Karen Beilharz: So it’s been three years since our last podcast episode, which was our writing retreat miniseries back in July of 2018. Since then, Bec, Guan and I have been involved with other projects—projects that, unfortunately, haven’t involved this podcast. Since then, other podcasts have sprung up that also have the name “Hiveminded Podcast”. And if you’re listening to this, and it’s not the podcast you were expecting, maybe stop now and look elsewhere.
Then last year in 2020, I was all set to attend my very first WorldCon: the 78th World Science Fiction Convention, which was supposed to have been held in Auckland, New Zealand. And then COVID-19 shut everything down. Things were just starting to open up again in Sydney when the convention was being held via livestream. I was still working at the time, so I couldn’t attend any of the panels live. But I did get up at some ungodly hour just to attend a small group Zoom session with Kieron Gillen, the comic writer. I tried to catch up on as many panels as possible over the weekend, playing them a double, sometimes even 2.5 speed, and I enjoyed the panels I was able to hear.
But while I was listening, I couldn’t help wishing that I could hear comics people talking about the sorts of things that WorldCon panellists were talking about—things to do with creativity and process and influences, and all things to do with making art. There were a couple of comic creators among the guests, but the majority of them were prose writers. I came away from WorldCon with the idea of making something happen myself.
Of course, I was in no position to organise a whole convention, and certainly COVID wouldn’t allow for that. So I thought perhaps doing a podcast would work. I thought perhaps I could revive the Hiveminded Podcast. Furthermore, as COVID had pretty much cancelled all the usual comic and pop culture events where I would normally see my comics friends, I thought this would be a good excuse to catch up with people. And it would give me a chance to ask them all the little niggly questions I’ve always wanted to know (mwahaha!)
And then my website broke, and we moved house, and whatever grand plans I had were shelved.
One year later in 2021 in the midst of the second Sydney lockdown, I found myself thinking about the idea and trying to figure out how to make it happen. And thankfully, I found a way to make it happen.
In this episode and the next episode of the Hivemind Podcast, I talked to comic creators Queenie Chan and Ryan K Lindsay. If you’re not familiar with them, Queenie Chan is a manga artist and comic creator, known for her Picnic at Hanging Rock-inspired horror trilogy, The Dreaming; her collaborations with Dean Koontz and Kylie Chan; the fairytale-inspired fantasy adventure Fabled Kingdom; and a series of children’s non-fiction works about famous queens throughout history.
Ryan K Lindsay is an award-winning writer known for such works as Headspace, which is set inside the mind of a serial killer; Negative Space, in which his main character goes to pen a suicide note and gets writer’s block; Beautiful Canvas, a crime miniseries about a hit woman trying to reconcile her profession with her role as a mother-to-be; and Everfrost, a science fiction miniseries about a woman on the brink of death who comes face-to-face with the son who died in her arms as a child.
Queenie, Ryan and I talk about our comic creator origin stories, the genres and tropes that we are drawn to, and how we actually go about writing comics.
KB: Hello, and welcome to the Hiveminded Podcast, which today is with me—that’s Karen—and Ryan K Lindsay and Queenie Chan. And we’re doing a miniseries about making comics together. And these next few episodes are going to be about writing comics.
But before we get into the business of writing comics, I thought it would be fun to talk about your comics creator origin story. So Queenie, do you want to go first and tell us: how did you get into making comics in the first place?
Queenie Chan: So my name’s Queenie. I’m a manga-style comic book artist, which means that I draw in a very Japanese style, because that’s what I grew up with. So I grew up reading Japanese manga in Hong Kong. And then I came here when I was a kid. And so just continued my habit, thanks to Chinatown importing a lot of these kind of comics.
And I had this fantasy of becoming a manga comic book artist in Japan. And unfortunately, that was years ago, and it still isn’t really possible these days to do that without moving to Tokyo. But I guess when the internet came into existence, and I just started going online and talking to people and finding a lot of people online that had dreams similar to mine, I thought, “Oh, you know”—that kind of inspired me to sit down and actually give it a try in becoming a manga artist, really, from Australia.
Amazingly enough, it kind of worked out okay, for me—not the way I envisioned, but considering how scary Japanese manga—the industry—can be when it comes to working within it, I’m kind of glad things turned out this way. But—so I guess I started thanks to the internet and just growing up reading manga and just wanting to be a part of the manga-producing world, I guess.
KB: But you were quite—like, you weren’t in high school, were you, when you started? Is that right?
QC: No, I was in university, actually. I wasn’t encouraged to draw as a child. So it wasn’t until I was in university that I started drawing and writing my own stories, because I didn’t enjoy my degree. It wasn’t what I thought it would be. I had gone into Information Systems—so programming—and it was not as I had hoped, you know. So I thought, “Oh, you know, maybe I’ll just do something else.” And, you know, my escape from university life was actually my manga-drawing hobby that I had.
KB: That’s fantastic.
QC: And that’s how it started.
KB: Wow. How about you, Ryan? What’s your comic creator origin story?
Ryan K Lindsay: That’s funny, I was just trying to think of when I decided I wanted to, you know, write comics. I knew I was never going to draw them! That’s certainly never been even something I thought of.
But I was actually trying to think of, like, I know, roughly when I started to write comics, but I don’t actually remember why I thought that was something I should be doing. All I know is from a very young age, I knew I would grow up to write. And I called it early and said I would be an author and a teacher, and have now successfully managed both of those career paths, if you can call the writing, you know, career. But it pays some bills.
But it was—it was after I’d gone to Uni, and I’d graduated and I was teaching at the first school that I was placed at. And a few years in there, my brother sent me The Walking Dead Volume 1, because we are real old-school zombie fans. Um, and he was like, “Oh, apparently this thing’s really good.” And it was probably about three volumes deep at this stage—it was like fairly—fairly nascent days. And I remember reading that and it rekindling this love of comics. And because I was teaching and I had all of this disposable income, I had started to buy comics again, like I did all the way up to late high school. And I think it was that reading lots of comics again, and going on eBay and finding stuff that definitely, like, sparked that passion again.
And I’d been tinkering with writing different things at that time. And I can’t remember why, but I get the feeling it might have been—I was—I was filling in a lot of my Daredevil collection on eBay. And so I decided to write some Daredevil stories in comic script form, which, as everyone knows, is—is not the way to break into comics or to make comics. But as people also know, fanfic is a hell of a way to get yourself to sit down and write stuff.
And that sort of kickstarted me, you know, learning about script format and all that sort of stuff, and finding what I could online, which, you know, 15-odd years ago, wasn’t as much as there certainly is now. And so from there, it took years of writing, um—and I always say, like, I—before I published my first comic one shot, I wrote about 60 issues in script form that just sort of went nowhere, or were just practice or were horrible, or might be diamonds in the rough waiting in my trunk, but I’d never really go back to them. And I’d written a few novels as well. And I count all of that as practice—really invaluable practice.
And then finally in 2013, I put out my first one-shot—22 page comic—and sort of took that around to conventions. So yeah, that was definitely the origin story.
KB: So that was Fatherhood, wasn’t it—the 22-page?
RKL: Yes, that first one that I did was—was Fatherhood, a nice standalone. By the time I got to that point, I realised you don’t write Daredevil, you don’t pitch 60-issue Vertigo-style things—like, it’s just not going to happen. Although if you figure out how young Garth Ennis was when he wrote Preacher, very young, and it’s insane that he was so good and got that opportunity. But he’s Garth Ennis, so I guess he earns it.
But yeah, it took me ages to realise I needed to do something self-contained and manageable to—you know—to engage a creative team and to be able to afford printing, and to make it not like a $50 book that people won’t know who I am and won’t take a chance on, but $5: I could probably get that out of somebody at a show, and did manage to on more than one occasion.
KB: Yeah. Wow. That’s fascinating. So it was really rediscovering the love of comics, then deciding, “I’d like to do that” to having a go and putting stuff out there. And yeah, and then from—
RKL: Pretty much yeah—
RKL: —just having that passion. And I’ve always loved writing, and I’ve always sort of like—even pretty much—for always, if it’s not a short story, it’ll be something else. I’ve always sort of tinkered with stuff. But I think that weaving it all together and then clocking it in with the passion that I have for comics, just sort of, I guess, was the right recipe.
KB: Yeah, there you go. Like for me, I grew up reading the strips in the Saturday paper—like, was it Prince Valiant and Thin Ice and Snake and that sort of thing. And it wasn’t until—I think it was university/late high school that, you know, all of a sudden it’s like, “Oh my goodness: you can get longer novel-length forms of comics.” And I had these friends who would just keep lending me stuff, but their tastes skewed more towards—I guess, more independent Image-type, a little bit of Vertigo, like Sandman, that sort of thing.
But I never thought I could do it myself, because I just write; I don’t draw at all. And then I was reading an interview with Kieron Gillen, because I think it was about the time I discovered Phonogram. You guys read Phonogram? Wow, okay. It’s one of my favourite comics. It’s about basically—
RKL: So good!
KB: Yeah, music is magic. And I was reading interview with him, where he talked about how he got started, which was just to talk artists into doing these five-page things with him for free. And I thought, “Oh, I could do that!” I started writing five-page scripts and—and things and then taking it from there. But yeah, that’s pretty funny because I never thought, “Oh,” like “this is a way you can make comics”. And I didn’t know anybody who was making comics at the time. It was only later, after I’d put out the first anthology, Kinds of Blue that I actually met other comic creators and you guys and stuff like that. Like, I think the first time I met Queenie was at a signing you did it Kinokuniya. I can’t remember what year it was.
KB: It was very a long time ago.
QC: I guess I don’t really remember either. That must have been it. I do do stuff with Kinokuniya. But that was a while ago. Obviously, with COVID, nothing’s happening.
QC: And—that’s right: they used to do Free Comic Book Day. And that was really great.
QC: But of course, COVID has kind of ruined that a bit. But yeah, yeah. I mean, the comics industry has changed so much. What can I say: I started working in it in about 2005. Or probably before that: that wasn’t—that, like, okay. So long ago, it’s hard to think—I’ve actually have a think about how long it’s been since I started drawing comics. I’d say about 20 years.
But, um, you see, my first officially published work was with TokyoPop. So that was in 2005. But before that, I was with an outfit called Wire Pop. And I was getting paid for my comics. So perhaps, if we’re going to talk about getting paid to publish your work, I mean, TokyoPop definitely wasn’t my first publishing experience. It was with Wire Pop. But back then, people were actually still willing to subscribe to a comics website to read comics. Nowadays, I don’t think that there is so much willing to—or, at least, if it’s happening, it’s not really happening in, I guess, Western spaces.
I think Webtoons, for example, has a pretty good system where people do pay to read comics. But I’m not putting myself up on Webtoons. The ecosystem there, it’s very different to what it used to be back in 2002 or 2003. Yeah. Okay.
So I guess my first published work was actually a horror story called Block Six. That was what ran on Wire Pop. Yeah, so yeah, there’s that. So just thinking about how much, like, the comics industry has changed over the years thanks to the internet, and how different things are, and how different people are when it comes to doing stuff. Like that’s—that’s—I guess that’s quite interesting and worth talking about.
KB: So you’ve always been drawn to horror in some way.
QC: Not really, I guess. I wanted to challenge myself. I like all kinds of genres and whatever appeals to me—mystery, horror—I like romance as well, if it’s well written; there’s a lot of terrible romance out there, let’s just say. A lot of good ones. Action—anything that entertains me is good enough. I think.
I don’t do much action comics, because I guess—it’s a lot of effort as an as an artist, I guess—like, who writes and draws—it’s just, like—it’s a constant balancing act of how—what can I write and whether I can draw it. So sometimes I choose my stories based on that.
But then again, I also—like, as a writer/artist, I’m also really interested in pushing comics into new directions—like, pushing the boundaries of what can be considered a comic—the kind of tools you use—you can use to do something that qualifies as comic. I mean, you were an editor for one of my experimentations, Fabled Kingdom, that was mixing prose with comics. And I thought that was interesting.
So right now, I’m doing something in a completely direction—a different direction—for my PhD, which I’m doing at Macquarie Uni. I’m mixing comics with gaming. So I’m creating a comic with a game engine. So it is a digital comic, in my opinion. But I guess, again, it’s about going in a completely different direction to the direction I went in with Fabled Kingdom, and seeing what kind of interactivity you can bring to a digital comic using gaming mechanics and gaming tools, since I’m a huge gamer as well, apart from a comic book reader.
QC: So that’s kind of some of the stuff that I’m doing right now—which is, you know, it’s—it’s really different to what everyone else is doing. So it’s a little bit strange, talking about it on a comic show. But I think that people are always interested in experimentation and new ideas. And so, yeah.
KB: Yeah, definitely.
QC: So that’s what—I mean, I guess I’ve always gone to the beat of my own drum or whatever!
KB: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Because your work has, yeah, encompassed a whole bunch of different themes. Just—I’m just thinking about the ones that I have read, because I haven’t read all of it. But yeah, certainly like The Dreaming was the Australian gothic—the—Picnic at Hanging Rock sort of thing. And then with Fabled Kingdom, it was fairytales and fantasy, and about governments and queens, and so on, so forth. And then with the—the queens series that you’ve been doing, that’s diving—
QC: Oh yeah, nonfiction as well.
KB: Yeah, nonfiction and history, and all the research that you did for that as well. It’s really, really interesting.
QC: Guess what my theme for my PhD is.
KB: Yeah, what?
QC: It’s capitalism! It’s going—my PhD is on Neoliberalism, and working conditions of comic book creators and video game workers. So that—so the creative class in a neoliberal world. Again, something completely different, and I’m actually really enjoying it, because it’s a topic that I know a fair bit about, even without being in academia. So again, it’s a completely different direction. But it’s going to be a mix between a video game and a comic, and interactive to boot. So that’s—it’s going to be fun.
KB: Wow! It sounds really cool. Ryan, what kind of genres or stories do you gravitate towards in your own work?
RKL: Bleak ones, it would appear, from most of what I’ve written. I’d actually read a thing recently on crimereads.com that talks about why sci-fi and crime—especially noir—mash up so well together. And it just perfectly encapsulated why I write a lot of sort of that genre, to be honest. It talks about with—with noir, normally, you know, everyone’s a little bit criminal, and the system is definitely against the lead character, but ultimately, the lead character is also emotionally against themselves, which is another fascinating trope. And sci-fi, it’s—it’s quite often, you know, dystopias, and things like that. And so it’s someone against this larger, broader system that’s against them. And when I look through my work and had spoken with—I have a really good mate who’s a—who’s a really analytical reader. And he had pointed it out to me a while ago that a lot of my stories is someone against, like, a system that is—that is corrupt. And so you see in Negative Space, there’s this mega corporation. And you see in Headspace, it’s this sort of shadow government organisation. And so it sort of seems to come through in my work a lot that it’s this—this—I don’t want to say, like, it’s too pessimistic, I guess. I certainly do try to find elements and slivers of hope and beauty in my stories. But usually they are the minority in the world, or in the story or in the character. But it’s that sort of mash up.
And I think it comes—it comes back to, like, a childhood of watching things like—like Blade Runner, and even watching movies like the Alien franchise, where it is, like, there—there is just a thick layer of corruption. And I mean, if you want to talk about capitalism, I mean, it generally seems to be the grounding tenet of it that if you follow the trail that is generally money, that it’s not the best interests of people at heart; it’s the best interest of replicating more money. And so that, I think, makes for really interesting—the story fodder.
And I often wonder, like, “Can I can tell different stories moving forward?” You know, there is an interest to want to experiment and explore different things. But I do wonder how often I will come back to genre tropes within, like, sci-fi, especially, because I do love that element that you don’t necessarily have to make everything believable, and you don’t have to make everything real, and you don’t have to explain everything. You have to make everything make sense within the story engine of the world that you’ve constructed. But if you want to leave something off the table, I think that’s fair game.
And I’ve just this fortnight been reading Frankenstein for the first time. Which is—which has been a really interesting gap to fill. And I’m fascinated by how little science there is in the first science fiction novel. It does not really go into any detail as to how any of the science occurs—how the, you know, the body is really created or how it is really animated. And the story is not any less for that fact.
And I think there are great science fiction authors that build intricate—they build whole languages from whole cloth, and I think that that’s fascinating. But it’s never what I want to do. I want to tell a story about a character, and then some peripheral characters, and I want to build a world, but I only want to show enough of it that shines back on the character arc. So, yeah, it is something I—I think about often, because I want to make sure if it’s a weakness, either I improve upon it or I have enough excuses to get away with it. They’re my two options.
KB: Yeah, yeah.
QC: I think bleakness in pop culture is very—very suitable for the times. When Ryan mentioned the interest in dyst—dystopias, I was like, yeah, you know—I was thinking exactly Blade Runner.
QC: Basically we’re—like, if you consider outliers right now in COVID lockdown and with the hot mess that we are in right now, it is a lot like—later on, all with, you know, lots of government and corporate corruption, but minus the fancy lights.
QC: It’s a boring dystopia. You know, all the fun stuff about Blade Runner, nothing’s—we’ve got nothing and none of that: no flying cars—
QC: —no cool neon lights, no radioactive food. You know, no—no weird—well, we have the bullish police brutality, but not any of the fun stuff, like speaking a mishmash of different languages—none of that old, you know, folding little unicorns in front of, you know—
QC: —people you’re about to arrest or beating them up. We don’t have any of that. We just have the same old boring life, but with all the negative stuff from Blade Runner and none of the positive.
And so I think that, um—other kinds of entertainment, like zombie—like Walking Dead, you mentioned earlier, is another example of this kind of, I guess, alienation people feel from the way our society is now and how much we want to press the reset button and start all over again as well—you know, that—that is kind of fantasy as well, apart from the dystopian one.
So I think um, you know, you’ve—you’ve hit a very good vein of societal alienation there, Ryan, and I think you could continue to plumb that for quite a while, given the way things are going.
QC: You should write one about the pandemic next time.
RKL: Yeah, I feel like there’s, you know, there’s enough there that people can sort of—it resonates with them. And if—and if you do it right, it can—it—I never want people to feel worse after reading my stuff. I don’t mind if they think more and that they sort of maybe don’t feel great about everything that happens in the story or what’s the lead character about the end. But there’s just, yeah, so much that you can mine in there.
I have noticed a little bit of a trend that my stories are getting a little more hopeful over—over time. The first few miniseries that I published, certainly—I love a good ambiguous ending, and they would do that, but also lean towards, like, well, you fixed one problem, but it’s small in comparison to the very systemic problem you found. But congratulations on winning, you know, the battle; the war will crush you. Whereas now it sort of seems to be, like, well, maybe there’s a chance you can get away from the war. And very rarely do I think I will resolve or solve the war in my stories. But yeah, I have noticed a bit of a trend that—I don’t know if I feel bad for my lead characters. But for some of them, I’m like, “Oh, let’s see what we can do for him at the end of the story” or see how it’s going to work out.
But I think there’s an element of if you do it well and you do it right, and you do it honestly, people—people like a story that’s, I guess, well constructed. And having written Negative Space that is heavily steeped in suicide and—and deep depression, it’s something you want to make sure that you write really carefully and really tactfully and really true within the story that you’ve constructed. And that was the one I’ve certainly put in a lot of effort for. And it’s been, probably—it was one of the highest sellers I’ve had and it’s been the one that won all the awards. So I guess, hopefully, that means I did tiptoe across that line just right.
KB: Interesting. Yeah, I think for me, um, the—I guess is that the genres that I more gravitate towards is, well, fantasy, on the one hand, YA at the moment and a bit of romance. Like, I do love a really good love story. I’ve been watching Crash Landing on You on Netflix, which is this [South] Korean drama. And it’s about this South Korean woman who gets caught in a storm when she’s paragliding and ends up in North Korea, and runs into a North Korean soldier. And yeah, I like the way that romance genres tend to do with character—like, I feel like it’s a bit more rich and more about their interior lives, not just about, “Oh, great: how do we get these two people together and have that happily ever after?” But that journey to there is really interesting for me.
So I thought what we could do now is talk about one particular project and where the idea came from.
RKL: Headspace is the one where, especially if I’m teaching, like—like, a class about how to get story ideas, it’s often the one that I come back to—in that it’s about a sheriff of a small sort of seaside town who comes to realise that this town is inside the mind of a killer, and the killer’s mind has discovered that this incursion exists and so is going to try to wipe this town out. So the sheriff has to try to survive.
And so if that’s the story, and then that’s the setup, the kernel of that came from me teaching the First Fleet to students at the primary school where I teach, and talking about, you know, why the First Fleet occurred, which was that the overpopulation of prisons in in Britain was causing an overflow on an issue, and that they were even getting prisoners and putting them onto ships that were in the rivers that had been, like, founded there. And they would call—they were called “hulks”, these ships, and they would turn them into mini, like, overflow prisons.
And I thought to myself, wouldn’t that be a cool modern idea if they would take, like, a prison and shrink it and then inject it into somebody—à la sort of like Innerspace, which is that sort of stupid, goofy, classic 80s movie with Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan? And so I thought to myself, “That’d be cool if we got, like, a prison and then shrunk it down and just, like, in a pill, almost, injected it? And what if, then, you injected it into a prisoner who’s in a prison? How many prisons could you fit in a prisoner?” And I started [to] spin, like, this idea around and trying to work it out.
And initially, that’s—that’s just a concept. And so I had to sort of dig around. I actually heard a great quote this morning on a podcast, and I—it was like a roundtable thing, so I don’t know the author’s name. But she talked about, you don’t write about problems and the people within them; you write about people and their problems. So I sort of—I had the problem and was creating a solution, and then I needed to flip and go, “All right: who’s my character?”
And eventually, in doing that, I’m—like, semi spoilers: the sheriff in this small town that’s in the killer’s mind, that’s not a prison. Like, it’s—I eventually got rid of that idea. And the only thing I kept from that initial First Fleet/sci-fi rip off was, “What if there was, like, people within people?” But I made it more, I guess, organic, and that they just sort of existed within there and didn’t know they were there. And it then very much became the focus on the sheriff, Shane Garretty, figuring out the brain—that he’s in a brain, that the brain is the brain of a killer, and that he has an opportunity, perhaps, to do something good. You know, if you’re in the mind of a killer, perhaps you could tweak them or kill them.
But then also, in roaming around the memories in this brain, he sees his son who was murdered years before. So you can see he has a very decent personal hook to the story and a reason not to just find the off switch, but to try to figure out—I mean, it seems fairly obvious why your murdered child might be in the mind of a murderer, but you would probably want to track it down—one would assume.
So, yeah, we weave all that together. And it very much then becomes a story of a person and his problems, and we branch out from there.
And so by the time I wrote the story, and it’s now been published, it’s really not that prison within a prisoner thing at all. But through asking questions, and spinning and spinning and spinning, that’s how we got there—which is a fun and for me, sometimes, can take years as a process, which isn’t great for productivity. I know some people can sort of spin ideas out one a month or more. It takes me a while to really percolate on it to get it right. But that one came out, I think, really, really well. I do—I created that book with Eric Zawadzki and Sebastian Piriz, and I absolutely love it. Yeah.
KB: Yeah, some ideas na—need time to kind of gestate or percolate or something, don’t they? Like they—they just need a bit of time to form, in some ways, and they lose the dross. And then the—
KB: —the diamond shines through, in some ways. It’s interesting.
RKL: Basically, yeah: you’re scrubbing bits off, and then you’ve got to find that extra element supporting that, and that’s usually what I’m missing. I’m like, “Oh, I need something else.” And it was—for that story, it was when he saw his child roaming about in the mind and was like, “Oh, this”—like, that’s heartbreaking for me. Like, that would be a terrible, terrible situation to be in—like, one of the worst. And so once I got that little piece of it, I was like, “Oh, okay: well, everything is going to spill out from that.” But um, yeah, I find it takes me a while to
I had a similar thing with Beautiful Canvas, which is about a hit woman contracted to kill a small child. And I was like, “Okay, well, that’s terrible.” And it sort of sat there: for about three years, I kept pushing it aside, and I would do other stories. And eventually I realised, “Oh, her girlfriend’s pregnant. So she’s going to kill a kid, but she’s going to have a kid.” Now there’s internal conflict. So yeah, sometimes it’s just the right mash-up, just waiting to bump into stuff in my brain, I think—
RKL: —probably more by accident than by any skill, sadly
KB: How about you, Queenie?
QC: Um, I’ve done a lot of different kinds of stories, and all of them have different origins. One of the—I mean, to follow on what from what Ryan said, what—a lot of the time it comes from random research. You know, I like learning about new things. So a lot the time, I’m like, yay, I want to know about this. And then ideas just come from this kind of thing.
Other times it was because I was working for a publisher and they wanted a particular kind of story—like, that’s how The Dreaming came to be, is, like, give me a haunted school story. And I was like, “Yeah, here’s a haunted school story.” Yeah, so that is a good catalyst.
Other times in—it’s stuff, like, you know, I want to do research on something. And then I’m like, “Okay, if we’re going to do research, might as well, you know, give it a go and see, you know, what I come up with.”
And I have noticed—like, I’m going to talk about something that might be interesting to people is that sometimes you come up with entire universes, and they don’t get in—turn into an actual script and, you know, an actual story. That’s happened to me on multiple occasions. And these are stories set in a similar kind of universe.
Like, for example, I’ve had three stories based on Chinese mythology—one that I actually—was published, but it wasn’t written by me; it was written by Kylie Chan and I illustrated it. And here’s the thing: she used characters that pre-existed in Chinese fantasy—I mean, in Chinese mythology—and Taoist religion, so to speak. And I did designs for them. And I said to her, “Look, you know, these characters are—they’re not characters; they’re, you know, gods—myth—mythological beings.” And I’m like, “I’m design—I’m doing a character design for you here. But if I was going to do my own version of the story—my own version of these characters—can I reuse these designs?” And she was like, “Yeah,” you know, she’s all for it. So it’s kind of created a universe where Kylie’s version of Chinese mythology is nothing like mine. But the way that certain characters look is actually exactly the same, if I was going to do that story—my own story.
And it is very strange, because I’ve written two—actually, I’ve actually got two stories published. Small Shen was one of them—the one with Kylie. And that came out in 2010 with Harp—yeah, 2011, with Harper Collins, I think—no, 2012 with Harper Collins—and that book did pretty well. So that was part of her White Tiger series—part of that prose fiction, you know, series that sold really well. So that’s a prequel to that. And I also did a story about a scent merchant with Yen Press back in 2008. So that was published in a magazine that was only available in America. And that was called Yen—Yen Plus, I think. I think it’s defunct now. But there’s also another story that I wrote for a competition. It didn’t win. But these characters all seem to share—are from separate stories with completely—like, they don’t connect at all in any way, to be honest. But they share—they come from the same kind of mythological universe.
And so now what I’m doing is that because of the comics game thing that I’m working on, and I’m also working on different game as a way to train myself to program and learn to how to use Unity in programming tools. There’s like, “Oh, I might as well do a farming live sim game and—that’s set in this Chinese mythology universe.” And now all these characters are back! And they’re all actually in the same universe as this game.
And I’m, like—I think it’s really interesting that writers sometimes have these ideas, and then nothing happens. Or maybe something happens, and it’s very small portion of them becomes a story that gets published or, you know, you do some illustration work for someone else. And so these characters do kind of exist in a particular kind of space. And then, years later, these characters all become part of something else. And I think there’s something to be said about these kind of creative universes and how things can spring up years ago, and nothing happens, but years later, they reappear in a different form.
And it’s never the universe as well; it’s always the characters. There are some characters who you really feel connected to when you’re, like, “I’m sorry, I can’t put you in a story” or maybe, “You appeared in the story for two pages, and that’s sad, because you’re so cool” and all that. But then they reappear in other forms in your other stories. And that’s—or that’s how I’ve experienced my kind of created universes. And it’s like—
It’s completely unexpected, because you always expect that you will—you will always be a comic book artist who does comics and that’s it. But I didn’t expect to be creating a game. That was entirely for my PhD so I can learn how to program. That’s it, but here it is: the game has actually made pretty good progress in terms of programming. So I’m just, like, “What?” You know. And maybe this is my life: it’s just unexpected, how these things happen. But what I—my point is, is that when it comes to being a creator of any kind, you can’t expect your work to just stay in one medium or just to stay in one story even. They just kind of blur or blend together after a while, and that character that you couldn’t put in a story kind of reincarnate sometimes in a different form.
KB: That’s really lovely that they’ve come back again—that you’re using them and reusing the designs and things, but also that they have their roots in Taoist mythology, and yeah, they have a history, in a way. That’s really really cool.
QC: Yeah, it’s—it’s strange. Sometimes other characters are born from interactions between these characters. It’s like—it’s all about filling out the edges of a universe when you’re trying to build a coherent world, and you have your main core actors, and then you have all these situations, and new characters are born from these situations.
KB: It also seems like you and Ryan, in a way, approach the whole concept of—of story from the opposite—opposite directions, in that you’re a bit more concerned with the world, and the characters, in a way, just come into it, whereas with Ryan, the world may be there, but what’s more important first is the character, because that is the viewpoint through which the reader will experience the rest of the world. I don’t know if—maybe I’ve misrepresented that but—
RKL: It’s also very important that I do it this way because I’m really lazy. And so—and I think that’s shown between, like, Queenie doing all of this insane work right now, and I am definitely not. But I do: I like to cut corners within things or, yeah, I’m—I’m—I get very stripped back in that, whereas—and I’ve had people ask questions like, “Oh, there’s this thing: tell me all about everything around it.” And I’m like, “I don’t know.” Like, it didn’t come into the story, so I didn’t—didn’t figure it out.
Every now and then, I’ll get on a jag and something will be really known and not end up in the story. But otherwise I’m—I’m just, I think, exceptionally lazy, whereas Queenie, I think, holds a lot more in her head and brings it all together, which is definitely, I think—like, I think that’s a really cool. I’m very jealous of ability.
QC: Oh, thanks. I don’t think it’s an issue at all. Like, everyone’s different. But that’s the whole point of being a creative is that—
QC: —everyone’s got different approaches. And I would say my approach might be from the fact that I actually grew up more with gaming, than with video games—than with comics. And I would say that—like, it sounds strange, but um, sometimes—interactive worlds require you to fill out these kinds of questions, because you have to make maps. And that’s actually the first thing you got to do is that—if you’re talking about Super Mario, the very first game that I really got into—like Super Mario Brothers, it’s like “What is it with this crazy world with mushrooms everywhere and—”
QC: —giant turtles attacking you and this plumber guy jumping around?” It’s like, “What kind of volume did this shear wackiness spring from?” And so, I think for a lot of game creators is that—they do start off with an environment first and obstacles and—before they come up with the characters. And because—I—I started playing video games before I ever started reading manga. So perhaps that had some influence on me, because I was thinking—that the reason why I became a programmer and took an IT degree was because I wanted to be a games programmer. That was my original goal. But, of course, Australia, back then, they didn’t have such—anything such as game companies. That was just—you know, that’s a very recent thing in comparison. So I didn’t—wasn’t able to make my dream—my game-making dream come true. But you go in a different direction. And you know, that’s fine.
But I think it might be because of that—because I did so much gaming—like, there’s a lot of world building in manga and comics as well, don’t get me wrong. But it’s just that when you write a linear narrative, is that you go from point A to point B, which is what most films, movies, comics books are like. It’s like you have a narrative and your character goes on a character arc. If you start off like that way—that way of thinking about your creative projects, then obviously, Ryan’s approach is actually a very good one. Because then you start off with a compelling human story. But I think if you start off with thinking you’re making a game, that’s actually not your first thing; you actually start off with your environment. It’s like, “Is it going to be a platformer, like Mario?”, or perhaps it’s going to be a story-driven RPG and you go around fighting monsters and building up your levels, and then you take on the boss, and that story naturally grows from that.
But if you are actually—well, that’s how it feels like when you’re playing a game. But if you were making that game, well, where would you start? You always start with a map.
QC: You know, this is my hometown, and you know, buy houses here and then my awful neighbours, and then there’s a town hall and this elder lives here. You know, that sort of thing. So perhaps my approach comes from having a having a background and a childhood—done with playing—playing a lot of this kind of stuff—is that there are all these things that may feature in your story. Well actually, in a comic, it may feature in your story for five seconds or five pages. But in a game, you will probably go back to it over and over again. You’ll go back to your hometown and revisit these people and all that. So these—in a game situation, they have to be recyclable, meaning that they have to come back within the context of the game’s narrative.
And so you have to build it differently. So maybe that’s where it comes from. I actually haven’t really thought about that. I assume that everyone just does things differently and I never really gave it thought. So that was a—that’s an interesting thought—
KB: Yeah, that’s fascinating!
QC: —comparing different ways of storytelling.
RKL: Well, I definitely wasn’t a gamer as a kid. And so that would track. What I was was I would play with, like, He-Man and GI Joe, and we couldn’t afford, like, vehicles and, like, Castle Grayskull. So I would just have these lone things going on journeys. This all makes sense: our entire storytelling thing is rooted in our own origins! This is—this is an exceptional breakthrough.
RKL: I’m assuming Karen, you’re charging, like, $180 an hour, because this is some serious therapy. I’m loving it!
KB: I just like asking people questions.
RKL: It all makes sense!
KB: Yeah, because for me, it’s different, again, because, often, for me, it starts with a particular idea or concept, like, so my science fiction comic, Eternal Life, it was me getting irritated with reading various bits of science fiction, and the people who were religious were always portrayed as being, basically, lunatics. They’re all crazy, and—
KB: —it really annoyed me, because, being a Christian, I just thought, “Well, okay, say the world keeps going for another 2,000 years. Christians are still going to be doing the same thing that they’re doing now, which is basically reading and studying the Bible, going to church, talking to other people about Jesus, and stuff”, and that’s where it began, because I thought, “I just want to write about Christians who are ‘normal’ and not crazy in the future.” And so I had this family of missionaries who were going off to a planet, but the planet get—got blown up by a suicide bomber, and so they were a bit stuck on a—
QC: The planet got blown up?
KB: Yes! The whole planet.
KB: Yes. So they get stuck on a space station and that’s where they meet this girl named Bri who’s com—basically on the run from her past and stuff.
But a lot of my stories don’t start with characters the way I feel like Ryan’s do. It’s more with this—this weird idea, me getting irritated about something. I wrote this novella a year or two ago and it actually started from an exercise that Ryan got us to do at the Australian Comic Arts Festival a couple of years ago where—I think it’s the one where you get us to write down a whole bunch of different ideas in the span of five minutes or ten minutes or something, and you take three of them and try to develop them further, and then you take one of them and try and develop them further. And it was around the time that Pokémon Go came out, and I was fascinated—
KB: —because I’m not a gamer, but I found the whole Pokémon Go phenomenon just fascinating, just because it got people out of the house and going out into the world and meeting people. And I read this story about this—this autistic boy who’s totally into the game and was connecting with other people about the game, just, like, going around his neighbourhood and—and people saying to him, “Oh, you can get”—whatever Pokémon it was—“in this area, if you go here” and his mother was writing about it online and saying how wonderful it was that her son was actually connecting with others.
And from there, though, me being me, I thought, “Oh, what if it was—if you had a game that was, like, for people dating and the game tried to match people up and sent them on different dates? And so I wrote this novella about that, where, in this society, like, everybody is working so hard, they have no time to settle down and meet people and have families, and the government is very concerned about the falling date—birth rate. So then they run this dating program over the summer every summer, and it’s compulsory. And—so the novella was just about this girl going through this—this game—this program and going on different dates, and some of them are completely disastrous and some of them are, “Eh”, okay, and—and so on and so forth. So it’s really fun.
KB: Well that concludes Part 1 of my conversation with Queenie Chan and Ryan K Lindsay about writing and creating comics. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. Many thanks to Queenie and Ryan for coming on the show. If you’d like to find out more about them and their work, head to queeniechan.com for Queenie and ryanklindsay.com for Ryan.
Thanks for joining us for this episode of the Hiveminded Podcast! For links, show notes, a rough transcript and some free comics, head to hivemindedness.com. Audio editing and production was done by me. Our theme music is “I’m going for a coffee” by Lee Rosevere (which is slightly ironic, because I don’t drink coffee). Website design by Ben Beilharz. And special thanks as always to Rebecca Jee and Guan Un of the Hive Mind, whose undying support has made all this possible.