Her Gender-Fluid Graphic Novel Took Off. Now for the Encore
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Jen Wang made an enormous splash last year — but her next book could be even bigger.
By Fiona Zublin
If you make it to the end of The Prince and the Dressmaker without crying, you have malfunctioning tear ducts and should immediately make an appointment with an ophthalmologist. The fairy tale, published last year, has already picked up two of the most prestigious awards in comics: a Harvey and not one, but two Eisners.
The woman behind this cultural phenomenon, which has already had film rights optioned, is 35-year-old Los Angeles graphic novelist Jen Wang. And with her latest book, Stargazing, she steps out from behind the fairy tale to tell a story that, while not directly autobiographical, includes characters experiencing childhoods strikingly similar to her own.
The child of Taiwanese immigrants, Wang grew up in the Bay Area. She studied sociology in college, thinking that it could be a real career while she continued to do comics on the side. But she managed to make it as an artist quite early on. Dressmaker is her first truly massive hit, but it’s not her first book — in fact, her first book was published nearly a decade ago, in 2010. That was Koko Be Good, a graphic novel aimed at adults that told the story of three shiftless, manic young people and their adventures in San Francisco. Next up was In Real Life, a collaboration with cult novelist Cory Doctorow. She launched a web comic called “The White Snake” (no relation to the ’80s hair band). And then came the hurricane: The Prince and the Dressmaker put her on the map with a whole new audience. It’s a book that appeals not just to adults but to kids and teens as well — it’s Amazon’s No. 1 seller in the Young Adult Romance Comics & Graphic Novels category.
In Stargazing, she ditches the brush for a ballpoint, making the art more down-to-earth — but no less striking.
The story, in short: Frances, a young and talented seamstress, is fired from her job for being too daring — and immediately rehired to take on a singularly daring job, designing dresses for a mystery woman … who turns out to be a prince. The story plays on gender fluidity, friendship, love and finding your calling, swept along by finely drawn characters and an endless parade of dresses that were clearly a lot of fun to create and to draw.
“The titular prince, Sebastian, is a relatively rare type of character, exhibiting a fluidity of gender expression not often seen. As a young person, Sebastian sometimes feels like a prince and at other times more like a princess,” says librarian and critic Ash Brown. “Sebastian is treated with such tremendous empathy by Wang, something that is becoming more common now in the North American comics industry, but wasn’t as common in the past as a whole.” Brown, who praises Wang’s “gorgeous and expressive” illustration, says that while the publisher and many librarians categorize the book as young adult, it also deeply resonates with adults.
Wang’s new book, Stargazing, goes far deeper into the author’s own experience. It tells the story of two Asian American children growing up and blends the everyday of a child’s life with some hairpin twists based on Wang’s own childhood. “Almost every element in the book is some kind of autobiographical, but just not in a literal way,” Wang says. One of the characters is a Buddhist vegetarian, for example, which is how Wang grew up too.
Wang’s art style in Dressmaker was lush and romantic, but in Stargazing she ditches the brush for a ballpoint, making the art more down-to-earth — but no less striking.
“With just a certain angle, a few pen strokes, even, she’s able to do the whole ‘picture is worth a thousand words’ thing with such seemingly effortless ease,” says critic Terry Hong, who created Smithsonian BookDragon, a blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.
But following a massive hit always has its stresses. “I think I was a bit nervous not because of the popularity of the last book, but because Stargazing was a more intimate story, with details taken from my personal life and my experience as an Asian American,” Wang says. Still, she says, readers from different backgrounds seem to have no trouble connecting with the story.
For her own part, Wang isn’t just plowing ahead with new work — she’s trying to create a community. That manifests in general ways, like a hobby of volunteering with composting services and homeless charities in an effort to improve the city where she’s settled, and in more specific ones, like being part of a group spearheading Comic Arts Los Angeles, a free graphic novel festival showcasing independent creators. For a solo artist like Wang, work can be a lonely thing — but as she’s gotten older, she’s learned to treat art as something that doesn’t have to take up all 24 hours in the day. “The more I stepped away from thinking that [work] was the only thing I had to do,” she says, “it’s gotten a lot better.”
That doesn’t mean she isn’t working, of course. “I am just in the very early stages of writing something new,” she says. With Wang, it’s always something new.
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