Comics/Graphic Novels

An interview with Johnathan Hop, creator of Journey to the Middle Kingdom.

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You have created a book based on Chinese mythology, what started your interest in this field?

I’ve loved myths since I was a kid.  I knew the most obscure Greek and Roman gods and begged my mother to buy anthologies of Grimm’s fairy tales.  Anything about monsters or otherworldly beings instantly hooked me, because reality just didn’t have that magical punch I was looking for.  When I got to college and started studying Chinese I wanted to know more about Chinese culture.  I started reading lots of books and watching TV dramas in Chinese and eventually I just soaked it all in.  I’m a sucker for anything that is fantasy and draws me away from the mundane to the fantastic.

 

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This particular book deals with the Legend of the White Snake Maiden, why did you choose this as the first story to tell?

Legend of the White Snake Maiden is a love story at its core.  You have a female snake demon who falls in love with a human, and their love, while strong, is never fully realized because of jealousy, hatred, and revenge.  I chose the story for its universal elements, and also because psychologically the characters each bring an aspect of humanity to the table.  It has themes of enduring love, loyalty, duty, honor, and obsession weaved in throughout the story.  What more could you want?

What is your favorite Chinese myth and why?

Wow, tough question.  There’s so many I like.  My favorite story is the Legend of Miaoshan.  It’s the story of how the Buddhist goddess of mercy and compassion, Guanyin, ascended to godhood.  Guanyin was a young girl named Miaoshan who was the daughter of a King.  Miaoshan was pure and kind, but her father wanted to marry her off.  Miaoshan said she would marry only under the condition that her marriage would alleviate three sufferings: sickness, old age, and death.  Of course, the King gets angry that she asks for this and Miaoshan escapes his wrath and becomes an enlightened sage atop Fragrant Mountain.  One day, the King starts dying of a disease, and Miaoshan gives up part of her body to save the King, harboring no ill will towards him for all the injustice and sorry he caused her.  Because of her pure compassion, Miaoshan was able to reach enlightenment and become Guanyin, the Goddess of mercy.

The concept of the mystical calligraphy brushes is pretty unique how did you come about this idea?

In Chinese class we usually learned characters by using a method my professor had come up with, where you break the characters down into small parts and create a story to remember the character by.  It was an effective method.  One day, I started imagining the characters becoming real.

Originally there were no brushes in the first draft of “Journey to the Middle Kingdom,” but I felt that calligraphy brushes and the art of calligraphy itself were so central to traditional Chinese culture I had to include them.  Also, it really looks cool.

Your series is unique in that it has two female leads, was this a conscious decision or something that was just organic and came naturally without you even thinking about it?

It was organic.  I didn’t even think about it until a few people pointed it out to me.  I didn’t plan out their gender, but rather their personalities.  I wanted to have two characters that were headstrong physically or mentally, and one character who had greater powers than the two of them, but didn’t show it right away.  It wasn’t until afterwards that I realized I had two heroines of the story.  I think it makes for a better overall balance.  Their chemistry leaps right off the page.

Are there any other mythologies that fascinate you, if so which ones?
Greek and Roman myths were what I grew up with, but I later got into Norse mythology and Aztec stories.  I was very into Viking runes and heroic epics like Beowulf for a period of time.  I always loved comparing the gods of one culture to another, to see if there were any differences in the way more ancient people’s made sense of the natural world.  How did one Sun god differ from another?

What I love most about myths is how they can draw you into a world of pure fantasy where you are free to experience life however you want, in grand, sweeping drama.

You are a teacher by trade and through your “So You Want to Play Go” series you have taught many people how to play Go, do you feel that this series will help teach more people about Chinese mythology?

Well this series is a bit different than what I’ve done before.  With the graphic novel, my main goal is to tell a gripping story and to create characters that live and breathe on the page.  If my readers learn some Chinese characters or a little about Chinese culture, then I feel I would’ve been successful.  I will always be an educator.  It’s in my blood, but this time, I think I want to really use entertainment as a way to bring cultures together.

You are already an accomplished writer how does it feel to move into writing a graphic novel and why did you choose this format instead of a classic novel?

To be honest, one thing I’ve always wanted was an ability to draw.  I wrote mini comic books when I was young, but was terribly frustrated when trying to illustrate them because I could never do more than a rudimentary stick figure.  When I started writing out “Journey to the Middle Kingdom,” I knew it needed to be a graphic novel because so much of culture is visual.  And honestly, given the way the art has come out, I’m so glad I picked this medium.

And finally any words of advice for any other budding writers out there?

Two pieces of advice.  I don’t like giving out platitudes, but in all honesty, do not back down from your writing. Just keep plowing at it, day after day after day, until you get the success you deserve.  The other piece of advice, is to carve out time in your day for writing.  I’ve always worked a full time job, sometimes even with a part time job, and found time to get some writing done.  You don’t have to be super disciplined, just find a few personal hours, and get to your craft.

Johnathan Hop is a Math and Science middle school teacher by day and a writer by night.  He has  authored and self published five books, and is best known for the “So You Want to Play Go?” series where he teaches people how to play the Oriental game of “Go.”  He has a Masters in Japanese Studies and a B.A. in Asian Studies, and also speaks Japanese, Chinese, and some Korean, infact he speaks a total of seven languages.

 

You can help kickstart Jonathan’s  Journey to the Middle Kingdom project here

 

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