-Chief] Erik Ko many times at multiple conventions, but I never showed him my portfolio. When CrossGen fell apart, and everybody was scrambling to get a job, everyone was super sweet and helpful, and they were like "Honey, are you ok? Let's get some feelers out there, you need to get some work." One of the things I did was email Erik because, at the time, UDON had such a great coloring house, and I said "I know you and I have only just hung out, but here is some of my work. CrossGen just folded, do you have anything for me?" So he had me try out this thing for Marvel, it was some Wal-Mart thing. It was just three pages long. It was mostly this Can You Hit a Deadline test. He liked what I did, and then he said "Ok, there is this book, they need a new colorist. Can you do some test pages? It was Runaways, and it was funny because my boyfriend at the time loved that book, and I loved [Runaways writer] Brian K. Vaughan. So I did test pages, they liked them, and that was it.
I kind of fell into Marvel and it was amazing. I was so lucky because I was the youngest colorist out of the bunch, and I was one of the first to get regular work. I was thrown on a monthly, and I had only colored one other book ever, and it was for CrossGen, and I had two days per page, and suddenly I had to do a book in two weeks, and I was like "Oh my god, I have to make this work somehow!" So I was really, really lucky.
OH: With the exception of getting laid off, you make it sound like getting a career in comics is pretty easy.
CS: I know, it’s terrible, right! The sad thing is, I don’t even have the best Easiest Story. Adrian drew like five sample pages, met [Runaways editor] CB [Cebulski], and ended up on Runaways, and never had drawn a book in his entire life. And then Justin Ponsor, somebody had met him when he was working at a toy store, and because he knew a lot about toys, they were like “You should try working at WildStorm,” and he learned Photoshop in a night, did a test, and suddenly was coloring at Wildstorm. Everyone has a different story on how to get in. I think the big thing always boils down to your skill level. I was terrible back in the day, so I will definitely say there was a lot of luck in me getting a job. Some people are just good. Adrian was just really good. My friend, who started working in comics after I had introduced her to some people, named Emily Warren, she’s just really good.
OH: You mentioned having a portfolio. So were you just taking it around, going to cons and getting reviews and all that?
CS: Yeah. I knew in college that I wanted to work, so basically I was saving up money to attend to two conventions a year, and every convention I went to I had a brand new portfolio. Each one of them I had a brand new series of pieces, and I had a strict belief in bringing five pieces – three sequential, and two pinups, because five was all anybody needed to see to determine whether or not I was any good. I went to as many conventions as I could and eventually I met enough people and showed the right people my stuff that people were willing to give me a chance. I got to do an Image pin-up for free, I did a Shi cover for Billy Tucci for free, which was worth it because that cover helped get me my job at CrossGen. I worked for Penny Farthing press; that was one of my first paid gigs. They paid me to color some pin-ups. All of that eventually led to the right person seeing my stuff, my portfolio, and taking a chance on me, and I was really lucky. Laura Martin hired me for CrossGen.
OH: Superman has been around forever, and Runaways wasn’t around quite as long, but they were both started by someone else. Did you feel any responsibility to make your look work unified with what came before you, or could you cut loose and do your thing?
CS: With Superman, I had to follow a color guide. The way that DC worked at the time, with that project, was that they wanted color guides from Peter, and then I had to essentially color based on the loose things he set down. He’s actually very tight with his color guides, so that was another way I learned a lot - by seeing the way he wanted things done.
With Runaways, there was another colorist on the book, so I was wondering “How should I go about doing this?” And they said, “Well, we’re in the middle of an arc, so we would like you to mimic what was here before, and at the beginning of the next arc, if you would like to go in your own direction that would be fine.” It was Brian Reber, so I mimicked Brian, but there was one thing I changed that first issue I came on, which was Karolina’s colors, because, and this sounds so bad, I didn’t like the way he was doing them. A friend of mine had shown me a trick about a week earlier and I wanted to try it, and I wanted to see how it would look, and that was the one thing where Marvel said “Ah! That looks good!” When you come on a series, they don’t want it to look completely different so it was understandable, but if you read the book, every other arc Adrian and I are both kind of experimenting to see what other things we could do together, and we found our groove.
OH: When you’re coloring a book, how much did you talk to the pencil artists about what the book would look like?
CS: It depends on the penciller. When I was younger, I was hardcore about making sure that I knew what everyone wanted. To this day, I still like to discuss it with the pencillers. I know they have an image in their head of what they want, and I want to give them as much as I can possibly give them to get the piece as close to what they have in their head.
Adrian and I are totally buddies. We’re doing an art book right now. I called him my “comic book husband” for years. We have a great rapport, and it didn’t take me long to figure out his aesthetic, and he was very good abut being very honest with me about what he liked and what he didn’t like. It was easy for me to riff off that. Runaways was the best team I’ve ever worked on. I don’t know how that happened. Everyone on that book was super supportive, from editorial to every member of the staff. Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane was the same thing, it was fantastic. Those two books are probably my favorite things that I’ve ever worked on. [Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane penciller] Takeshi [Miyazawa] was super cool to work with, and easy to talk to, and he was just really good about letting me know what he liked and what he didn’t like.
OH: Do you talk to the writer much?
CS: I definitely talk more to penciller because there’s more to be said between the two of us. It depends on who you’re talking about. Some writers are not nearly as talkative as other people. Everybody you work with is different, every team dynamic is different. With Runaways everybody was talkative, everybody was great about feedback, all of us were chummy, and we liked each other enough that at conventions we’d have little get-togethers and stuff. But not all books are like that. Some books I never talk to the writer, whether it’s because I’m not given that option or it’s not necessary.
OH: How did you go about developing your color palette and decide what kind of colorist you were going to be?
CS: I’m really bad. I know a lot of people make palettes and use palettes throughout, I don’t do that. Usually what happens is I get the scripts and pages, and I look at it and I kind of know where the story is going. The first thing I do is take a moment and imagine what palette would suit this project. Everybody’s got their colors that they’re naturally in love with. Like, I love a lot of colors. I love rainbows. If you look at Runaways, I use a lot of colors in that; and Runaways is a lot more muted than Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, which is a lot more jewel-tone, because I thought that fit that better. It depends. When I worked on Strange with Emma Rios, I just knew I wanted all these really obnoxious saturated hues for when she looks through these glasses and sees all these demons. I wanted it to be sickeningly obvious that it was a horrific experience, so I used these really gross, saturated colors that were pissing me off because blue and purple are the worst printing colors when it comes to whether or not they would translate from my monitor to print. But, every book is different. I take a moment to figure out what would fit the art and the tone of the book and I run with it.
OH: You said earlier this may be tough to explain, but I’d like to ask about your process. When you get a page and you sit down to color, what steps do you take? Is it flat colors, followed by tones and shading, etc.?
CS: I have a flatter like most colorists. My process would be: I’d get the flats and my channels and immediately wipe all the color off the page, because most flatters will flatten whatever colors they can to make sure that the flats are as successful as they [can be] to separate all the shapes properly. But that doesn’t mean their colors are the best choices, and on top of that, color theory alone, anytime you have a color next to another color, it affects the way your eye sees that color. If you have these random blotches of crazy colors all over the place, like fluorescent pinks and oranges, and you’re going through this page with this kind of cool, purpley-thing, having all of these warm tones isn’t helping.
The first thing I do when I get flats is (after I have them in my channels so I can use them), if I’m going for something that’s natural lighting, I’ll usually just make sure the canvas is solid white, and it depends. If I’m doing airbrush rendering and painting, usually I go from dark to light; if I’m doing cel-shading, it’s light to dark. It’s such a pain because I enjoy working in so many different styles and all of my processes are so different. Usually the first thing I do is make sure my color harmony is there and one of the things that helps that is, let’s say I’m doing a page with a ton of yellow, or something analogous, something with yellows and oranges and red, the first thing I’ll do is fill my page with my lightest point. Let’s say a cave lit by a red fire. I might fill it with a yellow, so that I know what my lightest tone is, and my lightest value. And I’ll just work off of that, and all of my colors stay warm.
OH: Do you use Photoshop exclusively, or are there other applications you use?
CS: I just use Photoshop. I used to try using Painter but it was such a RAM whore back in the day that it really turned me off. I really enjoy Photoshop. I’ve not just become familiar with it, but I feel like it’s fun for me to experiment in, because I am familiar enough that I know what I can do and what I can try out.
On top of that the other thing I like to do is incorporate natural media stuff, like there was an art piece for Runaways that Humberto Ramos drew where I printed out the pages, and did all these watercolor-like shadows and textures on watercolor paper, and then I scanned it in and incorporated it through Photoshop back into the page.
OH: What kind of a tablet do you use?
CS: I use a Cintiq. It’s the best thing since sliced bread. It’s so fancy! [laughs]
OH: Getting back to The Fox Sister, how long has the story been gestating?
CS: Not very long! It’s surprising. That whole thing happened so quickly. The artist, Jayd [Aït-Kaci], I was a fan of hers. I just got a hold of Jayd, and we started talking, and she liked Runaways, and I’m like “Great, I’m glad I have that in with you!” I sent her a script that I had written for a comic writing class that I had taken for fun, not necessarily as a script I wanted to do as a project, but to show her what my writing looked like in script form, and she dug it.
I worked in comics, I know how important it is to be emotionally invested in something you’re doing. Especially if you’re hiring somebody. Part of the reason why I was so adamant about working on projects that I love is that if I’m not emotionally invested in a project, I have a terrible tendency to give only sixty percent, and I always want to give stuff that I do 110%. I don’t feel like this job is worth having, with all of the hours and the stress, unless you love every minute of it, so I tried really hard not to take on books that I didn’t think I was very into. So I knew going into it that the first thing I should do is find out what Jayd likes doing, so what I ended up doing is I pitched five stories to her, and the one that resonated with her the most was a very early version of The Fox Sister. I just kind of started writing it, and fleshing out the entire story, and sending her breakdowns so she knew where it was going and how long it would take to get there, and she really liked it. Then she started doing character sketches, and a few months later, we launched the comic. So it was months [laughs]. But it was good months. It was a lot of work.
OH: What was it about Jayd’s artwork that stood out to you?
CS: There was something really refreshing, lively and bouncy about her stuff. She has another webcomic called Sfeer Theory, and when I was looking at it, just on an art level, her characters have this great kind of dynamic motion to them. They just have this bounce that I really like. My favorite artists have always been artists like Adrian, or David LaFuente, where their bone structures, the way the character stands is different; visually, you can tell their characters apart from their silhouettes. I really love, I don’t want to say cartoony, because it’s not a cartoony thing, but it’s very visually interesting characters, not just cookie-cutter; the same girls with the same face and different hair. I like different-looking characters, and her characters all have different silhouettes. They all have different postures, different builds…everything is nice and fresh. On top of that, she’s really young. She’s only twenty-three or twenty-four. I have to ask her again, I think in my brain I keep making her younger, but she’s young, and I was like “God, I feel like you’re on the cusp of being entirely too popular and expensive for me to afford. I think I found you at the right time and the right place,” and she was like, “Yeah, you probably did.” And sure enough, now she’s doing a ton of stuff and I’m like, “Thank f’ing god she loves this project or I’d be screwed!” She’s a great person and she’s totally committed to completing things, so I’m super lucky. I really think I found her at the right time.
OH: What kind of process do you have as a writer?
CS: I’m doing a writing program at UCLA right now. I’m not going for an MFA or anything, but they’ve got a professional program for screenplay writing, and the reason I like screenplay writing in graphic novels is that I like to sit down and think about the beginning, the middle, and the end of something. My biggest problem with comics has always been there’s no ending in sight. I have a lot of fun working on series, but after a while it’s a little draining feeling like you’re part of a machine that kind of perpetuates something. I really like having a goal in sight, and a direction. I feel like when you have a complete and solid story, especially when it’s mapped out – you know where you gotta get to, you know some of the means that you have to get there with – it really helps the storytelling. I enjoy the stories where they seed things, where you get little indications of things that are going to come and you get these hints that are actually going to mean something. I hate to bring up Lost, but I think Lost is the biggest tease ever. “Ah, it’s this mysterious thing! And we’re never going to resolve it.” I hate stuff like that! So when I write, I really enjoy knowing where everything is going so that it gives me the ability to inject little things that will indicate to the reader, “well, we could be going this way…are you paying attention?”
OH: Has there been much of a learning curve?
CS: Yeah, oh god yeah! It definitely is weird, because I think most people who work in storytelling, be it comics, or children’s stories, or prose, or movies, even if you don’t actually sit down and academically learn some stuff, you kind of absorb it naturally, especially in comics, where you’re working with so many writers. As a colorist, I’ve worked with so many, I’ve read so many different scripts, my mind has been able to figure out which ones personally are more effective. Before I decided to actively try to become a writer, there were certain things that I knew helped storytelling, and what hurt storytelling, but I never had the vocabulary that I have now, especially understanding why those things are important, in order to make a story move smoothly. Just understanding structurally why you have to have this inciting incident that leads to conflict that leads to battle. It’s great because it helps me mentally weed out extraneous bits of information. Comics, I think out of everything, they’re probably one of the most difficult means to telling a story because it’s so limiting. You only have still images, and you only have x number of pages. And the amount of dialogue you can fit on those pages is kind of minimal. I mean, you can do Bendis, sure, but in general, you can only fit so much type on a page before it’s not a comic anymore. You have to weed out the crap that’s not important. So taking these classes has been great at helping me learn why I have to do certain things and it has totally given me the tools to make sure that I know what’s important and I know what’s not.
OH: Has your art background helped you in terms of writing and thinking visually?
CS: Oh god, yeah! Comics, especially writing comics, I’m so glad that I’ve been coloring for so long, and on top of that, even in high school I was trying to work in comics on my own. It’s amazing. When you’ve seen enough pages and you’ve worked on enough pages, you kind of mentally can figure out pacing. And there are certain things you know you can’t cram onto a page. Some of my classes have been really interesting because there are a lot of people who are screenplay writers or prose writers who are trying to make a conversion to comic books, and they can’t think on that visual level, so they’ll have multiple actions occurring in one panel, and it’s like “no man, you can’t do that.” Or there will be angles that don’t work, so just being able to picture it in my head as I write it has made such a difference. The other thing I’m able to do is communicate better. It’s easier for me to communicate to an artist what I’m looking for, and it’s easier for them to get it because I know how to explain it.
OH: Do a lot of artists want to be writers, or vice versa? Have you noticed that?
CS: I don’t know. I guess a lot of artists get frustrated with where they are. I know as a colorist, one of the frustrations was being last in line. I think being a good colorist is being able to handle the stress. You’re counting on all these people to hit their deadlines, and of course that just never happens, so you have absolutely no time to do this thing, and then at times there are corrections that come in, and you’re like, “What the f, why wasn’t this caught earlier?” And then it’s all your responsibility to fix it, and all this stuff happens. I know that that’s one of the things that made me insanely stressed. After like eight years of it, I was like “I don’t know if I can take another ‘It’s midnight, this page is due in eight hours. Here you go, you can color it now,” and I’m like “What? What is this?” So I think there are people who kind of do want to do that, to gain a little more control over their life. But what’s bigger than that is that most people have stories they want to tell, and the only way to do it is to either find a writer who will tell the story the way you want to do it, or to tell it yourself. And for me it’s a little bit of [the latter]. I always want to do things that were not superhero comics, because that’s what I grew up with, I always wanted to tell other stories, especially ones that were self-contained. So I had to go learn how to do that.
OH: How has your writing process changed or evolved as you continue to write your webcomic?
CS: I guess the big thing with me is that comics is where I started writing. I kind of learned how to write for webcomics. The one thing that I realized when I was reading a lot of webcomics before I started doing one is that it is completely different from printed comics. For one thing, you can get a lot more information from printed comics than you can if you’re doing one page a week. You have to cram in as much information as possible and essentially use a cliffhanger per page, or something to continuously draw the reader back week after week for one little page at a time. So you have to fit a lot more information in.
So for me, I’ve just basically figured out as I’ve gone how important it is to write as efficiently as humanly possible when I do this webcomic. Even though, because I do want to print it once it’s done, I’m very mindful of the page turns; but more than anything I am very aware of how important it is to make sure that I condense as much story as possible without it being old-school cheesy. So it’s not as decompressed as comics are nowadays. You can’t do that, you can’t sit there and spend an entire page of someone looking at something, or idle chit-chat. Every page counts. Every page is incredibly important, and every page has got to make you read more, and if you can’t do that, then people will forget to go read your comic. Or they may just drop out.
It’s easier for me to kind of equate it to a movie than it is for me to compare it to a regular series like Thor. I feel like every webcomic in the very beginning needs a hardcore hook that pulls somebody in right off the bat, or they may never come back. When you start, your friends will go and say “oh, read this comic, my friend’s doing it,” and you get all kinds of advertising, but if you don’t have the shit in it, your fans come back wanting more. It kind of falls flat.
OH: You made the announcement that you were leaving comics to go back to school, and you’ve mentioned the writing program at UCLA, but at the time you said you were going to be going into 3D. Is that still happening?
CS: I swear to God, I need to go back and explain this. I feel bad because I’ve had to explain this so many times because I’m so bad at life. That was totally the plan. The thought was: I was going to finish up my commitments at Marvel, I would finish SHIELD in February, and in April I was going to go back to Gnomon [School of Visual Effects] because I had taken classes there before, and I liked them, and I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to go into texturing and lighting, and test them out and see which one I wanted, but in the interim, I took some writing classes just for fun. At one point I was talking to my husband, and I was like “I think I’m going to keep taking writing classes while I take 3D classes.” And he was like “What do you mean?” And I was like “I think I’m going to keep taking the screenplay writing class that I’m taking, because I really like it, and I’ll take two 3D classes and a screenplay writing class.” And he just looked at me and said “No. You like writing. What are you doing? Just do writing. I can already tell you just want to write. Don’t feel obligated to go into 3D just because you said you would.” And this is another instance where somebody was blunt with me and made me change my direction. He was like “You like it, and you’re getting great feedback on it, just do it. If you’re doing it, do it wholeheartedly, don’t do two things half-heartedly.” So now I’m going to take the next year to write like crazy, and then if I suck at it, then I’ll go back to 3D.
I actually took my first writing class last October, so it’s been almost a year. I took a comics writing class, and in that I was like “I want to take another writing class, and there’s only this class. I can’t keep taking this class over and over again. What about screenplay writing? It’s the only thing I can think of that’s even remotely similar to comics writing.” And one of my classmates who was a screenplay writer was like “I teach one here,” and I was like “I like your writing and I like you. I’m going to take your class!” And that was it. While I was taking that first screenplay writing class, that was when I made the decision to stick with it.
OH: Is the story of The Fox Sister based on actual Korean mythology or folklore?
CS: Yes and no. When I pitched The Fox Sister to Jayd, it was super loose. It was essentially a supernatural story that takes place in Korea in the late 1960’s, basically revolving around this Korean religion that hardly anyone worships anymore. Basically, it’s this religion that the main character is. My initial idea was just to basically show how Western culture came in post-Korean War and in handing out aid and helping South Koreans rebuild, a lot of Americans just brought Christianity with them. There was already this push to head towards Catholicism or Christian beliefs, but the nail in the coffin was definitely the Korean War; because when you’re receiving all this aid from these people preaching to you, you’ll listen. By then, Westerners figured out the best way to convert Asians, and the best way to preach to them, and they modified the way they talk about things. Instead of talking about forgiveness and guilt, they talk about good fortune. They changed things, and I thought that was fascinating.
I grew up there, and I never really knew about this religion. I kind of knew a little bit about it, but not enough, and as I was doing more and more research, I was amazed at how underground it had become, and how people had to practice out of their houses, and nobody would ever admit to being a follower of this religion. Plus, the rites that you had to go through were kind of ridiculous. And one of the few things I found is that the leaders were predominantly female. Now, I’m not the type to gravitate towards anything that is focused on gender, except for this partially because, I mean, I grew up there, and I know how men treat women in Korea, at least when I was growing up. Like, my mom had so many things that she had to overcome, so it was fascinating for me to see that, and the more research I did on things – the other thing I thought about doing was a retelling of a Korean folktale – and the more I looked into them, the more I was kind of horrified at just how many of them were like “so the girl dies,” or the lesson is to not put your daughter on a pedestal. Confucian beliefs are not very nice to ladies.
So the whole idea behind The Fox Sister came out of a combination of me wanting to kind of highlight a strong female character in the 1960’s in Korea, which was very rare, and the idea that most Korean folklore involves terrible women [laughs]. So I thought it would be interesting to have that dynamic of the Korean nine-tailed fox, who’s always a woman, and always a terrible human being, and I was like “well, what if a woman took her down.” [laughs] “Maybe that would be nice and level the playing field.” [laughs again]. But there is a Korean folktale called “The Fox Sister.” It’s nothing like this story, but because it did loosely inspire this, I thought naming it The Fox Sister as kind of a nod to that terrible, terrible folklore wasn’t a bad idea.
OH: What is your relationship to Korea?
CS: My dad was an Air Force officer, and he met my mom when he was stationed in Korea. Actually, my mom’s from Kunsan, which is why the characters [from The Fox Sister] are from there, and I used my mom for questions and contacted her for a few little things. I was born there in 1981, and my parents moved to Illinois in 1983, when I was a little kid, and then we moved back in 1986, and then my parents got divorced, and I lived there until 1999, so basically fifteen years of my life. I just turned thirty, so now half of my life has officially been in the US. I spent fifteen years in Korea, and all my formative years were there, from Kindergarten to senior year in high school. It was at the Seoul American Elementary School and High School. When I graduated, I had to move back to the States.
OH: You have a Western character in The Fox Sister, Alex, who is kind of an outsider. Did you ever feel out of place when you were in Korea, a la Alex, even though you were born there?
CS: It’s funny because I took a friend of mine to Korea last winter, and we stayed in Seoul, where I grew up, and one of the first things she said was “I’m shocked by how many non-Koreans live here.” I grew up in a school where most of my friends had Korean moms and dads from somewhere else, so we were all half-something and half-something-else. I didn’t have many friends that were just straight-up Caucasian or some other race. Sorry, culture, I mean, not just race. I have a half-Samoan half-Korean friend; it’s like “How did that happen?” I didn’t feel out of place until I moved to the States. I was so used to growing up with so many different cultures, and I lived in an area near a military base, so it wasn’t that unusual to see Americans, and it wasn’t that unusual to see half-Korean kids. I speak a very rudimentary, lazy Korean. Very conversational. It was very easy for me to get around. I was very comfortable there. It was a metropolitan city. It was a lot more liberal than I remembered. When I was a kid, I thought it was so conservative, but it was a lot more liberal. I moved to Baton Rouge to go to Louisiana State University. That’s conservative! That environment was the polar opposite of what I was used to, so I had a lot more culture shock when I moved to the States than I did when I was in Korea.
My sister and I used to have a discussion about this. My sister lives in New York, and I live in L.A. I’ve always compared New York to Seoul, and L.A. more to Japan. I just got used to them watching me. Like they wouldn’t trust me because kids steal, so I wouldn’t have a problem with people staring and making sure I didn’t steal stuff. I will definitely say that post-9/11, when the rest of the world started hating Bush, Korean attitudes towards Americans changed drastically, for sure. One of the times when I went back [to Korea] when I was in college, they were protesting against Americans, and there was all these terrible things that would happen, and I was weirdly surprised at how there were instances when I was uncomfortable with Koreans when I had never felt that when I was living there. I think a lot of that is a global thing, and a cultural thing. When I go now, if somebody’s just watching me as I’m shopping, I don’t really care, they’re just making sure that I don’t steal their stuff. But there were definitely instances where it would be like “That sign says ‘No Americans,’ What the f? Where is that from?” That was years ago; that was not recent. But it’s changing. When I went back in November, it had been eleven years since I’d moved away, and I was really surprised because I lived by the one mosque in my neighborhood. Oddly enough, while it was once American and Korean restaurants when I went back, there was this amazing plethora of Persian restaurants and I’m like “That wasn’t there when I was a kid!” And it makes total sense, and it’s awesome because I couldn’t get that food there before, but I could now! So it’s changing, it’s definitely changing, but they’re very outwardly distrustful. They don’t trust you, and there’s no question in your mind.
OH: Are you completely done with art and coloring, or will you go back to that someday?
CS: I’m actually still doing some coloring, but it’s mostly for fun. I’m doing a few covers here and there for Marvel. Excuse my language, but I’m their bitch. I love Marvel, they’ve been great to me. My contract’s not up, and they’ve been cool enough to back off and let me do this and just be like “You know what, if you gotta do this, you go do this, honey.” And I was like “Ok, I promise I will not color for DC, we’re square.” [laughs] So I’ve been doing covers and little things for Marvel.
The other thing I’ve been doing is coloring personal art. Adrian and I are actually working on an artbook that we’ll have out for New York Comic-Con. It’s…the easiest way to describe it is “girls and cute animals.” It’s all these random sketches that he’s done over the years that I started coloring a little while ago, and we were both like “let’s keep doing this. This is fun.” And at some point I turned into the monetary monster that I am, and I was like “let’s make an artbook and see if we can actually make a little bit of money off of this.” And he was like “Yeah, and you do all the work!”
The other thing I’m doing is with Chris Sanders, who’s one of my favorite artists and people of all time. He and I have been doing art together for a few years. We do prints for San Diego, and he wanted to do an artbook, and I was like “do you need me to color anything?” And he was like “Here’s my hard drive, take whatever you want.” So I’m going to be coloring a crapload of stuff for that, too. So those are the two things I’m mainly doing. I guess I’m reverting to a high school kid, and I’m like “I’m coloring pretty pictures. Screw sequential art!”
OH: It’s been a while since we’ve seen any art from Adrian.
CS: It’s gorgeous. He’s so amazing. I love him.
OH: I’ve always said he’s the artist with the best fashion sense in all of comics.
CS: Oh, for sure. I’ve never worked with anybody – David LaFuente’s good too – but Adrian just has his finger on that pulse. He knows what looks good and what’s fashionable and what would look good on his characters, even. I was like “Dude, you work on a bunch of different body styles and you just worked in a bunch of different types of clothing. This is amazing.” And part of what makes coloring him a lot of fun, it’s not a lot of ugly clothing, it’s not just another T-shirt, it’s not another “seriously, dude? Another girl? We wear more than just that!”
OH: So those artbooks are going to be ready for New York?
CS: That’s the goal. As long as I don’t drop the ball. That’s the plan. I’m talking to a printer right now that I really like, and I’m super excited about, and now I have to do a crapload more so that it’s ready to go. I’m aiming for forty-eight to sixty-four pages, so it all depends on how much stuff I can get out in the amount of time that I have.
OH: So you’re going to be at New York too?
CS: Yes I am. I’m going to have a table and everything. I’m trying to get Adrian to come out, so I think if the book’s there, I’ll be able to get him out there. If you come by, you’ll be able to tell him yourself how much you love his fashion. He’s a good guy. I just have entirely too much fun hanging out with him.
OH: It’s cool that everyone on Runaways got along so well, as you were saying earlier.
CS: It was good. There were a lot of fun email chains with terrible jokes and funny things, and making fun of each other. Brian was great about giving you feedback. That dude was so, so nice.
OH: Anything else to say before we go?
CS: Uh…I love comics. I hope that was apparent. If not, then I’m really bad at this.
Written or Contributed by: Royal Nonesuch