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Middlebury Graphic Novelist On AI, Adoption And Diversifying Storytelling

an illustrated cover for made in korea with the image of a person in the center in full color, with other grey versions of that person, except the face is replaced with a robot's
Jeremy Holt, Courtesy
Made In Korea follows Jesse, the world's first fully artificial intelligence proxy, on a journey to find family.

The backcover description for a new sci-fi comic series from Middlebury writer Jeremy Holt describes it as: “Step One: Remove from box. Step Two: Power on. Step Three: Raise your child.”

Holt's series Made In Korea is illustrated by George Schall and debuts May 26.

VPR’s Mary Engisch spoke with Jeremy Holt. They spoke about the series’ broader themes, and did their best to avoid spoilers! Their conversation below has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Mary Engisch: First as a synopsis, and not to give away too much, [in] the series Made In Korea, readers will follow Jesse. Jesse's the world's first artificial intelligence system. And Jeremy, you've written Jesse into this world where biological parenting is no longer an option. And then because of that, adoption plays a very key role in your series. And there's also emphasis on not only adoption, but also one's own identity. Can you talk about your own experience coming at this topic?

Jeremy Holt: I've long believed that at the core of every good AI story is one about the adoption experience. I've never seen anyone tackle this directly, and I've just found myself having this unique opportunity to talk about it as a Korean adoptee. So that's what I did.

And another thread that runs through the series, too, is that redefining of the idea of family. All of the characters in the series are really looking for family in some kind of way, and they're sort of making their own definition of it. But can you talk a little more about how family relates to the series?

Honestly, with nature versus nurture, that age old argument, I think about that a lot, both having biological siblings and non-bio siblings. And just kind of seeing how some of my siblings have raised their kids, seeing how my own parents have raised me, seeing how much smaller the world has gotten through adoption. And I think that's what makes a family really, is up to the individuals, and I think that there's no one way to be a family.

A comic with a person working inside a tech firm
Credit Jeremy Holt, Courtesy
A sampling of Made In Korea, Jeremy Holt's new sci-fi comic series coming out May 26.

As someone who doesn't regularly read graphic novels or sci-fi, the episodes that I read of Made In Korea, they're so relatable. There are these scenes of a busy tech firms with cubicles and eagle-eyed supervisors. And there are family dinner parties, social awkwardness, talking with relatives on what looks like what a Zoom call might be in 20 years or so. So how did you bridge what feels like the present to what could be the future?

That was a really difficult thing.... taking such a beloved narrative as artificial intelligence is within the sci-fi genre was daunting. But for me, I wanted to explore just my feelings about being an adoptee, my feelings about certain other topics within the story that I don't really want to talk about because I feel like it might be a spoiler.

But to make it relatable, I was just writing from my own personal experiences, which is something that I made a solemn oath to myself maybe four years ago when I decided to no longer write white male cis protagonists and instead take the opportunity of being a person of color and provide proper and better representation within, you know, the medium of comics.

Previously, to your pledge to yourself, were you creating storylines that were from a male white perspective?

Sadly, yes. I think the last time we spoke, we spoke about my book, Southern Dog, which is very much centered around a white male protagonist. And for me, I understand why I did that for so long. As an adoptee and being raised very much American, I honestly didn't view myself as Asian for a very long time. At least I didn't lean into that part of my identity until relatively recently. And once I did, I realized that there were so many more narrative opportunities and themes and topics to explore that honestly, for lack of a better term, are more colorful than just writing this straight white story or the white savior story.

Listen to more from Jeremy Holt talking about his graphic novel, Southern Dog, from this 2015 VPR interview.

I mean, I know in the book market, "Own Voices" is a huge movement to provide proper representation and allow people of color to tell their stories, to have their voices heard. I think comics have done an equally decent job at it. I think in the industry now there is, to me, seeming like an overcorrection, and just people kind of staying in their lanes. But generally speaking, because comics and, you know, fiction in general ranges in such broad and different topics, I think that people are being more aware of it. And it's nice that people are holding space for each other.

I think people will really, really enjoy this take on an AI story coming from a very unique perspective.

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