Michael Cho Isn't <em>Really</em> A "Shoplifter"

Michael Cho has been making short comics for many years now, work that's appeared in "Project: Romantic" and "Batman Black and White," in addition to the webcomic "Papercut." While he's also illustrated covers, including the Golden Age variant of "Superman Unchained" #6, and has been included in "Best American Comics," he's known primarily for his day job as an illustrator.

"Shoplifter" is his first graphic novel. Out this week from Pantheon, the book is a beautifully illustrated character piece about a young woman in an unnamed city at a crossroads in her life, coming to terms with her unhappiness and destructive impulses. We discuss Cho's debut, his plans for future, related graphic novels and why readers may not see any cats in them.

CBR News: Just to start, could you talk a little about Corrina and where she is when "Shoplifter" opens? Because the book is really her story.

Michael Cho: Corrina Park, the main character in "Shoplifter," is a young, well-educated woman who went to college with dreams of becoming a novelist. At the start of the story, Corrina is working for a large ad agency as a copywriter. She's been there for almost five years and the initial excitement of her job has long worn off. She's feeling a kind of creeping desperation as she feels like she's treading water and not moving forward with her ambitions. She's also questioning what the worth of her day job really is.

As much as the book is the story of a character, it also feels like a book about what it's like to be in your mid-late twenties.

Yeah, I'd agree with that, but it's the story of a certain group of people in their 20's -- young, well educated and urban. Part of the book is about what happens to people who graduate college with humanities degrees, or people who are creative and well-educated but stuck in a rut and unable to figure out how to move forward with their lives. That time in your mid/late 20s is interesting, because it takes place after the rush of finally finishing all your education has passed. You feel like your "real" life, the one you dreamt about, should be happening, and it may not be happening fast enough. Or at all.

I hope most people can relate to it, but I'm also aware that there are people in their 20s who have a very different experience than Corrina -- people who are living under a different financial or social situation.  

You've written and drawn short comics before this, but you're mostly known as an illustrator. Are comics something that always interested you?

I've had a lifelong love of comics. They were among the first things I read when I came to Canada as a 6-year-old kid. I read superhero comics as a child, then got into the more "indie" stuff as a teen. Some of the creators that inspired me are Roy Crane, Noel Sickles, Jack Kirby, David Mazzucchelli, Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, Charles Burns, Dan Clowes and the great Yoshihiro Tatsumi. There are so many -- I could go on and on, really.  

Even as an illustrator, my work draws a lot from comics. I try to vary my work up a lot more these days and don't rely on a "style," but I learned a lot about drawing from looking at works by artists such as Frank Robbins, Sickles, Crane, Wally Wood, Joe Kubert and Mazzucchelli.  

The book has a few single- and double-page images of streetscapes, which people who know you from your book "Back Alleys and Urban Landscapes" will find familiar. What do you find so interesting about urban scenes, and what they add to the book?

I just wanted to build a believable world; a living city for the characters exist in. I wanted it to be relatable and have elements that were identifiable for anyone who's lived in a large city. For a book like "Shoplifter," which is pretty grounded and set in the "real world," that was obviously a necessity.  

I also wanted the city to have a personality and be something of a character itself in the story. The feeling of isolation among a large crowd, the pervasive presence of advertising, the constant flow of traffic and people -- these were all things I wanted to try and capture and incorporate into the story and art. Some of the themes of the story are conveyed just through the artwork, so it was important to me to try to capture those elements visually. I also like the juxtaposition of an intimate story about internal struggle with imagery of a large and teeming city.

Related to that, the setting of the book is never named. Why doesn't it take place in a specific city?

The city that Corrina lives in is meant to represent any large metropolis. I didn't want to be specific and set it in Canada or in a specific US city because her story is kind of universal -- I wanted anyone who had moved from a smaller town to "the big city" to be able to relate.

Coming from a background in illustration, but having made short comics, how big of a stretch was it to make a graphic novel? Was the experience very different?

Very different. It was a lot tougher and took a lot longer than I anticipated. I broke it down into manageable stages -- writing a script, thumbnailing it, drawing pencils, but at the start of each stage, I still had a little fear and a feeling of, "Do I know what the hell I'm doing?" When I drew shorter comics, I could see within a few days if something worked or not, but with a longer book, I had to go a lot longer on faith that it would all work out. There was certainly a lot more self-doubt as I was so inexperienced.  

There were also things in regard to time management and scheduling that I had to adjust to and learn. But when I got on a roll and was deep into the drawing of the book, there was a lot of joy in the process too. I loved trying new approaches, exploring ideas instinctively and just losing myself in the work.

I loved Anais, and you really seem to enjoy drawing cats. Have you thought about giving up on cityscapes and drawing more cats? I've heard cats are big on the Internet.

[Laughs] It's funny -- I hate drawing cats. I had more fear about drawing Anais than almost anything else in the book. When I write, I don't think too much about whether or not I can draw what I wrote or else I'd edit and limit my writing. However, when I got close to the pages where I had to draw Corrina's cat, I was dreading it and cursing myself for writing a cat into the story. I had to man up and take a few days to study cats and work on a lot of sketches to learn how they behaved and moved. My first sketches were just terrible. Since I'm allergic to them, I never really had a feel for them or much of an interest in drawing them before. Needless to say, I watched a lot of YouTube cat videos while working this stuff out.  

I'm good with dogs, but cats and horses -- those are my kryptonite as an artist.

For a book that is skeptical of advertising, you give Rodney, an ad exec, this grand, poetic speech. I guess I'm curious why the most noble, optimistic sentiment expressed in the book is about something that many characters feel is oppressive?

Well, Rodney's monologue is fitting for him. He's the boss of the agency that Corrina works at and has been in advertising for a long time. As with many occupations, to be successful, you have to really believe in what you do -- and Rodney is very successful.  I'm not entirely sure that his speech is noble -- it certainly is to him, but depending on your own views on advertising, it may seem the opposite to you. Rodney just has the strength of commitment to his job that comes from a deep belief in its worth -- something Corrina isn't sure if she shares.

Are we going to see more graphic novels from you in the coming years?

Yeah, I'm definitely interested in working on more graphic novels. When I decided a few years ago to write and draw more comics, I planned out five interrelated graphic novels, of which "Shoplifter" is the first. They're all straightforward fiction, like "Shoplifter," and set in the "real world." I'm hoping to work on those over the next few years.

I'm excited to write and draw new stories and take what I learned from this book and apply it to the next one. That's really what's important to me -- to grow and evolve as a writer and artist. There's an immense gratitude I feel at being able to just write and draw what I want, and I don't take that for granted. I'd love to keep creating comics for as long as I can.

You touched on this a little, but did you spend a lot of time trying to design and have a sense of this unnamed city to make it a character in the book? And is the city a recurring "character" through the ideas of interrelated graphic novels you've planned out?

I didn't really spend time designing it, as if I was making it up out of whole cloth or anything. I didn't make maps or a plan of various of neighborhoods or things like that. I just tried to put some thought into how it was presented in the story -- making sure that when the city was shown, or when Corrina was walking through it, that it wasn't a generic backdrop but had a feel to it that made it relatable or recognizable -- catching little details that brought a sense of life to the environment.  

As for the other stories, no the city that Corrina lives in isn't a recurring character throughout the other books. They're set in their own locations: a suburb, a coastal town, etc. The stories interconnect in a different way.

The launch party for "Shoplifter" will be held at The Central in Toronto on September 3. More information about the event and Cho's work can be found at chodrawings.blogspot.com.

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