Wormhole Interviews: Wayne Rée & Nurjannah Suhaimi

Wormhole Interviews: Wayne Rée & Nurjannah Suhaimi

Image Credit: Difference Engine

Superheroes, goblins, and mental health. We talk to the writer/artist duo of Wayne Rée and Nurjannah Suhaimi behind Worlds Apart—a comic that puts you in the shoes of a person having a conversation about mental health—about their inspirations, their creative process, and the secret behind the protagonist's mole.

Q: I LOVE books or films that use a high-concept or outlandish premise to tell a very human story, one recent example being Everything Everywhere All At Once. So what I like about Worlds Apart is how it strikes a good balance, using fantastical imagery to talk about mental health without overdoing it. Out of the many possible metaphors you could’ve used, what made you decide to discuss these issues using goblins and superheroes?

Wayne: I love that approach too. It’s like what Ta-Nehisi Coates said a couple of years back, when he was discussing whether fiction can facilitate heavier, real-world conversations: “When things are in the form of a story, people just take it differently.” That’s why we knew from the very beginning that we wanted to use the tropes of genre fiction to talk about mental health, because we had to meet people unfamiliar or less familiar with this topic on common ground first.

So, on one level, we figured, since lots of people associate the medium of comics with sci-fi, fantasy and superheroes, we could use that. On another, almost everyone at least knows about the Lord of the Rings films or the Star Wars series or Marvel movies. If we were looking for common ground, you could argue that there’s nothing more common right now than those types of stories.     

Q: What was the working process like for both of you? Was it a case of each of you focusing on your own strengths, with Wayne writing it and then passing it along to Jannah to work on the art? Or did both of you have an influence on each other’s areas of expertise — Wayne giving input on the art and Jannah on the writing etc?

Wayne: This is the second time I’m using a quote from another writer to answer a question, I know—but hey, if someone’s already phrased something perfectly, why mess with that, right? Neil Gaiman said in a note to Kelley Jones, his collaborator for an issue of The Sandman, that his script “is a guide: if you see a way to improve it, make it work better, then go for it. You’re the artist, after all.” That sums up my approach to comics perfectly: listen to the artist because this is a visual medium.

For Worlds Apart specifically, so much of the storytelling relies heavily on the art. It’s why Jannah was my immediate first choice as a collaborator. This story didn’t just need a good artist; it also needed a great storyteller. I was very particular with the dialogue, but whenever Jannah went in a different direction with the visuals from what I had written in the script, I didn’t argue—because her instincts were right every time.

Nurjannah: I’ve always been a very visual thinker, and while working off Waynes’ script, the main thing that I kept in mind was how to immediately visually communicate the mood of the panels without having to add more words to the script. I really enjoy working with Wayne because he gave me specific visual directions in the beginning, but still had flexibility on the changes that I did to suit the panels and the pages. His directions acted more like a jumping-off point to the drawings, so that I didn’t have to wreck my brain trying to figure out what his vision was. I feel like there needs to be more of this kind of collaborative work as creatives!

Q: Wayne, on your blog, you credited someone for giving you advice that helped solidify your approach to Worlds Apart at a point in time when you still hadn’t figured out what to do with it. What was that piece of advice and how did it help?

Wayne: I was discussing my approach to Worlds Apart with my friend, Priya, before I even started writing the script. I told her how I wanted to talk about the stigmas and misconceptions of mental health—and of the people who live with mental health conditions. Priya pointed out something that I had completely overlooked: “people who live with mental health conditions” could be…. well, pretty much everyone.

Mental health isn’t just a concern for people with depression or anxiety, but it’s also a concern for people with, say, insecurities or stress. It’s the second half of the comic’s mission statement, the part that I didn’t even realise we needed: we hope to help normalise the conversation about mental health… because mental health is way more normal than most people realise.

Q: Wayne, what was the most challenging part about writing this?

Wayne: Finding the right balance with the language. This needed to be a conversation, not a lecture; welcoming and not overwhelming. It had to be casual, but also not flippant. It had to be about a larger societal issue, but also feel personal.

I’m very lucky that I was working with our excellent editor, Sophia Susanto. She helped me find that balance in some key moments, and it was her valuable feedback that eventually resulted in one of my favourite pages in the whole comic.

Q: Jannah, we’d love to hear a bit more about the character design for Charissa. I can’t help but notice that there are very specific features, such as the mole near her lips and that lock of hair that’s perpetually on her forehead. I REALLY WANT TO HELP HER BRUSH IT ASIDE—was she inspired by a real-life person or some other character?

Nurjannah: When I was designing Charissa, I was actually inspired by the generation of the comic’s audience. I wanted the design to be in trend with today’s fashion style, particularly the hairstyle, since it would be the thing that we would see most. I was inspired by the middle parted curtain bangs, which I saw a lot of when looking for trendy, young models to base my character design off.

The lock of hair is actually inspired by all the anime I’ve watched over the years! You can always tell which artist is influenced by anime. It’s called an ahoge, which is characteristic of a lot of anime characters I’ve seen growing up. Although, my version is a little bit more toned down. I also realized that I could use it as a tool to remind the audience that the character that they’re looking at is Charissa; especially when she is different outfits and hairstyles for the more out of this world panels, it’s the only thing that stays consistent.

The mole near her lips is an interesting story. In the script, Wayne had to describe Charissa’s hand movements, but as she was also facing the reader, Charissa’s “left” was our “right”, vice versa. Confusing! Personally, I also always forget which side is left and right, so visually, I added a mole to remind myself which side Charissa was supposedly facing me, hahaha!

Q: I imagine conveying facial expression is extremely important for this comic, because a big portion of it is from the reader’s perspective, simply facing Charissa. What are your tips for fellow artists on accurately capturing emotion on a face?

Nurjannah: I am a very animated person; you can tell what I’m feeling just by looking at my face. While drawing Charissa’s expressions, I always found myself distorting my face the same way as Charissa’s, so that I can truly FEEL what it’s like to be her!

I follow this Illustrator on YouTube named Ethan Becker, who makes videos about everything an aspiring illustrator could ever need to know. One of the tips that I remember him giving, to avoid the “sameface” syndrome, is to find photos of children making expressions. Whilst adults are also capable of distorting their face in expressive ways, children’s expressions are more genuine as they don’t hold back to make themselves look “presentable”. From there, it is really about deconstructing the lines which make the expression on their face, drawing only with simple lines. Sometimes, having no realistic details help to express emotions even more realistically.

Q: Costume design is also another fascinating element here. Charissa alone has four outfits, and even the “villain” wears a really interesting ensemble. What were the inspirations and are there any little details that represent anything (e.g.: the symbol on the villain’s top, the skirt that looks like it’s made of netting..?)

Nurjannah: The inspiration behind villain Charissa is Dr Doom, a popular Marvel supervillain. I’ve always thought that his character and outfit was iconic, so I incorporated that into her design. However, to deviate from Dr Doom’s character design, I added a netted skirt, which in my mind was like some sort of chainmail, and added the the icon which are actually two sharp D’s with their backs facing each other.

Q: Only if you don’t mind sharing, perhaps you can tell us your own personal experiences related to the topic of mental health! I’ll leave this open, so that you can share only what you are comfortable with.

Wayne: For years, I’d been aware of mental health, thanks to friends who were patient enough to share with me how they lived with their own conditions. But I was only aware of it in a broad sense.

Then I had a breakdown at work a few years ago. Encouraged by my partner, Nadia, I decided to see a therapist, and I think my journey of looking inward, of seeing how I can improve my own mental health, began there.

It’s not been a straightforward journey. I stopped seeing my therapist when the pandemic began and I put off returning for a while. I made all sorts of excuses, but the truth was that I was scared of that journey. I’d reasoned away that my life seemed all right in any given moment, but I know that therapy is, at the very least, part of what I need to be a healthier person in the long run.

Nurjannah: Earlier this year, when I just graduated, I was feeling a lot of self-doubt, and also had anxiety of having to come back to the office after working from home for a long time. I was not usually like this, however after not being able to socialize with others during the lockdown, I withdrew and isolated myself in a a bad space. So, trying to get back to my original “social butterfly self” was a very big hurdle. Of course, it was not as if I did not have anyone else to talk about this anxiety to, but I think most of us are afraid to ask our friends or family because we feel like we’re “burdening” them with our problems when other people also have their own issues.

I thought I would eventually “get over it”, but the more I didn’t allow myself to recognise my anxiety, the worse it got. But after working on this comic, I really learned that it takes strength to acknowledge your mental struggles, which was then where I decided to contact the CHAT hotline to ask for help. The lady over the phone really helped me control my anxiety, and I’m really grateful that the services like these exist!

Q: For some time now, there’s been increasing awareness of the need to talk about mental health and self-care, and it’s become quite a movement in the online world. Why do you think people still struggle to talk or hear about it?

Wayne: It’s not easy to shake off beliefs built up over generations, especially if you’re mostly surrounded by people who choose to firmly hold onto those beliefs.

Many folks around my age and younger, despite growing up in so-called more enlightened times than our parents, still cling to these misconceptions that mental health conditions are “shameful” and represent “failure” (and even that failure is inherently a bad thing, but that’s a whole separate conversation). It doesn’t matter what they’ve read or learned; at the end of the day, if their families and friends keep telling them that mental health is “nonsense” or “just whining” or “all in your head,” then pretty soon, they’ll stop trying to have open and honest conversation completely.

It’s why we hope that people who are more familiar with mental health will lend their copies of Worlds Apart to people who are unfamiliar or less familiar. This comic is a tool to facilitate conversations, but the most important thing is that those conversations happen, that people who want to talk about mental health—regardless of how familiar they are with it—don’t feel alone.

Q: Can both of you recommend any other media (i.e. other books, films, TV shows, plays etc) that you feel is very insightful about mental health too?

Wayne: I thought Ted Lasso, particularly season two, did an excellent job of portraying and talking about mental health.

Nurjannah: A movie that I remember that impacted me was Mary and Max, a black and white claymation. It shows the gritty reality of a person suffering from their mental health condition, but then kindness from an unexpected stranger from across the world keeps him going, despite only ever talking to them through post. I don’t want to spoil too much, but try not to cry!

Worlds Apart: A Conversation About Mental Health is now available on Wormhole here.

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