To celebrate the release of the book, The Beat caught up with Yogis and Truong over email to learn what went into setting a fantasy story in the present day, how the aesthetics of Grace and her friends was perfected, and to learn how Digimon and Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me served as inspiration for the exciting new comic!
AVERY KAPLAN: I will not be spoiling anything by saying that there are plenty of dragons in the story! Do you have any personal history with dragons?
JAIMAL YOGIS: Yeah, like Grace – the main character of The Awakening Storm – dragons came into my life when I went to live outside the US for the first time. My dad was stationed in the Azores, Portugal when I was three-to-six, and maybe because I didn’t have many friends, I started to connect a lot with magical creatures. I spent countless hours staring at this book called Creatures of the Deep that mixed photos of great white sharks and giant squids and such with drawings of krakens and sea dragons. That planted a seed that sea monsters and dragons could be real.
I loved fantasy novels growing up, but I didn’t really have any special connection to dragons over other magical creatures. So the next really poignant memory I have of dragons is when I lived on the Big Island of Hawaii in college. I was out surfing at this secluded cove that’s a bit scary and rocky and can get super big waves. This wild-haired, wild-eyed older surfer paddled out, and it was just the two of us. The clouds were beautiful that day and he told me, deadpan, that he knew a big swell was coming because he could see dragons in the clouds. “I see them all the time,” he said. “They tell me things.” He was so convinced they were real, I remember really feeling it too.
Around that same time, I was studying a lot about Buddhism and meditation. I even went to live at a Chinese Buddhist monastery for a while and learned all about the traditional Chinese dragon stories – the dragon kings and their undersea treasures. The monks and nuns talked about dragons like they were real, too, and with the same sort of reverence the wild-eyed surfer had.
Leap forward about a decade, and I was working as magazine reporter, and even though my career was going well, I felt unsatisfied, like the magic wasn’t there. I knew I wanted to write fiction, but didn’t know how to make the leap.
Our first son, Kaifas, was born in the year of the water dragon which only comes every 48 years and it’s really auspicious in Chinese astrology. It was wonderful becoming a dad, but it also made me look at my mortality in a totally new way – especially because my dad got diagnosed with late stage cancer not long after. All those factors colliding became the fuel to start writing City of Dragons – but it wasn’t until collaborating with Vivian that everything clicked.
VIVIAN TRUONG: As a kid I was obsessed with fantasy creatures, mostly fueled by my obsession with Pokémon and Digimon as expected of a 90s kid. Dragons were always at the top of my list. Western dragons, East Asian dragons, I loved them all. Every time I went to dim sum with my family I’d stare at the dragon laced decorations and just stare in awe, daydreaming of a world where dragons existed. I even went through a phase where I’d only buy books if it featured a dragon on the cover (haha).
When Jaimal showed me the script for City of Dragons, I really felt like there was someone else who loved dragons as much as I did, but also gave them the respect they deserved in Chinese mythology. Grace and Nate’s story was everything I wanted to read as a kid, just a girl and her dragon against the world.
KAPLAN: What went into the decision to set City of Dragons in the present day?
YOGIS: That’s just how I started telling it spontaneously – maybe because I like magical realism. Also, so many of my favorite fantasy stories begin long ago or in a different world, and I think some part of me didn’t want that competing material in my head. I wanted to start fresh in this world. Naively, I didn’t realize how complex that would be plot-wise – fantasy gets complicated with phones and recording devices everywhere – but I think that also makes it a fun challenge.
TRUONG: I agree with Jaimal. I’ve always been into magical realism and I think our audience would relate to that concept of having a double life to hide from your parents, it’s almost part of growing up!
KAPLAN: City of Dragons is filled with awesome characters, but I particularly enjoyed Lu-Xiang. Can you tell us about the origins and inspirations behind this character?
YOGIS: Well, that wild-eyed surfer who spoke to dragon clouds definitely planted a seed for Lu-Xiang! But he has other influences. I didn’t do this consciously, but looking at him now, I can see he’s a mix of favorite movie characters too: Han Solo, Jack Sparrow, Chow Yun Phat’s character in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. And he’s also definitely my dad. My dad was a sailor (he’d been in the Navy in Vietnam) who really loved the sea. He was a wonderful guy but a pretty cryptic communicator at times, who also drank too much at times (though not like Lu-Xiang!). He could seem gruff or a little scary as a kid. But when you got to know him, you saw he had all kinds of deep, soft layers, and he was a total hopeless romantic.
But Vivian’s vision of Lu-Xiang – and some of the tweaks she made to his personality – made him more intriguing to me. So I’m curious who you were thinking about when you were drawing him.
TRUONG: Yes, I think my main inspiration behind his design was Pai Mei from Kill Bill or Stick from Daredevil (coincidentally both martial arts masters). I wanted to keep that idea of the old sage character that guides the heroes, except with the twist that he’s just a bitter old man who would rather do things his way than babysit some pre-teens. He doesn’t look all that impressive externally, but I think you’ll see he can be pretty badass.
TRUONG: Jaimal gave me an idea of what he envisioned the characters to be like so I did have some idea of a direction for each of them. Grace, James, and Ramesh were very easy to design, they came to me pretty naturally. I knew I wanted James to look pretty casual despite being a bookworm, so that he’d match Grace’s skater girl, Ramesh’s young entrepreneur, and Jing’s fashionable looks.
Jing on the other hand was a little more difficult. I knew I wanted her to be stylish without looking too grown up. Plus, with all the other characters wearing the same outfits every day, it would be far too confusing if she has a completely unique outfit every day, so I made the choice to stick with a white and blue ensemble until the reader got to know her better.
I also had a little trouble with her hair. I wouldn’t have had a problem with keeping it black, but I wanted her to boldly stand out from other girls her age to show her privilege and confidence. Although it is a bit odd seeing a girl her age with pink hair no? (haha). The last thing I wanted to do was add to that stereotype of the dreaded purple hair streak Asians you see so often in media. Realistically, if she were to have dyed hair, it’d be all the whole head. In any case, I love her pink hair and see it is a little homage to the anime I grew up with. But maybe she’ll go back to her roots (so to speak) one day.
What was most important about the group was that they needed to stand out individually but work together collectively. Colour was a good way of indicating this, they each had a bit of yellow to represent their support for Grace (although I think I ended up getting rid of Jing’s yellow, oops!) and Grace’s blue accessories were to show her connection to Nate.
One last thing I kept in mind was their hair. They each have a little quirk about their hair that I think about every time I draw them. Grace has two little hairs sticking out like a sapling, Ramesh’s silhouette represents a bird, James was kind of like a rooster crown, and Jing was a cinnamon bun!
KAPLAN: I don’t want to spoil the ending, but suffice to say that this story brings all of its plot threads together for its stunning climax. What went into crafting such a well-integrated narrative? Did any part of the story pose any particular challenge for you?
YOGIS: Thanks for saying that! I’m still seeing ways I’d like to finesse the plot every time I re-read it, so that means a lot. Getting the central mythology right was the hardest for me. It’s based on a lot of real mythology and history, but we wanted to make it our own, and really wanted to work that mythology into the story in a way that seems believable in this world – today. Once we figured out the mythology, there was too much exposition and too much information dumping. It took a while to pace the mythology out, so the reveals feel more surprising and authentic, and so it has a detective story feel as much as a fantasy. The ending was hard too, but endings are always hard for me.
KAPLAN: From delicious meals to dragon action, there are tons of amazing visuals in this graphic novel. Can you tell us what inspired your work on this book?
TRUONG: Some of my biggest artistic influences come from indie comic creators, there are a ton of incredible artists out there that are a constant inspiration to me. More specifically, I love comic artists like Rosemary Valero-O’Connell, Rem, Kevin Hong, and Yuko Ota.
Another more obvious inspiration was anime and manga. Spirited Away comes to mind immediately when I think of a girl and a dragon, then Goodnight Punpun with its beautiful photo-real environments contrasted with a simplistically drawn bird protagonist.
TRUONG: There were so many comics I’d pull from my shelf when I was especially stuck. Giant Days, Barbarous, Diesel, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me, Be Prepared…Too many to name.
Avatar: The Last Airbender, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and Journey to the West helped me especially with the Chinese mythological side to the book.
I can’t deny that Digimon (season 3 specifically) was also a big influence in creating this book. It’s a story about a bunch of kids trying to hide their creatures from the adults and essentially save the world while finding out where their monster friends came from. The mix of environmental realism, but cartoonish monsters helped me thematically in creating City of Dragons.
YOGIS: Sheesh, so many. I was often opening up Amulet, Witch Boy, The Watchmen, and This One Summer. I was also reading the sixteenth century Chinese novel, Monkey: Journey to the West and lots of Chinese and Japanese myths. The classic fantasies – Tolkien, CS Lewis – are always a big influence on me, but Ursula Le Guinn’s Earthsea series was probably most front of mind. And, of course, Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse. You can’t be writing a comic when a comic-based movie that good comes out and not be inspired.
KAPLAN: Can you give us any hint about what might be next for the characters?
YOGIS: Well, the same four characters are central, and they’re dealing with increasing levels of danger. Also, they’re going to have to find their way to another celebrated city that’s a long way from Hong Kong.
TRUONG: I hope you’ll be able to see some growth in the characters too as they get into a higher level of threat. But look out for typical teen drama to come into play too!
City of Dragons: The Awakening Storm is available at a local bookstore or public library near you beginning today.