Interview with Harmony Becker

Harmony Becker
Harmony Becker

She will be on this virtual panel with Jillian Tamaki called Drawn Narratives:

Illustrations bring a wealth of meaning with them. As an integral part of the graphic novel format, they serve a multitude of purposes in driving the story and communicating unspoken messages to readers. This panel will dive into the works of three illustrator-writers and look at how they have effectively employed the medium in communicating their stories.

This panel will take place on 28 May, Saturday from 9 am to 10 am. To attend, you can buy your festival pass here: https://www.eventbrite.sg/e/afcc-2022-festival-passes-tickets-289028450877?aff=AFCCWebsite

If you have not heard of Harmony, that’s because she is a relatively newcomer in the comics scene. But she has been doing good work. The first book she drew, They Called Us Enemy, about the internment of the Japanese in America during WWII, is based on the childhood experiences of George Takei, the actor who played Sulu in Star Trek. It had won many awards and is a bestseller.

They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Illustrated by Harmony Becker
They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Illustrated by Harmony Becker
They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Illustrated by Harmony Becker
They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Illustrated by Harmony Becker

Harmony’s second book, and the first written and drawn by her, is Himawari House, originally a webcomic on Tapas. It is a YA graphic novel about three exchange students (Japanese-American, Korean, Singaporean) living and learning together in Japan. Harmony’s mom is Japanese and she was an exchange student herself, having lived in Korea for one and a half years. She wanted to do a story about cultural exchange and the confusion of language learning. While stories about studying overseas and migrating are not new in comics (see Erica Eng’s Fried Rice and Robin Ha’s Almost American Girl), what’s innovative about Himawari House is Harmony’s graphic depiction of the language and auditory dissonance a foreign student would experience in a new country and linguistic environment. I leave it to you to experience this when you read the book. Needless to say, I found Harmony’s approach refreshing.

Talent, hard work and luck. Harmony had all three and will be the first to admit that she is extremely lucky to achieve her current level of success within the last few years. I was trying to draw out lessons from her experience, but like she said, “It’s really difficult to predict the whims of the algorithm gods, as well as the fickle public!” So it’s really to put yourself out there and not just be active on social media. In fact, Harmony shared something very illuminating – it is very difficult to move a fan base from one platform to another. With covid restrictions lifting and physical events returning, comic artists should start boothing again to connect with their audience. Singapore comic artist Sean Lam said something similar about the importance of meeting your fans and getting immediate feedback when you attend conventions. Philippines comic artist Philip Tan could have easily stayed on in Manila and worked for DC and Marvel remotely. But he chose to move to America so that he could be closer to his editors and his readers. Staying connected with the ground and your stakeholders is important.

[as a side note, SG Cartoon Resource Hub is involved in a mall residency project that allows local comic artists to engage with the audience – more details soon.]

Another point Harmony made is the importance of editors and agents in the eco-system. (Jillian Tamaki made the same point about literary agents) It is something I realise we need to have sometime ago but it is still lacking.

Do buy the AFCC festival pass and attend the Drawn Narratives panel, I’m sure Harmony and Jillian Tamaki will have lots to share.

Harmony Becker's first solo graphic novel - Himawari House
Harmony Becker's first solo graphic novel - Himawari House

1. How did you get into comics?

I first started reading comics as a kid, I used to pick up whatever out of order volumes of random manga that they had at the library and piece together the story as best as I could. I think it was around age 10 or so that my sister and I started making our own comics. We’d draw a couple of pages and then leave a blank page we’d call “fan corner” or something like that where the other would write feedback and draw some fan art. Of course, we were the only two reading our own comics, but it was a lot of fun.

2. When and what made you decide to embark on comics as a career? What steps did you take to achieve this?

I had absolutely no clue what I was doing. I had originally wanted to get into the animation industry but I had no university degree, no portfolio and no experience. Without really knowing what else to do I just focused on making good art and hoping that someone would notice. In 2016, without really thinking about it, I started posting a sequential story on Instagram and it sort of snowballed. I started getting more and more followers and wanted to keep the momentum going, so I developed another comic, Anemone and Catharus, and then decided to try doing a long form comic from there. It is very difficult to move a fan base from one platform to another so Himawari Share, which was originally posted on Tapas, didn’t do that well initially, but it was those first couple of chapters that gave me something to show to editors and publishers.

Anemone and Catharus by Harmony Becker
A snippet from Anemone and Catharus by Harmony Becker

3. In the past, artists would pitch to mainstream comics companies to do work-for-hire work. Over time, there were independent and alternative comics companies and also the option of self-publishing for artists. Some would do comics zines which they sell at comics festivals. Today, more artists like yourself have started out by going online. Is web comics the way to go to build a fan base?

It’s really difficult to predict the whims of the algorithm gods, as well as the fickle public, so I can’t really say that one way is better than another. I managed to get a lot of followers on Instagram but even that is not something that is built by pure hard work and talent, it involves a lot of luck. I did not build that strong of a fan base on Tapas or Webtoon either, I think it was the combination of having work online and going to festivals that made the difference for me.  

4. But from your experience, traditional boothing at comics festivals is still important and meeting the right people at the right time is especially crucial. You met Leigh Walton at Comic Arts Brooklyn and that led to They Called Us Enemy for Top Shelf. And Kiara Valdez saw your work at the Toronto Comic and Arts Festival in 2018 which led to Himawari House with First Second. How does one get noticed by editors and publishers with so much talent and competition going around? 

Again, I don’t think there’s a real formula to this. I am honestly amazed that I managed to get the jobs that I did without going to a single one of the networking after parties they have at conventions—and in the case of Himawari House, without even having a real conversation. Kiara picked up my business card from my table and emailed me a couple of months later after looking me up. I think the only real advice I can give to aspiring comics artists is to not wait for someone’s approval to make work. Even if what you make doesn’t end up ever getting published, it is good to have something to show editors and publishers other than just drawings. 

5. Other than writers and artists, how important are editors and agents in comics publishing?  

Incredibly important! Honestly…I ONLY know how to draw and write. My agent DongWon Song has helped me so much with navigating contracts and schedules and all the legal speak that shuts my brain down every time I see it.  

Kiara Valdez was my editor at First Second. Himawari House was a very complicated book to edit, as it’s written in multiple languages. We had a lot of rounds of edits with a lot of different eyes on it to make sure that everything was correct from every angle. Besides the actual act of editing, though, Kiara especially championed the book every step of the way and gave me so much confidence in my own writing and the story I wanted to tell.  

6. What was it like working with George Takei and are you a Trekkie?  

George Takei is incredibly impressive to me. He has such a presence, it almost feels like he’s always standing on a stage when he speaks. He’s very intelligent in how he manages his platform and his fame to draw attention to the causes he cares about. My dad watched Star Trek a bit as I was growing up but to be honest, I’ve never been much of a Trekkie myself. Sorry!  

7. The link I see between They Called Us Enemies and Himawari House is the threat of jingoism, our inherent prejudices and to counter that, openness, language learning, cultural exchange and immersion. The latter is not easy and may lead to initial stress and confusion (your garbled language presented visually) but the hard and important things take time. Do you think you have achieved what you have set out to do in both books? 

I suppose so. I generally get really in my head when it comes to sending big messages, so to be honest I wasn’t really thinking about that while writing or drawing either book. I didn’t contribute any writing to They Called Us Enemy, so my focus was on conveying the emotional inner landscapes of the Takei family. Himawari House was complicated. It is very difficult to convey the actual experience of how your mind changes when you learn a different language to someone who has never had that experience. I am happy with the book for what it is, but there is still a lot that I felt I didn’t manage to transmit, both for the constraints of the medium and of my own imagination. 

8. You are aware of the need to present the different accents of your characters instead of whitewashing and making everyone speak the same way. How do you walk the fine line between not parodying a particular accent and at the same time not patronising it? (I am thinking of the tensions and conflicts some viewers might feel when laughing at the Korean accents in Kim’s Convenience)  

It is complicated, isn’t it? I think these things are very subjective. I often think the same about the debate around cultural appropriation—two people from one culture may have very different ideas of what is appreciation and what is appropriation, but that doesn’t make one of them wrong. I just tried to make it realistic and allow the characters to be multifaceted, to have moments of seriousness, despair, joy, anger, together with the humor. It always hurts to feel erased in some way, so I did my best to portray every emotional side of my characters, and to allow the way they spoke to just be a part of who they are. To be honest, I wish that I didn’t have to add the note about accents at the end of the book. I wish that there had not been a history of condescending American media that caused people to feel ashamed of the way they talked, to cringe when they saw someone who looked like them on the screen. And I’m also aware of the fact that some people may be uncomfortable with the accents in my own book. At the end of the day, I just wanted to write what I heard and saw around me, without whitewashing or erasing anything.   

9. How did you ‘learn’ Singlish? (you said you had a friend Janelle who helped you) But why Singapore and not other Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia? Have you had any encounters with Singlish before? 

Hmm, good question. I wonder if I can remember the reason…honestly, I do have more experience with Malaysia. When I lived in Korea, my roommate and closest friend was Malaysian. I did draw a lot of inspiration from her and our relationship but I didn’t want to base any of my characters too much on real people so I changed some things. I visited Malaysia and Singapore many years ago and I loved them both so much! All of the Singlish in the book was written/translated by Janelle. I don’t speak Singlish at all, but the Singapore accent is one of my favorite English accents. It’s just very satisfying to listen to? Much snappier than the flat-soda sounds of American English.  

10. How would you describe your drawing style? 

Steven Scott, one of the writers for They Called Us Enemy, once described my style as “Peanuts manga.” I think I’d also add “rushed tightness.” My brain wants to draw really tight and detailed, but my hand wants to move as fast as possible. I’ve been trying to loosen up a bit lately, hopefully I’ll get less shoulder cramps that way. 

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