Last month we promised a closer look at world building in Chinatown. We’ve talked about individual shops and rooms, but designing a world for your characters to live in is a much bigger undertaking. When it comes to popular culture and branding, there are unique challenges to storytelling—from the basics of intellectual property law, to making sure your audience stays with you.

Whether in a comic book or movie, blurring out brand names or creating utterly generic knock off versions can be distracting to the narrative—and blatant product placement can be even worse. The solution? Come up with your own products.

When done right, creating a fictional pop culture world will flesh out and texture the backdrop and setting of a story. And like all of our creations, we reached into our own life stories to draw inspiration for Chinatown’s pop culture. Old video games we used to play, thoughts we’ve had on actual pop culture phenomena, and ideas that may or may not resurface in future projects all contributed to the process. Like “Slurm” and “Bachelor Chow” from Futurama, Chinatown has its own products that can tell you an awful lot about the lives our characters lead—and plenty about their authors as well. As Creative Director, Brad designed a whole host of pop culture brands that you’ll see our characters wear, consume, and interact with as the story unfolds.

Let’s begin with a closer look at Lucy’s awesome hamburger shirt, front and back:

Lucy's Hamburger Shirt

Lucy’s hamburger shirt is awesome and hilarious. In case you can’t read it clearly in the panel, the back has double zeroes and “Hamburger” written at the top. Although the makers are never mentioned in Chinatown by name, Lucy’s shirt is manufactured by Hello, Inc. Despite the similarity, Hello, Inc. actually isn’t named after or inspired by any  Sanrio or “Hello Kitty” products. Hello, Inc. comes from an idea for a childrens’ comic Brad came up with years ago about a magical company that would manufacture friends for lonely kids. Although there are no plans to move forward on that book (yet), the idea of a fantastical company stuck with us and it made sense that they would make products like Lucy’s shirt.

But Happy, Inc. isn’t the only clothing brand in Chinatown. Lucy’s brother Damon’s sports a “Legend” t-shirt—a fashion statement that helps introduce him to our readers:

Legend

Legend is a geek fashion brand, inspired by how retro video game—and specifically Nintendo brand—shirts and accessories have become so popular recently.  The Legend logo actually comes from the title screen of the original The Legend of Zelda Nintendo game released back in 1986.

The Legend of Zelda

Before turning our full attention to Chinatown, “Legend” was also the title of a video game tribute / interactive storybook  project Brad was working on a few years ago. Pop culture in our world is undoubtedly getting nerdier, but a good chunk of it stems from a hipster-based, ironic subculture. There’s nothing ironic about Legend, and sticking a clearly labeled Legend product on Damon helps establish that trend in the Chinatown world.

Not all the brands in Chinatown are as easy to spot, however. This town is chock full of curios, and when Lucy makes her way through Happy Gift House, you can see all kinds of  cultural artifacts. But browsing the aisles, you’ll only be able to identify one brand mentioned by name—and only if you look closely:

Cow Juice!

Ever notice how Chinese people never drink real milk? Soy milk seems the most popular in Chinese grocery stores, in both the malted and un-malted varieties. And even in American grocery stores we’ve been seeing rice mik and almond milk gaining popularity. Cow Juice is our Chinatown’s branding of those odd little canned soy drinks you’ll find in just about every Asian supermarket and Hong Kong vending machine.  Like the American Yoo-hoo, Brad always thought it was weird that you’re not really drinking milk—just a weird, milk-flavored beverage. And though Wesley loves (malted) soy milk, even he has to admit it’s a pretty strange concept. Cow flavored juice–or “Cow Juice”—seems a pretty accurate description of what it is that’s selling, capturing the bizarre artificial wrongness of the whole idea.

And now it’s time for the woman of the hour—Marie Royale. Back when we shared with you the design process behind Lucy’s room, we hinted at revealing more about the figure depicted in the poster that hangs over her bed. So here it is, as promised:

Marie Royale

Marie Royale is a pop icon in Chinatown.  She’s a theatrical performance pop star—not unlike Lady Gaga—and heavily inspired by French Rococo fashion and style.  By featuring a poster of Royale so prominently in Lucy’s room, we’re able to contrast a lily white Western ideal of beauty—with Marie’s sharp features and big bright eyes—to the more comely appearance of Lucy and Amy. Visually, our readers get culturally dissonant ideas of female beauty, without these themes invading or taking over the narrative. As storytellers, we felt it was important for these sorts of ideas to be lived out in the background—taking hold in the subconscious minds of our readers as subtext, rather than made unnecessarily explicit by dialogue or plot points.

This definitely isn’t the last you’ll see of Marie Royale. In fact, she’s got a starring role in an upcoming book we’re working on. We’re keeping the details unde wraps for now, but just like a director recasting his favorite actress in a new role, we’re happy to reshape our favorite character designs for future projects. Since Marie has her own personality, we as creators have some flexibility on how we put her to use in storytelling, which isn’t always true of other pop culture artifacts. So while Marie may not always be a pop star, Cow Juice will pretty much always taste the same … probably.

Want to see more of Marie or more pop culture from Chinatown? If you’d actually try Cow Juice or wear a hamburger, we’d like to hear about it. And how much would you be willing to pay for your very own Legend t-shirt? Leave us a comment or get ahold of us via Facebook or Twitter and let us know.