Jen Wang is a cartoonist/author living in Los Angeles. She's also one of the minds behind the gorgeous and inclusive celebration of comics, Comic Arts LA, an annual convention held in the city. I was lucky enough to read her sumptuous new book, The Prince and the Dressmaker, which tells the tale of the friendship between a young prince who spends his nights escaping his palace in daring gowns and the young seamstress who makes those dresses for him. To celebrate the book's upcoming release from First Second Books, Wang talked with Nerdist about creating comics, writing about your lived experience, and creating gorgeous fantasy worlds.
Wang is no stranger to creating comics, having already released two other graphic novels. "I've made a couple YA graphic novels! I've been drawing comics since high school and I'm very lucky this is something I get to do with my life," she enthused.
With The Prince and the Dressmaker, Wang has created an unique and thoroughly modern fairytale. For the cartoonist, it was a story she'd been longing to tell. "For a long time I had an idea to make a story about a character whose superpower was sewing outfits that would transform the wearer. I thought about everything from cosplay to historical reenactments, etc, but nothing seemed to click. Then one day I was watching RuPaul's Drag Race and thought, 'Oh! Of course!' Everything snowballed from there. I'd also been wanting to do a very Disney-esque fairy tale about gender for a long time so it all came together," Wang explained.
The book has an immersive period setting which was intrinsic to the story she was trying to tell. "I did a lot of research into the time period, late 19th century France. It's a super interesting time because on one hand everything looks like it's part of the old world where you have horse drawn carriages, super restrictive clothing for women, and really obvious class distinctions. On the other hand, technology is changing and mass production is creating this new middle class. The first department stores are being built and public transportation is popping up around these shopping centers, making it easier, especially for women, to travel around urban centers. It really feels like the start of our modern society and it fits in well with the story's themes about change and accepting new ways of thinking," Wang told us.
For those of us who aren't cartoonists, the idea of creating an entire graphic novel on our own is hard to comprehend, so I asked her to explain her process from concept to page. "I start with a detailed outline which is the most important step for me. I work out all the structural kinks and character motivations through that, and once that feels tight, I flesh it out into a script. A page of script averages to about four pages of comic for me, so I get a rough idea how long it's going to be. Then I follow up with loose thumbnails. I'm a bit old fashioned with comics in that I'm still drawing everything on paper with pencil but that's just how I learned to do it. I draw and ink on paper then I scan everything into the computer and color it in Photoshop," Wang shared.
Wang's use of space, layout, and silence in the story are striking. It's rare that you read such an engaging comic that also gives its characters space to breathe. "My storytelling influence is very cinematic so that's how I tend to process scenes in my head. The strength of cinema is that it's a reflection of observed life, so little moments of quiet or observation can be really powerful. Sometimes I feel a little restricted by how dominant cinematic-style storytelling is in my work since comics is a literary medium, but for a comic like The Prince and the Dressmaker it's entirely fitting and I feel comfortable going all the way with it," she said.
The Prince and the Dressmaker is a book that contains so much of what it feels like to be young, curious, and maybe even in love. It's also a great story about being true to yourself and the kind of companionship you can find when you do. For Wang, this came from a very personal place. "I wrote this book for my teenage self so I'm really excited for young people to read this! It has a really broad accessible quality to it, yet it touches on very personal feelings like identity, the burden of secrecy, coming out, and first romance. I hope readers who connect with it are able to indulge in the fairy tale fantasy but also feel known. That's really the best thing you can hope for in any book!" she happily stated.
The Prince and The Dressmaker is out on February 13 from First Second Books.
Images: First Second Books