What is love? Well, according to webcomic HJ-Story, love is sacrifice, courage, and pure. It is also about singing and dancing together, being silly together, and getting fat together.
HJ-Story’s sweet, simple, and downright adorable little cartoons were cartoonist Andrew Hou’s way of showing his wife Kate how much he loved her (“HJ” are her initials in Korean). The mostly short, one-to-four-panel strips depict love, romance, and anything the couple faces or experiences in their relationship, and has large online following, with fans from all over the world.
Hou and Kate were recently in Malaysia for the launch of their book, HJ-Story Volume 1, by local publishing house Keropok Comics.
According to Hou, 35, HJ-Story began life as little doodles he used to send Kate back when they had just started dating in 2010.
“I used to work in the gaming industry, and there I don’t get to draw these cute little comics. I usually drew superheroes, monsters, stuff like that,” the South Korea-based Chinese-Canadian cartoonist says during an interview in Kuala Lumpur.
“When I met Kate back then, since I can’t really talk when I’m at work, I would draw these small cute little characters for her, and send them on iPhone Messenger. That’s how it started, I didn’t even think of making them into a book or anything like that.”
After dating for a while, though, the drawings just started piling up, and Hou decided to upload them onto a Tumblr website as a gift for her. That little Tumblr account slowly got more and more fans, and got popular enough that, after Hou and Kate married in March 2011, he decided to turn it into a proper, high-quality production.
“In the beginning, they were all just casual doodles. I decided to redraw everything and turned it into a real production, and that’s when the fans really started coming in,” Hou says. His fanbase eventually grew big enough that he was able to quit his full-time job to focus on HJ-Story in December 2014. He and Kate now run a full-fledged online HJ-Story business (hj-story.com), complete with HJ-Story merchandise that includes books, keychains, lanyards, notepads, couple charm sets, and prints of the art.
Although he does not want to commercialise it too much, Hou is also mindful of the audience HJ-Story has attracted. “Originally, HJ-Story was 100% motivated by Kate. She was the only reason I drew it. But once I got an audience, they gave me a lot of motivation to keep drawing as well. Maybe even more than Kate originally did,” he says with a laugh.
“There’s a lot more to think about when I draw an episode now. After it got popular, I didn’t really draw the super personal ones. For most episodes, even if it is personal, I try to draw in a way that people can relate to a bit more. I don’t want to draw situations that don’t relate to me, but at the same time I try to draw something that I can give to the audience.”
That desire to keep HJ-Story personal is also the reason he usually turns down requests from his fans.
“I don’t want to draw something I don’t connect with. If there is a similar situation I’ve been in, then I’d draw that instead. I want to make everything really real.”
Because it is a strip about their relationship, Kate also chips in with story ideas from time to time.
“In her stories I’m usually the bad guy! It’s usually about how I’m throwing my socks around the house, and so on … she tends to pick on me in her stories,” he muses. “In mine, I usually make fun of her more. Like how when she is angry she would be shooting machine guns at me.”
Once of Kate’s most recent favourite strips is about how their movie dates have evolved from going to the cinema together to just chilling in front of the TV at home. Hou’s favourite is the one he drew about them getting fat together.
“Ever since I met Kate, I’ve been putting on weight! She eats very little but loves food, so I always eat her leftovers!” he says with a laugh. “We both really like food. We order too much all the time!”
Hou has collected all the strips into three books so far, and self-publishes them on his website; the Malaysian book is the first non-self-published version. According to him, you can really see how HJ-Story has evolved in the past five years, along with his relationship with Kate.
“Volume 1 has all the really, really sweet stuff. Volume 2 is still sort of romantic and sweet, but since we got married around the end of Volume 1, the story in Volume 2 tends to be more comedy instead. Volume 3 has more of the funny things that happen during married life, like all our little fights,” Hou says.
While he isn’t very sure what the next step is for HJ-Story, he reckons that if they ever have kids, he might have to start a whole new strip just for that part of their lives.
“I’m not sure I’d be able to keep up the whole romantic thing … we might have to draw a whole new book just for my kids!” he says with a laugh.