There are challenging characters, and then there is Hello Kitty. She's a familiar face, but nobody really knows anything about her. She doesn't appear to have a backstory. She doesn't even have a mouth. And here she is, starring in her own graphic novel.
Jacob Chabot is one of several creators behind the Hello Kitty graphic novels published by Perfect Square, Viz Media's kids' imprint. He's an old Viz hand at this point, having illustrated two of the publisher's Voltron graphic novels, and his other work includes stints at Marvel (including the X-Babies comics), SpongeBob SquarePants comics, and his two-volume all-ages graphic novel The Mighty Skullboy Army, which is truly laugh-out-loud funny for adults as well kids.
Not only is Hello Kitty the tabula rasa of comics characters, the stories are wordless as well, which presents a whole different set of challenges. We asked Jacob to let us in on some of the details of writing the Hello Kitty story — and check out our preview of Hello Kitty: Delicious! after the interview.
Brigid Alverson: What do we know about Hello Kitty, anyway. Does she have a backstory? Where does she come from and what does she do? Who are the people she surrounds herself with?
Jacob Chatbot: I don't know much about a backstory or origin, but she definitely has a setting and a cast of friends. From what I've learned, Hello Kitty is a little girl named Kitty White. She lives in London with her family — her parents, grandparents, and a twin sister named Mimmy. She has a boyfriend named Dear Daniel and a bunch of other pals. There's Fifi, who's a sheep, Jody the dog, Tim and Tammy the monkey siblings, Tracy the raccoon, Mory the mole, and a lot more.
What sets Hello Kitty apart from the other characters?
Hello Kitty is the glue that holds her world together. She's the one you're supposed to identify with and see from her perspective.
When you are writing the stories, do you have any sort of bible from Sanrio? Is there a Hello Kitty canon?
I got a small, general bible from Sanrio, but nothing too in-depth or comprehensive. It was just pictures of what she looks like from all angles, and some shots of her friends and their personalities. I think that's as far as the canon goes! When I started the project I was told that Hello Kitty can be anything and do anything, so just be creative.
These are wordless stories, so how do you create them — do you write a script? A storyboard? Do you draw them as well?
Since I was also going to be the one drawing these comics, I didn't bother writing much of a script. I just scribbled down a bunch of really loose doodles and sketches. This would help me know how the action would flow or how the character expressions would carry the story. Since my editor had to see and approve these sketches, I would usually write a brief description of what was happening on the pages in case the sketches weren't clear enough to someone who wasn't me.
What is the biggest challenge for you in terms of storytelling?
For me the biggest challenge is telling silent stories with characters that have no mouths. You really start to miss the kind of subtle expressions you can get from mouth shapes even without the characters speaking. So, with these Hello Kitty stories, all of the emoting has to happen in the eyes and basic hand gestures. And since they're all short stories, you can't take up too much time or convey anything too complicated. So, you gotta keep it simple! Which is generally a good rule for storytelling anyway.
When I read this book I was surprised at how witty it was. In the first story, one of Kitty's friends eats a hot pepper and after that he sneezes fire that dries wet clothes and (my favorite sequence) turns iced tea into hot tea. How did you come up with the gags? Do you brainstorm with the other creators or is it all you?
With these stories, it was just me sitting in my apartment emailing sketches to my editor. When it comes time to come up with gags, I just try to brainstorm little sequences on the subject; in this case "what kind of funny things could you do with fire sneezes that aren't too harmful or destructive." What's safe to light on fire? Candles. What can heat do? Dry clothes or cook food. And now that I've laid it all out like that and explained it, I'm sure I've drained all the comedy from it! Mostly I just try to come up with fun, frantic things to draw. The less I think about it, the better.
What about the pacing — in that hot pepper story there were about two gags per page, which makes the comic go pretty fast. Why did you decide to go that route?
As I said previously, with silent stories, you really can't cram in too much. I think they also read more quickly since you're not slowing down to read dialogue or anything like that. In this book, I had a limited amount of pages to tell the stories I'd pitched, so I knew I had eight pages here, or five pages there. I tried to know how they started and ended, so the pacing was just a matter of how much time I had to get things done before I had to wrap it up. Some of the funny business had to progress the plot along, and sometimes I had time to dilly-dally and just do funny business for funny's sake.
I see a couple of different styles in the book, but Hello Kitty is readily identifiable. What is the most important design element in drawing her?
Her bow is definitely the most important part! She wouldn't be Hello Kitty without it.
Here's a preview of some stories from Hello Kitty: Delicious!
From "Hot Stuff," by Jacob Chabot:
From "Berry Big Problem," by Jacob Chabot:
From "Food Fright," by Traci N. Todd, Ian McGinty and Michael E. Wiggan:
"How to Bake a Cake," by Stephanie Buscema:
(Hello Kitty (c) 1976, 2014 SANRIO CO. LTD. Used under license.)