“Between the Panels” is a bi-weekly interview series focusing on comic book creators of all experience levels, seeking to examine not just what each individual creates, but how they go about creating it.
Scan the eclectic resumes of twin brothers Matt and John Yuan and you’ll find acting roles in such projects as Arrested Development and Observe and Report alongside their work writing and illustrating comics (not to mention time as owners of a comic store). The duo has been “in the trenches” of different creative industries, collecting both battle scars and wisdom — though they might dispute that word — along the way.
First, the basics…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.):
John Yuan: It depends. On Love Town and Serving Supes, I’m the penciler and inker. Matt is the penciler and inker on Inspector Oh. And then, Matt letters and colors the titles as needed.
Matt Yuan: And we split writing duties. John takes the lead on writing Love Town, and I take the lead on IO. We split the job evenly on SS.
Your home base: Los Angeles, CA
Twitter: We avoid Twitter like the plague. We have an account, but the less said about it the better.
Current project titles:
Serving Supes (Devil's Due/1First Comics)
Inspector Oh (Devil's Due/1First Comics)
Love Town (Devil's Due/1First Comics)
Kevin Sharp, Fanbase Press Contributor: Big question first: Why comics? What attracts you to working in the comics form specifically?
John Yuan: We chose comics for a variety of reasons. For one, we’re constantly doodling. We’d draw on our homework and turn in assignments in either play or comic book form. In college, I turned a punitive assignment into a twelve-page comic about two exchange students in Germany looking for a place to eat. Probably the only time I ever got an A in that class.
Matt Yuan: We aren’t sure who said it first, but we recall Bill Sienkiewicz saying it, so he gets credit. We didn’t choose comics, comics chose us.
KS: The simplest version of your professional logline is something like: “Twin brothers make the leap from acting in movies to creating comics.” Was there a moment — speaking broadly here, it doesn’t have to be a literal moment — that led to you making that leap?
MY: There’s one broad moment and two specific moments to this. The first was our friends, Duncan, Angela, Mark, and Manuel, constantly telling us we should make a comic book. But we didn’t because we were feckless hooligans at the time and wouldn’t listen to sound advice if it had bitten us on the face.
JY: The first specific moment was when Jared Sams — a very talented comic creator himself — pretty much threw down the gauntlet and challenged us to make a comic. We gave him the usual excuses: “We don’t have time,” “We don’t have the discipline”… and he basically called BS on that. He was working a full-time job, didn’t know how to draw, letter, or color, so he taught himself how to and said if he could, we had no excuse whatsoever. And so we made out first comic, a self-published title called Declan and Chang: Sweet F.A.
KS: And your next leap was from that to working with a publisher. How did your first pro gig come about?
MY: That leads to our second specific moment. That came when Steve Stern, the creator of Zen: Intergalactic Ninja, walked into the comic book store we owned at the time and recognized us from our acting. He saw John inking an issue of Declan and Chang and was surprised that we made comics, too. He told us we should meet the publisher and owner of 1First Comics, Ken Levin, and so we did and after batting around a few ideas we pitched him Serving Supes and he liked it enough to publish it.
[Author’s Note: Their store, the former Cool Cats Comics & Cards in West Los Angeles, is now part of a luggage repair shop. RIP.]
KS: Looking back before then, around what age did reading comics first become part of your lives? Did you have early favorite characters or titles?
MY: We were probably around three or four years old when we first started reading comics, and those were Daredevil and Green Lantern, so, by default, they were our favorites.
JY: But it wasn’t until we were around ten that we really got into comics. John Byrne’s Fantastic Four, Chris Claremont’s run on X-Men. And anything Alan Davis did.
KS: Talk about your current workspace or studio setup.
JY: This is the disaster area I call my workspace. A Chilean soccer team went missing here a few years back, but the scratching from beneath all that mess has stopped, so I think they’re okay now.
MY: I kind of have two spots since I draw using pencil, ink, and paper, but do everything else with a computer. Like John, my work areas are complete slums.
KS: Comics collaboration typically occurs among writers, artists, inkers, letterers, etc. In your case, though, there are two minds at work before it ever gets to anyone else. What’s your process like when it comes to actually putting ideas together for a project?
MY: Let’s go with Serving Supes. We’ve already got characters and so we know what they’ll do in a given situation, so our job now is to give them situations. These ideas for situations can be as vague as “guys go to the grocery store” or as detailed as two or three paragraphs.
JY: We bounce ideas off of each other until we hear something we like. And once we’ve decided that we like something, we have to decide whether it’s an A-story or a B-story.
MY: If we’re lucky, we’ll have a basket of these disconnected situations after a few days of brainstorming. Now, we get to see which character will fit in to what situation.
JY: After we’ve figured that out, we get to see which A-story fits with which B-story.
MY: And through this process of fitting pieces together, we just get a sense of who has a greater grasp on this particular story, and that’s the one who gets to take the lead on the script. They write the first draft, the other does the first round of rewrites, back and forth, until we don’t hate the script or ourselves anymore.
KS: On a related note, do you have a set daily or nightly work routine?
JY: [It] consists of going for a nightly drive for about an hour to clear our heads. Then, we come back home, work until four or five in the morning, and then fall unconscious.
MY: It’s probably not healthy for us, but it makes for a darned fine anecdote.
KS: What about music while you work?
JY: We listen to all sorts of stuff. Nothing too modern since most of the stuff coming out today makes my teeth hurt.
MY: The soundtrack from Streets of Fire is good writing music. Roy Orbison, Billy Bragg, Elvis Costello...
JY: Queen, Marc Cohn, Tom Waits, Magnetic Fields. And Jay and The Americans.
MY: We say that mainly to annoy our friend Frank.
KS: You’ve also had experience on both sides of the movie camera. How would you compare the collaborative experience between moviemaking (at any budget level) and creating a comic? Obviously, a film has more moving parts and thus more people involved, but what about the process itself?
JY: Creatively, comics are a lot easier to handle than TV/film.
MY: For example, in comics, a scene between two people drinking coffee and a scene between two armies blowing the galaxy apart cost pretty much the same. In a movie, a producer will definitely be telling you to tone down the special effects.
JY: And because there are just the two of us, last-minute changes or improvisations aren’t going to mess anyone up. We can change dialogue all day long and no one will care. Do that on a movie set, and the script supervisor is gonna crawl up your @ss with a number two pencil and a really big eraser.
MY: Most importantly, the characters in a comic don’t back chat. They do what you want them to unquestioningly. If they begin challenging you on eyelines, dialogue, development, and motivations, your break with reality is complete and you should probably check yourself into a home.
KS: Since you work in multiple writing disciplines, how do you know when a story is more right for one format over another? What makes an idea an obvious fit for comics instead of a screenplay?
JY: For us it is entirely dependent upon whether or not we want to see the character over the span of multiple storylines. If we do, it’s a comic. If we can wrap it all up in one go, it’s a screenplay.
KS: Hypothetical time: You have the chance to collaborate together on one story featuring an established character or team. Who do you pick?
JY: If Matt Wagner ever said he wanted us to do a Grendel Tales story, then we’d have to do that.
KS: Give me one word that sums up an important trait for being successful in the creative arts business.
JY: “BS Detector.” Is that two?
MY: Use it as often as possible on yourself and others. When your work passes the test, it’s good enough to go out into the world.
KS: What’s a comic or graphic novel by someone else that you look at with awe or admiration?
JY: Marshal Law by Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill. It was such a brilliant deconstruction of superheroes combined with a savage humor that many people try but fail miserably at. It was one of the first exposures we had to what comics could be beyond capes and super powers. And Kevin O’Neill’s art is so immersive. You can read that series again and again and still pick up stuff you missed the first fifteen times.
KS: Finally, talk little about your most recent or upcoming projects.
JY: We’re wrapping up the first story arc to Love Town as we speak. We have more issues of Inspector Oh and Serving Supes in the pipeline. And 1First Comics is interested in printing new Declan and Chang adventures as well as reprinting the stuff we self-published.