The Prince and the Dressmaker’s Jen Wang Talks High-School Habits, Sensitive Storytelling & Her Favorite Princesses

Comics Features Jen Wang
The Prince and the Dressmaker’s Jen Wang Talks High-School Habits, Sensitive Storytelling & Her Favorite Princesses

Jen Wang by Ye Rin Mok.JPGJen Wang’s new book, The Prince and the Dressmaker, out now from First Second, manages to be both fluffy and strong. That makes it sound like a fancy toilet paper, but it’s a great read, both as a story and as a whole bunch of lovely pictures. To call it a book about a prince who wants to wear dresses is reductive, but it is that, in part. It’s also a story about friendship and the amount of give and take it requires, and about what you owe yourself as a person with a creative drive, and how sometimes those two things can come into conflict. It’s also gorgeous and suited to a wide variety of ages, like a lot of the best YA literature. You can read it with your kids and discuss it with them, or you can hand it to them, or you can read it yourself, because you’ll likely enjoy it. Wang answered our questions over email, including some about how she got started making comics and, of course, who her favorite princesses are.


The Prince and the Dressmaker Interior Art by Jen Wang

Paste: We didn’t really talk about your artistic background/education in the last interview we did for Paste. How did you start drawing (and writing!) comics? Did you go to school for it? Or did you pick it up on the streets, in dens of ink-stained iniquity?
Jen Wang: I was a big manga reader in high school, and junior year, I started drawing a webcomic called Strings of Fate. Doing a webcomic has been like 85 percent of my comics education and I’m not even kidding. So much of what I do now is some routine or technique developed through trial and error while learning to draw comics and putting it online. In some way this is limiting because I have a very default way of working and it doesn’t lend itself very well to experimentation. But doing a full 250-page book in a year also requires having your technique locked down and ready to go so that’s worked for me so far. I didn’t go to art school so maybe that would’ve made a difference. But I also want young artists to know you don’t have to put yourself into art-school debt in order to do this! Just get started and put your comics online where people can see them. That’s the only way you’ll find out what kind of cartoonist you are.

Paste: Dang. What gave you the confidence to start doing a webcomic in high school? Did you grow up drawing a lot?
Wang: Privately I always enjoyed drawing and writing for myself. Then in high school I took a summer comics making class for teens and met a friend who was also really into manga and anime like me. She introduced me to webcomics and I thought, Oh, I can do this! Back in 1999, the webcomics community was super tiny so it wasn’t as intimidating as it would be today.

Paste: Do you make your living as a professional artist/comics person? What’s enabled you to do that?
Wang: I do currently. I think like a lot of freelancers, I take it year to year, because I never know what’s going to happen after the completion of each paid project. But I’ve also been tremendously lucky and privileged to get here. I went to a state liberal arts college that my parents paid for so I don’t have student loan debt, I don’t have dependents and I haven’t had any health issues or emergencies to worry about. I lived at home for a while I worked on my first book Koko Be Good. I had all the things I needed to focus on what I wanted which is something most people don’t have. Then I ended up making YA graphic novels for the children’s publishing industry which is one of the few areas you can get a decent advance. It’s not much and I live very frugally but I’ve been happy so far to be able to do this. If it all ends today I’ll be satisfied that it’s been a good run.

Paste: Are you a “Project Runway” fan?
Wang: Yes! Though admittedly I haven’t watch in years. But it’s one of those shows that if I’m channel surfing and it’s on I’ll definitely watch it. I love any shows about people doing craft.

The Prince and the Dressmaker Interior Art by Jen Wang

Paste: What’s your feeling about clothes in general? Form or function?
Wang: This is a tough one. I love the idea of fashion, dressing deliberately, and seeing it on other people, but in practice I’m a very throw-on-a-hoodie-and-jeans-and-roll-out-the-door-in-two-minutes kind of person. But maybe that’s just my subconscious deliberately expressing myself as a laidback and unassuming person? In either case I’m definitely a Frances. Love to be the person behind the scenes obsessing about the dress and not the person wearing the dress.

Paste: These colors are ridiculous. By which I mean: how do you come up with such gorgeous color palettes? What’s your process for developing one?
Wang: By the time I get to coloring it’s usually the last step and I’m a little creatively tapped out. So I don’t spend a ton of time building a concept for the coloring, but I do love seeing things take final form. A lot of it is thinking about the scene, what the mood is, and how to light it. By that point I’ve spent enough time with the book I already know what I want to achieve when I get to it.

Paste: I’d be interested to hear how the character designs evolved on this book. Frances and Sebastian seem almost the same except that their hair and their noses are like polar opposites.
Wang: When you have to draw characters over and over for a book you want designs you can poop out real quick. Frances and Sebastian are based off a default sketch I can do with my eyes closed, but with some variation so you can definitely tell them apart. I gave Sebastian a distinctive nose because it would be easy for the character to get lost in so many costume changes otherwise, and I think it worked!

Paste: What did you use for photo reference on this book? Which fashion designers inspired you?
Wang: Honestly Pinterest was a goldmine for photo reference for this book. Lots of references for French estates, costumes, props and department buildings. Luckily there’s a big historical costuming community on the internet that I’ve been able to pull resources from. The book isn’t very strict on accuracy since I wanted it to feel contemporary and fantasy-like, but having reference for inspiration was important.

The Prince and the Dressmaker Interior Art by Jen Wang

Paste: This is a lovely and super-sensitive look at a topic that makes some people totally freaked out. What kind of tone are you going for and how did you achieve it?
Wang: I wanted to make a book that I would’ve loved as a teenager. Something really hopeful and fun and positive that nevertheless allows the reader to explore their own feelings about who they are. So it doesn’t have to be intimidating or awkward because it’s just about learning who you are and loving that person, and that’s super universal. I wanted to make a book that even my older relatives could read and not feel confused by, and I hope I succeeded there.

Paste: How much of what you do, art-wise, is digital versus analog?
Wang: All the art is drawn and inked traditionally on paper and scanned and colored in Photoshop. Every book I say this’ll be the last time and I’m switching to digital but I keep coming back to it. Maybe I’m just reluctant to stare at a computer screen any more than I already do. Also there’s just something about drawing on paper that feels comforting to me because it’s how I’ve always done it. Like I said, 85 percent of how I comic is what I picked up in high school!

Paste: What’s your workstation like for drawing? Are you particular about materials (basically every comics person is)?
Wang: I still draw comics on paper with pencil and ink so I have a drafting table desk with the adjustable angle. I scan things in and color everything in Photoshop so I bring the table down and work on it there flat. I’m actually not a big tools person and I almost never buy new supplies, but I’ve also been working the same way forever so maybe I’m just stubborn!

Paste: I read that you were sort of inspired by Disney movies in creating this book. What’s your general opinion of princesses? Did you watch a lot of Disney movies growing up?
Wang: My parents were Chinese immigrants who (at the time) weren’t familiar or comfortable with the content on broadcast TV so most of what I watched growing up were cartoons. Disney movies were my favorite I think because they really were so cinematic and what I liked about cartoons was the idea of storytelling through literal drawings. My one opinion on Disney princesses is that it’s weird that they’re their own brand now, divorced from the context of their stories. That’s the whole point! You’re invested in Ariel or Princess Jasmine because of the journey they go through. Otherwise they’re just an idea and that’s not very interesting.

Paste: Top three princesses?
Wang: Disney Princesses: Ariel, Mulan, Moana.

Non-Disney Princesses: Princess Di, Princess Leia, Xena: Warrior Princess.

The Prince and the Dressmaker Cover Art by Jen Wang

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