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From Malaysia to Jupiter with Lynn Lau

Webcomics is, of course, a global phenomena. 2004 saw webcomics proliferate, not just in America and Europe, but all over the world. Webcomics can be American, Brazilian, Japanese, British, or...Malaysian, like Lynn Lau, the creator of Jupiter, a webcomic set in a literal circus, not just a metaphorical one.

Recently Marilyn Scott-Waters got a chance to talk to Lau about her current webcomic, her past work and her future plans.

Tell us a bit about your background. Malaysia, school, family, work...

I grew up in an oil palm plantation in Malaysia -- well, two plantations, actually. The first estate (which is what we call the plantation plots) was on the Borneo side of the country, which is *truly* in the middle of nowhere. You had to ride a motorboat in order to get to the nearest town, which wasn't near at all. At the time I was living there, which was up to age seven, it was a little underdeveloped and more than a lot isolated. The second estate, which was my home until I was 16, was on the peninsular side of Malaysia, the more modern part of the country. We were much closer to civilization then, although it was still quite some driving distance to get to town.

I was surrounded by thousands of hectares of oil palm trees, as well as flora and fauna of the rainforest variety. Kingfishers, iguanas, snakes (oh, so many snakes! After the seventh one found inside our walls, my brothers and I created a Snake Hunters league. Fortunately for my mother, we never succeeded in finding more). Once in a while, the workers would go out into the depths of the estate hunting for wild boar. Hmm, that last sentence sounds like a scene from an Asterix comic, doesn't it?

Lest it sound like a terribly rural setting we lived in, let me assure you it wasn't. We could access modern facilities and get to town if we needed to. But neither could we be considered urban or even suburban. I guess we were at that in-between place that has no name.

Because we lived so out-of-the-way from town, my brothers and I occupied ourselves with terribly active imaginations. We went snake-hunting, as aforesaid. We cycled around the estate and its dark, jungly hills. And we created our own characters and stories, detailing the adventures they'd embark in. We both drew these characters and play-acted them, so we knew them inside and out -- how they'd react to situations and why. Our parents provided us with tons of reading material, both books and comics, so that kept our mental wheels whirring. I remember being especially fond of reading my mom's medical encyclopedias. . . . I read and drew voraciously, and still do -- my brothers have since pursued other interests.

I don't think we ever lacked for anything to do, not because there was an endless supply of activity, but because *we'd* create our own activity. We knew how to keep ourselves occupied. Even today, you can chuck me into a strange room and check up on me later, and I'd be up to something.

I'm currently based in the US with two birds that climb my curtains and chew on my walls and shoes if I'm not careful. I'm fifty times bigger than they are and they sass me like heck! Work-wise, I'm assistant editor and desktop publisher for a non-profit organization, as well as maintainer of its website. Occasionally, when I'm feeling a bit sneaky, I draw a few cartoons to slip into the paper. Plus indulge in candy. We're a very sugar-happy office here.

Boy, that's more than a bit of background, isn't it?

Where did you get the idea for Jupiter?

Gosh, I don't know. . . . I don't think there was a specific moment in time when the lightbulb went "ping!" and I came up with the concept.

Doesn't happen like that -- little seeds of ideas evolve and sprout on you without you even realizing. I do remember, though, that as a kid, living as I did, I couldn't understand why anyone would want to leave their homes where they were downtown and near people, just to run away and join the circus: "Don't they realize what it would be like cleaning out the elephant cages?"

I think Jupiter and I have a lot more in common than I initially thought! (*laughs*)

Anyway, I was drawing Sand & Stone at the time, and knew it would eventually conclude, and I was bouncing around some comic ideas to take place for when that would eventually happen. Whenever I come up with characters, I generally ensure they don't resemble characters from previous comics, because I don't want to say to myself, "Hey, that's like your other character in so-and-so." I've noticed that some artists have that problem, and I didn't want that. So I definitely wanted different character ensembles and dynamics, with different stories and ways of thinking.

I actually was going to go with another comic idea, and wasn't going to start on it at all until S&S ended. But then I got blindsided by this Jupiter idea, and it just took over. I ended up putting off the other comic, and not only that, I actually started creating and drawing Jupiter instead of waiting for S&S to finish. I couldn't help it! When I get excited about a drawing idea, I really start chomping at the bit.

I just thought it was an interesting and unique concept that hadn't been done before, as far as I know -- somebody wanting to run away *from* the circus instead of to it. Then Girlamatic announced its open call, I thought, "Let's give it a shot," and editor Lea [Hernandez] thought kindly enough of it to add Jupiter to Girlamatic's ranks.

Will there be evil clowns? (I hate those!)

(*laughs*) So many people I know can't stand clowns. I almost feel sorry for the poor dears. . . and by "the poor dears," I mean the clowns. Heh.

You know what? When I first came up with the characters, there wasn't going to be an evil clown, because they're Jupiter's family after all. There's one clown with manic-depressive disorder, and another who gleefully terrorized townies who can't stand clowns. Not to mention the other colorful and unconventional characters in the cast. But just for you, I'll throw in an evil one. (*wink*) It'll be interesting to see how that rocks the family circus's foundation.

How much are you like Jupiter? How are you different?

We both come from unconventional backgrounds -- although obviously I'm not from the circus! We're from that in-between place, where we're not out of touch with the world and its social protocols, but neither are we really affected by or aware of them, because for most of our growing-up period we didn't have to deal with such things. Plus culture shock on a smaller scale, between our world and theirs. I remember once in sixth grade, my friends were singing and quoting lyrics from the latest pop song, and I realized in horror that I knew nothing about such things. I'd swiftly gone home and strove to catch up on that!

Also, like Jupiter, I had an uncanny eagerness to attend school. A lot of people have regarded me with confused amusement when they find this out about me. I don't blame them. I used to think I liked going because I enjoyed learning about things. I do, but I've since realized that it was more than that. I lived an inconvenient distance away from friends and peers, so going to school was actually one of the select times when I could hang out with friends! So it makes sense -- go to school, learn new things, watch people, draw comics, share stories and have oodles of fun with friends. . . I think that holds the same appeal for Jupiter.

The ways in which Jupiter and I differ. . . well, I was less naive but more oblivious about what was "cool" and what other people thought in school, whereas Jupiter's more naive and less oblivious, if that makes any sense. I don't recall there being any "cool cliques" in the schools I went to, but whether that's because they weren't any or because I didn't care about such things, that's up for grabs. Jupiter, however, is more precocious and aware of the social dynamics going on around her. It's just that she hadn't had to deal with them before. So now it's a matter of how she discovers them, feels her way around them, and more importantly, chooses how to handle them.

She also has to deal with where she fits in the whole scheme of things. I had my creative outlets to keep me active. Jupiter, on the other hand, doesn't. She doesn't even feel there's a place for her within her own circus family. Whether that's true or just a skewed view of herself, she and readers will get to discover for themselves.

Main big difference between us, though? She has her brother Lupus. Lordy, that makes all the difference.

Who are your artistic inspirations? Favorite comics? Artists?

It's ever-changing and ever-evolving. I grew up reading a lot of European comics -- Tintin, Asterix, Princess and Bunty collections – so those are always going to be with me whether I'm aware of it or not.

Other artistic inspirations (not just drawing-wise, but also in being creative) include my friend, writer and animal trainer Jenna McDonald, you (artist Marilyn Scott-Waters!), jewelry designer Andrea Scher, author Neil Gaiman, artist Danny Gregory, as well as a good many Girlamatic artists and comics, including Dylan Meconis's Bite Me and Barry Deutsch's Hereville.

Much inspiration also come from good art and books, friends, people-watching, endless sunshine and sky, and trees. The little yet not-so-little things. It's amazing what flows through you when you get to watch the world around you, clear your mind, and let imagination take over.

What inspired you to start drawing sequentials? What are comics like in Malaysia?

My parents supplied us with a roomful of books and a cupboard full of comics, so even as kids, my brothers and I were inventing stories and drawing comics. Our drawing-books (not sketchbooks, mind you, but blank diaries or books on which we drew sequential comics) were filled with our own characters and world that we had created.

By the way, this comics cupboard overflowed so many times that my mom made us purge it on a regular basis in order to make room for more. And when I say "purged," I mean "burned." Yes, I know. Such memories gone up in flames. . . .

Anyway, we had a huge hoard of European and American comics, with a few Malaysian comics thrown in. A grand mix, you could say. Some of it were handed down from cousins who had gone to study abroad, others were bought in bookstores to satisfy our incorrigible habit. One good thing about Malaysia is that we get source materials -- whether print, music, or broadcast -- from various parts of the world. I've noticed that in the US, you're hard-put to find British- or Australian-based material unless they're especially popular or there's some particular rage going on at the moment.

I think because I was raised with such comics as Tintin and Asterix, I just assumed that that's what drawing was -- sequential comics, a main storyline going through them with subplots in between, spotted with bits of witty humor and times of sober drama, distinctive characters with their own individual traits. Tintin and Asterix were brilliant in this -- you really got a feel for each character, their relationship with one another, said or unsaid, and there was always a point to each comic. Things didn't just "happen," they themselves choose to get involved in so-and-so quest or adventure.

Even the common Beano and Dandy weeklies, which carried separate page-long comics in each issue, still had a point in each comic. These were usually more comedic, but the characters and themes were still distinctive and true to themselves. There were the Bumpkin Billionaires, country bumpkins who happened to inherit wealth and found they didn't like it, seeking to find all kinds of ways to get rid of it (and often failing, amusingly). There was Smiler, the kid who forever had a toothy grin, and for some reason was surrounded by various cranky adults who wanted to wipe it off his face (and failing, happily).

Interestingly enough, the British had specific comics for girls that I have yet to see going on here in the US. Some of these comics were funny, but there were those that depicted really well-rounded characters, sometimes even terribly serious, dealing with working-class life. Bella, for example, was a comic about a gymnastic protegee who unfortunately lived with her abusive aunt and uncle, who milked her talent for their own benefit. They'd go from town to town, making her compete for money and prizes. She'd encounter events in each town -- meeting someone new, doing a good deed, that sort of thing -- and the comic always made it seem like she "won" by secretly going against her aunt and uncle and doing good. Still, there was this troubling subtext that at the end of the day, no matter what, she was still going back to her aunt and uncle, and despite any small heroic deeds she might do for others, she couldn't -- or wouldn't -- get herself out of that abusive situation.

I guess it was comics like this that really set it in my head that you don't have to sacrifice characterization for storyline, or storyline for humor, or humor for drama. You can have all those in the same comic without conflict.

The American comics I read were usually of the Archie variety or newspaper comic strips -- it wasn't until much later that I grew aware of titles like Batman and the like. Some of those we owned, some I kept up with through reviews on the Internet (handy thing, that!). Malaysia had one comic going on at the time that was basically full of lowbrow humor, which I didn't like so much. I basically like comics with characterization and storyline -- a point to them, in short, something I can relate to.

7. Tell us about your other strip, Sand and Stone. How do you draw those totally cute demon boys?

(*laughs!*) With much adoration, for sure!

Sand & Stone came about because I was ending a long-running comic strip drawn for my college newspaper. I knew that for this new strip, I wanted to have characters, settings, and storylines completely different from the old strip. Like I mentioned in answer to one of the previous questions, I didn't want there to be any resemblance between characters of my new strip and my old strip. Not just for my readers' benefit, but for my own.

My previous comic had older characters with plenty of wildness and insanity going on around them. So, for Sand & Stone, I decided to have its two main characters be much younger, and instead of having a lot of expressiveness, have it virtually based on the deadpan wit. Let me tell you, this was very hard to do at first! I love drawing people, with their hands a-waving and their mouths stretched wide as they tumble against each other, so to take that all away and hope it still communicates itself to readers was a challenge!

Sand & Stone was also created based on self-challenges and experimentation. I deliberately included art styles I didn't like, looks and comic traits that made no sense to me ("why do they always wear the same clothes?"), that sort of thing. Interestingly, some of those styles have now grown on me and have been incorporated into my own style.

Others I grudgingly accepted and tipped my hat to but have since tossed.

S&S was also meant to be much darker than what it's turned out to be. I wanted it to be unsettling, but as time went on, I found that some of the plots I had in mind wouldn't make sense and wouldn't happen, because the *characters* wouldn't let it happen. And you know you have to remain true to your characters. If you can't justify it to them, you can't justify it to readers. So listen to your characters -- they're obstinate things who won't take any sass from you.

8. Sand and Stone has a lot of dark, edgy moments. Is Jupiter going to take the same turn or is it going to have a lighter tone?

At this stage, it won't have the dark moments that Sand & Stone does, or at least not as dark. I won't say it never will, because there's always room for it to evolve in future (plus I have wry faith in my morbid side). But right now, the characters aren't ready for that yet. The dynamics between and within them are different, as compared to Sand & Stone, which has characters with violent and dissatisfied pasts. It has to be done believably. Like I said, one must listen to the characters concerning these things, or else they come after you with marshmallow peeps. If that isn't scary, I don't know what is.

Then again, Jupiter's going to have its dark spell when that evil clown arrives in the picture. . . .

What are your plans for the future?

Ooh, tricky question! I like to leave room for unexpected twists and turns. But for sure, much traveling, drawing, and writing. Long-term, I'm hoping to eventually move to Europe. Keeping my fingers crossed for that. Short-term, I'm working on some mini-comics and illustrated cards for next year's San Diego Comic Con (my first con ever! Whee! Anyone stopping by and finding me, please say hi!).

First time contributor, Marilyn Scott-Walters, creates the webcomics, The Return of Dr. Dragonwagon, also at Girlamatic.