The following is an interview with comic book creators Seol Young Lee and Mike Ahn on their heartfelt and personally significant comic book mini-series, Out of Order. In this interview, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief Barbra Dillon chats with Lee and Ahn about the inspiration behind the series, their shared creative process, the importance of de-stigmatizing mental health, and more!
Barbra Dillon, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief: Congratulations on the release of your comic book mini-series, Out of Order! For those who may be unfamiliar, what can you tell us about the premise of the series?
Seol Young Lee and Mike Ahn: Thank you so much! Based on true events, Out of Order is a love story with a twist. You may think at first that it is an ordinary love story between the two main characters, Paul and Gene, but you quickly realize that Paul is dealing with a serious mental illness that brings unthinkable challenges into their relationship. In the end, though, Out of Order is still a story everyone can relate to with universal themes like love, adversity, and the power of kindness.
BD: This is an incredibly personal story for the both of you. Would you mind sharing your inspiration for telling this story through sequential art?
SYL/MA: Mike has wanted to become a comic book artist since he was a little kid, and I wanted to be a writer since high school. One day well into our marriage, Mike asked me to write a short story for him to illustrate. The Sketchy Bugs, a local group of aspiring comic book writers and artists, was putting together an anthology and was accepting submissions. I asked him what the theme was, and he said, “Strange Tales of Romance.” I was like, Perfect, I can write a story about our relationship! I wrote up a short, slightly fictionalized vignette of our relationship involving Mike’s mental illness (paranoid schizophrenia), and Mike illustrated it in sequential art. That anthology never came to be, but we decided to make it into a comic book and publish it ourselves.
Once we decided that we were going to put our story out there, we faced a dilemma: My side of the family didn’t know that Mike had schizophrenia. Because of the stigma, we had hidden it from my family for over a decade. With the publication of the comic book, hiding the illness from my family would no longer be possible. Instead of letting that stop us from doing what we wanted, we decided to use the comic book to come out to my family with the truth. Surprisingly, coming out wasn’t as dramatic as we thought it would be. Everyone kind of just accepted it and moved on. It is still a taboo subject, and we don’t really talk about it, but at least they were understanding and supportive in their own quiet way.
BD: What do you hope that readers will take away from the series?
SYL/MA: The number one thing we want our readers to take away from the series is that being diagnosed with a mental illness does not equal a death sentence. Your life is not any less valuable or less worth living because you have a mental illness, even a very debilitating one like paranoid schizophrenia. You still have so much to contribute to people around you and society as a whole. Of course the mental illness will change and in some cases even take over your life for a period of time, but with the right medication and treatment, you can get back on your feet and have a life again.
We also hope to raise mental illness awareness through our story. There are so many misconceptions, ignorance, and judgmental attitude toward mental illness, and they create a stigma that prevents people from being open about their illness and getting the help they need. People with mental illness shouldn’t have to live in hiding and feel ashamed. They should be encouraged to get help as soon as possible and have a network of supportive people around them.
Lastly, we want people who are suffering from mental illness and their caretakers to know that they are not alone. One of the most moving comments we receive from our readers is that they are so glad we created Out of Order because they don’t feel so alone anymore. And it’s true; you’re not alone if you have a mental illness. It is much more common than you think. It’s just that no one wants to talk about it. But by putting our story out there, we hope people will realize that they’re not alone and that there’s help out there.
BD: What can you tell us about your shared creative experience in writing and illustrating the series together? Likewise, what have been some of your creative influences?
SYL/MA: Mike and I have always been close, but working on this project together has definitely brought us even closer. We now have shared goals and dreams, we have made amazing friends, and the whole experience has been a healing process for the both of us.
As far as creative influences, I love graphic novelists like Craig Thompson, Thi Bui, Alex Robinson, Emil Ferris, and Mariko Tamaki. Mike fell in love with comic books and wanted to become a comic book artist ever since he read Blue Beetle and Teen Titans when he was ten or eleven. Now, he admires artists like Charles Schultz, Haruhiko Mikimoto, Jim Lee, Tsukasa Hojo, and Jeff Scott Campbell.
BD: You have released three issues thus far of the five-issue series. Is there anything that you would like to share about the remaining two issues?
SYL/MA: Sometimes, we worry that our story is too dark, but that’s just the way it was. To tell it any other way would be dishonest. In fact, the first three issues of the series are only a glimpse into how dark the times actually were. But we promise that the next two issues will be more positive and hopeful. After all, Mike and I are still here making comic books together, because things got better in our lives.
BD: What has been your experience in not only sharing your story with readers but in interacting with readers?
SYL/MA: The response from our readers has been overwhelming. We are shocked by how many of our readers tell us that either they themselves or someone close to them also suffers from a mental illness. There have been several readers, too, who have confided in us that they are living with a mental illness but hiding it from the world. That is the most heartbreaking thing for us to hear because we know exactly what it’s like to live in shame, in hiding, unnecessarily. Sometimes we get discouraged about continuing on with the series, but these interactions with our readers keep us going.
BD: Are there any upcoming projects on which you are currently working that you would like to share with our readers?
SYL/MA: Right now, we are focusing on Out of Order. When we are done with all five issues, we plan to color the pages and publish the whole series as a graphic novel. Many readers have expressed appreciation for the black and white art, but we really want to release the graphic novel in color.
I have also written a draft of Mike’s biography that chronicles his whole life, but we’re not sure where we’re going to go with that.
BD: Lastly, what is the best way for our readers to find more information about Out of Order?
SYL/MA: We’re pretty active on Instagram: @mikeandseolcomics, and you can email us at mikeandseolcomics (at) gmail (dot) com. We love hearing from our readers! If you are interested in purchasing our comic books, you can do so at www.mikeandseolcomics.bigcartel.com or in person at The Comic Bug in Manhattan Beach, Hi De Ho in Santa Monica, and Golden Apple Comics in Los Angeles.
Also, if you have a mental illness (or are a caretaker for someone who does) and feel alone, please know that there is help out there. There are phenomenal organizations like NAMI (www.nami.org) that can provide you with information and a support system. Stop living in hiding, especially if it’s eating away at you.
Thank you so much for this opportunity to share a little bit about ourselves!