Toronto-based studio mates Irma Kniivila and Tri Vuong have collaboratively created “Everyday Hero Machine Boy,” an effervescent and quirky new graphic novel published by Image and Skybound. Powerful robot “Machine Boy” crash lands onto a future-ish Earth, but it’s not until a karate move from a lovable grandpa thrusts Machine Boy’s heart to life that his real journey begins. “Everyday Hero Machine Boy” is a book FILLED with heart, as Machine Boy learns about living and loving from karate grandmother Mei, enters adventures mundane and marvelous at school and boy-band concerts, and gardens tomatoes with anthropomorphic neighbor Mr. Hound.
“Everyday Hero Machine Boy” is in comic shops and bookstores now, one of the year’s most exciting releases.
Machine Boy’s creators Irma Kniivila and Tri Vuong sat with us to unpack the backstory of the character’s birth from the imaginative exchange of these two remarkable cartoonists. We dig into the rich repository of pop culture influences, the creative chaos that sparks such life into their storytelling, and the generative chemistry between Tri, Irma, and letterer Aditya Bidikar.
This interview is edited for length and clarity, but the full conversation can be heard on next weekend’s Comics Syllabus podcast here at Multiversity.
We’re here to talk about “Everyday Hero Machine Boy” from Image Comics, which I’m so excited to talk to you about! I’m always curious about creators of all-ages books: Do you have the same pitch for an audience of younger readers as you would for an audience of adult fans? And what would that pitch be?
Irma Kniivila: I don’t think that our pitch would be significantly different; we actually didn’t make this book with a middle-grade audience in mind. We just kind of made a book as fun as we possibly could.
Tri Vuong: Yeah, I think we kind of accidentally made a middle-grade book. Our pitch was, I was making a book for Irma and maybe Irma’s making a book for me. So we were just looking to entertain each other and then accidentally ended up where we were at!
So it seems like the origin of “Everyday Hero Machine Boy” came out of your collaboration with each other. Where did the story come from? What was the brainchild of it between the two of you?
TV: I had an idea: it was just a scene, a concept, but it wasn’t really a story. I just had this idea of an old Man that karate punches a little robot’s heart to life. And I knew there was like something really compelling about the idea, though I didn’t know what the story was. And I was having lunch with Irma and sort of talking myself in circles, wondering what it was, and I asked her, “What do you think, is there something here?” and, “would you want to maybe take a crack at this idea, see if there’s anything?”
And she’s like, “Sure!” So we came up with, not the book as it is now, but just sort of like a prototype of a comic, maybe 10 pages long. And she built a whole story around that one central idea.
IK: I guess by accident, I was interested in what came after that moment. And then the “Everyday” portion comes from, what are the mundane parts of his life? What do they look like? After this moment where his heart is awakened? And what does his life look like, just as a regular boy, going to school.
And then Tri and I were just making a lot of stupid jokes all the time! So there are a lot of characters in there that sort of grew from our mutual fascinations and sort of grew to the most extreme versions of what that looks like.
Yeah. There’s kind of a spontaneous feeling about the various characters that are thrown in the mix. I mean, it’s clearly well-planned and carefully dosed, but it’s like YOU were just as surprised by everyone as they come along. It’s really kind of wonderful how that plays out.Continued below
TV: If it seems well-planned, it’s only because we managed to rein in the chaos! It was really a lot of jokey characters that make us laugh that we could squeeze in, but we needed to exercise some kind of restraint and–
IK: Yeah, going back to the original pitch document, it had just so much that we were trying to cram in, that was just full of genuine insanity that, you know, we kind of had to reel it back. “Okay, this can’t just be like bananas characters doing bananas things all the time!”
You can sense that energy of great ideas being exchanged back and forth. And then, of course, you reel it all in and funnel it into a story and to coherence.
I love that this story you’re telling, this initial idea Tri had of the karate thrust from Grandpa Goh that jumpstarts Machine Boy’s heart… there’s so much humanity in that moment, actually!
TV: Yeah, for me, the story was an opportunity to create a love letter for martial arts. And it’s really cool to to be able to express that in comic form.
And then Irma, I’m really interested that you were adding the flesh to the story of expanding into how this boy, after this cataclysmic event of his arrival, has to figure out school and living with grandma and everyday life, with all these fun and poignant twists and turns. I wonder if there were certain influences on how you wanted to show that everyday life.
IK: I think I just kind of started asking questions to begin with. Like, if you did go to school, What would that even look like, you know? Because he’s visually very different from everyone else, and maybe even sort of like, emotionally different from where everyone else is. So, you know, what kind of happens from there?
And then from that point, I think it became really a dialogue with Tri. Thinking about, like, “Okay. What does school look like? What do his experiences look like? And where does it go from there?”
TV: Yeah, and when there’s a silly world, we try to write it as if every character was really three-dimensional.
So anything happening, like school, is already traumatic enough, and we just want to make it feel real and evoke those same type of feelings that we all experience at one time or another.
IK: The idea of food and cooking really played a big role. Tri and I are both either fully or partially of Asian descent, and I feel like the culture of food, and LOVE through food, seems very, very strong in a lot of Asian cultures.
So that felt a little bit natural: how do you show love without necessarily saying, “I love you”? And often it’s through, like, “Okay, here’s this giant plate of spaghetti.”
TV: Yeah, that Spaghetti part really caught me because I asked Irma, what do you think is the approach into this story? And then she came back a couple days later with this spaghetti wrapper around the story that just took me completely by surprise… but that’s it! That’s exactly, like, the right fit, that was sort of missing in my initial idea. So it was fantastic work.
IK: I guess especially because it was this grandma character, and I don’t know, I associate grandmas always with, “you got to eat more! You got to eat more!”
It’s a really tender beginning, where we meet “Karate Grandma” Mei and she tells “Karate Grandpa” they need tomatoes for that spaghetti from Mr. Hound at the convenience store, and it really becomes kin of a mutual offering of their love, just a beautiful part of the story.
TV: There’s something about tomatoes, because they’re pretty fragile, and it actually became a really useful storytelling device… at some point Machine Boy has to carry around these tomatoes, and even when they’re in this sorry state, they sort of seem to carry a lot of meaning.Continued below
IK: Yeah, something that grows from seed and takes a long time and sort of fruits into something useful and delicious. It’s just something to that as imagery.
Yes! The story totally has these great counterpoints, where the sci-fi Domed city of Mega-416–
TV: People from Toronto will know that one, the “416”–
Right! Toronto is one of these, you know, hyper-modern cities, but then you use panels of just these very organic seeds growing, or plants that sort of pace it out, remind us of the very natural process of growth that we know we’re watching Machine Boy go through…
TV: Yeah, that’s true. We were really inspired by just our local surroundings. Toronto, like maybe every major urban center, has these quiet parks nestled into really dense areas. And something about the two of those combined feels really homey for me.
IK: There’s just something so magical about, you know, this tiny thing that you could put in the garbage or in the soil and then it grows into a full plant, if you’re lucky… that begets, like, more food or flowers or whatever, which is just really magical to me. And it kind of never gets old.
Absolutely. That, and there are a lot of amazing juxtapositions that I’m curious about, as collaborators, whether you sort of talked about them, or just kind of worked their way in implicitly? Like the Asian diaspora in the Western cities, maybe some cultural hybridity, or the technology and the organic, like the karate and the spaghetti…
IK: I want to say, we just kind of followed whatever we were interested in. So I was deep into Karate at the time, so obviously that wove its way into the story. Whether it was like a conscious thought or not, we talked about things like gardening and cooking. And these sort of mundane things that are in the back of your mind, they weave their way through. Or stories of family, or
the way our days in high school were, and the weirdness and sort of sadness of life… That felt pretty organic. What do you think, Tri?
TV: Yeah, I think so. Definitely in the beginning, sort of the “Blue Skies” phase, we just kind of went with what felt right? And also we were introducing each other to cool stuff that we liked as kids, or we maybe we just talk about certain experiences we had as kids… But it was like, “Oh, they’re almost the same.” I’m not sure whether it’s maybe like you said, Asian diaspora… Maybe there’s some commonalities in that experience. Anyways, I think it was sort of more in the once like once we’re past that initial stage and we had to, they make a comprehensible story, we had to like stop going by feel all the time and really okay, let’s see what we have on the table and try to organize these thoughts more coherently.
IK: Because it’s really fun to ask questions, but then once you have to start actually answering those questions, sometimes it gets pretty difficult.
TV: Because both Irma and I are comic artists, we kind of do every [part of the process], right? So it was just easier for us as we sat right next to each other to draw things out.
Like when I saw her sketches and layouts of spaghetti in the story, I was like, “that makes complete sense.” Maybe if I read in a script or something, I’d think, “Why? Why spaghetti?” But yeah, sometimes you just get things visually.
And Aditya Bidikar provides the lettering, but officially, you are both credited as co-creators. So both of your hands are in the art, the storytelling, etc. Correct?
IK: Yeah, it’s a lot of crossover between the two, but I would say overall we co-wrote. Tri, for the most part, did the art and the designs, and then colors were on my end.
TV: Even with the art, half the book Irma did that initial “script” as layouts. So she was really responsible for the the wonderful pacing of the panels. I just want to make sure I point that out because she added a lot to the final look of the book. And actually more that sometimes I’ll just draw things, like, wrong. And Irma would just go, this head is too big. I’m just gonna fix it.Continued below
Or the city looks, you know, kind of weird, and Irma just went ahead and fixed it. So it was great to know that I could just hand off any part of the process to to my partner and it’s totally in good hands.
So we eventually arrived at a good working process.
IK: And then just to speak to the lettering: we’re so lucky to work with Aditya [Bidikar]! Because we would finish pages and be like, well, we don’t know how this is gonna turn out, especially with, like, the the song pages. And they would come back and they would just be so alive, and then everything is so easy to read, and it just like jumps beautifully off the page. So yeah, we’re just really, really lucky.
TV: Even Machine Boy’s voice… we didn’t expect that, like… It was brilliant!
IK: Could you imagine if we, like, put all this effort into this book, and then we tried to letter it ourselves, and then–
TV: …oh, terrible…
IK: … just destroyed it [with our own lettering.]
Haha… I’m sure you would’ve done better than you give yourselves credit for, but indeed, Bidikar is amazing!
IK: Incredible! All of his work, across the board. And you know, you sort of know these people from Twitter, and just to see this constant working on his craft and how it’s evolved over time…
I have to tell you, I pre-ordered the book because the solicit’s visuals were so attractive and eye-poppingly gorgeous and I could see, you know, the sort of Tezuka-filtered-through-contemporary-artists… and totally borne out in the book. I’m so in love with this style.
I’ve got to ask you about the thinking behind Orphan Universe, the sort of boy band that that everybody’s a fan of in this world. I love that you have every character in that group in a different style. How did you come up with that? And how did you sort of like, you know, sort out what style each character would would be in?
IK: That is all Tri. Because if it was me designing those characters, they would just look like a bunch of pretty boys, probably, but Tri sort of took what their personalities were and really just pushed them to the absolute extreme.
TV: Each individual character probably has his own little inspiration. I think overall the Orphan Universe was inspired by a K-Pop band called Big Bang. I think they’re old school now, but I discovered them while surfing through YouTube, like, a long time ago, before K-Pop became quite so mainstream. And I was just, like, what in the world am I looking at? It was just so audacious and the individual characters were so extreme. So I just started thinking, like, wouldn’t it be funny if one of the characters was drawn like– do you know this comic “Crying Freeman”…?
Oh yeah, yeah. Like, super realistic, right?
TV: I thought, like, he could just be always crying. And then I thought, what if one guy was just, like, a vampire, but for some reason I kept on thinking of there’s like all these, like, in Vampire Hunter D, there’s always this gloved hand in the picture, and what if there was like a Mickey Mouse glove… So I was like, there’s like I’m not pitching this to anybody. I’m just gonna make whatever makes me laugh…
IK: I mean, I guess theoretically I was the one to stop you, but then I would get these drawings and be like, “this is amazing…”
(Laughing) It reminds me of “One Punch Man,” or even how Toriyama would have that, “let me just throw in a little bit of cartoonish and then a little bit of realism…”
TV: For me, Toriyama was a huge influence. We never said, “Oh, we should reference it,” but it was like this stuff that we love and just came up… Like, I remember as a kid, I had real problems with the animal people in Toriyama. I just didn’t understand why there were animal people and he never explains…Continued below
TV: But now I love those animal people and everything…
IK: Because I also feel like once you start breaking that reality, you get a lot of leeway to break everything…
TV: Yeah. Exactly
IK: You can sort of get away with a little bit more. When the neighborhood shop owner is a basset hound….
Yes. I love it.
Well, I can’t say enough good things about “Everyday Hero Machine Boy.” I loved the book and I think it’s going to make a huge splash. I can’t wait for more of it, to share it with kids in my classroom and comics fans I know. Thank so much for talking to us, Irma and Tri!
For the full conversation with Irma Kniivila and Tri Vuong, read “Everday Hero Machine Boy” from Image/Skybound and listen to next weekend’s Comics Syllabus podcast here at Multiversity.