‘In Real Life’ Artist Jen Wang On Color, Creativity, And Building A World [Interview]
Jen Wang first came to the notice of many comics fans with her incredibly assured 2010 debut, Koko Be Good, a grounded but beautiful tale of young adulthood set in contemporary San Francisco. Her follow-up, In Real Life, presents a younger protagonist and a more fantastical setting -- albeit one that's meant to be an escape from "real life," and proves to be an extension of it.
Based on Cory Doctorow's short story Anda's Game, In Real Life is the story of a young woman who learns about the world and herself through her interactions in the massive multiplayer online game Coarsegold Online. It's a story that showcases Wang's gift for emotional reality, and also to create the lavish fantasy of the game world. The result is one of the most resonant and compelling books of 2014. After speaking to Doctorow at New York Comic-Con, ComicsAlliance talked to Wang to learn what this story means to her.
ComicsAlliance: In Real Life started as a short story, Anda's Game. Cory Doctorow has credited you with doing all the heavy lifting for the adaptation. What was the collaboration process like from your side?
Jen Wang: I would write a draft of the script and send it to Cory, then he would make some suggestions and I would write another draft. We went back and forth a couple times until we were happy with the final product. From there I was given free rein to design and draw the comic however I like.
Getting a good balance of Cory and I’s vision for the script took the most time, but the drawing part was a breeze, and Cory was very flexible with the final look of the book.
CA: How did you go about breaking down the story?
JW: There were about eight or so drafts, with the first one being closest to the original short story. With each draft I pushed a little further into newer territory, so the breaking down of the story happened pretty gradually. I knew what the basic beats were since they were laid out in the original short, but the details changed, and I added a third Act where we see what happens after Anda decides to help Raymond.
CA: The design in this book is stunning; Coarsegold feels to me like it falls somewhere between a video game world and a storybook world. How did you decide on a look? What were your points of inspiration?
JW: I think I decided early on that I wasn’t going to do a literal pixelated video game look for the Coarsegold sections. From Anda’s perspective both worlds feel equally legitimate, so it made sense that they were both drawn with the same organic brush. The rest of Coarsegold is pretty heavily inspired by World of Warcraft which is the type of game I imagine Anda would be playing.
World of Warcraft was the biggest inspiration for Coarsegold. I also took a lot from open world games like Animal Crossing, The Sims, and Second Life. I’m less of the raiding type of gamer and more of a build-a-fantasy-version-of-your-house type of gamer, so I just went with the stuff that appealed to me.
CA: I love the scene where Anda dyes her hair to match the color of her avatar. What was your approach to color for this story?
JW: I love that scene too! Since I was drawing the real life and Coarsegold scene similarly, the best way to separate the two was to color them differently. From Anda’s perspective her real life is dull and uninteresting, so all those scenes have a brown filter over it. It’s not so gross or depressing as to be a grey or blue, but definitely something that’s down to earth and homogeneous.
The Coarsegold scenes, in contrast, have a multi-colored layer on top of the normal color layer, so everything’s just a little extra saturated and textured.
CA: This is a story that's in large part about a young woman building friendships and finding her identity through gaming, and the book feels very timely given the recent online conversation about the place of women in gaming. Do you think in the future gaming will belong to people like Anda?
JW: I think it already [does]. Gaming is pretty ubiquitous now amongst people under the age of 40, and women are a huge part of it. People make fun of stuff like Kim Kardashian: Hollywood for being a vapid freemium game, but it’s undeniably popular and it’s tapping into a market that hasn’t been served before.
We’re also seeing a renaissance of indie games that’re doing all kinds of interesting experimental things, and part of that change is more non straight-white-male creators. The more variety in perspectives a medium has, the better chances it’ll grow, and that’s definitely happening.
CA: Do Anda's experiences resonate with you?
JW: For sure! In high school I spent most of my time on the internet talking to my internet cartoonist friends and drawing comics with them. I didn’t feel great about myself in real life, but my online world was full of wonderful creative people who motivated me to do the thing I loved. That’s exactly what it is for Anda, except with gaming. She’s finally tapped into this world where she can share what she loves with people just like her.
CA: What are you working on next?
JW: I’m co-organizing a new indie comics show in Los Angeles called Comic Arts LA. That will take place December 6th, in Downtown Los Angeles. It’s currently taking up all my time but I’m super excited for it.
I also recently launched a serial webcomic called “The White Snake”, which you can find on my website. I’m updating it by chapter as I find the time to work on it. There’s a couple other projects I can’t quite talk about yet that I can hopefully announce in the new year, so ask me again in a couple months!
In Real Life is published by First Second.