Exclusive: Makeshift Miracle interview and art

Jim Zubkavich, the writer of Skullkickers and an editor at comics publisher UDON Entertainment, relaunched his webcomic Makeshift Miracle a few weeks ago with a revised story and new art. I interviewed Jim about the comic back then, but the artist, Shun Hong Chan, is from Hong Kong and doesn't speak English.

Jim solved that problem by interviewing Hong himself with his boss, Erik Ko, who also speaks Chinese, acting as translator. He offered to share the interview with Robot 6 readers along with some exclusive teaser art—how could we say no? I was particularly intrigued by Hong's description of how comics artists work in Hong Kong—it sounds like an assembly-line version of an Exquisite Corpse.

Jim: It’s been a thrill working with you on Makeshift and I’m excited to give readers a better idea of who you are and the passion you bring to your work. Can you briefly introduce yourself to our readers? Where were you born? When did you join the comic industry and what are some of your past creations?

Hong: My name is Shun Hong Chan. I was born in Hong Kong and studied Commercial Design at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. I’ve worked in the commercial publishing industry as an illustrator for more than 10 years. I entered the comic industry right after graduation as a trainee. I didn’t have any field experience, I just brought with me my basic skills and drawing talent. From there I joined Jade Dynasty Publications Ltd. and worked in their Animation department as a Character Design Assistant for 5 years. Now I’m working with UDON Comics on the Makeshift Miracle graphic novel.

My past creations include short stories and cover illustrations for comic magazines in Hong Kong and a bunch of advertising illustrations for the Chinese movie Butterfly Lovers.

Illustration and comics are what I do all the time!

Jim: That’s awesome. Why did you choose comics as a profession? How did you enter the comic industry?

Hong: I enjoyed drawing and reading comics at a very young age. Even then I knew I’d only be satisfied if I could make drawing my career, so I applied to be a comic assistant for one of the publishers in Hong Kong. At the beginning I could only manage basic tasks like helping on cross hatching and shading.

Erik: That publisher was Freeman, right? The company managed by Kevin Lau’s uncle?

Hong: Yes! They produced many comics back then, so I got to see pages being produced every day by experienced artists like Kevin and Andy Seto. They were very impressive.

Jim: Have you taken any formal training in fine arts? Or did you learn on your own?

Hong: A lot of it came on the job. I learned my drawing techniques through experimenting and intense practice. I’m interested in all kinds of different techniques and have experimented with many of them, especially watercolor painting. The problem with comic production in Hong Kong is that each part of the process is segregated, like a factory. One person is responsible for backgrounds, one is responsible for the head of the character, one is responsible for the body of the character and another person is responsible for coloring. With that system it’s impossible to create a drawing that’s totally your own.

Erik: That’s how those publishers can produce multiple 30+ page weekly comics, but no one can be the “perfect” artist that can do it all.

Hong: Exactly. That’s why I tried my best to create my own comic style from start to finish. I want to have my personal style really clearly shown in the final product.

Jim: How did you partner up with UDON for production of Makeshift Miracle?

Hong: It’s very interesting and kind of miraculous how it all happened. I’ve worked with other overseas publishers before, for example Sharp Point Publishing in Japan and Taiwan, but they were short term projects or didn’t come to fruition, mainly due to cultural differences.

About a year ago, the comic industry in Hong Kong was in a slump and most of the work I was getting was through animation and illustration. Comic work had been put off for some time. In a very incidental way, I met UDON’s chief Erik Ko through a friend of mine, so I passed him my portfolio to see what he thought of it. Erik has a real passion for art and his love for comics is obvious. I was surprised how much he liked my art style, especially since it’s so different from the UDON ‘house’ style.

Working on Makeshift Miracle was Erik’s idea and I feel like it’s a great way to show people what I can do. Everyone at UDON has given me trust and freedom to add to the story and generate new designs. That’s the most satisfying element of this job.

Erik: Coming from Hong Kong, I was actually a fan of Hong’s work for quite a while. When my friend told me he was actually available for projects, I jumped on it immediately. Being able to work with someone whose work you’ve been idolizing for years is a dream comes true!

Jim: I think all of us feel really fortunate to be working together on this story. As soon as Erik showed me samples of your work I was amazed at the mixture of mood and sensitivity. How did you approach working on the design?

Hong: After receiving the original story outline we decided to update the looks of the characters to a more modern style. So I started with a few rounds of character designs and got them approved, making small adjustments as it went along. It was all about trying to find the right expressions for each character to match their personality.

Erik: Your new designs are amazing. I feel that there’s a nice mix of American comic style and Masakazu Katsura-type manga/anime romance look to them!

Hong: Thanks for the compliment!

Jim: What’s the journey like in creating each page? Do you use traditional drawing tools or work digitally on a computer?

Hong: After going through the story and having page layout roughs approved, I draw a first draft in pencil, focusing on character and background details. Those drafts are scanned into the computer for further processing. I mainly focus on eyes and hair when I draw the character line art. Then the page goes to coloring.

Erik: You’re trained as a traditional painter, right? So, do you really paint all the pages?

Hong: I used to paint with actual watercolors but, with the advance of technology, I started exploring digital painting. Nowadays, I use Corel Painter for my comic work. It’s my favorite tool as it can replicate that hand painted look so well. It delivers the more natural drawing style that I’m going for.

Jim: I was totally convinced that the pages were done with traditional watercolors. You had me totally fooled. So amazing. On average, how long does it take to create each page?

Hong: It takes about 3 days to create a page from start to finish. I’m a little slow right because I’m still recovering from illness. Originally, I was going to use a simpler style for Makeshift but, as I drew more and got into the story, I couldn’t help but add a bit more and more, and so the style has turned into what you now see in the finished pages.

Jim: Every time new artwork arrives in my inbox it’s an absolute thrill to see how you’ve approached each scene.

At this point, which Makeshift character is your favorite? What do you like about working on the story so far?

Hong: Ha, I put the most effort into drawing Iris because I’m always interested in female lead characters.

I like that Makeshift Miracle’s characters start out very young. When reading a comic, I like seeing characters grow as the story progresses. I feel that the more mature a person is, the more interesting they are. So as the characters go through the events in the story I’m planning to change their look slowly so we can see how they evolve.

Jim: Do you find any difficulty or challenges in working on Makeshift?

Hong: The biggest challenge is definitely the cultural gap. Being an Asian growing up in Hong Kong, I need to do a lot of research to learn about the western world, from fashion to landscapes. I’m really glad Erik is also Chinese so he helps a lot in communicating between me and everyone else on the team.

Jim: Is there anything you’d like to share with your new fans from overseas?

Hong: I’m very excited to show my work to a new international audience. It’s especially exciting getting exposure in the west. I have a feeling that fans from overseas are at a different level and I want to make sure I meet their quality expectations! I have to work hard to make sure my art is compatible in the western world!

I’d like to take the first step to interact with fans through my art, showing them my style and technique. I hope they’ll give us their feedback. Compliments or criticism are both important and help me on this amazing journey!

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