Smash Pages Q&A | Jeremy Holt

The writer of ‘After Houdini’ discusses their two recent projects, ‘Made in Korea’ and ‘House of Slay.’

For 12 days, we’re looking back at the 2021 that was in the world of comics, with interviews, commentary and more.

Jeremy Holt is the writer behind a number of comics including the books After Houdini and Before Houdini, and the Comixology Original series Virtual Yours, but 2021 has been a big year for them. The six issue miniseries Made in Korea that Holt made with George Schall came out from Image Comics, with the collection coming out in January. It’s a stunning story, but perhaps even more than being a good story about artificial intelligence and a world where “synthetics” live amongst us, it’s notable for how Holt managed to find a new angle on the idea. Holt is open about being an adoptee and framing the story of AI as a story of adoption is incredibly obvious, but that metaphor adds insight and clarity and reframes a lot of the issues in important ways.

Last month Tapas began serializing House of Slay, which Holt made with cover artist and designer Kevin Wada, artist Too Lee, colorist Kimi Lee, and editor Alex Lu. The story features fashion designers Prabal Gurung, Phillip Lim, Laura Kim of Oscar De La Renta, and Tina Leung and Ezra J William and turns them into superheroes. After a year with two very different high profile projects, I reached out to Holt to talk about artificial intelligence, how projects cross-pollinate, and finding their voice.

This has been a big year for you with Made in Korea and House of Slay coming out. And I will say that I’m glad we’re talking now that the collection of Made in Korea is coming out because it takes a lot of turns over six issues.

I like hearing that from people. I agree, to an extent, but at the same time I’ve always seen it as a very linear story. It’s nice that the cliffhangers that I’ve written are really having an impact.

I’m not saying it’s not linear. Everything that happens has been set up. However I don’t think most of us who started the first issue necessarily expected where issues 4 and 6 went, but you seem to enjoy that. I mean the smile you had when I said that.

[laughs] Well that’s me. I’m curious to know what you were expecting based on issue #1.

So many AI stories touch on the metaphor of adoption. Spielberg’s A.I. comes to mind. Many have this idea of the metaphor of parenting and childrearing and you set up that it will be about culture clash and how this society functions and synthetics role in it and the series quickly becomes less about that and moves in a different direction.

I don’t really remember which film or television series I was watching that gave me the idea that like you said, most AI stories at their core are essentially an adoption experience, but no one’s done it directly. Spielberg might be the closest and that wasn’t his intent. He was trying to make Kubrick’s screenplay a reality. For me I just thought that it was sort of the perfect vehicle and the perfect lens to view my own experiences as a Korean adoptee and to just expand upon that feeling in a more relatable way through artificial intelligence. I think if I was to do a slice of life adoption story, I don’t think it would have resonated with as many people as it has because I think a lot of people just really enjoy AI stories. I enjoy them. I thought it was a perfect pairing. And I’m honestly surprised no one’s done it this way before me.

When I read it, and saw the frame, it made perfect sense. So many others have gone up to the line but no one has ever done it in this way. Now that you’ve pointed it out, it’s so obvious. Honestly, how come no one has done this before? And it’s interesting that Spielberg didn’t because he has adopted children.

Exactly! And as far as some of the twists that occur in issues 2, 3, and 4, I was specifically writing what I knew. Working a day job in tech support at a school in a public school system in Vermont. The fact that I’ve had to do active shooters training every year. The fact that there was almost a school shooting at the middle school I worked at a few years ago. There were some realities that I couldn’t ignore. I got really tired of the thoughts and prayers response to active shooters and mass shootings. The fact that this has been going on, as far as I can tell, since Columbine. So over twenty years at this point. I’ve heard about school districts designing schools that have curved walls so it’s harder to get shot at. To me that’s missing the point. At the same time, I didn’t write this story to solve that problem. I essentially wanted to live vicariously through the protagonist and see someone do something in that situation that we’ve never seen happen before.

George and I were very deliberate on what we were going to show as far as violence. We had lots and lots of conversations about it. The fun thing about making comic books is that it’s very normal to wake up on a weekend and you get a call from your co-creator who’s been up working and they’re rattling off ideas. I had this moment where George called me and really wanted to discuss all the different ways that Jesse the protagonist would defend herself. Would she lean on retribution? Would she take the high road? It was a really interesting conversation to have about this character and the choices she’s making. We talked through a lot of different scenarios about what she would do once she realizes she’s been lied to. What does betrayal feel like for the first time? As adults we maybe forget the first time we were betrayed. And so that collaborative process is really what I love about comics and it’s been such a joy making this series with George.

What happens when she encounters what it means to be human. How do we deal with it? How would an AI deal with it? And that touches on the public conversations around the fact that despite what some people claim, tech is not neutral. It’s programmed with biases.

Absolutely. It’s true. The story was originally greenlit three years ago and as frustrated as I was that it didn’t happen three years ago, I’m so happy that it came out when it has. Some really important pivotal things have happened in cinema and entertainment regarding representation. Specifically Asian-American representation and Asian representation. I feel fortunate that it came out when it has because I really don’t think that it would have received the reception three years ago that it has received.

As far as representation, when we spoke two years ago you made a point of saying Im done writing white male protagonists.”

I’ve been saying that for years!

What does it mean for you and what does it mean to be Asian-American, to be non-binary, and to think differently about what’s possible to write about and explore.

It’s expanded my horizons narratively and creatively. That was the big life hack that I realized. I was shying away from a lot of the things that were really strong influences on my work like my upbringing, my unique experience of being a Korean adoptee, being an identical triplet, and living overseas half my life. I was not utilizing any of that stuff because I was focused on trying to tell a story that I thought someone – whether an audience or an editor – would be into. I was really writing for them. When I stopped doing that in 2017 and started writing for myself – audiences and editors be damned, I just want to write what I’m into – that’s when I started seeing way more publishing success. Which was the goal. I think if you can write authentically, it resonates on a level that gets people to turn pages, and subscribe to your series, and add it to their pull list. 

Did that help you to find your voice in a way that you hadn’t been able to previously?

Yeah. It’s been odd and slightly disorienting trying to navigate my career while having a very white sounding name. For many years I was living under this shadow of my name because if you haven’t met me, you’re assuming I’m just another white person writing comics. I’ve seen this criticism on twitter around Made in Korea where people have said, here’s another white person co-opting Asian narratives. You could have clicked on my profile! I thought for many years when I wasn’t finding that success that maybe I needed to change my name to something more Asian for that representation. I’m glad I didn’t do that because I would have been doing it for all the wrong reasons. I’m proud of my name. I’m proud that you don’t expect me when you see my name. That’s part of being a Korean adoptee. That’s part of living with the complexities of the Asian diaspora. I’m embracing all of it in a more holistic and genuine way and not trying to use it as some weird stepping stone. It’s something I’m wearing proudly and I think it’s just about writing more authentically, being more gentle with yourself, and be able to learn to hold space for myself and people around me. It’s opened me up and enabled me and emboldened me to write stories that are much closer to home than I’ve ever written. And that’s the stuff people like! I’m not the only one with these types of problems.

I think you can see that in Made in Korea which is in some ways very personal, but it’s also an allegory and a complicated day after tomorrow science fiction story. It’s all of these things and opens up possibility of what those things mean. Allows people to understand your own story and also finds a way to place that personal story in a larger and different context.

I think so. And within a context that, I think, is pretty engaging from the start. I think artificial intelligence stories are endlessly fascinating. It was daunting to take that on initially because to me it was almost like trying to reinvent the wheel, so to speak, but working with George and developing the story and just seeing how people have been responding to it has been wonderful.

How did you get involved in House of Slay?

I was packing up my apartment in Vermont to move to Brooklyn at the end of June and I was approached by these two producers who were tasked with looking for a writer to take on this work for hire gig turning these very famous five Asian Americans into superheroes. At the time I was like, I can’t, I’m starting this new job, I’m uprooting my life. When I told my therapist that I wasn’t going to take the gig, he said, do you know what the difference between amateurs and professionals are? Professionals do it even when they don’t want to. So I took that to heart and I went back to the producers and said, I will do this. I contacted my job and said, I’m going to be delayed a month. So I spent all of July writing this thing. It was an insanely tight deadline. I needed to produce a project bible. I needed to interview each of them because I was going to write their likeness in the story. I needed to craft a superhero mythology from scratch. And I needed to deliver the entire book in four weeks. So that’s all I did for July and I hit my deadline a few days early. It’s been cool to see the press that it’s been getting in non-comic book circles. Because these five don’t really work in comics in any way. Their influence and reach is getting people to read a comic book which is cool.

That sounds like an insane month, but also an exciting month. You’ve worked hard over the years to be a point where someone will offer you a project with a crazy deadline but you go, yes. 

Absolutely. Around the same time I got an e-mail from an editor at Marvel and the subject line was “Marvel work?” I was like, what? [laughs] The editor said, I read Made in Korea and we have a mutual friend who was talking you up. I need a writer for this five page short story in an anthology, are you interested? I said, absolutely. He said, okay, I need a pitch by tomorrow, and I need the script in a week. I said, okay. I did that while I was packing. I’ve been honing and sharpening this craft over ten plus years and this is the exact opportunity I was preparing myself for. I knew based on my own writing process that that wasn’t going to be a problem. The only hurdle is if the editor didn’t like my pitch, then I’m dead in the water, but he liked it. I was able to script it in a day and then got notes and revised it.

How long is House of Slay?

It is a 48 page comic book getting delivered in four page chapters on the Tapas app. That was also a very unusual request because I can write a cliffhanger on page 22 and then I do mini cliffhangers on every odd numbered page, but to structure these mini cliffhangers for every fourth page was interesting. It was really awesome to get to know the five of them. I’ve become friends with them and it’s really remarkable to engage with and interact with these very prominent Asian American figures and the community that they’ve built in a place as large as New York City is really impressive. It’s nice to tag along and be the fly on the wall of their lives, because their lives are absolutely insane. 

I was going to ask about serialization because it is a different kind of storytelling and requires a different structure. Reading the first few chapters it doesn’t feel like a very choppy four page chunks. 

I definitely had in mind the four page cliffhangers, but I wrote it as one complete manuscript. That’s how I write all my stories. Whether it’s a graphic novel or a miniseries, I still structure it with 22 page chapters. This time it was 4 page chapters. I like writing it that way so there’s versatility for whether it comes out serialized or in one whole thing. It was interesting to write this project where there were obvious guidelines I needed to consider and boundaries and certain narratives that they wanted me to incorporate. One being their friendship which was very important to the story. To come up with a superhero mythology from scratch was a very daunting task. I will give full credit to falling down an internet rabbit hole starting with Shang-Chi that led me down all these avenues, and I was able to come up with something in about two days. They also wanted me to explore the anti-Asian hate that’s been going on. I had to be very careful about that and I wanted to write it as a genuinely as possible. But it was also fun to come up with superpowers for each of them that would be powerful individually and would work together when they team up. 

To come up with the villain was a challenge, but the character that I wrote for the Marvel short is this character Silhouette who was a team member of the New Warriors in the mid-90s. Her ability is to teleport through shadows so while I was writing that, shadows were something about I was thinking about constantly and then when I was switching my brain from that project to this, shadows were on my brain and it helped me come up with a villain – and to depict villainy in a very interesting visual way. It certainly suited the story of House of Slay and they all really liked it. It’s funny how stories can cross pollinate like that.

For House of Slay you have this team of people working on it, but it sounds like initially you were kind of on your own.

Alex Lu, my editor, was there from the beginning, but yeah. I was tasked with turning them into superheroes. [laughs] I think the one note at the very beginning that Kevin [Wada] got was that they all had to look sexy. I mean, it’s Kevin. They’re in good hands. [laughs] It was crazy. I wasn’t given a whole lot of guidance so I was left to my own devices. With my process, sometimes I look back on something I wrote and I amaze myself. I came up with that? Especially lines of dialogue. Dialogue is something I save for the absolute last part of the process. I do that because it keep the dialogue fresh, but the drawback is that I often don’t remember the dialogue I’ve written because it’s almost like an afterthought. It’s filling in these narrative beats and I’m punctuating those beats with words, almost like a song.

So you’re plotting it out. You know the story beats, the emotional beats, the information that needs to be conveyed, but the phrasing is almost an afterthought.

Right. It’s a method that I learned from Joe Casey. I used to cohost a writers podcast many many moons ago and we used to bring on friends or industry professionals. It was co-hosted by myself, Kurtis Wiebe and Ryan K Lindsay and we were very fortunate to have some pretty big names on to talk to us about their process. I was part of the episode with Joe Casey and he talked about his process which is basically what I just described. Then I found out this year that he changes his process every few years so he doesn’t even remember that process now.

Will there be more House of Slay?

I do not know. That is to be determined. I don’t know what the plan is for that. 

This has been a big year for you, but I feel like the subtext of every conversation about work this year and last has been about rethinking our lives and what we want to do. What are you working on? What are you thinking about next?

I recently signed a new deal for another series, which I can’t really talk about. And I’ve been really spending a portion of this year trying to develop ideas for the middle grade market and the YA market. Which is not really my forte. I don’t really think about stories from that perspective. It’s a fun writing exercise and challenge for me because in my last apartment I had this piece of paper taped to the wall in front of my desk – Make It Fun. I will write something so dark and twisted and then I have to take ten thousand steps back and make it fun. That’s been a really interesting challenge for me. Specifically writing for middle grade, there are so many rules involved that I have to consider and certain things I can’t discuss or show, but I would really like to try to push the boundary on that. I’ve been developing this story that I’m excited about that deals with identity. Surprise surprise. There is a superhero component to it, which is interesting because writing superhero stories doesn’t really grip me, and reading superhero stories doesn’t necessarily grip me, but I came up with something that I haven’t seen anywhere.

I’m excited that Made in Korea is going to get its first foreign publication. I’m trying to get it translated into Korean, obviously. I think that’s going to happen. I’ve never had a book translated so it’ll be fun to see mine and George’s story have a new life in a different country.

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