Portrait

Comic creator Jessica Hansell “smuggles things in through the disguise of lighthearted humour”. By Romy Ash.

Building bridges

I catch sight of Jessica Hansell from the street. She’s standing at a door that opens out of the wall of a dilapidated building. It’s above an auto spray and collision repairs shop in Wellington, New Zealand. She’s framed by the door, silhouette of her hair pulled into a bleached blonde ponytail at the side of her head. Hooped earrings so big I can see them all the way from the street. She sees me, too. She doesn’t smile, but lifts her hand in a wave.

“You caught me at a tender moment,” she says after I climb a tall wooden staircase to Sky Ranch, the warehouse that serves as a home as well as the studio where Aroha Bridge, Hansell’s web cartoon about musical twins Kowhai and Monty Hook, is recorded and produced. Sky Ranch is set for demolition in a couple of months, but for now it remains resplendent in all its rambling, share-house glory. There’s the hum of the auto spray airconditioner vibrating through the floor. A breeze blows off the bay and through the building. A collection of wind chimes chime cacophonously and I forget to ask her why she’s feeling tender.

When we’ve settled into one of the rooms, sprawled on the floor under a purple dolphin balloon wedged into macramé hanging from the ceiling, I tell her I was surprised to read recently that she didn’t think of herself as a funny person. I tell her I laugh a lot when I’m with her, and that Aroha Bridge is hilarious.

“I guess maybe it’s like… I don’t feel particularly good-humoured often,” she says. “I don’t feel light and buoyant out in the world. I’ve always associated that with funny people. That they go around with warmth in their heart, and a rose-tinted lens, and of course the truth is that the darkest motherfuckers are perceived to be funny. And it just so happens I’ve only just found out I’m one of those people. I just make everything into a joke, literally to survive.” She talks about “smuggling things in through the disguise of lighthearted humour”.

“The world I live in – if you’re Māori, Pacific Island mixed-race woman who aligns with a lot of the ideals of feminism, mana wahine, I align myself heavily with queer ideals, too – it’s a pretty brutal time to be alive. I feel like my default is broken-hearted, but yeah, and then you use comedy to help yourself to get on with it. It’s a tool. It’s the tool of the masses, for real. I think I’ve only just realised that being able to make people laugh for better or for worse, I can do it, so I’ve got to go hard.”

Season two of Aroha Bridge will be released in the coming months. It’s a web series Hansell loosely based on her life. She says, “There’s huge shards of myself in there. Aroha Bridge, where it’s set is based on Mangere Bridge, which is where I grew up. Heaps of the locations I’ve traced. It’s fictional, but anyone who’s from that part of Auckland knows exactly where it is. It’s a south Auckland cartoon for sure. I grew up in a real mixed, multicultural area and a bi-racial family template is very common out there. Aroha means love; Mangere Bridge, where I grew up, means lazy, which is super loaded – super loaded because that part of Auckland is really demonised.”

She talks about the process of building the world of the cartoon. She is “choosing everything everyone wears, the colour of everyone’s hair, what the shop looks like, what the chips are like in the shop”. This “mash-up” of her adolescence, “smeared in a comical way”. She says she couldn’t hold back if she tried: “We’re dealing with Māori visibility and we’re breaking stereotypes with a lot of the characters. It’s important that we have things that resonate truthfully with urban Māori. So it has to be plucked from somewhere, so you’re not just spit-balling. People know when something’s real, I find. People like it if they know it comes from a truthful place. I do anyway.

“We’ve got a lot of Māori language in this series. We’ve got a really cool new character called Uncle Noogy who speaks only Māori because he refuses to acknowledge the crown. He’s like a super, kind of, militant uncle, which is a really common archetype in a lot of Māori families. The lovable, separatist aunty or uncle. It’s part of my process of accepting that that might be me, to my nephews. Having little things like that in it – little political victories – might not mean much to anybody else, but it’s so massive to me. Just having more Māori language in a way that isn’t token, in a way that’s really hilarious and integrated into the volatile fabric of a multicultural family.

“I think it’s a universal truth, in terms of Māori, PI people, indigenous people from this part of the world. We often get relegated to this kind of… Like our culture exists in this really quaint vacuum, and no one else will get it. It’s not true. Our ideologies and our struggles are universal. And anyone who sits on the margins, but is trying to find a way, who still has this deluded hope that they’ll be someone one day – they’ll be able to relate to it. And anybody that’s got a family that gives them shit can relate to it, you know.” She laughs. “I suppose a lot of people think their lives are sitcom worthy but I really… That’s one thing that I can claim. I do think it’s sitcom worthy.”

The cartoon is just one of Hansell’s projects. She’s writing a feature-length animated film, and in the music realm she writes and performs as Coco Solid. “My dreams are coming to fruition in terms of the creative things that I’ve always wanted to do.” She says, “I should be a good-humoured person.” I laugh.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 20, 2016 as "Building bridges". Subscribe here.

Romy Ash
is a novelist. Her first book, Floundering, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.