Shing Yin Khor, comic creator, publisher and artist of many mediums (sculptor, art installations, Burning Man post apocalyptic haunted outposts), describes her work “I sculpt and write awkward, charming, and awkwardly charming creatures trapped in a world of bumbling science, human fallibility and heroic futility.
My themes are inspired by historical hoaxes, old museums, cabinets of curiosities and pre-Linnean taxonomy; My palettes are inspired by the more obnoxiously colourful parts of nature, especially invertebrates.”
Shing was kind enough to sit down with us at Shortboxed and answer some questions about getting into comics, being a comic creator, calling some of her published works “feminist drivel” and the catharsis of writing from experience.
Shortboxed: How would you describe your journey from comic reader to comic creator?
SYK: I’ve been reading some form of comics since I was a child, and no one ever told me that I couldn’t make comics, so it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t. I think most kids automatically imitate the content they consume, so there are little comic drawings pretty much everywhere in my early sketchbooks. When I was 13, and living in the Philippines, my friend James and Stefan and I made a comic that ended up being printed in some local zines. I still work with James too, even though we haven’t really seen each other of almost a decade(he now lives in Halifax) – he’s the artist for Marie and Jeanne. But anyway, being published was really quite addictive. I’ve been working on some sort of comic project ever since, even though the freedom of self publishing has made it my tool of choice. It was kind of a weird blessing, being able to grow up in a supportive family environment, and even almost immediately being able to find really welcoming communities, both online and off.
As a comic reader, what are some of the barriers you’ve faced regarding the content of comics?
SYK: I’ll be honest, I’ve never felt that comfortable in comic shops. But I’ve also had access to the internet since I was 13(that’s around ’95-’96), and I found comic communities and people who welcomed me. Back when I was just a little wee teenager, there was this forum started by my friend Aimee Major (Steinberger), which was basically the training ground for a lot of young women artists. A lot of us experimented with making our own comics then, and quite a few of people on the forum (I can think of Erika Moen, Dylan Meconis, Jen Wang, and Karine Charlebois off the top of my head) went on to do comics professionally. I’m glad for a lot of the conversations lately about convention harassment, and the conversation about hiring more women creators by the large comic book publishers, but I also feel like I found “my people” really early and I’m grateful to have had that fairly safe place to express myself when I was just a teenager and just working on actually finding my voice.
There have always been comic book communities that welcome women and minorities, and I feel like it’s silly that so much media attention is most focused on the most vocal subset of racist misogynistic dickwads. I don’t want to assimilate into that particular community. I don’t want to make it better from within. If you are a member of the mainstream comic book community, and you have any sort of power(and a lot of times, that means you are a man) and you aren’t actively trying to rid your community of the toxic elements, then you are complicit in that community’s abuse.
I’m amazing, the books I read are amazing, and the people I work with are amazing. I don’t want assholes to accept me, I’m busy building a little indie media empire in my own image. And I get that desire to be accepted and welcomed and it is a fight worth fighting. But, I just don’t really feel like it’s worth my time to fight to be accepted by people I don’t even like.
That is to say, there are definitely barriers to both comic readers and creators, especially for more marginalized groups. The comic book store infrastructure and distribution system rewards the largest comic book companies, which in turn have an outsized distribution of white men in the demographic they hire and publish. But I feel that it is a disservice to focus on that, instead of recognizing the work that has already existed for so long, and the people and companies that have embraced alternative voices in comics. Fantagraphics has been publishing Love and Rockets for as long as I have been alive. Northwest Press is a small press devoted entirely to LGBT work. Watson and Holmes is a fantastic comic book. Mari Naomi – man, just read her work. Iron Spike produces Smut Peddler, which is incredible woman friendly erotica comics and she’s a self publishing hurricane besides. The webcomics community is very diverse, especially on the woman end of things. Tumblr contains amazingly vibrant groups of comics creators and fans who are very vocal and who produce amazing feminist, anti-racist content – it gives me so much hope. I know that there’s a lot of “ugh Tumblr” going around, and yeah, it can be a bit overwrought sometimes, but so many of them are so incredibly young and already perfectly capable of wrapping their heads around very complex social justice concepts.
There are rich, vibrant communities of indie creators who represent a large range of voices. I wish that those voices were louder, of course, but there’s only so much you can do when you are already screaming. Still, they exist, and they should not be erased in the wake of even more entry level conversations about superheroine costumes.
Shortboxed: How do you address some of these barriers in your comics?
SYK: By just making comics, mostly. I felt like I was really desperate as a kid to see myself in comics – I was pretty obsessed over David Mack’s Kabuki series. A whole bunch of comics! With badass Asian women! In retrospect, the series relies a lot of tired Orientalist tropes, and I can’t really enjoy it the same way that I used to anymore. I think that the best way to get diversity in comics is to actually hire diverse creators, which is something that I try to do with Sawdust Press (Shing owns and runs Sawdust Press).
I think my comics got a lot better after they started taking an autobiographical turn. It took me a long time to believe that my voice was worthwhile. There’s an amazing speech by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called “The Dangers of a Single Story” that I relate to a lot. At the end of the day, neither stories about white girls in boarding school or Chinese warriors with dragons are authentic to me, a transplanted Malaysian-Chinese immigrant who only speaks English. So, I write stories that reflect my own voice, and I hire creators to make comics that align with my belief system(and theirs), and I work and I hope that it will all make a difference.
Shortboxed: When creating What Would Yellow Ranger Do?, what were your hopes for that comic? Was it as simple as a cathartic exercise, or were you hoping it would start a larger conversation? Do you have any idea how many people have seen it?
SYK: Honestly, it was my first autobio comic on any sort of race related topic. I usually write about being bad at relationships and sex, which is the self deprecating humour I’m most comfortable with. Writing a comic that was so rooted in -well, rage – was a really strange thing for me to do, but it has resonated with so many people and I am so grateful for it. I did not expect it to start a larger conversation, but now that it has, I feel like that’s the sort of work I’ve always wanted to do and never really had the courage to before. I do a lot of ridiculous and often scary things, but out of all of them, being vulnerable and unlikable in public is by far the most difficult.
Shortboxed: Do you have any advice to minorities that are trying to get into comics, or are trying to get their children into comics?
SYK: Find what you love, because I promise you it is there. It might not be in a comic shop, but it’s there, and it is absolutely worth looking for.
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