Meet Kuen Tang, the quadriplegic artist with a mission

The Canadian educator who wants to change how China sees the disabled

After Canadian comics artist and educator Kuen Tang suffered a car accident in British Columbia in 2001 that left her without the use of all four of her limbs, many, including her doctors, wrote off her chosen career path. 'I was told by my doctors to give up my hopes and dreams of a future as a teacher,' she recalls. 'I cried for three days.'

Since then, Tang has built a career out of disproving what other people say she can’t do. She finished her studies in 2006, becoming the first quadriplegic woman to earn a Bachelor’s degree in education. Pursuing a childhood passion for comic books, she teamed up with DC Comics in 2009, becoming its first quadriplegic woman letterer (that’s the person who inserts storylines and speech balloons into comic books). Last year, she visited China and made news again, becoming the first quadriplegic person to wheel on the Great Wall.

One of Tang’s latest creative projects is Dark Moon, a web-based motion comic by artist Tom Freeman that she lettered and translated into Chinese. Time Out talked with Tang about the creative and physical challenges she faces as a comics artist and letterer, as well as her motivation for introducing her work to Chinese audiences.

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How did you become interested in comics originally?
I was a tomboy when I was a child and reading comic books was my favourite thing to do on a rainy day. I read a lot of comic books when I was a child in China, and my love was reignited again in high school, but always as an admirer. I fell into working in comics by accident. A friend was having problems hiring a letterer to complete his book. He wanted to do it himself, but didn’t know how to use the software. So, I watched a tutorial and taught him how to use Adobe Illustrator, but he was still not doing it right, so I said, 'Move over and let me do it.' That’s when I realised I was pretty good at it, and ever since then, I’ve been hooked.

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There’s an illustration on your website of a woman in a space-travelling pod that resembles a futuristic wheelchair. Is that character you?
That particular character is me. Cool, right? Even in a futuristic world, I asked my artist friend to make me a futuristic wheelchair instead of making me walking or fully able-bodied, because I wanted to show that I have fully accepted and embraced my disability as part of my life.

What creative realms do you want to bring to the page when you create your own comics?
My work experience in comic books has taught me how to tell stories. So I have decided to use comics to bring about the humour in disability challenges that people face every day. I find that anytime any disability issues are brought up in the community, people tend to bring up a wall and feel discomfort. Some simply ignore the issue. Humour has the power to break down this barrier; humour can help the disability community start a dialogue with the rest of the world and help to create changes. We can all laugh together about disability mishaps, learn and work together to create changes. I like to dream big!

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Can you introduce Dark Moon, a comic that you not only lettered but also translated to Chinese? What is it about? Why do you want to introduce this comic in particular to Chinese audiences?
Dark Moon is a motion comic about humanity being put through the worst, and yet the worst is yet to come. I wanted to introduce this comic to the Chinese public for three reasons. First, the fabulous art and music are very unlike any of the types of comic books I’ve seen in China. Second, Dark Moon tells a story of humanity going through some really bad situations, and how they managed to deal with it. China, especially the younger generation, can learn from the experiences and change their outlook. Third, and most importantly, I wanted to show the public that there are many ways to do things in life. Since this motion comic is very different from typical comic books, I hope to show the public and people with disability [a way] to embrace change. Just because you have a disability doesn’t mean you can’t do what you want to do. Just because you can’t walk from A to B, you can wheel it and still get to the end point. Just because my hands don’t work does not mean I can’t write, draw or paint. Just because you might not be able to do the job you used to do, doesn’t mean you cannot find another job that you can do, love and excel in. We all need to change and evolve, like the characters from Dark Moon.

Watch the trailer for Dark Moon [VPNs on].

What differences in attitudes towards disability have you noticed between China and Canada? Do you plan to address this with more work in or related to China?
People in both countries have big hearts for people with disability. China has begun to make changes to help people with disability, with regards to accessibility. I see great potential in China for people with disabilities, and it could possibly be a leader in such movement in the future – but only if people with disability voice their needs and help with the changes.
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