"Wonton Soup" – An Adventure in Sci-Fi Cooking with James Stokoe

Of all the comic book stories published, there have been some intriguing – and fun – mixtures of genres. We've seen zombie love stories, sports tales with Kung Fu twists, and we've even witnessed Jesus battling vampires, so why not have a tale about the culinary arts with ninjas and truckers set in outer space? Who wouldn't want to read that? Well, thanks to writer-artist James Stokoe, that exact graphic novel will be available in comic shops this month.

Published by Oni Comics, "Wonton Soup" is definitely not your standard comic fare, and that is meant in a good way. Described as "Futurama meets Iron Chef," the book is subtitled as a "Space Trucker Cooking Drama." I think that would make most readers curious – at the very least – about this graphic novel. CBR News fell into this category, so we contacted creator James Stokoe to share some details with our readers.

James, to begin with, can you tell us a little about yourself? What is your background in writing and drawing comics?

I'm pretty green to the comics scene. I've had a couple of small press features and some stints in a couple of anthologies, but Wonton is pretty much my first "break." Like probably most of the next generation of comic artists, I was raised in the wilds of the internet art scene, but yeah, never went to school or anything like that. I haven't been able to hold any kind of real job for more than three days at a time, so for me it's either comics or bust.

Where did the idea for "Wonton Soup" come from?

Well, actually, I still remember the first day I came up with it. I had just gotten home from this Chinese restaurant that was down the street from where I lived, and was just like, "Dude, 'Wonton Soup' would make an awesome title for a comic." I did the first five pages of it that night and liked where it was going, so I stuck to it for a bit.

Pretty much all of my comic ideas stem from simple, vain things like that. Just bullshitting with your friends on the porch while having a smoke can spawn some of the best ideas you'll ever get.

How did the book end up at Oni?

Originally, I was supposed to do a book with Corey Lewis that Oni was going to put out, but that kind of fell through due to extreme busy-ness. Corey hooked me up with James Lucas Jones to pitch something of my own, and I had twenty-something odd "Wonton Soup" pages lying around, so I figured that would be as good a project as any.

Wonton was originally just supposed to be a twenty-page short, where Johnny (I don't even think he had a name at that point) goes to get soup at a space cafe and gets "exploded" by an evil fortune cookie, but I tweaked the end pages a bit to make it so that the main character doesn't die. I hear that helps.

But yeah, Oni is incredible. I can't think of a better place for my book. James and those goons pretty much let you have free rein in doing whatever you want, which sometimes makes me think I'm totally cheating them. There's going to be a lot of new stuff coming out through Oni that's gonna turn comics on its head. All the cool kids are doing Oni books!

As this book has many interesting elements within its story, how would you classify its genre? Sci-fi, adventure, culinary, or a crazy hybrid?

I've been prone to calling it a "Space Trucker Cooking Opera." Aesthetically, it's pretty much just a mish-mash of my favorite aspects of sci-fi, and a tidbit of fantasy (sex-deprived space pandas!). The cooking aspect is kind of a more entertaining mask for comic-making, as this book is loosely autobiographical and making comics is 98% of my life. I didn't want to make a fully autobiographical book, cuz my life isn't all that exciting a story, but I just wanted to catch the energy and feeling of stuff I went through last year, like living like a nomad for a while and having a long-distance relationship.

That's why comics are so great: you can add all those personal experiences, then set the whole thing in space – adding all the fun shit that only comics can allow – and it just meshes perfectly.

Tell us about the story. Where and when does it take place?

Wonton is about a former premier chef, Johnny Boyo, who gives up life in culinary schools and restaurants of the cooking planet Plaxos to become a space trucker. He travels around the galaxy with his chum, Deacon, hauling explosive teas, while learning new recipes from a hundred different worlds. On a run, they get ambushed by deep space ninja bandits and have to make a pit stop on Plaxos, where Johnny meets up with his old girlfriend and gets caught up in a massive cooking duel to boot.

The book is set in the far future universe, and I'm going to make it a point never to mention Earth in the series. I figured it would've been looted for minerals or some shit by now.

What else can you tell me about the character of Johnny? Who are the other main characters in the book?

Johnny is kind of a quiet, chill dude, who keeps to himself and wants nothing more than to just lock himself in a room and cook all day.

All the other characters are based off of my old roommates and people I met while I was living in Seattle last year. There's Deacon Vans, Johnny's space trucker friend who decides the only way to cure the boredom of long truck hauls is by having sex with a plethora of alien species. Citrus Watts is the girlfriend Johnny left on Plaxos, a student chef in the culinary academy who specializes in fruit. Mongolius Grahm is the former teacher/mentor of Johnny, a woman-bittered old alien who cooks by shooting ingredients in the face. Then there's also Lindross, the zen space tow truck driver, and The Twins, the arrogant dual chefs who absorb food through their hands.

You're pretty much doing everything for this book – writing, penciling, inking, lettering. Do you like to work as a "one man band?" What do you feel are the benefits and drawbacks of this?

Yeah, I love it. I would probably do the binding too if I knew how. Everything about the comic-making process I love (some more than others at times), so I'm really greedy and don't want to share with anyone else. Though I do think it's important to work with a writer sometimes, it gives you a way different, new perspective of comic-making when you're drawing somebody else's words. The only real drawback I can think of regarding being a one-man band, is that you have to scan and erase all the pencil lines yourself – I can do without all that.

The main thing about doing everything yourself is that it is fully your own book; whether it's good or not, it's completely you. It kind of bugs me sometimes to see books that seem to be coming off a factory line – it just makes the comic lose all of its personality.

What is your process? Do you have a full script before you start the art? Do you just have an outline and go from there? And how many pages can you get done in a day? How about a week?

Man, I barely ever know what day of the week it is, let alone what the next page is going to look like. For Wonton, I did a brief plot outline to prove to my editor that I'm not insane, but so many parts have been added/subtracted that it's barely the same. All my comics are pretty much created off of a whim, and I guess that is part of their charm. The hard part is trying to ride that spontaneity all the way to the end.

As for how many pages, people tell me I'm quick, but that is all a front. It all depends on the mood (and when I wake up), but the most pages I ever did in one day was eleven, though days like that rarely ever happen.

From the preview pages shown, the art looks terrific! What kind of tone/feel are you going for with the art and how are you going about to achieve this?

I can't remember who it was, but somebody on some art forum told me once that my stuff reminds him of an old battered comic you find in the cheap bin, with the cover ripped off with gritty, wicked art inside. That was probably the best compliment I've ever got, and is the kind of feel I've been trying to achieve with all of my comics. Some of the best pages I have seen are ones that are just torn out of old manga bricks, untranslated and raw – two of my favorite artists I don't even know the name of.

Influence-wise, I got really into old Moebius comics from 70's "Heavy Metal" issues while working on this. There's some Enki Bilal in there too, and I read Fil Barlow's "Zooniverse" about halfway through drawing "Wonton," which made me think my comic was complete shit. Dave Cooper's "Weasel" totally influenced me a lot too, that book is amazingly laid out and produced.

I also watch the first twenty minutes of "Aliens" every morning to get myself absolutely bad-assed up before I draw. I've been known to scream, "We got nukes, knives, sharp sticks, sonic electronic ballbreakers!" on a whim.

Wow, I guess that's healthier than hopping yourself up on caffeine every morning!

Getting back to the book, what can you tell me about Johnny's cooking? Is it based in the "real world" or is it "outer space delicacies?" Will you have recipes in the comic book?

There's definitely very little in the book that has anything to do with real cooking, because I don't know my asshole from a radish. That's a great thing about setting a comic in space though, you can just make stuff up without even having to research it – slacker science.

There's recipes scattered all throughout the book, but I doubt any of them are feasible unless you have some magma carp handy or something. I do plan on having a feature where people email me some actual reality-based "Wonton Soup-Inspired" recipes that I can draw up and put in the back of future books though.

Are you working on anything else (either at the moment or after the series finishes)?

I'm too busy for my own good right now. I'm about halfway through a book with comic hero Rick Spears, called "Hard Core," about a comic writer who meets a stripper and gets involved in porn comics. Rick's "Teenagers From Mars" is one of the only books I've read that I can truly call "inspirational," so it's pretty intense to be working with him.

I'm in the quasi-planning phase of a short (maybe serial if it goes well) for Image's new "Low Orbit" series. It's gonna be a nitty-gritty, "eat bricks & shit diamonds" space marine story, cuz I haven't quite got all the sci-fi out of my system yet.

"Orc Stain" is a fantasy-ish comic I just started recently on a whim, but I haven't bothered to find it a home yet. It's gonna be really weird, I think, with giant kremlin robots riding spidercrabs, and an orc society obsessed with dicks.

Another "Wonton Soup" will probably happen this year too, if Oni still likes me. My long-term plan for the book is to do one at least every two years until the day I die, and have all the characters age accordingly.

What excites you most about this series?

The main thing is, I don't think that there's been a book like this in Western comics yet. It always amazes me how many ideas and genres have been completely untapped over here. There's that saying, "Everything's been done, nothing's original," which I think is totally wrong. I haven't seen a sci-fi culinary comic before.

All that, and it's my first official graphic novel, so I'm giddy like a school girl.

Thanks, James.

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