INTERVIEW: HOUSE OF SLAY’s KEVIN WADA, PRABAL GURUNG, PHILLIP LIM, AMY CHU & HENRY BARAJAS
The Slayasians, a collective of prominent AAPI fashion designers and tastemakers — designers Phillip Lim and Prabal Gurung of their namesake labels, Laura Kim of Oscar De La Renta and Monse, style-icon Tina Leung of Netflix’s Bling Empire, and restaurateur Ezra J. William — dropped the first episode of House of Slay Season 2 on November 1, 2022, on the Tapas and WEBTOON platforms. The series, created in partnership with XRM Media and EEP Universe, follows superpowered versions of the fashion icons as they combat the fear of “other” and build a community of love, hope, and solidarity.
Prism got the opportunity to catch up with Slayasians Lim and Gurung, cover artist and designer Kevin Wada, “Slay in LA” story arc writer Amy Chu, and “Casa de Matar” arc writer Henry Barajas over e-mail to learn more about how the creative team came together to work on House of Slay Season 2, to discover how the clothing and superhero costume designs are an essential part of the series, and to find out how comics can combat anti-Asian violence.
REBECCA OLIVER KAPLAN: What’s the story behind House of Slay? How did the five of you join forces?
PHILLIP LIM: Having come up in the fashion industry together, we’ve all been friends for years, and I would say there wasn’t so much a single spark as there were several moments of realization that we were all experiencing the current state of our world in similar ways. The rise of hatred and bigotry especially in 2020 was a catalyst; the growing awareness of Black Lives Matter and the spike in anti-Asian hate crimes. Being together had always brought us solace and solidarity, and we realized we could turn that feeling into action. Unity always beats divisiveness and “othering” of different groups of people, and we can accomplish more as a team than by ourselves. The thought that kicked off House of Slay was: “Instead of taking individual action, how much more of an impact could we have if we took action together?”
PRABAL GURUNG: That’s an important point because House of Slay isn’t just a comic book or a mural painting project, or any of the other things that fall under it – more than anything it’s the principle that everyone benefits when we choose to actively fight against hatred and othering rather than simply shaking our heads and saying, “Oh, that’s terrible.” Every little action can make a difference to someone, and not everyone can participate in big spectacular political demonstrations or legal challenges and whatnot. This is one of the things we thought we could do with our particular abilities and platform. A big theme of House of Slay – especially this current season of the comics series – is finding your personal, unique way to make a difference and embracing that.
Author’s Note: For another way to get involved, the Slayasians have joined forces with the AAPI Victory Fund to inspire and mobilize community action. Per the HoS website, “Collectively, House of Slay and AAPI Victory Fund, aim to bring our community together- Our voice, Our power, Our vote to ‘be our own superhero.’ All net proceeds of your purchase will support the AAPI Victory Power Fund in voter mobilization of the AAPI community.”
KAPLAN: What’s your vision for House of Slay‘s future as a social impact platform?
LIM: We absolutely see it continuing forever – with such an open-ended mission, the core concept of House of Slay is eternal, and we see it spreading far beyond the five of us. We’ve only just begun to explore the possibilities of social impact with our instinctual reach toward art, storytelling, and fashion. There are many more opportunities in the future for political action and community investment.
GURUNG: One of the great things about House of Slay is that it sprung from our hearts and isn’t beholden to a strict set of goals or guidelines – it’s a response to what we were feeling, and I love that we will always have it as a vehicle for taking action in the future.
KAPLAN: How does your background in fashion inform the comics?
GURUNG: Fashion is a HUGE part of superhero comics! So many people I know grew up reading and loving comics like X-Men, for instance, almost because of the fashion – you’d be surprised to learn how many of us are fans in the fashion world. For me, as a kid I was a huge fan of Wonder Woman – she’s powerful, she’s beating up bad guys, and looking great while she does it. Our characters’ looks in the comic are directly inspired by fashion, and we’ve flipped some expectations, like using traditionally feminine apparel on our male characters.
The first season of the comic comes to a head at the Met Gala, which I’d say is the biggest cultural event in America – in the world, really – it rivals the Super Bowl! It’s one moment when all artists gather to celebrate art and support an institution that’s such an important part of our lives. It’s glamor with a purpose. When you’re there, that is not your normal life, but for one night you can pretend it is. With that—and other scenes like it—we wanted to add something of where we come from in the fashion world and bring that cultural experience to our readers, bridging the two worlds.
KAPLAN: This isn’t the first time you’ve decided to create a comic series. What appeals to you about the medium? In what ways is a sequential graphic narrative a good tool for social justice?
LIM: I grew up watching cartoons, reading comics, and dreaming of possessing a secret superhero power to get through my own childhood. I think there’s a compelling case there for why the comics medium and the superhero genre are so firmly linked – the color and excitement of the medium combined with the universal emotional themes of superhero stories. That’s the appeal of comics to me, to be able to communicate these underlying feelings in such a visceral, direct way, and be able to say to some other kid out there, “You are not alone in this.” That by itself is a great tool for social justice. Oftentimes, simply seeing other people represented in media can be a powerful change agent in terms of reversing bigotry and fear in people’s hearts, but there’s also a great value in representation for those othered people, which is an aspect of social justice we haven’t touched on yet. When I was growing up, the characters never looked anything like me. When the chance came to become my own superhero living my own authentic life, it felt like an important opportunity to be an inspiration to a new generation.
GURUNG: Comics, in general, is deeply appealing to me because of my visual nature – and I think that goes for all of us! My instinct is to tell stories through imagery, color, shape, and movement, so comics just feels right. And to Phillip’s point about superhero stories, there are so many essential elements of the genre that relate to our goals. When you think about it, the essence of childhood is innocence and optimism because you’re not jaded yet, it’s the purest kind of wonder and curiosity, so HOUSE OF SLAY took me right back to that, and it’s a power that can be harnessed for social change. It’s so hard to overcome the inner obstacles we build for ourselves, and “why bother?” is one of the most difficult to get around. I think comics, and superheroes especially, are all about knocking that wall down: not only can you do something about it, but you also should! One of the greatest powers of superhero comics is how you can both escape and seek affirmation through them.
KAPLAN: What’s the design process for the clothing worn by House of Slay?
KEVIN WADA: Designing the costumes of HoS was a lengthy and very energetic and exciting process. I worked mainly with the publishing team but was able to connect a few times with the members of the HoS at the beginning of the process to get to know them and get a feel for their personalities and tastes. From there, I did preliminary sketches of their outfits as an entire superhero team that served as a jumping-off point for rounds and rounds of revisions. The Slayasians obviously love fashion, so they gave thorough and meticulous feedback after each round, and we honed in on distinct and appropriate looks that communicated their distinct characters and powers. Once their look was nearly locked in, it came down to the details and making sure they looked like a cohesive and unified team. It was a lot of hard work, but it was so much fun to tackle, and a special combination of a lot of my interests – superheroes, fashion, and Asian identity.
KAPLAN: Tina Leung recently became her superhero alter ego for the CFDA Awards, during which the comic received the Positive Social Influence Award. What was it like seeing your character design come to life?
WADA: It was so exciting to see Tina in a fabulous gown inspired by her alter ego! They really did a great job translating her suit into a beautiful dress. One of the things I got famous for in the comics world was doing exactly that — taking superhero costumes and making them into fashionable, real-world garments. During the design process, Tina gave me a lot of guidance in what kind of costume would fit her personal aesthetic and seeing that costume make the leap to an actual red carpet garment felt like a full-circle moment.
KAPLAN: You’ve worked on House of Slay since Season 1. What has been the response to the series? Do you think it’s had the intended impact concerning anti-Asian racism?
WADA: I really hope it has! To be honest, I’m not super aware of its impact until moments like this at the CFDA Awards. Then I take a step back and hope that the work is reaching the right audience. My friends of Asian and SE Asian descent think the project is so incredible. There are not a lot of projects like it out there, and I’m honored to have been included in its creation. The more media we see showcasing Asian faces and stories the more human we become – the more familiar. And I think that has a real impact on combating racism.
KAPLAN: How did you become involved in House of Slay?
AMY CHU: Well, when the first chapter came out my interest was piqued, because frankly, I don’t know any other comics writer that’s Asian American and a clotheshorse who collects AAPI designers. I’ve had Phillip Lim, Prabal Gurung, Peter Som, Josie Natori, and Gemma Kahng for years in my closet, so I felt like I was a natural fit. Fortunately, they approached me first before I had to beg!
KAPLAN: In what ways can a webcomic combat anti-Asian violence? Can you share some other examples of comic activism?
CHU: I’ve already worked on a few educational AAPI comics for the Museum of Chinese in America, the New York Historical Society, the Baltimore Museum of Art, and the Charles B. Wang Community Health Center in New York City Chinatown. So, I know the power of comics to educate while entertaining.
KAPLAN: Can you elaborate on the inspiration and development for House of Slay‘s run-in with the Celebritology cult?
CHU: I wanted an adventure that would take the Fab Five out of NY, and LA seemed like a great visual backdrop. Hollywood has a long history of perpetuating harmful stereotypes about people of color, and creating a celebrity-based cult, well, that just seemed like the perfect antagonist for this story.
KAPLAN: How did you start writing comics?
CHU: I really started writing comics by accident. I co-founded an AAPI magazine called A. Magazine several years ago. I first worked in the AAPI nonprofit sector as executive director of the Asian American Arts Alliance and then consulted for many other grassroots social service organizations. My friend Georgia Lee remembered that I had publishing experience and reached out to me with the idea of creating a comics imprint focusing on strong female protagonists for a diverse readership. I took a six-session online writing class on a whim, and it turned out that I was actually good at it. The rest, as you say, is history. Now I write comics full-time for Marvel, DC, Disney, etc.
KAPLAN: How did you become involved in House of Slay?
HENRY BARAJAS: I’m lucky to have friends that look out for me. Alexander Lu and Andrew Nguyen contacted me to see if I was interested. I was touched that they asked because I was already aware of the series since my friends Jeremy Holt and Soo Lee had fleshed out this exciting story [in Season One]. My resume has Batman and Avengers on it, so it was nice to work with a new toy box where the characters are real and modern. You rarely get to tell a story with characters who would respect someone’s pronouns and fluidity.
KAPLAN: In “Casa de Matar,” with art by Louie Chin, you will introduce two new characters to the House of Slay series, Yasmine and Ricardo. Can you tell us more about them? How will they fit into the expanded HoS universe?
BARAJAS: Yasmine symbolizes Mexico’s future. There is finally a sense of adequacy and respect among the world toward a part of North America that has been underappreciated. She wants to embrace the Azteca world and culture through fashion. Ricardo, on the other hand, is a traditionalist. He has every right to be reluctant to appropriate their ancient history for profit. To this day, foreigners disrupt Mexico’s tourist industry and economy. So, they’re family, but they are also at odds. It’s one thing to love the Azteca representation in Wakanda Forever, but I hesitate to appropriate culture and indigenous people still with us.
They fit in the HoS universe because they try to use their influence for good or their idea of good. HoS is one of those comics that aren’t afraid to have a frank conversation about Asian American violence, racism, and belonging.
KAPLAN: How did you get into writing comics?
BARAJAS: I’m lucky that writing comics is something I wanted to do at a very young age. I attribute comics to being the constant thing in my life that has brought me friends, found family, financial security, and the satisfaction of work that I try not to take for granted. The medium has picked me. I do my best to honor those who have come before me—and create a welcoming environment.