Having recently read Kean Soo’s Jellaby, I fell instantly in love with the story about a young monster who is lost and turns to two kids to help him get him. I expressed my love to Kean and propositioned him for an interview. After one of my neighborhood walkabouts I found the gate to my backyard open. Grabbing a broom, I crept toward the gate and saw someone back there. Screaming my best warrior yell I attacked the invader with the broom. Oops. It was Kean. He told me he didn’t normally hang out in people’s backyards, but he did so to keep in theme with his book. He handed me a tuna sandwich and we sat down at my patio table and talked.
Whitney Grace (WG): Were you interested in comic books as a kid?
Kean Soo (KS): Comics have been a part of my life for as far back as I can remember. I grew up in Hong Kong in the ’80s, and I had access to a wide range of comics for the time — everything from English-translated BDs like Asterix and Tintin, Chinese-translated manga like Dragon Ball, newspaper strips like Peanuts and Calvin & Hobbes, and the occasional superhero comic (Classic X-Men was my first entry into that world). Today, kids have such easy access to all these comics that I’m so envious and excited for them.
WG: As a formerly trained engineer, why did you decide to leave what many would consider a more lucrative career to work with graphic novels?
KS: I always had a love for comics, even well into university, when I was studying electrical engineering. After spending some time working in the engineering field, I was feeling burnt out and discouraged, and webcomics had just started gaining popularity, so I thought to give making comics a try. Things took off from there, rather unexpectedly — I don’t remember making a conscious decision to switch career paths, but it happened somewhere along the way, and I just sort of ran with it the rest of the way.
WG: What is the story with you starting to work with Kazu Kibuishi on the Flight anthologies?
KS: I basically met Kazu through his webcomic, Copper. We were mutual fans of each other’s work. We corresponded through email, mostly encouraging each other to keep making comics. It did feel like the webcomics community was much smaller and more closely-knit back then.
Flight came about when Kazu wanted to put together a small zine for the Alternative Press Expo one year. I remember his first idea was for it to be a small, cheap, 40-page black and white zine that he would print up himself, really just something fun between friends. He invited a few of his friends, including myself, to contribute, and things started to snowball when we started to attract the attention of a couple of publishers.
KS: I honestly don’t think the Flight anthologies are that different from any other short story collection — I just think Flight came at the right time, when the market for new comics readers was beginning to open up.
We were just a bunch of kids that wanted to make comics and maybe share our stories with some readers. We came from a variety of backgrounds and influences — some of us were animators, webcartoonists, fine artists — but I think what it really came down to was our shared love and enthusiasm for comics, and I think that’s what ultimately appealed to our readers.
You look around today, and there’s still a healthy number of anthologies doing the things that Flight did. Creators that don’t necessarily have a venue for their work are doing it themselves, coming together and putting their work out there. It’s just exciting to be a part of that.
WG: What has you role been in rolling out the Flight anthologies and what stories did you contribute to them?
KS: Most of the stories that I contributed to Flight were Jellaby short stories. I helped edit some of the stories that were in Flight, but it was a very open, collaborative creative process. We had a forum where we shared our stories at various stages of completion, and everyone was welcome to provide notes and critiques, but mostly it was a way for us to see everyone else’s work and get excited to work on our own stories. People kept raising the bar, so there was always pressure to bring your own game up to match!
WG: You also work on the popular Graphix series Amulet, how do you assist with that title?
KS: I did some basic color flatting work for the first three Amulet books, just to help out here and there. I was never particularly involved in Kazu’s process, beyond being a huge fan and a cheerleader for his work.
WG: You have your own creative graphic novel Jellaby, please explain what the story is about.
KS: The story focuses on Portia, a girl who’s just moved into a new neighborhood with her mom, and is having trouble fitting into school and her new home life. One night she finds a monster in her backyard and brings him into her home and feeds him a tuna fish sandwich. They become fast friends, and then she starts to wonder where this monster is from, and that maybe he’s lost and needs her help finding his way home. The story really starts rolling from there.
WG: How did Jellaby start and how long had he been playing around in your mind?
KS: Jellaby came about because I was interested in writing a comic for younger readers — something I would’ve wanted to read when I was ten years old. At the time, there really wasn’t much out there beyond Jeff Smith’s Bone series.
The actual idea for Jellaby came about after a series of exploratory sketches, where I had a horrible, grub-like monster hugging this little girl. Of all my sketches, that one drawing stood out to me, and I wanted to learn what their story was about. Everything just unfolded from there.
WG: How do you pronounce “Jellaby?”
KS: I always love hearing that people have different ways of pronouncing the name! I pronounce it “Jella-Bee,” but I love hearing that Indian readers pronounce it the same way as “Jelabi” (“Jell-AH-Bee”), a sweet Indian dessert.
WG: Which came first, Jellaby’s appearance in Flight or the webcomic?
KS: I honestly can’t remember the exact timeline. I think the early Jellaby stories appeared on the web first.
WG: Why did you decide to pursue a webcomic over a printed book?
KS: At the time, there really weren’t too many outlets for finding a publisher, so I teamed up with Hope Larson to serialize both our stories online (Jellaby for me, Salamander Dream for Hope), with the intention of using the website as a showcase for our work to prospective publishers. Amazingly, it ended up working out for both of us, with both of us landing a publisher for our work!
WG: Why did you decide to handle complex themes such as divorce, bullying, and depression in the graphic novel?
KS: t wasn’t a conscious decision to put these things into the comic, they just sort of started showing up as I wrote. It was probably a combination of some of the things I went through as a child (our family moved around a lot, so I was always ‘the new kid’ at a number of schools), and something that a friend of mine was going through at the time that was difficult and uncharted territory, and it was something I wanted to dig into and explore a little more.
WG: Were you ever criticized for addressing them?
KS: As far as I know, there hasn’t been any negative response to any of those things. I think someone once objected to one of the words used in the book (one of the bullies uses the word “friggin'”), but I’ve never heard a complaint about the tougher things in the book.
WG: Why did you decide to lead readers into your story with a female heroine?
KS: Again, that was never a conscious decision on my part. My first drawing of Portia and Jellaby was of a girl hugging a monster, and that core idea was something that never changed.
WG: Do you think kids would react the way your characters did if they actually encountered a monster in real life?
KS: I would like to think so. Most kids that age just take everything in stride. When you’re young, it always seems like anything is possible.
WG: How would you react if you found a large, cute, helpless monster in your backyard?
KS: Probably the exact same thing Portia does in the book — I’d make him a tuna sandwich, and maybe we’d hang out for a bit. Provided he doesn’t eat me first.
KS: My (eventual) editor at Hyperion, Calista Brill (now with First Second), found Jellaby being serialized online and dropped me an email asking if the book had a publisher. I am completely indebted to her for giving me, someone who had never published a graphic novel before, a shot at not one, but two books.
WG: What was your reaction when Jellaby won the Shuster Award for Best Comic for Kids?
KS: It was fantastic! I gave the award to my mom, and she has it proudly displayed on her wall.
WG: What is the sequel about?
KS: The second Jellaby book, Monster in the City, is the conclusion to the story. Portia, Jason, and Jellaby make it into the city and discover another monster living underground. Shenanigans ensue.
WG: How and why did Capstone Books pick up Jellaby?
KS: Jellaby had been out of print for a few years, and after the right to publish Jellaby reverted back to me, we were on the lookout for a new publisher. I was asked to write a blurb for another Capstone series, Zinc Alloy (by Donnie Lemke and fellow Flight alumni Doug Holgate), and I got to talking with Capstone about the possibility of bringing Jellaby back into print. It’s always funny how these things seem to work out when you least expect it to, and in the most roundabout way possible.
WG: What other projects are you working on?
KS: I’m working on a new series of comics. It won’t officially be announced until May, but I’ve already finished the first book, and am well into the second one already! I may have been teasing people with one or two images from the new book on my Twitter account.
WG: Do you have anything to declare?
KS: Keep an eye out for a Free Comic Book Day Jellaby comic that’ll be available at participating comic stores on Free Comic Book Day (May 3rd)! It’s got a couple of Jellaby short stories and an excerpt from the first Jellaby graphic novel, The Lost Monster.