OJINGOGO reviewed by The Montreal Mirror

The ego and the squid

The Montreal Mirror    |    Rupert Bottenberg    |    August 21, 2008

Korean cartoons and creatures of the
subconscious wiggle their way through
Ojingogo, MontrealerMatt Forsythe’s new
graphic novel from Drawn & Quarterly

“I feel like I’m just escorting this thing along, not driving it,” says illustrator and comic artist Matt Forsythe of Ojingogo, his new graphic novel from Drawn & Quarterly. “It’s kinda weird seeing my name on the cover—that’s how dissociated I feel from it.”

That may be, but over coffee at a Mont-Royal bistro, Forsythe, a Montrealer for three years, has plenty of thoughtful things to say about Ojingogo. It began as a blog strip and then mini-comics, and has now graduated to a full book, an extended fugue full of surreal creatures of shifting size and disposition, with a strong-willed girl and her squid sidekick at the heart of it all.

It’s been a long time coming. Though Forsythe studied politics and religion at Hamilton, ON’s McMaster University—“I got a lot of heavy philosophical thinking out of the way early in life”—he also handled editorial cartoonist duties at the student paper there, and notions of a career in comics and illustration had long gnawed at him.

“I went through my crazy superhero phase like everyone does, and became alienated from that by high school, which is probably very healthy. Then a friend handed me an Adrian Tomine comic a few years later, and I was interested again—oh, this can be relevant, there’s interesting stuff out there.

“But what was really the touchstone was, when I went to Korea, the cartoon and comics culture there. There’s this sense of fun. In the West, there’s so much weight that we put on these poor characters. Jack Kirby and Stan Lee came up with 15 characters 40 years ago, and we’ve put 40 years of emotional baggage on them, they’re just buckling under that weight. In Korea, there are comics about golf! Just let go! They’re having fun with these things. I felt like I could breathe again.”

Solo in Seoul

Footloose Forsythe’s Korean jaunt followed gigs as a camp counsellor in Montreal, computer programmer in Ireland and waiter in London. With debts piling up, teaching English in the Seoul suburb on Ilsan looked sweet.

“You meet ex-pats like yourself, who are in debt or in some cases running away from something—there are people there who are running from the law, I’m not kidding!

“There were maybe 40 other ex-pats in town, and the odds of us liking each other weren’t great, so I had a pretty solitary experience. I had a nice roommate, but besides that, I was pretty isolated. So I started a blog there called coming-upforair.net, and started feverishly drawing every night.”

In addition to the comics he read—Japanese manga and manhwa, the Korean equivalent—Forsythe’s morning kindergarten classes had an impact on his blossoming craft.

“They were such super intelligent kids, so funny and energetic, and the way they looked at things—I try not to condescend to kids, I think I can learn from everyone, so immediately I tried seeing things through their eyes, and I felt like it opened up a whole new world.

“I remember being at a street safety day with the kids, and seeing a don’t-get-hit-by-a-car cartoon—they have cartoons demonstrating everything. I was looking at the style and thinking, that’s gorgeous. I’d love to do a comic that looks like that.”

A handle on Hangul

Forsythe’s Ojingogo strips indeed owed much to Korea, in their aesthetic, their very title (a play on ojingo, Korean for “squid”) and even in what little dialogue existed in the nearly wordless comics. He used Korean Hangul script, or rather his own distorted version, for his character’s occasional exclamations.

“The thing about Hangul is you can learn it in three hours. It’s easier than the English alphabet. The images in Hangul are based on the shapes our mouths make when we say those sounds, so essentially, Hangul is sequential art—like a comic. So when I started to make a comic in Korea, obviously I had to use the little bits of Hangul I knew.”

Comic artist Jordan Crane’s use of abstract shapes to represent sounds was also an inspiration. “It’s more fluid. I’d rather be shown the sound than read it. Comics have such a strong visual language that I find it disappointing when a beautiful comic is burdened by so many words.”

His protagonist Voguchi was based squarely on his friend Vanessa, a Japanese-Canadian he’d met in Ireland. “She came to visit me in Korea for a week. She’s a photographer, and we were always roughing each other up about our real careers. I told her I really wanted to do a comic, and she said, c’mon, do one and stop whining.

“Literally, the Monday she left, while my kids were working, I started drawing her, in exactly the same skirt and vest and socks she’d worn to Korea. She said she loved squid, and squid is everywhere in Korea, so of course I drew one in there.

“That’s how it started—that, and letting myself be open to anything that was happening subconsciously at the time. It was like a big pot and I was just chucking all sorts of stuff in to see what happened.”

Animals of the anima

What happened is that Forsythe’s charming little vignettes eventually converged into a larger, increasingly cryptic fable, one that surprised Forsythe as much as anyone. “I was feeding on a lot of subconscious ideas. I’m sure an analyst could have a field day with all that,” he says.

“I always wanted the short strips to be part of a larger arc, and subconsciously, I felt like I was starting on a hero journey with her. Things were happening without me scripting them that afterwards, when I learned about proper story writing, I realized were actually part of a larger arc. Now, I didn’t want to impose that arc on the strip format, but I did want it to feel like it was going somewhere.”

Voguchi’s journey goes somewhere and everywhere—under the sea, high in the sky, deep into strange wooded realms—and odd entities populate each patch of her path. “I was definitely letting little archetypes play through. A lot of that has its basis in Japanese and Korean comics. If you look at the work of [Princess Mononoke creator] Hayao Miyazaki, all sorts of iconic little characters are everywhere.”

It’s worth noting that Forsythe’s contributing a piece to the Totoro Forest Project, a charity art show/Miyazaki tribute at Pixar’s San Francisco headquarters. “Miyazaki’s a master at creating spirits and creatures that have always existed in our subconscious, but we’ve never seen them before. When you’re working with [such iconic creatures], it’s weird, you can feel when they actually exist—when they’re natural as opposed to being forced to do something. That’s the goal with a lot of these creatures, to create things that resonate with us.

“I feel very comfortable with that world, and I want to keep it going. I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface.” To continue with Ojingogo, Forsythe plans to return to Korea this fall. “It’s called the Hermit Kingdom for a reason. There’s really not that much reference material, so for research purposes, I want to go back and get some inspiration.”

And some reactions to Ojingogo, perhaps? “I sent my minis to my former students in Korea. One of them wrote me back and said, man, your Korean is horrible, but your drawings are very good.”

You might also like


Select Your Location: