Artist Spotlight: Mai K. Nguyen

I’m so excited to have Mai K. Nguyen join us on the blog today! Mai’s an awesome writer, illustrator, and fun fact: one of my childhood besties!

Her debut graphic novel PILU OF THE WOODS released last April from Oni Press, and I’m so thrilled to be chatting with her today!

Hi Mai!! I’m a huge fan of Pilu and the journey she goes on. Can you briefly tell us about how the idea for the book came about? 

A lot of my story ideas start from a single visual that builds in my head. Once I capture that in a sketchbook, I just begin exploring it further and see if I can find a story behind it. It was a similar process for Pilu—In 2013, I remember just doodling a sketch of this timid little forest spirit hiding in a hollowed-out tree trunk. I began thinking about how this forest spirit ended up here and where she was headed next. From there, the story slowly morphed into what would become Pilu of the Woods. 

I love that so much. Can you tell us a little bit about the process of how you go from idea to finished product? Do you typically start stories with a set script or a specific image?

As I mentioned earlier, I start with a specific image, and I flesh out my characters by just sketching them out in all kinds of different scenes. It lets me explore their personalities and how I can reflect those quirks in their designs. When I’m still in the early brainstorming stage, I play out important or exciting scenes in my head, and I later join them together more cohesively with a very rough outline. After that, my process gets a bit messy. I have a hard time visualizing scenes without drawing it—especially with sequential art because the composition and flow of panels really impact the way I write out the script. So for Pilu, I was juggling all these steps at once. It’s probably not the most efficient way to put together a story, but it worked for me! 

Wow that sounds incredibly hard to balance. But obviously it worked for you since the book is amazing! Did you have a favorite part of working on Pilu? 

When I was making Pilu, I really enjoyed inking my pages! It can be a messy stage (I’ve spilled ink bottles on many pages), but it’s also when it really feels like the story is visually coming together. For me, inking with a brush can be a very mindful and soothing activity. You start to learn which one of your 30 brushes are perfect for the type of line you want to make to convey the exact type of emotion you want to convey. It sounds a bit wild, but inking comic pages has such a unique flow and momentum to it that I’ve always loved!

You also work full time as a graphic designer. How do you balance the structured demands of a job while making sure you have enough time and creative energy for your own art? 

This is actually something I still struggle with a lot. As a UX designer, my work can be very analytics and research focused, so by the end of the day, I can be really mentally burnt out. What’s worked best for me is to consistently put aside time just for my creative projects and then communicate my priorities to my family and friends. For example, I have a habit of over-committing on my weekends, but my partner will always help me take things off of my plate so that I have some me-time to focus on personal projects. By letting people know about your projects, they can help you protect your creative energy with you.

Those are some great tips! Before we wrap up, can you share some comics and graphic novels that influenced you growing up? 

Growing up, I read a lot of Japanese comic books and I think that’s really influenced how I panel my sequences with a heavy emotional focus. I really enjoyed series like Fruits Basket by Natsuki Takaya and The Tsubasa Chronicles by Clamp. In college, I started reading more western comics. Some titles that really felt impactful in terms of visual style and story-telling were Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol and Lost at Sea by Bryan Lee O’Malley.

Thanks so much for joining us Mai!

Mai K. Nguyen is a comics maker, illustrator, and ice-cream enthusiast living in Northern California. Her career in comics began in second grade when she made a picture book about her dog and his ability to teleport anywhere. When she’s not dreaming up new story ideas, she’s hustling as a product designer in San Francisco, exploring nearby nature spots, or eating too much ice-cream. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram. Don’t forget to add Pilu on Goodreads and grab your own copy here!

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