For as often as Amy Chu has moved—among other places, she’s called Boston, Iowa and Hong Kong home before settling into West Windsor in 2003—it’s probably not surprising that she tried on numerous professional hats before her true calling finally found her.
Chu fancied a future in astrophysics during her undergrad years at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, laughingly recalling how that dream was thwarted by the realization that she’s “basically the worst as physics.”
She studied architecture in college but never saw herself as an architect. She considered journalism and advertising. Then her MBA from Harvard Business School led to a life as a management consultant; while she enjoyed it, it just never grabbed her by the heart.
Chu’s fans already know where she’s spent the past few years of her new life; those unfamiliar with her second-act career can see her passion play out in the pages of the Poison Ivy, Deadpool, Red Sonja, and Wonder Woman (just to name a few) comics that she’s been writing since her debut in the comic book world.
Her newest graphic novel pairs her writing chops with artist Janet K. Lee’s illustrations in Sea Sirens, a two-part young-adult story that aims to entertain as much as it educates through the tale of a Vietnamese-American girl, her talking cat and the underwater war they find themselves embroiled in.
“It’s a feel-good story with a message of good and bad,” she says. “There is a scene about how you can’t judge a book by its cover. The protagonist intervenes in a war between the mermaids and the serpents, and it turns out to be a huge misunderstanding all because of assumptions. There’s some teaching in there because kids tend to pick up on the lessons.”
Bringing decades of lived-in experiences and knowledge cultivated through her wide array of previous occupations, interests and areas of study has been a benefit to Chu’s development as a writer. Her creative processes vary from project to project and medium to medium, but she sees a distinct parallel between actually writing a script and her undergraduate education.
“Part of my process is very much informed by the architectural design process of building a house: You know what has to go into it and you have to work within certain constraints,” she explains. “A house is all about the user environment and user expectations, and it’s the same thing for comics—the reader has expectations and things they need to see. The average comic book is 20 pages, and in that space I need some kind of character introduction, the action, the conflict and to define where we go next. You have to plug those things in. It’s like doing a crossword puzzle: I need to be more of a problem solver than a prose writer.”
Chu considers her life as a comic-book writer a “happy accident” that didn’t exactly draw her to the vocation so much as it sucked her in. She came into the comics world by way of fellow Harvard alumna and friend Georgia Lee, with whom she teamed up in 2010 to write comic books for girls, a demographic they both felt was unjustifiably neglected by the medium.
“When I was younger, I thought I was smart enough to do a lot of different things but I never found what I was passionate about; now I’m at a stage where I did find something I’m passionate about completely by accident,” Chu says. “It’s not like I didn’t enjoy all the other things I did, they were just different parts of my life along the way. Comic books are my new stage. It’s a world that has been very heavily male-dominated, and so much of what I’m doing is proving a point that women can draw and make and write comics. The status quo isn’t something I feel like can be left unchallenged, so there’s a little bit of that in my DNA.”
Several years into her journey writing comic books and graphic novels, Chu still feels “like a total newbie in some ways” and that she’s still working to stake her claim in a field that isn’t always receptive to female voices.
“All this is outside my comfort zone,” says Chu. “There have been a lot of challenges related to my gender, but that’s to be expected. I don’t know if I ever felt like I’m where I belong because so much of it is fighting for a place at the table. I still have huge moments of self-doubt and sometimes I wonder why I’m doing this: There are so many good reasons not to do it. But screw that! I’m not going away. If I go away, it’s a victory for the trolls.”
Being a 51-year-old Asian-American mother of two boys and a woman in a traditionally masculine industry has often been the inspiration Chu needs to push ahead as proof that anyone with a dream and a desire can make it happen.
“I think there’s a lot of skeptics out there but if you really want to do something, you can do it somehow,” she says. “I never knew I could do this, and I certainly never knew it was possible at my age.”
And for every naysayer out there, Chu has met supportive peers, enthusiastic collaborators, and, thanks to the ever-popular conventions that pepper the comic-book landscape domestically and beyond, scads of fans who find inspiration in both the stories she writes and the story she’s lived.
“I love doing the conventions and meeting the fans because I always get somebody coming to me who’s looking for proof that it’s possible for them to do this, too,” Chu says. “And then I’ll get someone who’ll come up to me and say something like, ‘Your comic was my first comic,’ or have a really dog-eared copy of something I wrote that they’ve clearly read many, many times and they want me to sign it. It’s always like, ‘Oh my God, I can make a difference in people’s lives doing this!? That’s fantastic!’ No one ever said anything like that to me when I was consulting: I never heard, ‘Wow, your bar chart was so inspiring!’”
Quite a few of those fans are the young women Chu initially intended to reach, confirming that the uptick in female representation she’s seeing in comics themselves is finding an eager audience.
“It really was things like seeing Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel in the movies, because I can’t tell you how many people said that a woman cannot be the lead in a story—and these female characters are proving that very obviously they can,” says Chu, whose breakout work was writing Poison Ivy’s first book half a decade after the character’s introduction to the DC Comics universe.
“The people who are buying comics and watching superhero movies, the new markets are women,” she says. DC and Marvel have clearly changed: Reaching a female audience is now their number-one priority. I feel vindicated! I love the fact that things have changed. I just can’t believe it took so long.”
Chu continues to blaze new trails, recently taking on a teaching position at The Kubert School, located in Morris County but known throughout the world for its reputation in the sequential arts community, and working on an animated Netflix series that’s “like a mature Game of Thrones, very much in the vein of Castlevania,” due out next year.
But most of all, she wants to be the voice drowning out the self-doubt and skeptics that creative types—especially those struggling to find their place as a voice for under-represented communities and demographics—tend to be plagued by.
“There is a very correct path for me as a woman, as a mother, as an Asian-American that I need to represent: I feel like I’m in this position and should use it to teach and help others, because why else am I doing this?” Chu says. “I never thought that I could be a creative person so that’s still the great mystery to me, that one can actually do this if you just explore it. Life is too short not to. That’s my main message: You should—and can—do it!”