The trope of robot children in sci-fi is an interesting one (and arguably even more compelling than, “cell phones will be totally small someday”). Be it Astro Boy or A.I., these robo-tykes are a way to both ground our feelings about parenthood’s innate complexity and our own mix of anxiety and optimism for the future. This month, there’s a new, deeply interesting addition coming to this trope in the Image Comics series Made in Korea. Written by Jeremy Holt (Virtually Yours), and with art by George Schall (Hitomi), this series follows a couple as they adopt a young robot child. Press for the six-part series says it will “redefine what it means to be a family in an age when biological parenthood is no longer a reality.”
Ahead of issue #1 releasing next week (May 26), we spoke with both Holt and Schall, talking about the series’ inspiration, its larger message on family dynamics, how it relates to the AAPI community and adoptees alike, and what it means to make future art, among many other topics.
AIPT: Where did the original story idea come from? What’s your grand elevator pitch?
Jeremy Holt: It’s difficult to recall the precise moment when this story came about, but I believe the genesis of it is encoded in my DNA. As a transracial adoptee, I’ve reflected upon my identity for as long as I can remember. Pair that with my love for smart AI stories, and the concept for Made in Korea was born.
The grand elevator pitch was designed to read like an instruction manual.
Step 1: Remove from box
Step 2: Power on
Step 3: Raise your child
AIPT: I think worrying about and fawning over A.I. is an integral part of sci-fi dating back decades. But what about these “creations” interests you now, in 2021?
JH: I’ve long believed that the core of every AI story is ultimately about adoption. I’ve never seen anyone tackle this directly, and felt that my unique perspective as an identical triplet adoptee empowered me to reinvent this beloved wheel within the sci-fi genre. With the recent and long overdue recognition of Asian/Asian-American talent within Hollywood, it feels very much like fate that Made in Korea is debuting in 2021.
George Schall: As someone who grew up consuming probably more cyberpunk than would be healthy for a child to consume, I was often very excited about stories that could associate transhumanism as a means to reach and express identity and true self, and feel very bothered by the ones that would view those themes through negative lenses (in very broad terms, something like “the more we change and customize ourselves, the less human we become”, which to me just sounds very naive and thoughtless, but I guess we had to go through that to get to where we are now). I’m glad that we’ve been slowly able to shape our story to one that resembles the former rather than the latter. And I’m also glad that these are the stories we get to see more nowadays as we – for better or worse – are maybe…very close to reaching those realities? [nervous laughter]
AIPT: I love the whole vibe of the art (I described it to my wife as “Spirited Away meets R. Crumb’s whole catalog.”) What kind of tone or feeling did you have in mind visually?
JH: I’ll happily defer to George on this one.
GS: Interesting…Even though I definitely wouldn’t put Crumb in my pool of references, there’s a big list of indie comics authors I pull from and he’s definitely influenced those. But Myiazaki, yeah, you definitely got that one right. To be specific here, I’d maybe switch those for Carla Speed McNeil and Mamoru Oshii, even though they might not be super visible from the get go.
For MIK, I definitely changed my style to be cleaner and more graphical than usual. The lack of traced panel borders, very few blacks, very soft palettes for Jesse’s suburban surroundings, clean and geometric shapes in backgrounds, fashion that looks very bland and inexpressive but somehow different, etc. All to give a sense of living in a bubble outside of reality, a very carefully inexpressive and aseptic one. As Jesse slowly becomes more self-aware and naivety starts to shatter and identity starts to build, the comic’s aesthetics change to reflect that. That’s all I’ll say for now so I won’t ruin the — hopefully — good surprises people might meet along the way!
AIPT: What’s the collaborative process between the creative team?
JH: One of the best of my career. I may have created the story and characters, but what people will soon read is the product of a genuine trust and respect between me and George. It was very important to me that they provide input, not only on the art but the narrative as well. They’re an incredible storyteller in their own right and this story wouldn’t be nearly as powerful as it has become without their insightful feedback.
GS: I’m very glad with how open Jeremy was from the get go about discussing the story and allowing me to perform, as someone who also writes stories of my own, a sort of an editor role in their script – especially knowing how much of a personal story this is for them, as much as I was always willing to shape the art regarding whatever input Jeremy would provide me. It feels like a true collaboration altogether, one that has had a lot of respect for our own personal views on the story and also a lot of combined ideas that we both could discuss and settle on.
AIPT: As a recent step-parent, I’m all-too familiar with the notion of how weird being a parent can be. Was it your aim to capture something more imperfect or “real” about the struggles of being a parent, new, adopted, or otherwise?
JH: I think so. I sourced my friends and family regarding parenthood, and came away with a diverse tapestry of how to raise a child. The added conflict for Bill and Suelynn is the fact that their daughter, as far as they assume upon adopting her, isn’t human. I also wanted to explore the age-old topic of nature versus nurture, while also displaying the complexities of parenthood, both from the adopted and biological perspective.
AIPT: What’s the process of designing this series’ larger world like? Are there any specific books, series, visuals, etc. referenced at all?
JH: It started with the simple question: “What is a proxy?” Once I had designed and configured the “rules” behind how a hyper-real child operates, I then folded in the layers of how individuals and society as a whole would interact with them.
I was inspired by the works of Alex Garland, Neill Blomkamp, Lisa Joy, and Steven Spielberg. Each of them had a significant influence on the look, tone, pacing, characterization and conceptualization of Made in Korea.
GS: To visually conceptualize Jesse’s family’s world, I think I went very hard on more grounded sci-fi that has clean, elegant weird touches instead of very hard shifts from our reality. Movies like Gattaca, Her, Ex Machina, and also whatever retro-futuristic stuff I could get my hands on.
For the more techy side of things – i.e. whatever comes from out of Jesse’s suburban life – I just went the opposite way and leaned heavily on a lot of Japanese dystopian animation works like Akira, NeoTokyo, the Ghost in The Shell series as a whole, PatLabor, Ergo Proxy, and even the more grounded Serial Experiments Lain.
AIPT: I kept thinking about how Chul, the programmer, feels like such a natural protagonist of sorts. Whose story do you think this could ultimately be?
JH: Thank you! I agree. But I also think that this is ultimately everyone’s story. Everyone that is connected to Jesse that is.
GS: I agree as well. Even though this is mostly Jesse’s journey, everyone that gets caught in it also has their own little journeys to live through alongside Jesse, which is something I personally find pretty cool about this book as a whole.
AIPT: There’s lots of sweet, life-affirming things about this book, but also some heavier references and ideas floating about. What’s it like to achieve that balance, and does that inform who this book is ultimately targeted at?
JH: I don’t think I really paid much attention to finding a balance between the light and dark elements in this story. Nor do I think too much about a theoretical audience. I first and foremost write a story that I can invest in. The quickest way for me to do that is to weave in my own personal narratives. The more uncomfortable I might feel about a particular idea, concept, or scene, the more compelled I am to address and explore it. I think the balance that you’re referring to has only been made possible by George’s art. Their style perfectly supports the story’s gamut of thematic elements.
GS: Honestly — even though I appreciate Jeremy’s comment about the art treatment, I’m still not entirely sure that we have achieved that balance. The lighter parts are obviously easier to do, but the heavier themes in that book might not cater to everyone. And, as the story goes on, the contrast between the lighter and darker motifs becomes more evident. The only thing we can do as storytellers is to try to delve into those in the way we want to while being as respectful as we can to whatever type of reader that might come across this book, and hope that we’re able to draw positivity out of those darker themes that are very delicate and difficult to handle.
AIPT: Jeremy, you mentioned using the book to “explore my own self-exploration of identity [as a triplet adoptee] through the lens of science-fiction.” Could you explain that a little more? What about sci-fi or the book (and it’s combination of A.I., adoption, mixed race families, etc.) speaks most to you in exploring this hugely personal area?
JH: As I mentioned a bit earlier, I’ve always believed that every AI story is an adoption tale. How can it not be? Beyond that premise, I thought that it was the perfect vehicle for promoting representation at a time when it has had a profound impact on society and future generations. One of my goals with this story is to showcase the Asian-American diaspora in an engaging and thoughtful way. I know I would have loved to have read a story like this when I was growing up, and hope that KADs (Korean Adoptees) feel seen in some small way after reading it.
AIPT: The series is debuting amid a time of increased attacks and overall aggression toward the AAPI community. Does that timing make this book a kind of statement, whether you want it to be or not, or is there a hope this can be just a book that happens to be written by a Korean person?
JH: Great question. I think it does and I’m proud of that. However, this book was supposed to debut last year, so the delayed release due to the pandemic now seems somewhat prescient. Obviously I’d love if people just enjoy it for a being a good comic book series, but am proud that my book, along with my friend Pornsak Pichetshote’s series The Good Asian are championing Asian stories from dynamically different perspectives.
AIPT: Without spoiling too much (or, really, anything at all), the first 3 issues build into an especially unsettling plot point. Is this “darker” direction meant as a kind of juxtaposition, or to shock readers? What’s the ultimate shape of this story’s arc in terms of message or emotional sentiment or end point?
JH: The “darker” direction as you’ve hinted at wasn’t designed to shock readers. Without spoiling anything, this particular direction stems from my own views, thoughts, and personal experience with the topic. I’ll be opening up about this more when issue three hits shelves. It’s one that has continued to dominate the news headlines whenever it occurs, and I for one wanted to see and write a different, more hopeful outcome to a scenario that we’ve all seen far too often end in tragedy.
AIPT: Why should anyone pick up issue #1?
JH: Because Brian K. Vaughan said so. 🙂
GS: Haha yes. And also, I should say, if you want a different take for a sci-fi story that you won’t really find in comics, pick up our book. It’s a story that at the very least might feel surprising in cool ways that you wouldn’t expect.
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