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(Web)Comic Relief: An Interview with Artist Avalon Mao

Avalon Mao is an East Asian artist from the Chicagoland area, currently pursuing a degree in Design. She’s known best for her work on Motsuro Project, a webcomic of her own creation that boasts a cast of female protagonists, supernatural elements, and cultural references.

How did you get involved with art and web comic creation?

When I was in middle school and Twilight was all the rage amongst hormonal preteens, I decided to make mini, humorous comic strips about Bella and Edward. I think that’s what got the idea of comic-making permanently entrenched in my brain, along with the fact that I started reading graphic novels as an alternative to regular novels.

Then, during a point in my life where I became intensely spiritual and religious, I made it a goal of mine to make a graphic novel pertaining to the Christian Gospel. Obviously, that didn’t exactly come to fruition. One day I spoke to a friend, who knew of my endeavors, about the different elemental powers our friend group would have if we were to have said powers, and she suggested that I make that into a graphic novel! Knowing that publishing comics online is far more accessible than groveling at the feet of reluctant publishers, I decided to publish what was the early version of Motsuro Project on Comicfury.

What is Motsuro Project?

Motsuro Project is a story about four sino (of Chinese/Taiwanese/Hong Kong heritage) high school freshman girls who are permitted to attend a high-ranking, elite school under the condition that they beta-test for a virtual reality video game called “The Motsuro Project.” The Motsuro Project was started by the education department in order for underprivileged children in the city to subconsciously improve upon the things they have learned the previous day, since said underprivileged children have less access to help from parents and access to materials in general that will aid them in reaching the educational level of their more well-to-do classmates.

With the progression of playing The Motsuro Project, the teen girls—Samantha Chen, Vivian Huang, Kristine Zhang, and our heroine Dakota Wu—are confronted with an ever-increasing amount of mysteries. Each of its levels are contained in a different sort of universe; in one level the girls are immersed in an ancient Chinese setting where all the side characters are talking cats, and in another they must fight on the cliffs of zombie-infested mountains. The girls, in the video game, are also endowed with powers to control the elements.

How has Motsuro Project evolved since its creation?

Motsuro Project has evolved significantly since its creation! When I first started the story’s concept in eighth grade, it was initially going to be a primarily “shounen” style English-language manga with all the characters being Japanese in ethnicity and nationality. Honestly, I feel embarrassed even talking about it, since the story was very inauthentic at least to my own experiences and didn’t have much going for it aside from occasionally nodding towards preexisting, overdone anime tropes! However, upon going through a lot of personal trouble in the following years, along with existential crises (a lot of which pertain to my own faith in both my Christian belief system and in humanity as a whole), I’ve found incorporating these themes into Motsuro Project to be incredibly cathartic and also a meaningful way to parse through experiences and find a conclusion to pull out of the mélange of ups and downs that characterize a life—in other words, I’ve used Motsuro Project to sort through experiences of racism, misogyny, faith, and ableism that either I or my loved ones have gone through. Eventually I’ve come to hope that whoever reads Motsuro Project can, in some way, also find a way to make sense of the cluster of bigotry and confusing evil that always finds a way into their life, along with the ache for a better past and a better future that in some ways can be wholly unreachable.

Did you create Motsuro Project with a particular audience in mind?

Initially I was really creating it for myself. Now things have changed somewhat; even though I don’t go and imagine myself a niche for whom I can direct this webcomic to, I do try to stay mindful of the marginalized groups that are represented within my webcomic that I myself am not a part of—for instance, nearly every character in Motsuro Project is LGBTQ+; therefore, it’s imperative that I go out of my way to depict said characters in a sensitive way.

Even though I don’t start each page with a desired audience in mind, I do have an end aspiration that Motsuro Project will be a thought-provoking story that really makes the reader reflect on the good or bad they do and how some of these morals don’t change with context.

What inspires your work?

The amazing artwork of other illustrators as well as animators really inspires me! Therefore I try to start every page with an intention to improve something, regardless of how small, from the previous page. I could spend hours pouring over the work of accomplished visual artists on social media as well as on Behance and ArtStation. I’m also intrigued by successful cinematography and how filmmakers manipulate light, space, and sound for the explicit purpose of delivering a story. Also, unique life experiences and encounters with different individuals also finds their way into my work!

Do you have a certain style to your work?

For the East/Southeast Asian characters, I’ve been compelled to use a wide variety of shapes for their eyes, since I’m very much unwilling to apply Western assumptions on the “common” shape of Asian epicanthic folds that unfortunately superimposes a foreign sameness on each persons’ eyes. One of the issues with Western portrayals of East/Southeast Asians is an othering depiction that, consciously or not, lends to the idea that East/Southeast Asian individuals are one and the same, which, sadly, robs the characters of their distinct individuality and is frankly insulting to adult viewers and young ones who internalize these representations.

I’ve decided to break away from the seemingly monolithic representation of East/Southeast Asian eyes and make my East/Southeast Asian characters’ eyes as diverse as possible, which, perhaps unintentionally, makes the eyes of white characters more “other” in the fact that since East/Southeast Asian eyes are considered much smaller than white eyes, then by that logic white eyes must be abnormally large in comparison to East/Southeast Asian eyes!

I took this course of action not because I dislike white people’s eyes—everyone’s eyes are beautiful! However, it’s hurtful to see a body part so characteristic of a person’s ethnic origin derided so intensely. In lending an opportunity to have stigmatized facial features show their own beauty in my webcomic, in a sense I feel relinquished from the distaste the West—and oftentimes the East as well—has for monolids.

I also used the unique depiction of East/Southeast Asian eyes as a marker for who is East/Southeast Asian in my webcomic, since many mixed people of color aren’t immediately perceived as being “ethnic” in the first place by virtue of their appearance. In this way, I find I could depict mixed race East/Southeast Asian characters, allowing mixed East/Southeast Asian readers that don’t “look” as East/Southeast Asian to be able to see themselves in my webcomic!

What is meaningful to you about the work that you do?

One of my hopes and goals is that some young reader would, upon reading Motsuro Project, be able to think through and manage parts of their lives that are already confusing enough—say, for instance, with the rise of global tensions, the issue of inherent human goodness/evil. I also really hope for some comfort for the mentally ill readers, since a number of my main characters go through the same issues in their own lives. Since I’ve constructed much of the story while in a rather difficult phase of my life, a lot of Motsuro Project was making sense of the world around me, as well as recording the trials and tribulations of growing up. In a sense, Motsuro Project could be considered a sort of “coming of age” story of its own, which is meaningful not only to me but probably to another teenager in a trying situation of their own.

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