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Elegant Ennui: Michael Cho Talks ‘Shoplifter’ [Review + Interview]

I admit a reticence towards the “20-something stuck in a rut” narrative, the “how did I end up here so far from all that I’d hoped and dreamed?” Part of this is simply ugly cynicism, that whilst recognizing the feeling and experience as real, I can’t help but eyeball it with a sense of melodrama: not achieving what you thought you would, not even being on the path towards it when you’re that young is hardly a deal-breaker; many people are yet to figure out exactly what it is they want from life, and as you get older you realize it’s a condition that continues to permeate in some form or other: the human condition is such we all feel we should be better, have better.

Armchair psychology aside, as excited as I was when ShoplifterMichael Cho’s first book-length comic, was announced, it was tempered somewhat upon learning the thematic strain.

Corrina Park is a literature graduate who’s ended up in an advertising job, when what she really wanted to do was write. Upon leaving university Corrina decided to get a job that would pay her way while she focused on her writing in her spare time. But it’s been a few years, she’s still in that same “this is just temporary” job mode, and she’s not written anything in a long time. Worst of all, she’s become almost apathetic to her situation — ground down by the inevitability of it all, a disaffection that’s seeped into other areas of her life: going out with friends and appearing okay is a task, her manager at work has picked up on her lack of concentration, asking her to decide what it is she wants. Amidst all this quiet bubbling, Corinna’s taken to stealing. Nothing major; only magazines, slipped between the sheets of her regular newspaper- but she’s got her routine and attitude down pat: confidence, an assured manner. A small release for her frustrations, the shoplifting seems to allow her a modicum of control; insight into the abilities currently left dormant and untapped.

Also a contributor to the recent volume of Batman: Black and White, Cho does a very good job with the characterization of his Shoplifter protagonist: grumpy, wry yet oddly affable, and smart. She’s both a familiar and refreshing- acting as a universal conduit for the emotions and experiences portrayed. I’m usually the first person to shunt the concept of “quit your day job, and do what makes you happy” à la  Zen Pencils, Cho’s an accomplished enough writer that his presentation of Corinna’s decision to pursue her creative passion is more the result of a cumulative desire to change what isn’t working for her, an acknowledgement of the problems she’s having and possessing the strength and fortitude to realize only she can enforce a difference. She’s under no illusions about what the future may bring, but for now, she’s done enough to make herself feel better, and hopeful, and that will do.

Shoplifter’s a short book — 90 pages or so, and the concise length serves it well — there’s no flab here, no room for distracted interjections, no complaints. It may be slight, but it’s elegantly executed, and I like the fact that Cho didn’t feel the need to draw this out, the story’s assured and cogent (although spending more time with the character would perhaps leave a greater impact on the reader). Visually, it’s as attractive as you’d expect from Cho, alternatively surrounding Corinna with beautiful rendered city and then leaving her swathes of space; she’s as lost in one as the other. The rose and black color scheme is a gorgeous combination that does much to imbue the narrative with a sense of warmth and closeness, and also to dispel any notions of otherwise suggested tone. It’s rare that you read something so evenly handled yet characterful and uplifting, but Shoplifter manages it.

I chatted to Cho about the new Pantheon book, its themes and the process by which it was created.

ComicsAlliance: You’ve been working in comics and illustration for years, with Shoplifter as your first major graphic novel, which I believe you’ve been working on for some time. How has the experience and process been, to work on a longer length book? How does it feel to finally be able to share it with people?

Michael Cho: It feels great to see the book come out. Publishing can be a bit of a slow process, so it’s nice to have the book launch after finishing up all the major work on it months ago.

As for the process, it was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. I’ve never worked on anything this big — all the comics I’ve drawn have been shorter, so I had no idea what to expect when I started work on it. There was definitely some self-doubt and moments where I thought I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, especially at the beginning. But there was also a lot of fulfillment and a great sense of gratitude at the freedom to just write and draw what I wanted and do it “my way.” It’s something I’ve wanted to do for ages. I also learned a lot along the way, both about making comics and about myself.

CA: How would you describe Shoplifter in your own words?

MC: Shoplifter is the story of Corrina Park, a woman in her mid/late 20’s who works at an ad agency in a large city. She studied literature in college with dreams of becoming a novelist but now spends her days writing advertising copy. At the start of the story, Corrina is at a crossroads as she struggles with reconciling her ambitions with her reality: she hasn’t written anything of her own in ages, and she isn’t sure of how she feels about where she works.

To me, Shoplifter is the story of a person who is smart enough, well read and well educated enough to critique, but for whatever reason, feels trapped and unable to create.

CA: The disaffection of a 20-something can be a somewhat spurious path to tread. What made you want to tell this story?

MC: I think it’s a story many people can relate to. It’s certainly a situation I saw in a lot of people I knew in my 20s, myself included. I don’t think you can dismiss anyone’s story out of hand if you present it honestly and with compassion. I’m aware that other people in their 20s might find themselves in a different situation than Corrina, and that they might view her position as “privileged.” But as with people in all walks of life, she’s trying to find herself and her place in the world she lives in — and that’s a worthwhile endeavour, one worth depicting in a story.

CA: What impressed me most about Shoplifter was how it managed to be a a very hopeful book and yet remain realistic in the manner in which it captures the anxiety of being out in the world on your own and trying to find your place or dream.  Was that a conscious decision,  to have an uplifting tone?

MC: Perhaps because I’m older now and more removed from that period of my life, I don’t brood on it, or view it through the same melodramatic lens I might have when I was in my late 20s. I don’t think I set out consciously to write with an uplifting tone — I just tried to create a believable, relatable character and follow her through situations in the real world where the problems she encounters were subtle, internal and also believable. Still, among the things I was trying to express in the story is the possibility of hope and meaningful connection in places where we perhaps don’t expect it.

CA: What is about the 20-something age that makes them feel so make or break, in your opinion?

MC: I think when many people enter that period, they believe it should be the start of their “real life.” They’ve finished up their schooling and left behind a structure that they’ve lived under since they started kindergarden and now they have to find their own way, without the signposts pointing out where they have to go to next. It’s a new start just like starting kindergarten but with all the knowledge and expectations of a grown up, and that can be both thrilling and frightening. Often, there’s a feeling of anxiousness that creeps in as you feel you should be moving faster toward your goals than you are. Or perhaps you’re not moving toward them at all, or in the opposite direction. That can cause some people to feel desperate and impatient at times.

CA: I’ve read reports that Shoplifter is the first in a series of books you’re planning that will interconnect loosely in some way. Can you tell us a bit more about those?

MC: Shoplifter was one of several stories that I outlined when I decided I wanted to work on longer comics. They’re all separate stories, but interconnected in a particular way. There’s a story about a missing girl and the impact that as on her family, another one about addiction and the different forms it takes, and one about a group of teens and their experience at a bible camp, among others. They’re all straight-up fiction set in the “real world” like Shoplifter and I hope to work on them steadily throughout the next few years.

CA: I’m interested to hear how your style developed. Did you go to art school? What influences would you cite as having some impact on your art?

MC: I’ve been drawing all my life, and reading comics since i was a kid. So, like many kids, that was my first artistic influence — comics and cartoons. I did graduate art college, OCAD University, here in Toronto where I studied contemporary art — mostly painting and installation type work. I didn’t take any illustration courses there or any comics courses (I don’t think they had comics related programmes at that school back then), so all of that kind of training is self taught.

I try not to get hung up on a “style” as much as I can, but I learned a lot about cartooning from studying artists from an earlier era: Noel Sickles, Roy Crane, Frank Robbins, Milt Caniff — I really love those adventure strip artists from the ’30s and ’40s. Other cartoonists who had an influence on me artistically are: Jack Kirby, Alex Toth, Wally Wood, Joe Kubert, David Mazzucchelli, Jaime Hernandez and Charles Burns, to name a few.

I also draw a lot of inspiration from “fine art” and like the work of artists like Gerhard Richter, James Rosenquist, Alex Katz, Michaelangelo, Picasso, Edward Hopper, Alex Colville, Maurice Vlaminck and Pierre Bonnard. There’s a lot of artists I like — too many to mention, really.

CA: One of the identifying aspects of your work is the way you use color- how do you decided on a palette/scheme? Is it about what looks good aesthetically, or what fits the subject tone?

MC: My work is usually done with a very limited palette and my focus is often on light and how it conveys atmosphere and mood. With Shoplifter, there’s only one color throughout and I chose it because I thought it fit the intimate tone of the story.

CA: Do you ever find yourself restricted when using a two-color, three-color scheme, in that it’s more difficult to change up atmosphere without jumping to another color, or does that fall to the art itself and expression, etc?

MC: I don’t find it restricting — quite the opposite, actually. I find when I do something in a limited palette, whether it’s just a few colors or one color plus black, it’s easier for me to suggest things like atmosphere than with a full palette. For me, the more colors I use, the more I have to juggle harmonies and relationships of color and it’s harder to put the focus on the mood of the drawing. Sometimes, a full palette and the expectations that often comes with it can be a distraction from the story or worse, it can actively fight against it. Personally, I find I can do far more with a smaller palette than I can with a giant paintbox of colors.

Shoplifter is on sale this week in finer comics shops and bookstores from Pantheon.

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