TJ and Amal is the story of two guys who met in a bar and decided to travel from San Francisco to the East Coast by car. On their way to the East, Amal who just called off his engagement with his fiancée TJ, a slim debonair with too much life experience fall for one another. TJ and Amal is a web comic launched by cartoonist E.K Weaver who posts new pages several times a week on the series’ Website. TJ and Amal is part of a new wave of yaoi-inspired comic strips whose intended audience can be women, gay guys or even straight male readers. Let’s ask her what she thinks of who her readers are and more in this ComicBookBin interview with the creator of TJ and Amal.
ComicBookBin: Hello E.K. Thank you for the opportunity to have this interview and inform our readers about your work. What’s your full name by the way, if you don’t mind?
E.K. Weaver: Thanks for interviewing me! I would prefer not to give my full name, if that’s OK.
CBB: When did you start working on TJ and Amal?
E.K. Weaver: I started developing the story in the summer of 2007, and began work on the comic in earnest in spring 2008.
CBB: I stumbled across your web comic when I was doing research on another series from a similar genre, Artifice. It seems like there is this new genre of yaoi-like comics made by North Americans. What’s your take on that?
E.K. Weaver: I’m not really sure what’s behind the trend (if it is in fact a trend). I’d wager that the increased visibility and popularity of manga over the past ten or fifteen years has been a big factor, though. More kids reading manga, more artists inspired by manga, both yaoi and non.
CBB: TJ and Amal is a buddy comic strip. We’ve seen a few of those, even in the super hero genre. But I’ve never seen one like yours. What inspired you to create this feature?
E.K. Weaver: There wasn’t a single, specific inspiration. I’ve always adored films and TV shows where the character relationships and character development are the defining factors. I love comics and animation that use silence and body language to convey as much information as dialogue. On top of that, I’m a big fan of the “strangers thrust together by chance gradually form close bonds” setup (e.g. Firefly, Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo)… so I guess I’m just making the kind of story I’d want to read.
CBB: A thing about travelling buddy stories is that the actual trip is usually more important than the conclusion. The whole point is the time the characters shared together. Would you say that the Web comics format supports this type of stories or it just happened?
E.K. Weaver: I don’t think it’s so much the Web format, specifically, that allows this sort of storyline, as it is that webcomics don’t have the barriers and restrictions of traditional comics publishing. You don’t have to go, “oh, I have to make sure this story has guaranteed readership, and is marketable, and ends this way,” you can just put your work out there yourself, no worries about target audience or fitting a house style. It’s great.
CBB: The story feels like it was written by someone with very close experience to the types of characters TJ and Amal are. But obviously, you’re a married woman and not a gay guy living in San Francisco. Are the characters based on real people or you did a lot of research to give them that authentic feel?
E.K. Weaver: A little of both. There are elements in their personalities that are derived from people I know, but I also did a lot of research.
Agh, “research” makes it sound so cold and clinical. Really, it consisted of listening to and reading a lot of personal stories – books, blogs, memoirs, essays, poetry, any personal experience – as well as constructing the characters’ histories by figuring out what their childhoods and family lives might have been like. What resources were available in this school district, wealthy neighbourhoods, poor neighbourhoods, religious upbringing, family dynamics, et cetera. How all these factors may have shaped them.
I didn’t set out with the specific goal of wanting to write “a realistic gay guy”. There’s no universal experience for gay dudes any more than for any other group. TJ and Amal are individuals with their own identities and experiences. Being gay (or in TJ’s case, just generally not-straight) is a facet of that, and it is part of what shapes their lives, but it’s not a limit… it’s not the beginning and end of who they are.
CBB: The story of Amal is interesting. It fits with a growing narrative seen about second generation people of Indian, Pakistani and even Iranian descent living in North America. Two decades ago, a novel like the Joy Luck Club introduced the lives of Chinese second generation Americans to the world. TJ and Amal much like the recent graphic novel Tina’s Mouth introduces the reality of the Indo-Asians to North Americans. What’s your take on that?
E.K. Weaver: Well, not being desi myself, I can’t claim to “introduce” or represent that experience. My goal is just to write someone believable, someone real.
Amal’s experiences as a second-generation Indian-American kid, his race, his cultural identity, how that identity differs from his parents’… all that is a huge part of his life, so it wouldn’t make any sense for me not to try and learn about that experience and include it. It’s not always at the forefront of the story, but it’s part of who he is; part of the experiences that inform how he acts, what he says in the comic.
(As a side note, I just heard about Tina’s Mouth a few weeks ago and am really looking forward to reading it.)
CBB: When reading TJ and Amal, I really found myself liking the story and the very realistic feel. One thing that did bug me in a way was the yaoi label applied to it. It felt like it wasn’t written for me even though I enjoyed it a lot. Like I was not the targeted demographic group supposed to read it. How do you feel about such labels and how they influence what people will say about comics or even how they recommend them?
E.K. Weaver: Genre labels can be both convenient and frustrating. If you’re primarily interested in sci-fi, for example, it’s handy to have that label to gravitate towards. But for works that span genres, or don’t adhere to genre conventions, labels can be reductive and even detrimental. TJ and Amal isn’t aimed at any particular genre or demographic. I hope it’ll attract readers who enjoy fun dialogue and interesting characters, but beyond that… nope, that’s all I care about. I honestly don’t have a solid label for it, myself.
I used to get pretty down when someone would label TJ and Amal “yaoi”, since that label carries a connotation of shallowness and meaninglessness, but… I don’t know, fretting about it, trying to fight it seems like a waste of energy. People will call it what they want, and if the story is strong enough, it’ll break past those labels.
CBB: One the main feature of TJ and Amal is the time you take to draw whole pages without any captions. Or force the characters to take a pause and discover the world around them. How difficult is it to set up a story where essentially, you force both readers and characters to take a break once in a while?
E.K. Weaver: Not really -- I don’t know, it comes pretty easily. I love stories that let the characters, let the scene just breathe, so I suppose I’m doing the same in my own.
It is a little difficult when these “breathing” moments come up in the web version, at least when it’s happening in the current updates. The story’s meant for print, so when you’re reading it on paper, it happens at the proper pace, but if you’re following the web version, which updates with 2 pages a week, a single quiet moment could run for a month.
CBB: The opening and ending chapters are less detailed. I understand this is a stylistic decision and part of the narrative. Can you tell us more about that?
E.K. Weaver: Actually, the lack of detail in the first 4 chapters is because they were drawn back in mid-2008. Just plain old art evolution. In the more recent pages, it’s a stylistic decision to give some panels low background detail—that’s for when I need the focus to be on the characters’ expressions.
The less-detailed chapter-end sketches are meant as a sort of break or rest between scenes, thus the more casual look.
CBB: The visuals in TJ and Amal are strong. The storytelling is excellent. Can you tell us more about your illustration background and training?
E.K. Weaver: Thanks so much – I can’t really say I have a much training in comics; a lot of this is stuff I’ve had to learn on the fly. I studied illustration and painting in high school and college, but it was in a rather… lenient environment. I didn’t master things like color or perspective, and am still working hard to catch up. These days I go to life drawing classes, draw from photo reference and real life, study anatomy and perspective books, ask other artists for critique… just gotta keep going.
Professionally, I’ve mostly worked as a graphic designer and tech illustrator. It’s been tremendously beneficial in developing technical skills, especially for prepress and print work.
CBB: For me the story shifted a bit when TJ and Amal became lovers. The road trip aspect feels like it’s taking a back seat to this budding relationship. Everything feels too fast. Of course that they would fall for one another was predictable, especially in this genre. What have been readers’ reactions to this? Was it something most were anticipating for a long time or something that surprised them?
E.K. Weaver: I’ve heard mixed reactions – some readers think they hook up too soon, some say it takes too long. I just tried to go with what felt right to me. A few readers also seem to think that the characters having sex automatically means they’re in love, which has troubled me a bit from a narrative standpoint.
The focus does shift in the second half of the story, but in the end TJ and Amal isn’t so much about the literal or metaphorical journey as it is about how these two guys change and affect each other. Without spoiling anything, I can say that the story is made up of three acts: first, the road trip; second, the development of the relationship; and third, the consequences of both.
There’ve been a few readers who started the comic not knowing there was going to be a romantic element. I guess it’s not immediately apparent if you just look at the front of the website. Most folks seem to be aware of it going in, probably because a friend described the comic to them when recommending it. (Most new readers come by word of mouth.)
CBB: About colour. Only a few pages have them. How often will we get fully painted or coloured pages in the future?
E.K. Weaver: I don’t foresee any more colour spreads, sadly. Those were a lot of fun, but I don’t think they’ll fit in anywhere else – mainly because the spreads were for natural outdoor vistas, and the environment of the guys’ journey gets more urban from this point on. There may be occasion for one more colour piece later in the story. We’ll see.
CBB: The first volume is obviously up for sale right now. How is the mix of people buying the collected edition versus people reading the strip online? How has that experience been for you?
E.K. Weaver: I’m not really sure what the ratio of online readers to buyers is. Maybe 20 to 1? 15 to 1? I’m pleasantly surprised at how well the book is doing.
About 2/3 of buyers are female, 1/3 male, though male readership seems to be increasing. One thing that’s interesting is the percentage of orders that come from overseas – a little less than half the book orders go to Europe.
It’s been a good experience so far – sort of a crash course in running a home business. Currently, about 8 hours a week are spent handling orders – packaging, handling postage, that sort of thing.
CBB: Are you working on anything else besides TJ and Amal?
E.K. Weaver: I’ve got a couple of stories brewing on the back burner: one’s a sci-fi/crime drama, one’s a superhero thing. Both have good-sized ensemble casts.
There’s also Smut Peddler, which is an anthology of erotic comics by women that’s coming out soon – I have a story in that. That’s been finished for a few months.
Right now, though, 99% of my creative energy goes into TJ and Amal.
CBB: What would you want to say to any reader reading this interview about TJ and Amal to get them to check it out?
E.K. Weaver: If you enjoy character pieces, fun dialogue, or travel stories, I hope you will also like my comic!
CBB: Thank you very much for answering these questions. TJ and Amal can be found at http://tjandamal.com/
Volume One which collects Chapters 1-13 can be bought directly there as well as other prints and related merchandise.