Smash Pages Q&A: Ryan Estrada and Kim Hyun-Sook

Ryan Estrada talks about being a globetrotting cartoonist, and his wife Kim Hyun-Sook discusses the real story behind ‘Banned Book Club.’

2020 was quite a year for Ryan Estrada: Iron Circus published two of his graphic novels: Banned Book Club (co-written with his wife, Kim Hyun Sook, with art by Ko Hyung-Ju), which was published in both Korea and North America, and the middle-grade graphic novel Student Ambassador, co-created with artist Axur Eneas.

Banned Book Club received rave reviews, including starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly. It was also a Junior Library Guild selection and made numerous best-of-the-year lists, including NPR, The Beat and YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens. Student Ambassador‘s debut was a little quieter, but it’s a very clever, insightful graphic novel and one of my own choices for best of the year.

Kim Hyun-Sook and Ryan Estrada. Credit: Stacy Shmittling

I interviewed Estrada and Kim via e-mail (they live in Korea) about Banned Book Club, Student Ambassador and the comics life in general.

Ryan, you seem to live a carefree life traveling around and making comics. Is that really what you do? And how has COVID changed your life?

I have lived a life of terrible decisions and horrible disasters, but because I am so excited by the new experiences, and no one has had to suffer the consequences of them but me, I absolutely do live a carefree life!

For about a decade, I moved to a new country every year. Not because I was wealthy, but because my meager online comics work meant I could work from anywhere but could not afford to live in America.

I slept on park benches in Japanese typhoons, I fainted atop Mount Kilimanjaro, I was thrown from a train in India, I shipwrecked a kayak on the island from the Leonardo DiCaprio movie The Beach, I got caught in a Peruvian coca war, I went skinny dipping with piranhas in the Amazon, and more other stories than I can recount.

I’m settled down now in South Korea, but not because of COVID. Hyun Sook and I have built a wonderful life and artistic community here over the last eight years.

Kim and Estrada with the mayor of Changwon City. Credit: Changwon City.

You also have wide-ranging interests. Banned Book Club is very different from Student Ambassador, and I loved your comic about how COVID initially spread in Korea. What do your comics have in common?

Traveling to so many places, meeting so many people and having so many experiences has definitely broadened the types of stories that I tell. But I think the main thing that ties them all together is curiosity about the world. In Banned Book Club, Hyun Sook is curious about forbidden knowledge. In Student Ambassador, Joseph is curious about world cultures and languages. I write characters who are captivated by all the same things that I am fascinated by and I either report what the effects of that were in non-fiction or go wild imagining what COULD spin out of that for non-fiction.

I remember when I was writing a lot about Kickstarter and webcomics, you were experimenting with things like pay-what-you-want bundles. What did you learn from that? How are you monetizing your comics now?

I learned that Kickstarter is an amazing tool for artists that changed the game. I learned that people are shockingly generous when it comes to new pay-what-you-want comics, but after a book is a few months old, buyers will pay the minimum amount every single time. I also learned that I am a terrible businessman.

I had a lot of successful projects, but my passion lies in creating art I am proud of, with artists I love, and paying them as well as I can for their work. This means my Kickstarters were all massive projects where everyone got paid except for me, who usually invested a couple thousand extra just because I got super excited about a bonus guest artist or guest star.

I do not regret a single one of these! I’d do it all over again! Which is why I realized I’m better off letting someone else handle the monetization end. This is why I’m working with publishers and agents for all my newest projects, letting them handle the budget of things while I can just go nuts writing scripts.

Banned Book Club

Here’s the first question for Hyun Sook: I know Banned Book Club is based on real events. Were you personally involved in the book club or the other protests? What did you do?

Hyun Sook: Oh yes! Everything in the book actually happened. We just had to fit four years of memories and many hours of interviews into a single story, so we had to compress the time, combine characters, and sometimes change the order that things happened.

Just like in the book, I joined the book club, and I eventually became the public relations officer for the Women’s Student Council, which was kind of a cover to travel around the country picking up and delivering banned books and materials.

I joined protests,and got tear gassed. I performed the masked folk dance about the monster that eats the rich. I had to prepare a handkerchief to cover my face both to avoid the gas and hide my identity.

What made you decide this was a story you wanted to tell?

Hyun Sook: I never imagined that I would tell this story. It wasn’t a secret, I just didn’t think anyone would be interested. It was just normal life for so many people in Korea at that time. Even when we interviewed the other book club members, they said “I will tell you anything you want, but who would want to read it?”

I just mentioned it to my husband one day, and he was so surprised. “What?” he asked me, “you were interrogated by the KCIA? For running an underground, illegal reading club?”

He posted about it on Twitter, because he has a big mouth. It was Spike, from our publisher Iron Circus, who had the idea to turn it into a book. She saw Ryan’s tweet and offered us a book deal.

Ryan: I was all-in. The chance to write a book about how cool my wife is? A dream job! I had heard very little of the story at that point, so I asked Hyun Sook if she thought there was enough to the tale to fill a whole book. She wasn’t sure.

So I started asking questions, and every answer blew my mind. I could not comprehend that I’d known her for 15 years without knowing any of this cool stuff.

Hyun Sook: As we worked more and more, I realized that to people who did not live through it, our story was unique. Then, by the time the book was finished, history had started repeating itself and the same things were happening all over the world. So suddenly our book became very timely!

You mention that it’s based on real people and events. How did you go about shaping these real things into a story?

Ryan: The most important thing for me was that this was not a story about politics but about people. I did a ridiculous amount of research on the history and the laws, I studied the politicians involved, I read all of the banned books, but I made sure I only included those details when they were important to the characters.

I told only the political facts that changed character’s perspectives and included only books and quotes that reflected the character’s emotional journeys.

I made sure that the way the characters grew and changed was the throughline, and we had so many amazing stories from Hyun Sook’s experiences and our interviews that we were able to fill out the world.

What sort of details were important to include? How did you think about bringing the reader into the setting?

Ryan: The most important details for me were the ones that Hyun Sook and our interviewees could not comprehend why I was asking about.

I was obsessed with the quality of Yuni’s homemade wine. How the kids all wanted to see the new R rated movie about a naked lady riding a horse. The logistics of sleeping in a lake and determining who gets to be in the hugging boat. This was a story about normal people trying to lead normal lives, and the tragedies were what was intruding on that. The idiosyncrasies are what give the history its weight.

I remember being absolutely fascinated by Hyun Sook’s dad’s steak restaurant. I was visiting him in the hospital, using Google translate to pepper him with questions about every detail. How he got the idea to open the first western restaurant in the city. How the customers had to be taught how to use forks. How he learned that his chef was a conman, only there to rob his safe.

Finally Hyun Sook was like “what does this have to do with anything?”

Hyun Sook: I thought he was so nosy.

Ryan: I got teary eyed and started frantically explaining “Don’t you see? He’s so brave! This is a perfect distillation of the societal pressure not to stick your neck out and strive for more than what you have, and the consequences that the community around you would place on such hubris! It shows instead of tells the readers the emotional state of every character when it comes to ideas that are outside the norm!”

But Google Translate couldn’t keep up, and he was confused so I just said, “Very good story, you are cool.”

Are there particular phrases or moments that really seemed to capture that time in your life? Are there things that remind you of it now?

Hyun Sook: My strongest memory is the moment I realized that I was in a banned book club meeting. I had heard many stories about students who had gone to jail for things like that, but I really thought it was just a normal study group. But the way they talked, I soon realized that I had accidentally joined an illegal resistance!

I am reminded of those days today when I read the news. Back then, newspapers could not tell the truth because they were censored. Now, they can print whatever they want, but they still end up printing lies just because that’s what gets clicks. They publish disinformation right out of politician’s mouths because that’s what makes money.

Have the real people whom you based this on seen it? If so, what did they think?

Hyun Sook: They were involved the whole way through. I traveled around Korea interviewing book club members, teachers, friends, and family to make sure their stories and points of view were included as well.

Ryan: She even interviewed people who she was surprised to learn still support the parties she was fighting against. So everyone’s perspectives are in there.

Hyun Sook: I am especially grateful to Kim Gyeong Yeoung and Kim Jongha who shared many of the stories we included. I gave them copies of the book as soon as it came out, and they liked it.

Ryan: What’s funny to me is that for the privacy and comfort of everyone involved, we changed the name of every character, the city, and the school. But they all enjoyed the book so much that every single one of them ended up putting out press releases to let everyone know the book was secretly about them! Gyeong Yeoung, who was the inspiration for Yuni, did her own press tour! The president of the university and the mayor of the city even invited us out to honor us at press conferences.

When I sat down for dinner with the real book club after the release, I was so nervous to ask how they felt about the book’s accuracy. I had been writing about crimes they committed and exploring their love lives. I worked from their memories, but I had to build the personalities and dialogue myself so I was worried that they might feel misrepresented. 

One member leaned in with a serious look on his face and said that yes, there was a problem. I tensed up, as he explained. He had no issues at all with the character, only that I had shown a type of tear gas being used in 1983 that was actually not in use until 1985.

Is there more to the story? Will there be another volume?

Ryan: I have been working for the last year on a followup book, but it’s not about Hyun Sook and her friends. Occulted is about a banned book club of another kind. It’s co-written with my friend Amy Rose who grew up in a cult just down the road from Heaven’s Gate and was watching the Hale-Bopp comet during their mass suicide. She was forbidden from reading books that would help her follow her dreams, since the world was soon coming to an end. But she snuck into a secret library to learn everything she needed to escape.

Hyun Sook has said many times that Banned Book Club was the only story she wanted to tell, but just this week after learning some more true stories I talked her into one more. I’m not sure what we’re going to do with it yet, but we just started writing A Banned Book Club Christmas.

Student Ambassador

Cover of Student Ambassador

Did you start out with the characters in your mind and work out a story for them, or did the story come first and the characters evolve to fit it?

Student Ambassador started with a disappointment. As a kid, I was selected to be a student ambassador to Australia. I had a full year to look forward to it and hype the trip up in my mind. I filled notebooks with illustrations of all the adventures I wanted to have.

What I got was a package tour. It was an amazing package tour, but I was being shown things, not doing things. I didn’t get to make a single discovery or solve a single mystery!

Over decades, the story I imagined just kept growing in my head.

The first Student Ambassador comic I made was a rejected anthology pitch around twenty years ago, and it was just the short scene where Joseph talks Nang out of war, and into a slumber party. That scene exists almost word for word in the graphic novel but expanded out from there as I had real life adventures and incorporated them into the story.

I assume Joseph will be in the next volume as well? How did you develop him as a character? He’s unusual in the way he listens to others and turns that around to change the situation. Where did that come from?

When I pitched Student Ambassador it came with outlines for the first nine sequels as well. I have plans for many, many Joseph Bazan adventures. I wanted to create a character whose superpower is empathy and active listening. It’s just a kind of character I rarely see, but strive to be like.

That said, writing a horrible, selfish jerk like Nang was a blast too. He brought so much comedy to the book that without calling too much attention to it, I was able to make Joseph’s solution to every problem be kindness. 

Can you really keep crocodiles at bay just by talking calmly to them?

Well, I worked for a day as an assistant gator wrangler on an independent film in Florida once, so I can tell you with absolute certainty that I have no idea. That said, I have spoken calmly to every wild animal I have ever met, and told them I loved them, and no one has eaten me yet.

I never got too close to wild crocs, but I did get lost in the Masaai Mara once, and chilled out at a giraffe carcass feeding party with a bunch of hyenas. They wandered up to check me out, but I talked softly to them and told them how handsome they were, and they left me alone.

I love that people will assume I am joking in the previous paragraphs, but I really do have a very bizarre life.

Even though it’s a very original story, Student Ambassador has a classic feel to it. Were you drawing on your memories of comics you read or movies you saw as a child?

The artist Axur Eneas really brought a classic Saturday Morning feel to the story. As the story evolved one thing that really influenced me were Dan Brown books. I am fascinated by how the dude can get away with writing the exact same book over and over by plugging in building names like mad libs, but also the way he uses interesting facts about the real world as clues in his mysteries makes them super fun every time. I tried to combine the fantasy-based adventure of kids’ books I loved with the reality-based mysteries of adult books. That’s why I added a joke where someone condescendingly refers to Joseph and Nang as “Robbie Langdon and the DaVinci kids.”

How is writing a middle-grade graphic novel different from writing one for adults?

To be completely honest, no matter what book I write, the target audience is myself. I just write the book that I would love to read. And the book that kid-Ryan would have loved isn’t going to be any different from the book adult Ryan will.

I originally wrote Student Ambassador as a book for grownups. It was years later that I realized it was middle grade. I changed almost nothing except for adding a little more context for real world things kids may not have learned about yet.

What was the most fun part about this book? 

What was a blast for me was reenacting the climactic chase scene across the city of Seoul. Much of the book takes place in real locations, using the history and architecture of places like Gyeongbok Palace.

I wanted the journey through and escape from the palace to feel absolutely real, and something readers could experience for themselves in the real world. So I booked a trip to Seoul and acted out the entire book. Where they enter, what bathroom Nang visits, where Joseph’s tour goes, the staircase they get chased down, the subway train they run through, the exit they get out at, the stores they pass are all real places I scouted out and photographed from the angles Joseph and Nang would see them from.

The PDF of reference images I sent to the art team was almost a graphic novel in and of itself, and it was mostly just a really fun day!

What can you tell us about the next Student Ambassador story? And will there be more after that?

Next up is Student Ambassador: The Silver City, and I am super excited to bring Joseph to my grandfather’s hometown of Zacatecas, Mexico. 

My favorite thing about writing this book is using the features of places I love to build an adventure story, and Zacatecas is tailor-made for that. It was over an old silver mine. But today the tunnels have turned it into an underground museum and night club that allows you to take a train into a mountain, walk through mining tunnels all the way across the city, take an elevator up through the center of a different mountain, and take a cable car back to where you started… thus doing a full 360-degree adventure tour under and over the city. 

Joseph is going to go all over, under and around the city to solve the case of the Mexican monsters. After that, I hope I can tell many many, more Student Ambassador stories.

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