Jo Chen--Racing To Draw

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by Jennifer M. Contino
webdate: 10/16/00 10:01:20 AM

Article reprinted and posted with the kind permission of
author Jennifer M. Contino and

Last year, Tommy Yune made everyone remember why Speed Racer was so darn cool in his best-selling three-part limited series, Speed Racer. Now, he's making us remember why Speed's older brother, Rex is so awesome in Yune's newest Wildstorm limited series, Racer X. Joining Yune is an exciting new artist, Jo Chen, whose work he discovered while surfing the web.

Chen was born and raised in Asia, so comics have always been a big part of her life. "You can't help being exposed to comics," Chen begins. "There are also many types of comics available for people of all ages and both sexes. Comics in Asia are not a 'boy' thing as it seems to be in the West. And, so, as a kid, I read a lot of them and my sister, Christina, inspired me to begin drawing. Another thing that sparked our imaginations was the fact that most animated cartoons were derived from the manga we read."

"But I don't just like manga because of the art," Chen continues. "It's also about great stories. You really have to have the desire to be a storyteller to be a comic book artist. The desire to draw cartoons or superheroes isn't enough. In fact, the skill to draw is almost secondary. You must first want to tell stories. Once I started down that path, there was no looking back. I was hooked."

"Stylistically, in manga there isn't the concentration on muscle heads in spandex attempting to save the world from arch villains," Chen says, commenting on some of the differences between manga and Western comic books. "Of course, more recently, Asian comics have seen the explosion of the 'schoolgirls with magical power' syndrome, but by and large, manga stories revolve around the lives of ordinary people: office workers, students without magical powers, gangsters, astronauts, monks, etc. I guess you can also site the big eyes, small nose and mouth bit, but most of that was originally derived from old cartoons from the West and has now become the manga trademark."

Comics Culture

Although most American girls are not exposed to comic books or, even, have the desire to read much of them, which is not the case in Asia. "Comics are a big part of any kids life in Asia, and my sister and I were no exceptions," Chen states. "We spent hours reading together and then imitating the styles of our favorite artists. When other kids were playing with dolls, Christina and I were acting-out our imagination on paper."

Chen continues, "Our favorite artists were Osamu Tezuka, the author of Kimba the White Lion, Astro Boy, and Black Jack, to name a few; and Yasuhiko Yoshikazu, the author of Arion, The Venus Wars, and the character designer for the original animated Gundam movies."

As a child, Chen enjoyed reading and drawing manga for many reasons. She admits, though, that not all comics interested her. "Western characters like Superman and Batman held very little appeal for us," Chen says. "Naturally, I enjoy them now, but as a kid, there were just too many cultural differences inherent in the Western comic book characters for us to identify with. The characters and situations in Japanese and Chinese comic books were much more familiar and ones with which we could identify. As for comics' availability in Taiwan, they were and continue to be everywhere. Every bookshop, newsstand, 7-11 has them. You can't swing a dead cat in Asia and not knock over a rack of comic books for sale."

"When I was young, I was painfully shy and had great difficulty expressing myself," Chen continues. "By drawing comics, I realized that I could put my feelings into my stories which other people would read, whom I now didn't have to communicate directly with. Not healthy, I know, but that is how I was then. Eventually, I met people who shared my love of manga, with whom I could identify and therefore communicate, and then I came out of my shell. Again, I have to thank my sister, Christina, who was the trailblazer in the family where comics were concerned. She battled my parents at every turn for our rights to follow our dream of one day being professional comic artists. Dad was with military intelligence and formally educated and didn't consider illustration a proper career, as do most Asian parents."

"From the traditional Chinese point of view, one is either a scientist, a doctor, an engineer, etc. or you're a low-life with a dismal future," Chen explains. "That attitude is changing now that Asia is a more prosperous and affluent region, but it's still quite difficult to convince Asian parents otherwise. So, I really give my sister much credit. So much of Chinese history is filled with war, poverty, illiteracy, it is understandable that parents urge their children in a solid direction regarding their careers. But here in the West, comics seem more legitimate as a part of the entertainment/publishing industry and my parents have learned to accept this about us. Comic book artists in the West are certainly paid much better than their counterparts in Taiwan and China. We are also treated with more respect. I assume Korea is the same way (like Taiwan). Japan, however, seems to be different in this regard for some reason. Maybe this has to do with the post-WWII Western influence in Japanese pop culture. I don't really know though."

"My sister finally bullied my parents into allowing us to attend Fu-Hsin Trade & Arts School in Taipei,” Chen says. “We studied there for three years during what would have been my years in high school here in the U.S. There, we studied fine art, computer graphics, printing, etc., nothing about comics, though. In fact, I was caught many times by my instructors drawing and reading comics during class. During this period, some friends and I formed a comics syndicate, or doujinshi, to create underground comic books which we self-published; the first of which we published during junior high school. It's interesting to note that many of our group went on to become professional comic book artists or involved in the industry in some way. One became an art teacher and another immigrated to the U.S. and works in 3-D digital animation in Hollywood and maintains an underground website."

Mach Go Go Go Girl

Most of us grew up watching Speed Racer on TV or at least knowing who the characters were. Chen didn't have that opportunity. "Speed Racer/Mach Go Go Go was never broadcast originally in Taiwan as it was in the West in the 1960s and 1970s. For some reason, programmers in Taiwan must have thought it wouldn't appeal to Chinese children as did Triton of the Sea, Tranzor Z and Candy Candy which were all huge hits on television when I was young,” Chen says. “In fact, not till the Cartoon Network opened its franchise in Taiwan did, Taiwanese first seeSpeed Racer. By then, I had immigrated to the U.S. with my family. My husband, Andy, introduced Speed Racer to me."

Chen continues, "It is one of his favorites and he knows Peter Fernandez quite well, who produced, wrote and voiced the English version of Speed in 1967. So, it was almost a bizarre coincidence that when Wildstorm contacted me after stumbling across my website, it was with the intent of offering me the Racer X series. Andy was more excited than I was. But I knew that this would be good for me as despite the recent popularity of Pokémon and Sailor Moon, Speed Racer continues to be consistently the most popular anime in the West for the past 35 years."

"I didn't get it at first," Chen admits. "But I have learned to like it. The classic series have a special goofy charm to them and I guess that is why Speed Racer, Kimba the White Lion, Gigantor, Astro Boy, Prince Planet, etc. are still popular and still being released on video and being broadcast decades after they debuted."

From the Web to Wildstorm

"In 1999, I published a two-volume shojo manga, or girls comic, entitled The Other Side of the Mirror with Tong Li Publishing in Taiwan," Chen says. "It sold very well and I think it won some sort of award recently. It sold in Hong Kong, China and was recently translated in Korean for the Korean market. I've also published quite a few short stories for various publishers in Taiwan. I translated/tailored my short story, "Safari Stu," into English for my website where you can read it as an on-line comic. That one goes back to 1995. The Racer X series, of course, is my first U.S. comic book; my first in English."

Also, if you check out Chen's website , you will be able to really understand how Tommy Yune became so taken with the young artist. "Tommy was surfing the web searching for a manga artist who was capable of rendering a story of machines and romance, when he happened across my website, which I had designed and built the year before," Chen begins. "He left a message in my guest book for me to contact him if I was interested in doing some work for Wildstorm. We arranged a meeting in Los Angeles some months afterwards, and it went forward from there. Of course, since there were no mechanical drawings posted on my site, he was taking a chance with the hope that I had the skill to draw cars as well as people. I did some sample drawings of the main characters' cars from some sketches he had sent to me, and that got me the job. I was very happy that they thought my work good enough."

"I already had a career going full steam as a manga artist in Asia when I met Tommy," Chen continues. "In fact, when he contacted me, I was in the middle of finishing The Other Side of The Mirror and a couple of short stories. I think that must have given Tommy some measure of confidence that I was up to the challenge of producing Racer X. I'm glad he had confidence in me because I didn't have it in myself. Drawing racing cars was something completely new and I didn't know that I could pull it off convincingly. That first issue took me forever because not only am I a perfectionist, but I wanted to do a great job on my first U.S. publication. As a result, I finished the first issue well past my deadline. But the folks at Wildstorm were cool about it and Tommy kept encouraging me, telling me that all new artists go through the same thing."

"Tommy is a smart guy and a real Speed Racer fan, too," Chen says. "So, I'm sure he understood the importance of retaining the original elements in the anime that made the original series so popular, while putting a little 1990s style grit and realism into visuals. It's not an easy feat to update a classic pop culture icon and still have it appeal to both old and new fans alike. What would happen if Disney decided to give Mickey a Y2K makeover and give him fleas and make him rabid? After all, that's what real rats and mice are often like. Dangerous ground. But like I said, Tommy did a great job with it. The fans ate it up."

X Marks The Spot

Chen was intrigued when she heard what Yune had in mind for Rex Racer. "First and foremost, Tommy wanted a romantic story between an arrogant but troubled car racer and a princess who has no time for love, occupied by the duties of her small island nation," Chen says. "Since the manga I had just completed was an involved love story, I guess he thought I was right for the job and I'm happy that he thought so."

"When I finally met Tommy along with Wildstorm V.P., John Nee," Chen continues. "I was determined to accept the job as I knew that it would be good for me. Honestly, I didn't know if Western readers would accept my style. Of course I knew that anime and manga had become quite popular in the West, but still, I was unsure if my work would appeal to anybody. Tommy and John were very nice and encouraging and I was happy with what they had to say about the story that I was to illustrate and about working with Wildstorm in general."

Chen thought long and hard before she began drawing Racer X. "I felt it was important to find a balance between the expectations of fans and my style, which tends to be very different from what I've done in Racer X. Pops had to look like Pops and Racer X's mask had to look like Racer X's mask," Chen says. "Attempts by various producers to change Speed Racer and Team Go over the years have failed. Look at Fred Wolf Films' Americanized animated update of Speed Racer in the early 1990s. The characters were barely recognizable and they changed the famous theme song from the original series. Fans reacted badly and the series tanked immediately. I haven't seen any episodes of Tatsunoko's latest incarnation of Speed Racer made in the 1997, called Speed Y2K here in the West. But neither has anybody else. My guess is that once again, the series deviated too far from what fans expect and will accept. The clear lesson here: don't mess with Speed and the monkey."

"I'm drawing the story of Rex Racer and how he becomes Racer X," Chen states. "I wanted readers to see him as a real person and not as a super hero. Tommy penned the story, but it was my job to convey Rex/Racer X visually as a sympathetic character and not as the mysterious, man-behind-the-mask he appears to be in the series."

"In the original manga and anime, we are not privy to the detailed origins of Racer X," Chen continues. "Of course, we see Rex running away from home after disobeying Pops and entering a race in which he wrecks Pop's experimental car, but we never really know how Rex becomes Racer X. I think Tommy, who wrote the story, did a good job of combining some disconnected pieces of the original series to form a good narrative. It certainly clears up the mystery of Racer X's connection with Kabala of Kapetapek from 'The Fire Race' episode in the anime. When I drew the characters, I followed the characters as I saw them in episodes of the old anime series, which I think were well realized by the animators using Tatsuo Yoshida's original manga."

Racer X

The first part of Racer X is already in stores now. It's hard to believe, after seeing the finished product, that Chen had doubts about her artwork fitting in on this series or that she ever worried about rendering the cars. "The cars themselves were the most difficult part about drawing Racer X," Chen admits. "This was something completely different from anything I had ever had to draw before. It worried me sick that people who understood cars would criticize work as we were attempting to go for some degree of realism. I had never drawn anything like this before. However, a good comic book artist must be able to draw everything and draw it well. I had help from Tommy throughout this process who sent me photos of cars' engines, the undercarriages, etc. I really wanted to do it well. I did my best. Hope it passes muster."

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"My favorite parts to draw and ink are the scenes at the end of the third issue, which I don't want to spoil (he-he-he). But also I was really challenged by the hijacking scene in the first issue," Chen says. "It drove me crazy to draw all of the people sitting in their seats in the plane. For all of you diehard Speed Racer fans, you'll notice that one of the passengers in coach is Tongue Blaggard, the villain from the 'Light Fingers Clepto' episode in the old anime. Had to have some diversion."

"The Racer X series isn't long enough to get into why he becomes an international spy or agent," Chen says. "In fact, I don't think that this is explained very well in the original manga or anime either. Truth be told, I wish there had been one or two more issues in the Racer X series so that the events that led him to become an international spy and secret agent could be explored a little more. Nevertheless, I was more interested in rendering the relationships between Rex, Kabala and Sylvana and the respective dynamics. Again, I wish the series had been longer so that Tommy and I could have explored among other things the real 'love-hate' relationship between these three characters."

"My part of the series ends with Rex returning to his homeland," Chen says. "Let's face it, if you couldn't tell that Clark Kent was Superman, you need your eyes examined. I realized something funny while watching some episodes of the old series: Racer X's uniform was monogrammed with a giant letter 'M' for Mifune, Speed's Japanese family name. No better way to disguise yourself than by putting your family initials on your chest in 18-inch red letters. Even Speed suspected Racer X's true identity by the end of the series and got socked in the stomach for being nosy."

What's Next

Chen's going to take some down time after she's done with Racer X. "I'm taking a short break to catch my breath, and then I'm going to produce a couple of short stories that I've had on my plate for a long time, now," Chen says. "Sorry if I'm being so tight-lipped about this, but I wouldn't know how to describe it properly in the first place. So, I'll leave it at that."

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