Fairy tale stories of castles and magic in far-off lands are a great part of childhood—unless you’re a kid who doesn’t feel like you fit the mold of the traditional princesses and knights you see in those story books. Maybe you’re a girl who doesn’t see herself as a distressed damsel waiting to be saved by a dashing prince. Or maybe you’re a boy who doesn’t feel like finding a damsel in the first place. What’s on the shelves for you?
Local author and illustrator Jen Wang’s newest book, The Prince and the Dressmaker, is helping to provide an answer. The story follows a young girl with an extraordinary gift for making dresses, and a prince who secretly dons her creations to become the belle of the ball. The prince’s parents are trying to force him into marriage; the dressmaker is torn between protecting her friend’s secret and pursuing her professional ambition, which requires taking credit for her designs. The result is a story of love, friendship, and some swoon-worthy fashion, that also happens to have a more modern, fluid view of gender presentation.
We chatted with Wang about the importance of representing this kind of diversity—and about L.A.’s cool, comic-making underground.
What inspired The Prince and the Dressmaker?
I wanted to make a book that I would’ve loved as a young teenager. I grew up inspired by Disney movies and musicals, so I wanted something with that feel, but a little more contemporary and possibly a little queer. Something that would’ve made my younger, more questioning self feel OK about whoever I was. Separately, I already had this idea about a character whose superpower was making clothes that transformed the wearer. Once I came up with the character of Sebastian, I realized they were all part of the same story, and the rest fell into place pretty quickly.
Why is it important to share stories that represent characters like Sebastian, a young man who doesn’t fully conform to traditional gender norms, in fun, kid-friendly ways?
I think it’s important to have all kinds of representation in books, especially for younger readers who are looking at the world around them for answers about themselves. There are a good number of LGBTQ-friendly books in children’s literature now, but there’s still not enough, and of the variety that would reflect the diversity of experience even within that group. I wanted something that would feel fun and positive. There is conflict and drama in the book, but the overriding message is that being yourself is a good thing and everyone deserves their own Disney fairy tale princess fantasy.
Can you take us through the process of how you created the book, which you both wrote and illustrated?
I write out a detailed outline first, and once that is to my liking, I write a full script. That looks a lot like a film or TV script. I print out the pages and thumbnail layouts in the margins to figure out roughly what the drawn pages will look like. The thumbnails then become the basis for the drawings. I pencil and ink on paper, then scan and color everything in Photoshop.
You’re also involved with organizing Comic Arts L.A. Can you tell us a little about that project and how it came to be?
Comic Arts L.A. is an annual community arts festival celebrating independent and artist-owned comics. The event is free and open to the public. I had been going to comic shows since I was a teenager and they were absolutely instrumental in shaping my career, and more importantly, in building lasting friendships and a sense of community. There are bigger mainstream comic shows in Los Angeles like WonderCon or L.A. Comic Con, but at the time nothing for smaller indie artists. My fellow co-organizers Iris Jong, Angie Wang, Jake Mumm, and I just decided to go for it and make the show we wanted to attend. We just did our fourth year last December and running it has been one of the coolest experiences of my life.
Who are some other comic artists, perhaps ones local to L.A., that you would direct our readers’ attention to?
I have to give a shout out to Jaime Hernandez, who does Love and Rockets and is the definitive L.A. comic artist. Yumi Sakugawa is another local born-and-raised comic artist who does beautiful visual self-help books. For children’s literature I recommend Becky & Frank, Molly Knox Ostertag, and Tillie Walden.