Interviewed by Uyên Ly for Hanoi Grapevine
Photos and artworks provided by artist Jeet Dzũng
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Two friends dedicated to wild animal conservation, have spent 2 years to complete a stunning art book about the relationship between human and nature. The book tells a story of Chang – a wildlife conservation scientist and Sorya, a tiny rescued sunbear who was sold as a pet. The book was published by Kim Dong Publishing house.
From 10th March 2020, all readers could easily find “ Chang is wild about Bears” in Vietnamese. The English version is scheduled to be introduced in Vietnam in May 2020. More excitingly, one of the largest general book publishers in the UK – Pan MacMilan, is negotiating for copyrights with Kim Dong in order to publish the English version to international markets.
Artist Jeet Zdung and wildlife conservationist Trang Nguyen – co-authors of this book, have shared some thoughts about this project to Hanoi Grapevine.
Chang is Wild is a project that I have planned for a really long time. I had the idea to make a picture book for young audiences since I was in school, then I began to scratch some ideas . However I only started making the book after Zdung agreed to join this project. Then Kim Dong contacted me and asked if I wanted to collaborate to make some books for children about conservation. I decided to introduce them to our project and luckily they were very interested.
Chang is Wild is a series of artbook about wildlife conservation. The first book is about Bears, the second one is about Elephants … One by one, Chang will tell you the stories of each wild animal species, about the liveliness job of preserving these species, that you might have never heard before.
The reason I chose to feature Bear in the first book of this series was because when I was 8 years old, I happened to witness bear bile farmer harvesting bile from a very poor bear. It was very cruel and inhuman. I decided from that day that I want to do something to stop bears or any other animals to be , I realized that animal conservation is a job that I want to pursue for the rest of my life. In Chang is wild the main character is Sorya – because of my very memorable moment that I had with her. As you will see inside the comic, Sorya is a very mistreated creature: She was only 2 weeks old when hunters captured her, her mom was killed and she was sold as a pet. Luckily, Sorya was rescued, but still, she had to suffer not only physical but also mental damage, leading Sorya to be way ‘skinnier’ compared to her fellow bears in the bear orphanage, where she was bullied but couldn’t stand up for herself. Honestly, the first time I met Sorya, looked at her and got to know about her, I thought I had to let everyone know about her story.
Trang was responsible for the script as well as expert knowledge behind Chang is wild – Bear, whereas my part was to transform her ideas into the visual. The work was quite exhausting- I spent a great amount of time deciding on the form of the book, for example: What would be the book size? Should it be in a square or rectangular format? If it’s rectangular, should It be presented vertically or horizontally? In which style should I design the characters? And with what material, e.g. colored pencil or watercolor? These decisions had a significant impact on the presentation of the content. Once I decided to go with the horizontal rectangle, I started to think about the character’s movement in the picture frame, the tempo of the storyline, the frame sizes and their order. With that method, I translated the story Trang wrote into a comic. You can call it a graphic novel, too.
This is the first comic project on which I worked so meticulously. I did many different sketches and filtered them out with Trang. It was also the most problematic phase- we had disagreements sometimes, but we both respected each other’s ideas and Trang was a very patient person, so eventually, the first manuscript was formed. After completing the first version, I redrew it on professional drawing paper for watercolor, this is the second hardest part. In order to encapsulate the liveliness of the jungle environment and scenery I have been to, the plant species were carefully selected, we wanted to know the name of the species and where each of them live in the jungle. I was lucky to have the assistance of two young painters: Phuong An and Nguyet Hang, who helped me categorize and redraw the endemic plants with specific descriptions of each species. This let me focus more on the main characters. The watercolor drawing stage was my second favorite part of this project, just after data collection. Never before have I done so much watercolor. There were times I had to buy more watercolor paper which was sold out at all the art supplies, the deadline was approaching. The book cover design and fonts were by no means my comfort zone. When I was really frustrated, artist Ta Lan Hanh introduced me to designer Linh Phan, who carried out the job with great excellence and enthusiasm. In total, it took a year since we started the idea, found possible executions, collected the data until we completed this project.
How did you guys develop the character Sorya, as well as Chang? Was there anything interesting in this process?
To design the character Chang, I have to film, photograph Trang for documentation. I am not sure how many times I had to redraw this character. Chang is a young conservationist who shares many characteristics with the author Trang Nguyen. It was more challenging to design Sorya- although I had reference photos from Trang, I could not accurately portray this character. Later, Trang organized a field study trip for me to the wildlife rehabilitation center of FREE THE BEARS organization in Nam Cat Tien National Park and another to Phnom Tamao rescue center (Cambodia), so that I got a chance to observe Sorya in real life and other bear species here. Sorya has a very lovely face, gentle and naïve. She was smaller than her peers. Sorya’s physical traits as well as emotions started to take form, and since then, it has been easier for me to draw Sorya than to draw Chang. The trip also gave me a lot of useful information of Nam Cat Tien forest, where Change and Sorya would make their journey back into the wild.
When conflicts arose, how did you handle them?
There was obviously conflict in terms of ideas. From the smallest parts, i.e. the publication of the book, the flow of the story, the images of the characters, … and even the selection of the characters. For instance: from the beginning, Dung told me that the main character should be male, because a female character would attract fewer readers overall. He also gave the example of Doraemon, but I insisted against that idea.
“The reason being Chang is Wild was based on real events and real characters. Most importantly, because there are already too many books with male protagonists, too many books with the female character being the ‘princess’ who does nothing but ‘wait for prince charming to come’, and too many books that teach little girls to be ‘nice’.”
Through this book, I want to tell all the little girls, all the parents, that girls can also have strong personalities, marvelous dreams and strength great enough to make their dreams come true. These little girls can also become scientists, astronauts, engineers, teachers, wildlife conservationists … and go down in history. Thus, rather than putting young girls in ‘pink’ bubbles, adults should let them develop naturally and pursue their dreams.
Please let me clarify what Trang just said a bit. When we discussed the main character, based on comics and movies on the market, I told Trang that male protagonists are liked equally by which preferred by the readers in both genders, whereas male readers tend to pass on those with female protagonists. That said, most of my comics have revolved around headstrong girls.
When will the next book be released?
Trang already finished writing the content of the next book about Elephants last year and, for now, Jeet Zdung is drawing it. We expect to complete it this coming June.
Short introduction about yourself?
Trang is an wildlife conservationist who has been actively working in the field of conservation since she was in high school. And up till now, she already has 15 years of involvement in this field and has participated in a lot of conservation projects in many regions around the globe in Africa, Asia and Europe. Trang founded WildAct – a wildlife conservation organization based in Hanoi. Trang was conferred many global awards for all her dedication in the field, the most remarkable of which were the Future for Nature award – an award for young conservationists around the world and recognition in BBC’s 100 Women 2019 list.
Real name Nguyen Tien Dung, a freelance comic artist who is more often known as Jeet Zdũng, his pen name. Jeet works in the field of comic, animation and illustration. Since a very young age he has enjoyed drawing and learning about wildlife, and at one point he even dreamed of becoming a wildlife conservationist.
Thank you all for reading!