A Conversation with Rachel Ang

Interview by Leah McIntosh

Rachel Ang is a comics artist from Melbourne, Australia. Her work has been published by The Lifted Brow, The Suburban Review, The Stella Prize, ABC News and The Ledger Annual. She is the Art Director of Pencilled In, a magazine devoted to the representation of Asian-Australian artists and writers.

We speak to Rachel about creating comix, the necessity of grit, and working as an architect.

Read  'Bioluminescent', a comic by Rachel for Liminal

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 Have you always drawn comics?

It’s taken me a little while—I want to be clear that I wasn’t born into the world fully formed as an artist, nobody is. I’ve previously worked as a draftsman, a tutor, a receptionist, a copywriter, in public libraries, as a cleaner, as a receptionist, in a clothing store, painting Christmas baubles, in a deli, and in a bookshop.

When you’re a teenager, in art school, or whatever, you daydream of meteoric success that skyrockets you into a comfortable income, agents and managers to take care of all the press releases and drudgery of navigating a creative career. Some gallery or publisher or whatever picks you up, or whatever silver bullet you aspire to, and BAM! You’ve made it. This montage is (of course) scored to Lose Yourself, by Eminem. Palms sweaty, mom’s spaghetti.

For me, my path was less like a rocket taking off, and more like a dumpling spinning very slowly around a Lazy Susan over the course of an afternoon; then, finally, gravity won, and I tumbled flatly from the slow turning disc onto the white cloth of the table, already speckled with the puddles and splatters of yum cha. Plop.  

After art school I was a bit concerned about my prospects, and decided to study Architecture. This is a decision I look back on with a mixture of amusement and gratitude. I am really very grateful and happy to be an architect—it’s a good, rewarding profession. It’s easy to justify the long slog when I know that my work really does make a difference, and I love what I do.

Having professed this love and respect for my occupation, I’ll also say this: I hated Architecture school. I thought it was a waste of my strange gifts, and I knew that I needed to do something more creative to be happy. I started drawing a lot more, which turned into drawing comics; started reading a lot more comics; started hanging out with more comics makers. I told myself that once I finished my Masters degree, I could be whatever I wanted. During my thesis semester, I was very prolific and tried to push a lot of comics out into the world and be published in different kinds of formats.

Now I’ve fallen off my lazy susan, I think I’ve reached a balance in life where everything makes a lot more sense. I have always been a good plate spinner, if that’s the phrase—when I was in art school, they told us we should aspire to be a polymath. I think I was most prolific in terms of drawing when I was working in an office and finishing my Masters Degree at the same time. My mind is more fertile when I’m doing a lot of things at once…I’m quite—mercurial.

Can you describe the process behind creating a comic? 

If it’s a one-page comic, I’ll probably just draw it straight away. If it’s a long form narrative, I’ll sit on it a long time and wrestle with the script. I’ll write it all out in my drawing book, and then I’ll get the rhythm and write it like a poem. That’s how I figure out the text and the beats and dialogue. Now I’m at the stage where I’m more comfortable showing my progress to other writers and get feedback. I’m really grateful to my peers and community who read over my stories and give me critique and advice. I love my fellow comics-creators. It’s a game-changer to find your people.

From there, I’ll thumbnail it and design the characters. For the thumbnails, I’ll draw out roughly what it’ll look like. I’ll draw it out on paper and pencil – this takes the longest time because I’m figuring out the composition. The most difficult and crucialpart is expressing feeling and emotion through stance, body language and facial expression. I have a mirror on my desk. I generally pull a face and then draw it.

It’s a lot like how probably storyboarding a film, except with all the steps taken out of actually animating it. I think a lot of people who work in animation probably make comics as well. There’s a lot of crossover. If you look at the storyboard artist credits for Adventure Time, there’s very talented comic artists, like Sam Alden, Seo Kim, Jesse Moynihan and Jillian Tamaki.

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Do you remember your first published comic?

I actually can’t remember! I think it might have been The Lifted Brow for their advice comics. That was my first comic in print. They are such an incredible journal and the Advice Comics is a very good blog.

Marc sent me a bunch of questions which were really intense. I didn’t even know if I was qualified to answer them, but someone had asked, At art school I’m not doing that well. I feel like everyone is better at drawing than I am. What should I do, I feel like quitting? I think everybody goes through that. It’s pointless to beat yourself up for not being good at drawing.

How do you navigate issues of race in your comics?

I wrote a story that was about growing up in Australia and  a lot of people responding really strongly to that. At the time, I didn’t really know why, because I was just writing about my experiences; later I realised that a lot of people probably had similar experiences. Even if it’s not growing up ethnically different, a lot of people feel like they’re on the outside.

Things are so different now. The media is still really white—when you see someone of your background in the media doing something creative or just doing anything and getting kudos from it—not only their community but the greater community. It’s so powerful, it sounds trivial, but it’s not.

Sometimes I’ve tried to explain to people, you don’t understand because you see yourself represented all the time. Who were my role models growing up? I didn’t know any creative Asian people and my parents believed if I became an artist, I’d be poor and have mental health problems so I may as well just get in the bin.

I think that’s why we felt really strongly about making Pencilled In. I’m really conscious of representation, and wanting to be the person that teenage Rachel needed to see. That’s why I do things like public speaking or getting my photo taken, even though I’m practically allergic to those things. More diverse faces, more diverse stories.

Your comics are so compelling because I can see myself in them.

Yes, maybe it’s important to me that my characters look a certain way. However I think the strength is that other people seem to relate to it, not just people who look like that.

My work is not explicitly like Hey, this is an Asian character and that’s how you should understand them. Because I don’t go around in the world thinking, Oh my god I’m Asian. It’s just a part of my reality and it colours it. I feel the same way about gender. In The Argonauts, Nelson quotes Denise Riley: “It’s not possible to live twenty-four hours a day soaked in the immediate awareness of one’s sex. Gendered self-consciousness has, mercifully, a flickering nature.”

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Tell us about your role with Pencilled In.

The editor, Yen-Rong, asked me to be her Art Director. When it started, we had a lot of people tell us it was very necessary. I really agonised over the front cover—I felt like it should be something punchy and controversial. I didn’t want it to be cute or exotic.

A concern I had about creating Pencilled In was about whether I would be pigeon-holing myself. Talking to some of my friends who are female writers, I can definitely see their entire readership is female. The work I make…  a lot of people who would say they are big fans of my work are very different to me—I don’t know if that’s because I write and draw on topics that everybody finds perennially interesting. I’m about a kind of representation that appeals and reaches out to everyone.

Maybe it’s a good time to be Asian-Australian. I’m almost seeing my ethnic identity as privilege, in the sense that some stereotypes you can’t complain about. It privileges me that people look at me and think ‘she must be very smart and hardworking’. I might not be either of those things. I might be dumb and lazy, you don’t know! Lucky for you, I am smart and hardworking.

Often your comics can be deemed autofiction, existing between the contradictory realms of autobiography and fiction.

It’s funny because I don’t set out to write autobiographical stories. But there is no question that there’s a lot of me in all of it. I’ve been re-reading Monkey Grip and the whole time I can’t help thinking, there’s absolutely no way you could write this without having certain experience.

It’s the same with comics—I think writing really specifically makes it more universal— easier for someone to relate to it. I think when writing about race, my response to the prompt has been to talk about a personal experience. I did that for Ramona Magazine and for The Stella Prize, and both those instances have garnered strong reactions. I think if you show people how it feels, it can be a lot more immediate than taking a scientific approach to disparities in society.

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Tell us about your upcoming projects.

Yen-Rong and I are putting together the second issue of Pencilled In. There’s a tasty chunk of comics this time round, and a lot of exciting young artists we can’t wait to publish.

I’m planning or working on collaborative projects with friends: Something with poetry by Izzy Roberts-Orr, A project called Slumtree, about Melbourne share house despair with Tara Kenny. I think two is better than one, always.

I’m part of a Caravan of Comics which is travelling to The Lakes International Comic Arts Festival in the UK, in October. I’m really excited because it’s a good group of artists who I really admire. The Emerging Writers’ Festival here in Melbourne is sending me to the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival as their Exchange Artist immediately after. I’m quite chuffed because I’ve never been to Indonesia before.

I’m drawing a few short stories/poems for local publications. I’m also writing a book of graphic short stories.

How do you find the process of submitting to publications?

The main thing that matters is having grit, always knowing you can improve.

Rejection hurts but so what? There’s no one that goes through life getting accepted into everything. A lot of people say “you’re so lucky to be talented”, but maybe I’ve just been rejected more times and tried more things than most. I’m not pitching or submitting at the moment.

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What does your day look like?

I work in a small office in Collingwood called Schored Projects— I get in at 9am. My work day varies a lot depending on what projects I’m working on and what stages they are at, but I generally leave work around 5.30-6 unless I’m sprinting towards a deadline.

Sometimes all I can really bring myself to do is work and then come home and drink wine because I’m tired. It’s important to not beat yourself up about being a bad creative—sometimes you’ll draw a lot and sometimes you just have to make rent. Those are fine things. You can’t make work when you’re exhausted. But most days, I spend the evenings drawing, inking, writing or catching up on correspondence. I spend a lot of my life reading and replying to e-mails.

On days set aside for working on comics—I usually get up and go for a walk or a run first thing. Then straight into drawing or writing. Sometimes I find it easier to write outside my home, like the State Library or in a cafe.

Do you have any advice for emerging comix artists?

The most important thing is not being technically good at drawing, but having experiences and perspectives that give you something to say—developing a distinct and nuanced voice. Craft is crucial but that develops alongside—and it’s not the driver.

I definitely couldn’t be writing the stories I am writing now even a year or two ago, because I’ve changed a lot and moved countries, and that perspective kick-started me into being more perceptive and observant, into having more clarity about who I am in the world. It’s such a cliché, but knowing yourself is fundamental—other occupations don’t have that need. You could be a really not-self-aware accountant and it wouldn’t really affect the way that you do your job. Whereas, to really put a lot of heart and intellect into what you make… not everybody can do that.

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Who are you inspired by? 

I’m inspired by those of us who serve and make a difference in our communities without thanks or recognition. In the circles I move in, there is a far greater value placed on visible activism, on campaigning through the arts and media, on being the face of something. Never forget that there are teachers, nurses, social workers and so on doing amazing work for little thanks and tiny salaries. Writing a poem, no matter how beautiful, will never be as important to me as putting a roof over someone’s head.

I’m inspired by so many comics artists: Lee Lai, Michael Deforge, Brecht Evens, Emily Carroll, Noah Van Sciver, Sam Alden, Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Jillian Tamaki, Adrian Tomine, Tommi PG. Melbourne artists like Eloise Grills, Sarah Catherine Firth, Mirranda Burton, Leonie Brialey. I love those guys.

 What are you currently listening to?

I love Two Steps on the Water, Gold Class, Cable Ties. Maybe I just love to hear a Melbourne accent in music. Lots of noisy stuff: Ought, DIIV, Big Black.

I’ve been working on a comics/music project with my friend Daniel Johnson, so I’ve been listening to various bits and pieces almost every day. He’s from the States so it’s a nice way for us to keep in touch. You can listen as each track is released here.

For the last while I’ve also been really into Awaken, My Love! by Childish Gambino, andJ. Cole’s album, 4 Your Eyez Only. And like everyone, I love Kendrick’s newest album. That line in DNA: My DNA not for imitation. Your DNA an abomination. Fucking wow. 

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What are you currently reading?

Bluets, Maggie Nelson—this is a very good book to accompany the exquisite ache of having a crush on someone when you should know better.

Portable Curiosities, Julie Koh—this blew my head off when I first read it and I’m still recovering. My favourite story is The Three-Dimensional Yellow Man. I almost cried when I finished it because I was so in awe of Koh’s skill—deftly wrapping an angry truth in a shiny joke. It reminds me of how, at the start of his career, Italo Calvino felt that, being a socialist, one should be writing hard-hitting social realism, but ended up taking a sharp turn into the magical. He’s also one of my favourites, especially (no surprises) The Cosmicomics.

Raw Feels, Leonie Brialey - I’ve been telling everyone to read it. The way Leonie weaves the mundane and the deeply moving is deceptively simple and pure. Her voice is so natural and guileless - everything I aspire to as a comics creator.

How do you practice self-care?

I’m ashamed to admit that I rarely think about self-care.  For me, my creative practice is a long extended form of self-care and self-flagellation—the best kind of pleasure and pain. Being physical is really important to me. I like being out in the forest. I like being alone. Sensual pleasures. A hot bath. I eat whatever I want.

What does being Asian-Australian mean to you? 

Being Asian in Australia means that I grew up on the outside—never good enough, never truly belonging. That’s the space of the observer, the documentor, the teller of stories. It enables me to move between different worlds and always be my authentic self.

We’re living in a really good time now, to be Asian-Australian and a creative. I could point to so many Asian-identifying creatives doing amazing work—many of them my friends and peers, and very precious to me. But when I was growing up I had no role models - and it seemed impossible that I could grow up to have a creative career. Now there are so many prominent Asian-Australians in the arts, sport, architecture and design, film and television… we’re telling the stories, making the spaces and publications, carving out the niches, that we want to see in the world. We’re circumnavigating the Bamboo Ceiling by walking out of the building altogether and creating our own structures to climb. 

No more Joy Luck Club stories. Fuck the model minority myth. We’ve gone from being the nerds and job thieves, to being movers and shakers, the innovators, the cool kids—in one generation.

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Interview & Photographs by Leah Jing McIntosh