The Kao is an illustrator and comic artist based in Chicago. He creates slice-of-life comics that surrounds his life called, Mondo Mango. Currently, his focus is on his graphic novel, Magical Boy, which is about a transgender man fighting his way through a magical girl trope nightmare.
Hi, The Kao, I’m very honoured to interview you. I’ll start with some standard questions to break the ice, then we’ll talk about your webcomics.
Q: When you started drawing? How you discovered your passion?
A: I found it in preschool. I learned it possible to draw cartoons when my mother drew Simba from Disney's Lion King. I then became interested in drawing comics when I came across a Pokémon manga. I realized then I could illustrate my own stories. After getting into manga in my high school years, I was determined to become a manga artist. I ended up becoming a comic artist with an anime style, which I feel isn't too far off.
Q: Have you been to art school? Which ones? Was it helpful for your growth as an artist?
A: I took art classes in High School and graduated from Columbia College in Chicago with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Illustration. I believed my skills were developed more in my years in High School. I had an amazing high school art teacher who was very encouraging when my parents weren't. She made it possible for me to fight for an art career, while also helping me develop and sharpen my fundamentals. College was more of an experience that helped me network with other creatives locally.
Q: How did you discovered comics and webcomics?
A: As mentioned before, I discovered comics when I was very young and have been making comic books since 5th grade. However, I didn't publish on the web until my mid college years solely because I was stubborn in creating my own art account. I'm not sure why I was resistant to it at first, despite publishing my art on things like Photobucket and Gaiaonline. A friend had to force me, secretly making me a Deviantart account and from there I was introduced to Tapas. That is where I finally discovered the world of webcomics.
Q: Which is the first comic ever you drew?
A: My first comic was on an 8.5” by 11” sheet of computer paper with a pencil. It was about the Pokémon, Pikachu, driving a car and accidentally flipping it over because the wheel hit a rock in the road. The punch line was in the text. Pikachu communicates by repeating his name. So, in an accident, he will scream, “PEE.” As a 10-year-old, I thought that was the funniest thing.
Q: What else do you work on, other than your webcomics? Which is your main work?
A: I would say my work is distributed equally between webcomics and my day job which is handling books at a library. Drawing is my main focus and passion though, so I don't do much outside of that. I guess I could say I animate sometimes as a hobby.
Q: I’ve known you on Tapas, because I read your beautiful webcomic “Magical Boy”. It’s so unusual to see a transgender FtoM magical hero in comics at all (and it’s a reason why I like it). How have you had the idea for this story?
A: It was the fact that it was so rare to have a FtoM transgender person as a protagonist, that drove me to make one. With so many friends and even a family member who are transgender, I wanted to make a powerful story for them. So, the whole premise came from figuring out what the main conflict would be for a compelling story.
Q: Why have you decided to have a transgender protagonist, going (beautifully and courageously) against the usual magical-hero(ine) stereotypes? Were you afraid that the public/readers could not like it?
A: As mentioned above, I have people close to me who are in the trans community and I noticed they don't have much representation, especially trans men. I wanted to make a character they can look up to and/or cheer for. Since I grew up with anime and manga, my mind immediately went to the magical girl tropes. It made a great premise for exploring all the ways the main character would have to fight gender norms with a fantasy twist, so Magical Boy was born.
Q: I like a lot both Max and his friends. These characters were inspired by people you know in real life?
A: Yes, definitely. For example, Jen, Max's first best friend, has a lot of characteristics of one of my best friends since elementary school. She's really cheerful and was always there for me when I was down.
Q: One of the characters who triggers me the most is Hikari, Max’s mother. Why is she so unaccepting and non-understanding with her son and his feeling a male instead of his biological sex?
A: Unfortunately, this is something that does happen to a lot of transgender teens who have unaccepting parents. They are either against or simply do not understand the concept of it. In Hikari's case, she's only known one truth, which is being a magical woman in order to save the world. It's deeply embedded in her and the fear of the world ending impedes her judgment. So, for most of the story, she has a hard time understanding Max.
Q: This is a more generic question: how do you think LGBT+ comics are seen and received by the public? Do you think there are more or less difficulties than in the past, for artists who draw this kind of comics and their works, in the actual comic world?
A: There's a rise of LGBT+ comics and I am super excited about it! Though I fear some people may think that's enough or too much, only because they see one or two for every eight to ten heterosexual comics/content. It might seem like there are a lot more only because the comic or content has a side character that is LGBT+. It is rare that they are the main character. As far as difficulties to push for LGBT+ comics, I feel it is a little easier than 60 years ago. But there will always be resistance as long as homophobia and transphobia still exist.
Q: Have you ever had problems with ignorant, homophobic people who criticized your work or comic because of the LGBT+ content? And how your fans took this bad, unnecessary comments? (This kind of things makes me angry, yeah)
A: For Mondo Mango, my other comic about my life, I have been pretty lucky. It's been mostly positive on Webtoon and Tapas. On Instagram, I did have a few comments that were homophobic when my comic was showing up in the discovery section, but I mostly ignore those. They were usually one worded comment or just a comment of disgust which I don't take seriously. I didn't introduce my boyfriend into the comic until way later, so sometimes it is a surprise and they get angry for “tricking” them. Which is ridiculous. As for Magical Boy, I actively try to avoid any negative comments, especially while I'm still developing the series. I don't want it to affect my writing. For the most part, as the series progress, I see mostly positive feedback which is great. I do see debates once in a while between people, but again, I would try to avoid it.
Q: How much time it takes to draw a page?
A: For Mondo Mango, a strip would take around 4 to 8 hours. For Magical Boy, it depends. Since it is in a scroller format, it's hard to say what makes a “page.” I would say from sketch to render, for 5 to 6 panels, can take up to 8 hours or more.
Q: Which kind of commitment it takes to publish so often a page of your webcomic?
A: It's a constant struggle of finding a balance between productivity and burn out. You want to be able to knock out a lot of pages but also not burn out. Be passionate about your project but not to the point you completely dread it.
Q: I know you have a team of artists which helps you to do the pages now. How it is to work with them?
A: Yes, they are a blessing! After the 10th episode, “Be A Man,” Dojo joined my team to help with colouring. After showing him some colour guides, he easily picked up on how I coloured my comic. He's very nice and awesome to work with! Sera actually joined most recently as an art assistant on episode 20, “Determination.” She juggles between helping me line my work and adding flat colours. It really helps to speed up the process. It also allows me time to make final edits and details back into the comic, especially the background.
Q: You’ll ever print physical copies of Magical Boy like you did for Mondo Mango? If yes, you already know how much volumes this story will be?
A: Definitely. It might not happen right away, but it is something I plan to push for because I also would like a physical copy. Lol. At the moment I can't exactly say how many volumes since I am still working on it at this moment.
Q: Your other webcomic is Mondo Mango (interesting title). How it started? And why you started drawing it?
A: Mondo Mango started out as a hobby when I was in college. It was in a time where I felt my dream of becoming a manga artist was dwindling. My family and friends encouraged me to keep drawing comics no matter how small it is. So, I ended up drawing 4 panel strips of things that happens in my life. It kept the stress of needing to come up with a story out of the way. And because it was a simple style, I could do it easily and frequently between art assignments. It really helped with my depression and it made me happy that it brought joy to other people.
Q: Mondo Mango is a slice of life comics which tells about your daily life. Some episodes are funny, others tell something very personal: it is difficult for you to open up like this to a very big public?
A: Ha, ha, yeah. I try to avoid things that are sad, depressing or controversial. But it happens. When I first drew Mondo Mango, I told myself to never make a comic about someone I was dating. This was back when I was posting on Deviantart. Now it's different. CK, my current boyfriend, made it really hard as he became a bigger part of my life. When I do talk about personal things, I usually take time to make sure it's coming from a positive and compassionate place.
Q: The characters are all people from real world or there are some fictional ones, in this comic?
A: I would say 90% of the people are from the real world. I do have a few comics that are more of an “idea” or “what ifs” situations, so I would place random people in those comics. Also all the comics with the GoGo Dragon are fictional, though. The dragon's personalities and features are based on characteristics of pets I've had in the past. I've included a dragon in my comic because it was something my childhood self would've wanted. I love dragons. I recently adopted a crescent gecko and named him GoGo.
Q: How it is to have a big fan base like yours? Which kind of work it takes to maintain this fan base and a contact with them?
A: It's amazing and I'm so thankful to all my fans. I'm in an area where I'm still able to respond to direct messages and comments, but not able to get to all of them. It has been difficult to keep in contact when I started Magical Boy. I would go weeks in silence to focus on it. Hopefully when I'm finished, I'll be able to interact more. I do post updates of my comics on my Patreon which lets fans know what I'm up to while also giving them sneak peeks!
Q: Wich are your future projects? Will you draw a new comic or webcomic after finishing Magical Boy and/or Mondo Mango?
A: I’m actually itching to get back into Mondo Mango, since I've put it on hiatus for so long. I really miss it and I don't plan on ending it anytime soon. I also want to get into animation... maybe some Mondo mango animations~ We shall see!
Thank you so much for reading!
If you want to follow TheKao on socials or visit his website, here’s the links! (Clik on the word and it opens the link)