Maine’s Midcoast South Park
O’Chang Comics gets catchy
by Chris Busby
As the ferry passengers disembark onto the island, a red pick-up pulls up and stops with a screech. “Bud’s House Painting, Drywalling, Landscaping, Carpentry and Masonry,” it says on the side.
“You Atom?” asks the gruff brown-bearded guy in the driver’s seat wearing a Knight’s Lumbah baseball cap. The fresh-faced young man in a gray Darkbuster t-shirt and hipster hat nods. “I’m Bud. Get in.”
“OK, so here’s the deal,” Bud tells him in the truck cab. “We get onto the site at around 8:30. Then we stop and twist one up at 10. We work until 1, when we go home for lunch, roll up another jibbah and watch my favorite soap. We go back at 2, take another smoky break, and work until the last boat at 4:20.
“Now I realize that we do things different than those mainland operations you’re used to,” Bud continues. “And if you don’t think you can handle it, well, then you probably won’t fit in on our team.”
“Oh, no problem,” the kid assures him.
“Christ, I almost forgot the most important smoky break of the day: before we get on the site,” Bud says, pulling out a baggie of rank-smelling weed with flies buzzing around it. “You ever try sea hash?”
“Uh, no. What’s that?”
“Well, it’s just what it sounds. A bale of it washed ashore from some smugglin’ boat out in the bay. It’s rich in chloride ions from being immersed in salt water.” Bud takes a toke from a turquoise glass pipe and coughs, dropping his purple lighter, his eyes instantly reddening. “Tastes like freakin’ burnt rubber but it’ll get you fuckin’ lit. You want some?”
The kid politely declines.
“Huh. Not a team play’ah. Not a good sign, bub.” And they’re off to work.
So begins “Fantasy Island,” an animated short by the husband-and-wife team of Andy O’Brien and Hanji Chang. Together they are O’Chang Comics.
Chang, 29, was born in Taiwan, the daughter of a Korean mother and a Taiwanese dad, the part owner of a walkie-talkie factory. She does all the animation, in a clean, colorful style influenced by early Japanese anime and South Park.
“Fantasy Island” is part of their Temp Tales series, stories based on O’Brien’s experiences working temporary and seasonal jobs in Maine. He’s raked blueberries, painted houses, shoveled shit, passed state laws (I realize that’s redundant), answered phones and entered data. The ’toon he and Chang made based on his time manning a customer-support line for Hannaford supermarkets, “Meat Recall,” went more viral than an outbreak of salmonella. As of this writing, it’s been viewed on YouTube well over 400,000 times.
Ironically, the cartoons about O’Brien’s dead-end jobs could be the very thing that breaks the couple out of that cycle of survival labor. This work isn’t easy, either — a minute of animation takes Chang days; they joke that O’Chang Comics has its own Korean sweatshop — but it beats washing dishes.
“I just think I happen to be really lucky,” said Chang, who’s put in plenty of time in Portland’s restaurant kitchens, painting houses with her husband and mowing lawns in recent years. “I get to have an outlet to show my artwork while doing these jobs.”
O’Brien’s quest for steady work has taken him to some scary places, from the death-metal dungeons of Southeast Asia to a conference table opposite a furious Gov. Paul LePage.
After attending college in New Jersey and earning an undergraduate degree in history, O’Brien returned to Maine and resumed the seasonal labor he’d done since high school. Come November, when those jobs dried up, he found himself in a pinch. His brother was teaching math at an international school in Taiwan, so O’Brien outsourced himself to Taipei and found work teaching English.
“I stayed longer than I thought I would,” he said — six years.
During this period, O’Brien fronted a punk band called The Deported, whose five members came from all over the planet: a French bass player, a Taiwanese drummer, a Canadian guitarist with Brazilian roots. They played small clubs, festivals and underground venues all over Southeast Asia. The D.I.Y. punk-and-metal scene is huge in this part of the world, fueled by the fact so many young people are not just disaffected by the forces of social conformity, but actively repressed by them.
“In Kuala Lumpur we were staying with these guys who were all Malay,” said O’Brien. “One told me, ‘If I get caught with my girlfriend I’ll be whipped.’” The authorities would routinely raid clubs, line up all the punks, shave their Mohawks and then drug-test them.
Chang was a Mohawked punker whose rebelliousness was rooted in her experience as a racial outsider. Her father’s job took the family to South Africa in the late ’80s, when Apartheid was still the law of the land. “It was really hard because I was the only Asian kid in my kindergarten,” she recalled. “I used to get beat up at school.” When the Changs moved back to Taiwan in 1993, Hanji and her brother were held back for two school years because their Chinese wasn’t good enough, and her Korean heritage continued to mark her as a misfit.
O’Brien and Chang both had an early interest in art. The difference is that O’Brien, who made comics in high school, can’t draw. Chang was painting and drawing in those days, and developing an interest in animation, inspired by video games and anime. But her artistic aspirations were stymied by Taiwan’s test-centric education system. Students who don’t score well on standardized tests have very limited choices to continue their education, regardless of their other accomplishments and skills.
O’Brien met Chang at a bar where he had a DJ gig. She was studying advertising at the time because her test scores weren’t high enough to earn her entry into an art program. She became a fan of The Deported and designed their merchandise and posters. Though The Deported was not a pop-punk group — their influences included The Queers, Black Flag and Suicidal Tendencies — O’Brien said that compared to the dark and brutal metal the angry Asian kids were playing on the D.I.Y. circuit, “they thought we were like Blink-182.”
When O’Brien returned to the States, he moved to Portland but found himself in the same predicament he’d faced up the coast: no steady work. While Chang’s immigration paperwork was being processed, he pieced together a livelihood doing freelance writing for the Free Press (a community newsweekly in Rockland), taking day-labor and temp jobs, and working part-time at the Preble Street Resource Center’s homeless shelter.
In 2008, O’Brien decided to pursue another part-time job: state lawmaker. He moved back to Lincolnville, enrolled in the Democratic Party (“because I figured it’s easier to run if you’re in a party”) and knocked on every door he could between May and November. He beat the incumbent Republican state House representative by about 400 votes, and was appointed to the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee, where partisan passions seldom surface during discussions of issues pertaining to farming, state parks and the like.
“When LePage came in and started badmouthing anybody who was unemployed, I was like, ‘We’re in the middle of a recession. Everybody is looking for work!’” O’Brien said. “I had been unemployed on and off for a long time. Looking for work all the time [is] a full-time job. It seemed like I could never find any job that gave me regular hours, and benefits — forget about it. That’s why I ran for Legislature: somebody needs to be talking about this.”
During an early meet-and-greet with lawmakers that O’Brien attended, LePage told them his door was always open to discuss their concerns — just call his assistant to set up a meeting. But when O’Brien tried to schedule a sit-down with the Big Guy to discuss the barriers to employment Mainers face, he said he was repeatedly blown off and put off.
In frustration, he penned an open letter to LePage, in the fall of 2011, asking him to meet with unemployed Mainers around the state. The letter got big play in the media, but no response from the Gov. The tempest grew after O’Brien’s effort to set up a listening session with local job-seekers at the career center in Rockland was nixed by state labor officials (ostensibly because the center was too small to hold such a gathering, O’Brien said, incredulously). And it came to a head in early December, during a rally in Augusta organized by the Maine People’s Alliance, when O’Brien and a few jobless protesters were called into LePage’s office for an impromptu meeting.
“It’s like getting summoned to the principal’s office,” O’Brien said. “We ended up staying for an hour and a half. We really got into the weeds. We argued about everything, were just totally butting heads.
The governor wanted to talk, but he also really loves debating. We ended up arguing about single-payer health care.”
When the meeting ended, LePage’s press secretary tried to arrange a photo of O’Brien and LePage together, but O’Brien said the governor was so pissed that he wouldn’t even look at him. When reporter Mal Leary chased LePage down after the meeting to get comment, the governor dismissed O’Brien’s efforts to discuss unemployment as partisan gamesmanship. “It’s all a big play and I think it’s bullshit,” LePage said, repeating, slowly, for emphasis: “Bull … shit.”
O’Brien left state government at the end of 2012 for the same reason he’s had to leave other low-paying jobs: he couldn’t afford to keep it. He’d continued to paint houses to pay the bills and finished a graduate degree in education at the University of Southern Maine. “Maine has a citizens’ legislature, but of course only certain citizens can serve,” he said.
Meanwhile, Chang was finishing a degree program at Maine College of Art (she and O’Brien married in 2009). The couple moved to Rockland last May, where O’Brien has continued to cover local news for the Free Press and write a political column called Eye on Augusta. Chang has had some success picking up graphic-design work.
O’Chang Comics has a more serious side: O’Chang Studios, established to do advertising and educational projects. An animated commercial they made for a local car dealership has been on the airwaves lately, and the couple is proud of an educational video they made this spring, called “Attack of the Green Crabs.” But the short comedies are what really draw the eyeballs.
“Fantasy Island” is closing in on 200,000 views, and two other Temp Tales episodes, “Stahmageddon” and “Smoke Show,” aren’t far behind. A new episode, “Crittah Gittahz,” is scheduled to debut this month.
O’Brien has an excellent ear for the unique (and often vulgar) sayings native Mainers employ, and much of Temp Tales’ humor comes from the catchy catch phrases packed into each episode. “It’s stuff I grew up with,” O’Brien said. “I write everything down.”
In “Stahmageddon,” for example, Bud looks out the window and observes, “Christ, colder than a penguin’s piss flippers.” Then he adds, turning to Atom, “All right, let’s get after it. Just don’t chip a nipple out there.”
The old caretaker on the island has his own forecast: “Colder than a polar bear’s touch-hole.” And during O’Chang’s first celebrity walk-on, network TV meteorologist Paul Janus gets to deliver the weather like a real Mainer would: “It’s snowin’ like a bahstid.”
A cast of regular characters is beginning to take shape. In “Smoke Show,” the third Temp Tales episode, we meet Trooper Trahan and state Rep. Plourde. “So then I come home from work and I find the mailbox knocked down, driveway all rutted up, garage door right stove the fuck in, and a big ol’ empty bottle of bitch whiskey sittin’ on the front step,” an old-timer tells Plourde when promoted to share his concerns as a constituent. “Finally I just sez to my mom … ‘I ain’t takin’ you on no more Sunday rides to the mainland if you don’t smahten up.’”
The phrases and scenes in “Fantasy Island” were lifted almost verbatim from real life. The bit where Bud tells the rich couple whose mansion he’s painting that they’ve got “shit-pokes” (herons) in their pond eating all the fish, and then proceeds to open fire on them, is based on a true story.
“Hey, aren’t shit-pokes endangered?” Atom asks, after the yuppie couple kicks them off their property.
“Just them two in the pond,” Bud replies with a chuckle.
John Welliver, son of famed Maine painter Neil Welliver and a friend of O’Brien’s from their Lincolnville days, said that anecdote dates back to a guy who worked for his father in the late ’50s or ’60s. “My dad didn’t understand what he meant by the joke,” Welliver said. “Then he realized, Oh, he’s just gonna shoot the shit out of those things. Which he did.”
Bud is an archetype of contractors all over rural Maine. “Every asshole and his brother has worked for that guy at some point in their life,” said Welliver. “Everyone knows this guy, in whatever form he happens to take — you’ve worked for him one summer, covered in poison ivy; whether it was bangin’ nails or blueberry raking or concrete-pouring, that guy was always, always there.”
O’Chang’s real challenge is to make the people who didn’t work for Bud appreciate the humor he embodies. “I think the people who get our cartoon basically live in Maine, and New Hampshire, parts of Massachusetts and Vermont,” O’Brien told two interviewers during a segment posted online. “I don’t know how far our audience goes …. Some people, they send it around to their friends in other places in the country who’re like, ‘What the hell is this?’ They don’t get it at all.”
As they face indifference, setbacks and more outright hostility in the years ahead, O’Brien and Chang will do well to look to Bud for inspiration. “We got another millionaire mansion to do tomorrow,” he tells Atom, his voice constrained by the hit of sea hash he’s just taken, as they drive away from the shit-poke pond. “They’re a little less cunty, so we should get in a whole day’s work.”
An appearance and screening by O’Chang Comics, with musical guests The Mallett Brothers Band and Waylon Speed, happens Thurs., Aug. 21, at the Camden Opera House. To watch Temp Tales and see more of their work, visit ochangcomics.com.