An Interview with Comic Artist The Kao

Comic artist The Kao (Vincent Kao) has been hard at work, following the completion of one his popular webcomics. In less than three years, Magical Boy has amassed more than 4.5M views on Tapas (a popular South Korean webtoon platform) with a Scholastic graphic novel coming in Fall 2021. Magic Boy follows the story of Max, a trans high school student. He suddenly finds himself at the intersection of coming out to his parents and discovering that his mom is a Magical Girl. The other twist? Max is set to take on the mantle to succeed his mom and save the world. Heartwarming as it is heartbreaking, the story won the 2020 Prism Award for Best Webcomic.

At the same time Mondo Mango, The Kao’s earlier web series based on his own life, is continuing with no plans of slowing down. Both series are available to read on Tapas, with all of Mondo Mango on the platform for free and Magical Boy’s introductory chapters are available at no cost.

Speaking to Asia Pacific Arts, The Kao shared his influences growing up, what led him to pursue a career in digital comics, and a sneak peak into what he has planned for the future. He acknowledges the road to a life in art isn’t easy, but the best thing to do is to start.

APA: Please tell me a little bit about yourself. What led to you to go into art and then start “Magical Boy”?

The Kao: I’ve been drawing all my life and started comics when I was young because it was my way of communicating and sharing my stories. I always used to play with my siblings, and I’d make up stories that way. I went to the Columbia College in Chicago for illustration and that’s where I developed Mondo Mango, my current slice of life series, and just continued from there. I did some freelance work because I didn’t know what to do with my art. The comic was the one thing I always wanted to do, so it became my main focus after college and I just went from there.

APA: We at Asia Pacific Arts like to highlight the success of Asian Americans in all media. Since “Mondo Mango” is based on your life, how did you turn your experiences into the funny adventures that we see in your comic?

The Kao: Turning my life experiences to comics has always been quite natural to me, because I’ve been drawing my whole life. It was my way of communicating. To give context, my parents immigrated from Taiwan. At home, it was always a mix of Taiwanese and broken English. Paired with me being an extremely shy kid, you can imagine I had a very hard time talking and expressing my feelings with words. I was born here in America, but the pairing of being shy and the language at home is so different.

When I went to school, it was just very hard for me. Since my teachers knew I loved drawing, drawing was one of the many ways I was finally able to communicate things with them. There were times I’d be crying, and I won’t be able to say why I’m crying. They just give me paper and pencils and ask, “Can you draw it out?” That’s what I would do to explain, “Oh, my stomach hurts.” Or, “My parents are mad at me because I didn’t do my homework.” That was my voice; doodling was my voice.

It felt natural being able to visualize in paper, you know? As I grew up, I kind of got discouraged about making comics. It was because people were saying you can’t really make much money from comics. In college, I started looking into other avenues, like visual development or graphic design. That’s why I went for illustrations and made it my major. It was due to one of my classes that I took that was extracurricular. It was about how to draw graphic novels.

One of the exercises was to draw one comic a day for six days of your everyday life. That’s essentially what Mondo Mango started from and then it rekindled my love for making comics. It was so simple; I avoided making those comics because I thought my life was too boring. That’s how I learned that I should just draw comics that interest me because I know it will resonate with someone, or at least one other person. And that’s all that matters. I let go of, “I need to make certain art just to make money.” I can make comics and there’s nothing wrong with that. To make it, it’s just all about remembering to write down your ideas or your experiences. If you think you should make that into a comic, you should write that down. Because you will forget; I forget all the time. Like, what was that idea that I had? I wrote it down. Then you’ll be able to turn [those ideas] into comics when the time comes to start drawing.

APA: A decade ago, the alternative to hosting your own website was posting on a self-publishing platform like DeviantArt. Artists nowadays have many different platforms that provide them a diverse readership base. How did you get started with Tapas?

The Kao: Actually, I used to post on DeviantArt; I started around 2012 posting Mondo Mango comic strips. But once in a blue moon I would upload a strip. When I started getting traction, one or two fans messaged me and said, “Hey, you should try Tapas! It’s a platform that focuses on comic strips.” They told me I could get more views because it was more niche and focused on that whereas DeviantArt is broader. I thought about it, but I’ve always been stingy about creating more art accounts; it actually took a lot for me to make a DeviantArt account.

The thought of making another account with another new website was a lot and I was scared to. It actually took some convincing friends of mine and my partner to decide if I should I do it. I asked them, “You think it’s a good idea?” In hindsight, yes, there’s no harm. It’s a free platform. It’s free to use and there’s no harm in making the comics. Once I did, I already had a queue of comics from what I posted on DeviantArt. I think that helped me boost my comic because I was posting every day and had that consistency. That really gave me a boost in readership and interest in the comic and that really helped me get into a weekly schedule. Before, I was doing it when I felt like it. This community was so inspiring, uplifting, and very supportive. That allowed me to think I could do something with my comics and continue on when I thought I couldn’t.

APA: In terms of the readership, there’s quite a bit of engagement when it comes to the comments section. Your fans are very, very supportive of your work. How long did it take for you to create the story of “Magical Boy”? Did you envision it from the start or did it change along the way?

The Kao: I’m going to get really deep into this. Technically, I started working on Magical Boy around January or February of 2018. But I pitched the idea in late August 2017. That was when Tapas was hosting their first creator incubator program, which was a call for artists to fund their original creation from one season. That was an opportunity and I was scared to apply because during that same time in 2017, I was focused on starting my crowdfunding project of a self-published book called The Freckled Mango, which is a collection of Mondo Mango comic strips.

I was focused on putting it together and making it happen. I didn’t have any story ideas at that point because I still had the mindset of, “I’m waiting for that one story to come to me.” I wasn’t actively making a story. Mondo Mango is just experiences from my life. It wasn’t me creating stories like fiction. But this was an opportunity to get funded and create a story that I’ve been wanting to do since I was a little kid. It took some convincing. Me being busy was an excuse. What’s the worst that can happen? If I apply for this, the worst they can say is no and I’ll continue my project.

If they say yes, then that is my opportunity to finally make comics, which is my dream goal. So I applied, but I didn’t have the complete story to pitch. After taking some time to think about it because I never did, I thought of what kind of stories I wanted to tell. I eventually came up with the idea of Magical Boy. There were like two to three sentences of a premise, and I included pieces of my portfolio to show I intended it to be in a manga style. I think because I’d been with Tapas with Mondo Mango for a year or two, that showed that I’m capable of making a comic, right? So that was a learning experience and making Magical Boy as a scroller taught me how to create a work of fiction because I’ve been making based on myself. After I launched my crowdfunding, I started developing the story, outline and that’s where the bulk of the work started. I wrapped up Magical Boy in October/November 2020 and overall it took me three years to finish.

APA: That’s amazing since you had that development process and you were working on “Mondo Mango” at the same time, right?

The Kao: Yeah, I had to eventually put Mondo Mango on hold in 2019 and everyone was super supportive. You’re always afraid of “you’ll forget about me” because they’re not reading as much or I’m not posting as much. But that’s always the fear when you stop.

APA: As you mentioned, although the story of “Magical Boy” has concluded, the characters and the story lives on in the hearts of many fans. Is there anything that you could tell us about any future projects that you’re working on? Currently, you’re still working on “Mondo Mango,” but is there anything else?

The Kao: I actually still have a short bonus episode I want to make for Magical Boy. Tapa’s Thanksgiving event is called Inksgiving and it’s a two-day event where readers can support the artist. There are in-app currency goals, with each artist having their own goals. If readers meet that goal, artists give a reward to their supporters. Some will do a bookmark of their characters in the comic. My promise was to do an extra episode for Magic Boy if I reach my goal, and I did because everyone is so supportive. I’m so thankful for that.

There’s a lot of moments in Magical Boy that I wish I had more time to flesh out, like the interactions between characters. But I had to scrap most of that just so I could get through the story and meet deadlines. Plus, I was new to writing because it’s been a while. I wrote too much in what I planned to draw. It was one of those struggles, where I wrote the simple script of this character did this and not realizing that’s a ten-panel drawing for that one sentence.

I’m hoping I’ll be able to make those fun small strips that are missing in the main story. I’m taking a small break but eventually, I’ll get to it. Currently, I’m just continuing working on Mondo Mango because that was on hiatus and I just miss it. I want to get back into and have fun with it. I do plan to make another book of Mondo Mango since the comic is in color now even though it used to be black and white.

Other than that, I am looking to create another story because I did have fun with Magical Boy. I also want to give children’s books another try because I like the idea of creating picture books. I suppose for my nephews and nieces since I thought that would be fun to do.

APA: Have they heard the news that Scholastic will be publishing “Magical Boy”?

The Kao: Definitely. My oldest nephew is super excited because he did grow up with my Magical Boy comic, and he’s excited to show it off to his friends. So that’s exciting. They’re excited for it and my Mondo Mango comics, too. They go and read it on their parents’ phones.

APA: What’s one piece of advice you’d like to give to aspiring artists who are starting out and trying to find their own footing?

The Kao: My number one advice for aspiring artists, especially for comic artists, is to not wait. Because starting is the hard part. Don’t wait for the fancy tools. If you have paper and pencil, you can start. Inspiration won’t always come to you if you don’t actively look for it. If you never start, how would you even know if you like making comics in the first place? If you’re completely new, I would tell them to try doodling out a small comic strip about something you find funny or something that happened to you. Basically, the comic exercise that I did in college because you can always reference real life.

You have your characters, you have the environment, and just do the punch line. See if you like it or not. Then, if you want more story-driven works, don’t wait to be like, “Oh, I want to wait until my skills of drawing characters will be better.” Just doodle out what you think looks cool. Doodle all your characters in an outfit you thought looked fancy. Take pictures or read more books to inspire you. Create your first chapter on a few pieces of paper with crayons; do whatever you can to make it happen. Have it in front of you rather than it being in your mind and getting stuck. You just need an idea. Once you have it out in doodles, you can see it for yourself. If you don’t like it, you can always redraw it. It’ll look better. You know it won’t be perfect the first time, which is why I encourage you just do it. You have a rough draft of your idea, so stop waiting.

Kalai Chik

Pop culture writer focusing on animation, music, and games. Los Angeles native, USC alumni, and contributor for Asia Pacific Arts since 2015. Follow me on Twitter, @kalai_chik.

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