“I’ve always wanted to write and draw graphic novels, since I was a kid, especially stories like this – just straight forward genre-less fiction.” | Q&A with Illustrator Michael Cho

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A few weeks ago, I reviewed Michael Cho’s graphic novel Shoplifter. A lot of conversations I have had since then stated that people recognized many of Cho’s images but didn’t relate his work to his name. Cho graciously took time out from a very busy family life to answer a few questions for me, hopefully enlightening many people to his work.
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1) It has been a few years since Shoplifter has been released. How did you find the reaction to it? What inspired you to create that book?

 

Shoplifter debuted on the New York Times Bestseller list and got a lot of positive press and reviews. (Link to my review) As things progressed, it was also translated into several languages.  There’s a French, Spanish and German edition with an Italian edition and more on the way.  So I would say that the reaction has been fantastic.

 

As for what inspired the book, that’s a pretty big question.  On a general level, I’ve always wanted to write and draw graphic novels, since I was a kid, especially stories like this – just straight forward genre-less fiction.  I enjoy the opportunity to write and draw my own stories and to have total control over the project.  On a more specific level, Shoplifter was based on my own personal experiences and from talking to friends and colleagues.  I wanted to write a story about the kind of person who’s smart and sharp enough to critique, but is unable to create, for whatever reason.  I thought that was an interesting and relatable character trait to explore in a story.

 

2) I am also seeing that you have a book that is a collection of sketches of Toronto called Back Alleys and Urban Landscapes. What inspired you to do that book?

That book came from my desire to improve my ability at drawing landscapes, actually.  I was always more interested in the figure, so I had a real deficiency in that area.  When I became an illustrator, I knew I had to fix that.  Hence, I started drawing what I knew – the neighbourhoods around me in Toronto.  Eventually, I fell in love with drawing buildings and the urban landscape and saw in them the same quirks of character I saw in people.  So that book was a record of my growth as an artist but also a labour of love.

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Cover image of Back Alleys and Urban Landscapes. Image linked from Michael Cho’s online portfolio

 

3) How did you get involved in illustrating? Are there illustrators that you admire? If yes, who are they and why?

I graduated art college here in Toronto with a diploma in “Experimental Arts” – which is a contemporary art studio diploma.  What it really meant though, was that I was broke all the time.  After a few other jobs, I fell into illustration as a way to pay the bills.  Initially I treated it like a day-job, but gradually learned that it’s a creatively rewarding artform of its own and that if I wanted to be good at it, I had to take it seriously.  I did, and I studied and worked harder and it became my passion.

As for illustrators I admire, there’s way too many to list here.  They range from older masters like Noel Sickles, Al Parker and Austin Briggs to contemporaries like Paul Blow, Meg Hunt, Edel Rodriguez and others.  I tend to like artists who prefer to “keep it raw” and work for emotional effect, but that’s not always the case.  Often I admire an illustrator for qualities that I don’t have myself.

4) Are you working on anything new right now? If yes, are there details you care to share?

I’m working on a follow up book to Shoplifter, but it goes a bit slowly as I’ve recently become a father for the 2nd time.  Aside from that, I do my usual freelance illustration assignments, drawing editorial illustrations, covers, etc.

5) Many of my followers would be very familiar with your cover illustration of the 2009 Penguin Classic edition of Don Delillo’s White Noise. How long did it take you to create that cover? What do you think of the novel?

Well, White Noise is one of my favourite novels, so it was a real treat and honour to be asked to create the 25th anniversary edition cover of the book.  I can’t really say how long it took to create the cover – that’s a tricky question.  It was a tough assignment though, since I was so familiar with the book.  Sometimes being too familiar with something makes it hard to have the proper overview and editing skills you need to make a successful cover.  But in the end, I was happy with the results.

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Cover to Penguin Classics 25th Anniversary edition of Don DeLillo’s White Noise.

6) Your blog lists events and appearances to partake in where you get a chance to meet the public. How do you like those events? Are there any upcoming events that you are looking forward to attending?

I enjoy the conventions and signings quite a bit.  It gives me a chance to travel and meet fans and also to catch up with other artist friends who are also at those conventions.  It’s a bit harder now with a new baby, so I’ve limited my appearances quite a bit this year.  I think I’m doing a convention in Austin Texas and possibly Europe in 2016.

7) You seem to be an active participant on Twitter? How do you like using that platform to promote your work? Do you use any other social-media sites to promote your work?

I don’t really use any other social media except twitter, unless you count my blog where i post new artwork.  Initially, I didn’t join twitter to do promotion, but rather to hang out and chat with fellow artists and creators around the world.  When you’re up at 4am working on an assignment, it’s nice to be able to share a few words with other artists who are also up at that hour (and there’s quite a few).  So that was the driving force for my joining.  I rarely follow anyone that I haven’t met in person, for example.  

Still, I understand the need to do self promotion, so I do a little of it on twitter – sharing sketches, showing work in progress and mentioning completed projects, etc.  I never feel comfortable playing the salesman though, so I probably don’t do it as well as other people do.

8) Your biographies have you listed as living in Toronto. How do you like living there? Does it’s cultural scene inspire you in any way? Do you do a lot of travelling for your work?

I love Toronto.  It’s my favourite city in the world.  It’s a safe place to raise my kids, but it’s also very diverse and tolerant.  Having grown up in some places where that wasn’t always the case, I really appreciate how everyone in Toronto gets along and respects other cultures, lifestyles, etc.  It’s also full of creative people – I meet with other illustrators and cartoonists regularly and I’m very thankful for that.  When I moved here to attend college, it was the first place where I didn’t feel like an outcast for being an artist; where I felt like there were lots of people just like me.  I knew then I’d found my home.

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Link to Michael Cho’s “sketchbook” blog

Link to Michael Cho’s portfolio at illoz.com

Link to Knopf Doubleday’s webpage for Shoplifter

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