Yuko Ota & Ananth Hirsh Tackle Autobiography & Feline Popularity in Our Cats Are More Famous Than Us

Comics Features Ananth Hirsh & Yuko Ota
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Yuko Ota & Ananth Hirsh Tackle Autobiography & Feline Popularity in <i>Our Cats Are More Famous Than Us</i>

JWOMNI COVER ONI PRESS EDITION 4x6 COMP.jpg Yuko Ota and Ananth Hirsh may humbly claim that their cats are more popular than they are, but their prodigious output under the Johnny Wander banner suggests otherwise. From the bumbling twentysomething dramedy of Lucky Penny to the fantasy-tinged Barbarous to the autobiographical comics collected in the absolutely massive Our Cats Are More Famous Than Us—out this week from Oni Press—Ota and Hirsh have cultivated a passionate, wide-ranging fanbase thanks to their inviting tone, Ota’s vibrant art and their willingness to experiment. To celebrate the wide release of Our Cats Are More Famous Than Us, which collects nearly a decade of single-page, often single-color, relatable post-college slices-of-life from the duo, Paste chatted with Ota and Hirsh to discuss the oddity of telling personal stories to internet strangers, the unifying themes behind their diverse output and, of course, what their cats think about being immortalized in print.

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Paste: Obvious first question: how are your cats and how do they feel about this omnibus hitting shelves?

Yuko Ota: We keep telling Rook and Cricket about it, but it seems to be off their radar. They’re very important, you know. They both have important schedules to keep.

Ananth Hirsh: We showed them the advance copies and instead they took a nap in the box. They’re excited in their own way…

Paste: Johnny Wander is unusual among webcomics in that you’ve used it as an umbrella for different projects, including the autobiographical comics collected here. Do you see a unifying thread between your works or was it just a practical decision to keep everything in one place?

Hirsh: The unifying thread is (hopefully) our writing voice! I’d like to think our work has a consistent tone even as we dive deeper on humor and character (in Lucky Penny, and more recently in Barbarous), but ultimately it’s up to readers and critics to decide that kind of thing. It was definitely a practical decision to make Johnny Wander an umbrella for our work—in fact, we took it heavily into account when we redesigned our website. One of my biggest requests was being able to create hierarchies within the archive—nesting chapters inside of storylines and so on.

Ota: When Ananth and I started Johnny Wander, we wanted to dabble with a bunch of different projects and have a single place to put all of it. We like our stories to contain small nods to each other; the repetition of characters and occasional friends showing up in places, that little crow demon we use as our logo has shown up in every project we’ve ever done together. Osamu Tezuka used a “Star System,” where he treated characters like actors and filled roles as needed. We’ve done that to a smaller extent; if you read our short fiction, a few faces will show up over and over again.

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Our Cats Are More Famous Than Us Interior Art by Yuko Ota

Paste: You ran an extremely successful Kickstarter for this hardcover—how did it end up at Oni, too?

Ota: It was actually our manager, George Rohac, who set it up; we’d already done something similar with Lucky Penny, our Oni book from 2016. It wound up being a really beneficial relationship for the both of us. We each get a different version of the book (each has a completely different cover but the guts are the same) and the people who buy directly from us versus the book market don’t overlap very much. A few incredible people buy both versions.

Hirsh: There’s an idea that if a creator and a publisher both publish the same book, they’re each undercutting the other, but, in my experience, that’s simply not the case. The online comics creator and the publisher barely share an audience. I think our experience with the success of Lucky Penny reflects this; Oni sold many times the books we did, via avenues that we don’t have access to, and, in the meantime, we were able to sell our own copies and make a living wage. That’s a win for the publisher as well because it means the creator can focus on making comics. George helped us work out the deal with Oni, Oni was brave enough to give it a shot, and we’re really happy with how it’s worked out.

Paste: Is it odd to put so much of your daily lives out there for strangers to follow? We’ve never met but I feel like I know so much about you (and your cats) from reading along. I imagine you’ve had friends learn about life events via Johnny Wander before hearing about them from you personally.

Ota: Haha honestly sometimes, yeah! We’ve never put anything too revealing about ourselves in the comics, but it was still weird to meet a stranger and have them ask Ananth how his hand was healing up and realize, Oh yeah, we did that comic about how a bookcase collapsed on him (he was fine—you can read about it)! And YEAH, whoops, a bunch of our friends did find out we got engaged from our comic. Sorry, friends. We still love you!

Hirsh: I remember once at a show we were having dinner with some new friends and I told a story, and they politely waited for me to finish and then very gently were like, “Yeah, we read it in your comic.” They were super nice about it! But I was like, Oh my god. I’m a parody of myself. It’s also happened that I bumped into friends from back in the day who it turned out were reading—they already knew a lot of what I’d been up to. That was nice—I was able to spend more time listening.

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Our Cats Are More Famous Than Us Interior Art by Yuko Ota

Paste: To that same point, what sort of nostalgia trap did you fall into while compiling this collection? It’s got to be like Facebook Memories turned up to 11.

Ota: Oh yeah, it was very nostalgia-trippy. Some of these comics I hadn’t read in maybe seven or eight years, and it’s very much a diary of being a newly minted bad-decision adult. It’s nice to see how far our lives progressed since then.

Hirsh: I was surprised at how much I had forgotten, honestly! It was nice to look back and see how much has changed for everyone.

Paste: From a creative rather than personal standpoint, what was your experience looking through your older artwork and writing? Were you at all tempted to go back and change or “fix” things that you might do differently at this stage in your careers—or omit anything too embarrassing?

Ota: It was difficult! I personally have a rough time looking at anything I’ve made that’s more than a few months old, and the first comic is nearly a decade old! I would like to take a moment to commend myself for not going back and completely redrawing entire comic pages, that one took an incredible force of will. Good job, me.

Hirsh: Good job, Yuko! We did look at the comics as a whole and think about how to simplify and tighten up the (very loose) narrative, so we did make a few changes in that regard.

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Paste: Almost all of the strips collected here are humorous or lighthearted. Was there a conscious decision to skew to the happier side of life or is that just an honest reflection of the post-college time period you chronicled?

Ota: It was a very conscious decision; when Ananth and I started making autobio comics we laid down some basic ground-rules for what we did and didn’t want to touch on. No hardships, no inter-personal stuff, nothing mean. We wanted to do something that technically starred us and our friends but was really about whoever was reading the comic.

Hirsh: When we started we were reading a lot of Yotsuba&!. Our baseline was that we wanted to make very relatable autobio comics and all of the rules came from that. Here’s another rule: we didn’t want to make comics about “making comics”—nothing really meta. There are pages where Yuko’s at her drawing desk, but then a cat busts in and it’s really all about that naughty cat. Drawing comics isn’t universal; pets are universal.

We wanted the comics to be highly relatable because any comic we starred in was going to be diverse by default. Our ideal reaction to a comic was, “Hey, this is just like me and my friends!” which we’ve heard over and over again… and our response to that is: “Yes, we are.”

Paste: It’s been about a year now since you posted an autobiographical comic—do you feel like that creative chapter is over for you, or is it just less of a priority as you create other fiction projects?

Ota: We find that doing fiction allows us more creative freedom; we feel more comfortable talking about a larger breadth of experiences. That said, while autobio stories are a lower priority for us, they’re not off the table entirely! I really enjoy drawing travelogue comics and don’t see myself stopping those anytime soon.

Hirsh: The autobio isn’t gone forever! But I think they’ve reached a stage where I want to sit on them for a while and we can return to them after we’ve cut our teeth on some more complicated projects.

Ota: Please rest assured that the cats are still very naughty and still sleep in my house plants.

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Our Cats Are More Famous Than Us Interior Art by Yuko Ota

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