A Writer’s Commentary: Fabrice Sapolsky talks Intertwined #1, on sale now from Dynamite. Cover and interiors by series artist Fred Pham Chuong.
[WARNING: Spoilers ahead!]
Let me start by saying that Intertwined #1 was supposed to be very different originally. What is now issue #0 was supposed to be the beginning of the story, but after talking about it with my editor, we changed the way the story was told. Instead of making it a linear story in a Once Upon a Time in America manner, we started following the hero’s journey from Hong Kong to the U.S., from random student to hero. But the first 13 pages were already written, drawn and colored. So I decided to cut it from the rest of issue #1 and make it a #0. The good thing about this is now issue #0 can be read before or after reading issue #1 without spoiling anything.
In the original version, we start with a cool noir action scene. But, since we changed the menu, we couldn’t serve the same dish twice in a row. I opted for a dream sequence, for readers to have a peek at the cool world of the Spirits of WuXing in the first pages. The series now follows Juan’s POV. Starting in his head became obvious because, as you’ll see later in the series, the “astral” plane plays a big role. See… That’s what I like about Intertwined: it has different influences and layers. We have Noir, we have Kung Fu, but we also have pulp, Chinese folklore, magic, social justice and spiritual vibes. For issue #0, my inspiration was the opening scene from the first episode of the Batman Beyond cartoon and The Big Boss, the first Bruce Lee movie. In issue #1, I had to find something else, hence the dream sequence. But I didn’t want it to be an action scene. I wanted something showing Juan Jin’s personality and how we’d be more than just and action/kung fu series. You’ll see here and there, in each episode, some social background. In Intertwined, a lot is happening behind the scenes.
There’s a panel I rewrote multiple times, to get the right tone. It’s the one where Juan compares himself to Peter Pan, or an Asian version of Peter Pan. I like that nod to the J.M. Barrie hero who inspired many comic book writers. And I always found the Disney version, by far the most popular, conveyed some… let’s say questionable designs for the main character: he has almond eyes and rabbit teeth. Which is typical of ethnic sterotypes in caricatures and some comics of the 20th century (Ming in Flash Gordon, Egg Fu, Fu Manchu,…). This is a very sensitive and important matter for both Fred, my co-creator, whose family comes from Vietnam, and myself. Juan Jin is a positive, powerful, Asian modern superhero. He’s not sorry for who he is. He wasn’t born in the United States so he has a lot of problems understanding how the American society puts the “race factor” front and center. He doesn’t see himself as Asian or Chinese first. He’s a human being before anything else. With great values. But representation, inclusion and diversity are major topics in Intertwined.
We’re introduced to the Spirits of WuXing for the first time. At least three of them (out of five). They have a problem. One Spirit is dead (the Spirit of the Earth) and they have to find a solution. How the Spirit died is what triggers a chain of events that will involve Juan Jin. This is a game-changer in the History of Spirits. Usually, when a Spirit dies, he’s replaced by someone he or she chose. But here, the Spirit died with no replacement and the remaining Spirits are freaking out. They feel they need to find that person themselves. They’ll, sort of, play the sorcerer’s apprentice and there will be consequences for that. But for now, they set their sights on Juan.
Juan wakes up to “I Got You” from Sonny and Cher. It’s just me loving that wake-up scene from Groundhog Day and paying homage to it (laughs). It’s not easy to present a character in very few panels. Fred and I discussed that page a lot. I came up with the idea that he was so obsessed with his martial arts tournament, that he was practicing all the time. So he’d even practice in the shower. Fred even put impacts on the walls in that panel. That’s how much of a fighter Juan Jin is! Last panel, there’s also a poster for The Big Boss. Fred added that. He’s the ultimate Bruce Lee fan. I am, for sure. But Fred is the biggest fan ever. One of the reasons that brought us together is Bruce Lee. And with Intertwined, we’re also paying homage to those movies we’d rent at the video club and see in VHS when we were kids. From that perspective, Intertwined is a labor of love. And believe me when I say that Bruce Lee’s words and philosophy helped me a great deal making this book happen and trying to find my way, as an “alien worker” in America. I can’t stress enough how Intertwined is important for me as a writer and as a human being. It’s fiction, but it’s the kind you can relate to. Because, and even if a lot of people in the United States have forgotten that, we all come from somewhere else. And we have to find keys to happiness in a society that works differently than the one we were raised into. It’s like living in a parallel universe! It looks familiar, but it’s not.
On page 4, we see Juan going head to head with the Triads (the Chinese mob). There’s a little Triad emblem on the door of the mini-van one of them is driving (panel 3). This is real! The Chinese mafia has its own logo. It’s fascinating. These pages also have a Spider-Man feel to it. I guess I couldn’t help it. Can’t hide my Spider-Man Noir origins (laughs).
This is a classic! The scene between the master and the student. We’ve seen this one too many times in Kung Fu movies and even in Hollywood-made martial arts movies. The Master is important. But the student can also be as talented as he’s reckless, which is Juan’s case.
In panel 1, Yuki is introduced. He’s one of the 6 real-life characters who are part of our series. Yuki is a Kickstarter backer of ours. Making him a character was part of his package. I decided to make him the hero’s best friend in Hong Kong. This is a challenge also for Fred as he wasn’t really used to draw likenesses. But I believe Yuki was pleased. This page also shows us the beginning of a funeral service in Hong Kong. When I was researching for the series, I came across all sorts of article which pointed out how difficult and expensive burials were in the little Chinese territory. At some points, you had to wait months until you could organize and decent funeral for your relatives. This is one of the many real life issues I like to talk about. I don’t read a lot of fiction, but I’m a huge news reader. Reality is, of course, an incredible source of inspiration for comic book writers.
Lady Xia is in the house! It’s no mystery that I love writing strong female characters. And even more if they’re mysterious too. I have a female-centric comic book that I’ve been working on for years with Leila Leiz called Harem. Leila is now doing Alters at Aftershock and I’m doing Intertwined at Dynamite, but I’m confident that, at one point, we’ll be able to go back and finish Harem together.
For this one page, I simply said to Fred : “I want an Asian Audrey Hepburn”. And he designed the beautiful and deadly Lady Xia. In this issue, you don’t really understand who she is. You see her with mysterious men in the chapel. Then you see her with mobsters in the streets. She’s the unofficial leader of the Spirits. She’ll play a MAJOR role in the issues to come. Stay tuned!
This scene has been very tough to write but I’m very pleased with the result. It seems very simple, but it’s not. It’s an ordinary scene. An interaction between Juan and his mother. There’s a lot there. I tried to capture the relationship between a mother and her son in 1970s Hong Kong society. She’s tough. She’s cold. She never makes physical contact with her son. But you can see how much she cares. Fred is more comfortable with action scenes than with emotional ones. But there, he completely knocked it in conveying the right level of emotion. Oh, and since we’re in the 1970s, the mom smokes. It has become rare in modern comics. Not that I’m promoting cigarettes, quite the contrary, but it’s what the character does. You know, just like Wolverine back in the day… Just sayin’.
I wrote this big street fight scene while watching one of my favorite movies, IpMan, with Donnie Yen. For fight scenes, I loosely write and the heavy lifting is done by Fred. First, he LOVES drawing fight scenes, and he’s the Kung Fu expert! His father and grandfather were already practicing and teaching Kung Fu. And the Spirit of Fire character is based on his brother Alex who’s also invested in martial arts. Fred often told me he’d draw positions as accurately as possible, based on his own moves, mixed with the main Kung Fu stars styles (such as Bruce Lee, of course. But also Jet Li or Donnie Yen).
These pages are also very dear to me. It’s obvious, but Intertwined is deeply rooted in Asian culture. I got the idea while I was on a trip in Beijing in 2015. And I’ve been exposed to the Chinese world for a long time. My sister-in-law is Chinese and my brother, who’s a talented director, is fluent in Mandarin. He was even able to direct a movie, a web-series and many TV spots in that language with locals. That said, New York has always been a multi-cultural town. And the series was always going to reflect that. When page 24 opens, we’re on a boat. Juan has been dropped by sea pirates paid by Lady Xia on a boat that came from Haïti. Living in Brooklyn, I could realize how much the Haïtian community is generous, united and warm. I have Haïtian friends. We come from different countries, of course, but most of them speak French too, so we can easily communicate in a friendly way. And, just as there’s a lack of positive Asian heroes in comics, there’s a lack of Haïtian heroes too (because frankly, Marvel’s Brother Voodoo is so cliché). When I started talking about it with my friends, they were very happy and just said: “thank you”. They were honored. I intend to respect their culture and their personalities, just like all the characters in my books. I want to publicly thank my friend Roobens for helping me with Haïtian Creole too! There’s also a character named Antwan who’s based on Haïtian-Canadian stand-up comedian Anthony Kavanagh. Anthony is an old friend of my family. His career is in France now, but he always has been a comic book fan too. Antwan is set to become a new kind of hero. Hopefully, with success, I’ll be able to tell his story and show that Haïtian heroes are much more than voodoo-inspired characters!
You probably ask yourself this question: the creators said Intertwined was “Kung Fu Noir”, but it’s more Kung Fu than Noir. Yes and no. As I said, this is a journey. If you look closely at the Intertwined logo, you’ll see New York on the left and Hong Kong on the right. Juan Jin goes from “Happy HK” to “Dark Chinatown”. This doesn’t happen in an episode. Issue #2 is definitely more Noir-infused, with half the issue taking place in a rude prison facility. And it’s getting darker as we delve into the series. Be prepared. This is just the beginning!