Hellen Jo is an illustrator and cartoonist based in Los Angeles. She has also done storyboarding and writing for TV shows such as Steven Universe, Regular Show, and FoxADHD. I recently got in touch with her to discuss the zine and comics communities, what it takes to work in animation, and her creative career to date.
MINNA GILLIGAN: Hi, Hellen! Do you remember a particular moment when you knew you wanted to be an artist?
HELLEN JO: I don’t know if there was one. I’ve been drawing since preschool or possibly earlier, and I have hazy memories of asking my parents around that time if I could be a cartoonist when I grew up. Their answer was, “Maybe on the side.” It’s been a lifelong pursuit.
Did you study art at university or are you largely self-taught?
I went to art school for a few semesters after I dropped out of public university. My time in art school was useful, but I am mostly self-taught. My art “coming-of-age” happened when I was living in Berkeley as a no-longer-teen-but-not-quite-adult and failing out of all of my classes. At the same time, I was reading and learning from all of the amazing comics and zines coming out of the Bay Area and Los Angeles. I learned by reading as many comics and zines and graphic novels as I could, and I developed my own comics and illustration language through all of these books. My style and my goals as an artist changed drastically then, and became defined for the first time. I graduated from “draws for fun” to “drawing is a sick compulsion, and I need it to live.”
What about the zine and comics community that appeals to you?
As a medium, I adore comics because you, the artist and writer, are the master of the story, and because you have an intimate relationship with the reader. Comics are also so full of possibility—in terms of art, in terms of story—precisely because so much is up to you. There are no real rules, and if you are a DIY zinester, there are no bosses or editors or directors. You determine the outcome of your work. I also love that comics and zines are cheap and accessible, to both readers and creators. You want to make a zine? Sit down, draw it, print it out and staple it, and bam: You’re a cartoonist. The zine and comics communities are full of people who understand these facts, and it’s wonderful to meet and commiserate with other people who understand that holing yourself up in a dark room hunched over a desk like a dirty beast troll throughout the day and nighttime is a worthwhile and sometimes important pursuit.
What are your go-to materials when making a drawing?
A real professional illustrator should be able to roughly sketch an idea or a composition, then work on a final piece based on that sketch. I believe myself to be a staunch and inherent amateur because I just start drawing and erasing, figuring everything out as I go along, burning my brains on building a cool composition, hoping for the best. This process is incredibly slow and inefficient, but it is the only way I can end up with a piece that I truly believe in. When I’m working on a painting or illustration, I usually draw in pencil first, erasing a thousand times, slowly building the character’s gestures and demeanor; I also try to draw the backgrounds simultaneously, to make them integrate in an interesting and appealing way with the figures. Once I’ve finally made it to a composition that I’m happy with, I’ll ink the entire thing in brush pen or fountain pen, depending on the paper. If the piece is to be colored, I’ll either paint in watercolor, agonizing over each and every paint mix and placement along the way, or I’ll color digitally in Photoshop. This isn’t really a set-in-stone process; I’ve been sketching in fountain pen and markers a lot lately, trying out finished illustrations and comics that are pencil only and without ink, revisiting my original love of stark contrast and black-and-white drawings made with the blackest, most opaque inks. Materials suit your needs in the moment, so whatever go-to tools I’d come to rely on in the past seem irrelevant with each new piece.
Your characters seem punk, but at the same time are soft and feminine. This juxtaposition is really empowering. Do you consciously draw your characters with these traits? Why?
Ha ha really? I definitely do not aim to portray my characters as soft or feminine, but my own vulnerabilities must be pushing their way through—tough drawings be damned. I’m honored and humbled that you would find this combination empowering, as I still struggle with accepting my own softness. I can’t tell you how delighted and agonized I am when people tell me, “I expected you to be a hard bitch because of your work, but you’re so sweet.” Like, thank you, that’s so nice, but shit, I really wanted you to be a little bit afraid of me too!
How did you get your foot in the door in storyboarding cartoons like Steven Universe? It seems like a dream job!
Storyboarding and writing for Steven Universe—and Regular Show, as well as for FoxADHD—was grueling, difficult, painful, teeth-pulling, blood-sweating, HARD HARD WORK! I don’t regret my time in television. I got to work with a lot of amazing and incredibly talented people, and I feel very lucky that I got to contribute to these amazing shows in my clumsy way. But ultimately, I’ve realized that I do not have the temperament and super-human powers of focus and devotion required of a board artist. I haven’t worked in television in nearly two years. I rode the wave of cartoonists who were being hired and brought to L.A. in droves, to work on premise-based kids’ shows; J.G. Quintel read my comic, Jin & Jam, somewhere and offered me my first storyboard test, then animation job as a storyboard revisionist on Regular Show. It all snowballed from there!
I don’t believe in the myth of the dream job; any job worth having is hard, requires so much work, and will make you question your love of whatever it is you’re doing. Anyone who believes that working in animation is whimsical, magical, full of light and wonder and joy…wake the fuck up! Animation, especially storyboarding, drains all of your mental and emotional energy, requires incredibly long hours, deprives you of sleep, downtime, health, and your life. Once you finish and turn in an episode, you get to do it all over again! For another 20 or 200 episodes! Much respect and love to the ubermensch talents who do well in this field!
How do you balance more commercial ventures alongside your more artistic ones?
Currently, I am living off my savings, trying to figure out how phase out commercial work in favor of more personal work. When I worked in television, my job was my number-one priority, and I had to cram in any personal projects between my responsibilities. I tried to sleep less. Nowadays, I do a mix of gif commissions, editorial illustration, other random freelance jobs, gallery shows, and merchandise and print mail orders. It’s a constant struggle, pursuing my personal goals while also trying to feed myself and stave off debt. I’ll let you know once I’ve figured it out!
Where do you do most of your work?
I work at home. I have a dedicated room that serves as studio, office, and warehouse. I sit at two long desks placed side by side along one wall. One desk has my Cintiq and computer, my old-ass laptop, large format scanner, laser printer, and super-pro Epson printer, and the other desk has an adjustable angled drawing surface, a cutting mat, and all my drawing, painting, and packaging supplies. Behind me sits about 10 huge boxes filled with the contents of my online store and Comic-Con wares: T-shirts, sweatshirts, prints, comics, postcards. There are also two shelving units. One is filled with paper and printing supplies, and another is filled with a portion of my favorite zines, comics, and books. Everything is also surrounded and covered in vintage toys, tchotchkes, knick-knacks, and art. I’ve got about five desk lamps, two overhead lamps, a window, and a second windowed door to the yard. When I need to get the hell out of the office, I can run out this door, do some yard work, pet some stray cats, and stare down squirrels.
Who or what is inspiring you at the moment?
What have you been working on?
I’m working on an illustration for a local theater poster. Trying to re-open my online store after a long hiatus. And I’ve been writing a new comic—but you can believe it when you see it.
Three words to describe your art practice?
Disorganized, frantic, honest. ♦