On Indie Comics, Women and Korean Ghosts: The Wizardry of Artist Hellen Jo
Hellen Jo's art career has been radiant for over a decade and she's become one of the most influential indie artists in comics and zines. Her books and shirts are always in demand especially at zine events, and her characters have resonated with a generation of youth. Her works often include of a group of tough skater girls, knives and Korean ghosts. Yet one of her most powerful pieces is her downloadable Women's March image. Depicting two women kneeling in gangster handshake, and the text "Unite and Fight," Hellen Jo's work is both intriguing and political. Hellen would say she's not as cool as her characters, but we beg to differ.
By Eric Nakamura
Photos by Eric Nakamura. Artwork by Hellen Jo
GR: Can you talk a little about how current political climate is effecting your work?
HJ: As an adult, I've always been a pretty political person and by extension, my art is also inherently political and feminist, but I also tended to avoid any explicit discussion of my principles and beliefs in my work directly. However, given the now-daily assault on the rights of all marginalized people, I've been a little more outspoken on my raging discontent. I've realized how important it is for people who view my work to know how I feel about intersectional feminism (it's the only feminism) and the patriarchy (fuck it). So far, it seems like only a few people who've been following my work have been surprised by where I stand, and even then, I'm surprised by their surprise; I mean, all I draw are powerful, mean girls who have no respect for authority so how they have possibly not known?
GR: Can you tell me where the strong women aspect of your work comes from?
HJ: When I started self-publishing comics, I was disturbed by how little representation of Asian and Asian American women I could find in comics that I could really get behind. Nearly every character I came across was either hyper-kawaii-infantile-cute, or dragon-lady yellow fever sexualized. Where the hell were the strong minded butch girls and tomboys who were gross, dirty, mean, violent, powerful? When I was a young adult, I desperately needed to see that kind of characterization; it was my aspiration, my purest personal desire, to become that type of woman, and if I wasn't gonna find it anywhere, I was determined to build it myself. Selfishly, I also made this art to help me express this desire and to grow into this cooler version of myself; it's a work in progress but so far so good, I think.
GR: Were the Asian kids that cool at your school like in your drawings?
HJ: My drawings and characters are definitely romanticized figures, who possess every possible quality I'd admired from afar as a teenager; their collective images are definitely culled from different Asian (and Latinx and Black) kids I went to school with. All the best and worst in a few drawings, is what I try to make! However, those real life kids were really just adolescent assholes, and I was actually bullied by a lot of them; the children and teenagers that inspire me were actually awful, id-driven creatures, but I was so jealous of their impulsive and compulsive shittiness at the time. I've always been so wooden and repressed in terms of my wants and impulses, and those kids represented a kind of emotional freedom that I've always sought for myself.
GR: How is your illustration work coming? Are deadlines getting easier?
HJ: Hahahaha you know me. I am just as horrible at deadlines as I was when I first started drawing for other people, in 2001. If anything, I'm worse! People reading this, don't hire me for anything ever!!!
GR: Next tell me about the comics? Any longer length projects in the works?
HJ: I've been writing a comic about LA girl gangs, but it's in such fetal stage, I'm afraid I can't really say any more than that. I've also had the unfinished pages of Jin & Jam 2 kicking around for like, nine years, and at this point, I just want to chuck the entire thing. I have an incredible inability to finish anything ever, and it's been weighing heavily on my mind and spirit for way too long.
GR: You mention you like grungy art, can you talk about that more?
HJ: Some of my favorite comic artists and illustrators of the last few years work in a more loose or "naive" or dirty style, and I adore this because it's the opposite of my own work and my own abilities. I feel like some of my favorite fine art painters also become looser with their brushwork as they age, but mine continues to get tighter, more labored-over, unyielding, and I hate that about myself! I can't move on or let go of anything, let alone my style or practices, and I feel like this is an indication of my inability to mature as an artist. I'm forever stuck clutching a stale shitty rock on the ocean floor, while the seas wash over me towards warmer climes for eternity.
GR: You have tons of fans. Can you share any stories of your run-ins with them?
HJ: One of the last times I was visiting my parents, we went to the Monterey Bay Aquarium together, and the girl who took my ticket looked at me and said, "Oh my gosh, I know you! Do you draw girls on the internet?!" and then she shook my hand enthusiastically. My parents were really impressed.
My favorite ever encounter happened over a year ago at All Star Lanes in Eagle Rock. I was standing outside with my friends after Colleen Green had played a really great show, when this young blonde girl sprinted past me, yelled, "HELLEN JO, YOU'RE SO SICK" and then ran straight into the bowling alley, without stopping. I fell so in love with her, that I got "ur so sick" tattooed on the inside of one of my fingers.
GR: I see you as a growing artist. What do you look back on as the "old work”?
HJ: Everything, once finished, becomes old work. It's that tired old cliché of artists who instantly hate everything they create; I don't instantly hate my work (I've finally come to appreciate that my stuff is alright) but with each piece, I strive to be better than the last time. Without that challenge, what's the point?
If you mean what I consider "old work" specifically, every comic zine I've ever made is old work. Remember my shitty autobio comic zines, from like 2002 - 2004? I kept sending them to you guys back in the day; once I'd graduated to the longer-form horror comic zines, like "Paralysis" and "Blister" (maybe in 2005 or 2006?), you and Martin were like "Yes, keep doing this!" and I felt like I'd finally figured out what I was good at. Thank you for that!
GR: You’re a product of the super modern legends like Clowes and Ware to the present day, can you tell me any specific aspects of these old farts work that influences you?
HJ: I was really lucky to have moved to Berkeley in 2001, where I lived close to Cody's Books and Comic Relief, and there I became an avid student of the greats: Xaime Hernandez, Dan Clowes, Charles Burns, Julie Doucet, Chris Ware, Taiyo Matsumoto, Junji Ito, Peter Bagge, etc etc etc! And what these fart masters all have in common is that they are tremendous writers who know how to create empathetic, real, flawed characters, tragic characters who get it wrong and yet I love them deeply. Why can't I write shit like that?!
GR: Have a favorite Ghost Story?
HJ: Korean gwishin stories freaked me out hard as a kid; there is the Red Mask, the pierrot doll that eats children, the ghost in the apartment building elevator, holding a knife in your mouth and looking in the mirror in the dark to see the Korean Bloody Mary, etc. I'm a fan of the classic cheonyeoh gwishin, the wronged woman with long, bedraggled black hair who wears a pure white burial hanbok and returns after her death to get revenge; I can completely believe that Koreans, who are driven in life by our collective inner rage, would be resurrected by that same fury. I also love all stories related to Bunshinsaba, the Korean/Japanese version of the Ouija board, which conjures spirits who speak to you, but once summoned, won't leave you alone unless you recite the ending curse. Creeeeepy.
GR: How tough is it to get art done versus comics. Actually you draw single panels often, is there an ultimate direction?
HJ: Paintings are definitely easier for me to make than comics; they're not actually easy, but once I get through the teeth-pulling process of composing the image in pencils and planning out the paints, inking is pretty brainless, and actually applying the paint is equally free of thought. Good comics require good writing and constant revision, which is a much harder brain-squeeze, and they are far more draining, mentally and emotionally. No wonder I haven't finished one in years!
GR: Last time I heard you were toying with the idea of a career in animation? How is that going?
HJ: Hahaha actually, I think I've kicked that idea to the curb. I worked in TV animation for three and a half years, and it was crazy stressful. I don't have the right temperament nor the self-discipline and time management skills that make a good and efficient storyboard artist, and in the end, the job was a never-ending cycle of freak outs. Right now, I'm in career limbo, trying to decide whether I want to do more editorial, gallery work, merchandising, comics, zines ... I don't know what I'm really doing these days, but I hope I can figure it out soon!