Yuki Ota Interview Essay

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Since 2008, Yuko Ota and Ananth Hirsh started Johnny Wander, an autobiographical webcomic about their lives in New York. Through the comic their audience got to see them grow up and experience life events over the years like travel and marriage. In addition to autobiographical comics, Hirsh and Ota additionally use the Johnny Wander website to showcase their fiction comics, Lucky PennyIs This What You Wanted and the most current story, Barbarous.

They also created the unexpected minor celebrities of their cats, Cricket and Rook. Hence, the title of their upcoming omnibus, Our Cats Are More Famous Than Us: A Johnny Wander Collection, a Kickstarter project that will be published on March 29, 2017 by Oni Press.

Ahead of the omnibus release, ComicsAlliance talked to Hirsh and Ota about what it was like to revisit their old work, how they set boundaries for their comic, the Kickstarter process and if they see themselves returning to autobiographical comics in the vein of the omnibus.

ComicsAlliance: What was it like, in the process of assembling the omnibus, revisiting years of your work? What was it like to look back at those times of your life?

Yuko Ota: Oh gosh, it was definitely like looking at a childhood journal. I hadn’t looked at some of these comics in upwards of eight years and there is a level of self-consciousness that crops up when you’re reading over hundreds of pages of your freshman work. But at the same time it makes me feel intense relief to look back and acknowledge that yeah, maybe I’ve grown and figured some things out since then?

Ananth Hirsh: It was nice! And strange. It was strange! You live your own life incrementally, so sometimes you don’t see how much things have changed. When I dove back into the material with Yuko, I was surprised at the perspective it gave me.

CA: Looking back, is there anything you were surprised you included in Johnny Wander, or maybe didn’t?

AH: We set ourselves some pretty strict guidelines about what we would and wouldn’t share and I think we were pretty consistent on it? I guess if there’s one thing that surprised me, it was that we made comics about getting married at the end. We always steered clear of comics about our relationship, but I think we got to the end and I was thinking about our readers… many of them have been with us for a long time (before Johnny Wander, even) and it felt right to get a little more personal.

YO: Yeah, we finally gave in at the end! Obviously, we deliberately skirted around a lot of topics in the text --- hardships, our professional lives, any deeper emotional stuff --- whether or not we were in a romantic relationship was never a cornerstone of what we were doing. But it was definitely the #1 question we got consistently! And since we wanted to put a bow on the material, we figured it was okay to say “yeah ok, you got us, we’re kissin’.”

CA: How do you decide what and what not to include in an autobiographical comic? Is it easy to draw a line between what you’re comfortable with and what you’re not?

AH: I think we stuck to two basic rules: 1. Friend stuff is great, skip the relationship details. Braver people than us have done more introspective/tell-all journal comics, but it’s not the vibe we had in mind (we were reading a lot of Yotsuba&! when we started out). 2. Can I frame this in a way that makes people laugh? Could someone read this and think “hey this is me and my friends!” If not, let it go.

YO: Yeah, we’re very quiet and private people by nature and we didn’t want to put ourselves under a microscope. These comics were supposed to be pulled out to a point where anyone could paste their faces over ours and think, “oh, that is also me!”

CA: Is it ever weird that your cats are minorly famous?

YO:No, the cats deserve their fame. They work very hard.

AH: I keep trying to explain to them that they have fans, but they’re all MEOW MEOW MEOW!!! Sometimes people at shows will ask us how they’re doing, which is sweet.

CA: How has your collaboration changed as you’ve gotten older?

YO: Hmm, it has and hasn’t changed. We’ve been collaborating for, ugh, nine years? The two of us work in the same office and we’re pretty much constantly in each other’s business. Anything one of us does almost always has the other’s fingerprints on it; we’ve always been more of a co-creator team than a writer/artist team. That being said, we’ve definitely become more streamlined about it. Maybe if we’re still doing this when we’re in our 70s we’ll just communicate telepathically.

AH: Yeah, everything is co-created and we’re checking in at every step, from planning to outline to script to thumbnails and so on. We’ve always been on a close wavelength, and every day and every project is about honing that. Collaboration is communication… we’re always trying to get smarter about how we share our point of view on an aesthetic or a scene or a character or whatever.

CA: What did you learn from making the autobiographical strips that you’ve applied to your fiction?

AH: How to tell a joke, mostly --- it’s not something that came to me naturally!

YO: Brevity, for sure. I think this folds into ‘how to tell a joke' --- there’s a huge challenge in doing one-page comics where you have to get to the point and fast. What’s the fewest panels you can do this in? What’s the fewest words? Can you communicate through the art without any dialogue at all?

CA: At this point, you’re basically old pros with Kickstarting books. Is there anything you still have more difficulty with about the process?

AH: Waiting! I want to put our books into peoples’ hands as much as our backers want them ASAP. But I guess you gotta print a book or whatever before you can send it out.

YO: Honestly, our manager George Rohac has been responsible for a lot of the stickiest parts of our Kickstarters and he deserves a lot of credit for them. He is very very good and without him I’m sure we would be dead.

CA: Can you see yourself returning to autobio in the future, whether as an ongoing project or one-offs?

AH: I’m really happy with the autobio! I do think it was a good time to give it a rest. But people change, and in five years we may have something new to say, and a new way of saying it. And for what it's worth, we’re pouring a lot of ourselves into our current comic, Barbarous.

YO: I literally don’t know how to take a proper vacation and try hard to do travelogue comics whenever I go on an extended trip, those probably won’t be going away any time soon. And as for the jokey autobio comics, I want to leave the door open for them! We made Johnny Wander so we had the freedom to meander around in whatever struck our fancy. But in the meantime, I’m enjoying not drawing my own face for a little bit.

Our Cats Are More Famous Than Us: A Johnny Wander Collection will be released on March 29th by Oni Press. Johnny Wander can be read online at its website.

Notice of Disclosure: The author of this post backed the original Our Cats Are More Famous Than Us Kickstarter campaign. Additionally, one of the editors at ComicsAlliance has a working relationship with Oni Press, but had no participation in the commission or execution of this piece.

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