Hellen Jo can’t get the mythic figure of the K-town tough girl out of her head. Even as an adult, she admits to “worshipping a delinquent teenage vision.” But the image is so pervasive, it “still drives [her] work today.”
Growing up in San Jose, the illustrator thought about this badass female, this no-damns-given punk who roamed the streets with a casual lawlessness.
“I'd heard the myth of K-town girls, bad kids who went out at night, terrorized white girls, wore dark brown lipstick and didn't listen to their parents,” Jo explained via email. “As a timid, somewhat bullied nerd with low self-esteem and anxiety problems, I simultaneously hoped I'd never meet one and that I'd somehow become one.”
Once she moved to L.A., Jo was “secretly thrilled to spot one in the wild.” In her online shop, you can buy a T-shirt called the “WTF Are You Looking at T-Shirt.” In the product description, Jo writes “Wear it around K-town and start some shit.”
That call to troublemaking comes through in a lot of her work. Her zines show teenage girls in everyday scenes (like chilling at the skate park) but also in more violent settings. In one illustration, lanky teenage girls chill in a bathroom, one of them wiping the blood off her face.
The scene comes from “Frontier #2,” a work filled with 32 full-color pages of troublemaking youths unleashed on the world. “Who are these teenage girls that have taken over the streets of Bad City, and what do they want?!” reads the description of the work. Apparently, Grimes is a big fan.
But before these badass girls spilled onto the page, Jo didn’t actually imagine herself as an illustrator. She’s been drawing and making comics for quite some time, but it took a little while to take the hobby seriously as an endeavor.
“I went to college thinking I’d be a professor like my parents, but instead I spent most of my time making zines, drawing band fliers and reading comics,” Jo says. “Eventually I dropped out and went to art school, where I learned some cool new things.”
But that didn’t seem like the right fit either (“I really hate school,” Jo admits) so she soon dropped out and followed her own path. She had plenty to inspire her drawing, for starters the graphic novels of Xaime (aka Jaime) Hernandez and Taiyo Matsumoto. Expression came in many forms, namely “dumb drawings copied from [her] favorite Korean coming-of-age horror movies.”
Her work started to reflect a shift — drawing these badass girls meant tapping into a part of herself that she usually left untouched.
“In tandem with my art, I eventually morphed from scared, angry teenager into slightly braver, angry woman, and as I move closer in life to my 'true self,' I try to discover who that is in my work: a powerful teenager who is cold, ruthless, incredibly strong and doesn't give a fuck,” Jo says. “In real life, I could never be like that (I have too much empathy, and I age in real time, like all the rest), but drawing that kind of character has helped me drop my timidity and brace for the real world.”
In a time when the next Wonder Woman movie is being written mostly by men, Jo’s work stands out. Her characters exist in their own comic world as alluring antiheroes and as female characters drawn by a female artist. Also important: They are women of color. Women of color often are left out of comic book narratives or included as stereotypical characters. Jo realized that Asian girls and women rarely got an ideal depiction in the work she’d read.
“When I first started making comics, there were a few [Asian-American] characters in stories I'd read, but they were often depicted as cute, or beautiful and weak, or the absolute worst, demure,” Jo says. “I was already so fucking sick of feeling powerless and timid and unheard as a teen that I decided that I'd never waste my time drawing and writing these girls as anything less than powerful.”
Jo recently finished her first term as a board adviser for ICON9 The Illustration Conference and is currently translating the graphic novel Uncomfortably, Happily by Korean cartoonist Yeon-Sik Hong for Drawn & Quarterly.
The K-town badass still looms in her mind (she’s working on a “that K-town girl story,” she admits, “for who knows what purpose”). Jo might never get to go back in time and be that girl, but her work definitely lets her take on that persona.