‘To experience someone’s art is to be invited into a silent conversation they are having with themself,’ explains a very meta hedgehog in Twitter phenom Jomny Sun’s just-released graphic novel, everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too.
To take the hedgehog’s point further, the magic of art lies in making that interior monologue interesting—meaningful even—to outsiders. Toronto-raised Twitter phenom “jomny sun” (real name: Jonny Sun), has managed that sleight of hand with just 140 characters a day for the past five years. His @jonnysun feed (477k followers), written from the melancholic/naive POV of a spellcheck-defying “aliebn,” has attracted vocal celebrity fans like Lin-Manuel Miranda and Will Arnett and has also caught the attention of the New York Times Magazine—which hailed him as a “whimsical wordsmith” in a recent profile.
Part of the appeal of Sun’s private interrogations is the uniqueness—you might even say the many-ness—of the “humabn” behind the Twitter feed. To look at his bio, it’s clear the former theatre kid/sketch-comedy nerd is making the most of his time on earth. He’s not just an online star twice over—in addition to @johnnysun, he’s the comic brain behind the @tinycarebot feed, who has 91K followers—but also an engineer, architect, playwright, artist (he did all the illustrations in the book) and PhD student (he’s currently studying urban studies at MIT in Cambridge, Mass.).
He’s also only 27.
Sun’s aliebn nation won’t be disappointed by his first foray into print. The novel, which absorbs some of the feed’s most popular tweets in its overarching narrative, sees Sun’s aliebn charged with understanding “earbth’s creatures…humabns” before the world ends. On his journey he converses with a worldly tree (she’s read The Giving Tree, thank you, and won’t be fooled again), a pun-ny beaver, a neurotic owl and the aforementioned literate hedgehog. Basically, he meets every creature on earth except for a human.
Sun talks to FLARE about online success, his alien avatar and just how foreign life on earth can feel.
What is Jomny Sun’s origin story?
I grew up in Toronto and spent most of my life in Toronto. I did my undergrad at the University of Toronto and there I founded a sketch comedy group. Through writing and performing with the group, I met a lot of really close friends who are also comedy people. Then I moved to the United States to do my Masters [in architecture] and as soon as I did that I kind of lost the ability to do comedy in the same way. So I turned to the Internet. I was on Twitter and I follow a lot of cool people that I’ve discovered on Twitter and I thought since I needed an outlet I’d just start writing jokes and develop my voice online. It was really out of a need to stay connected with the comedy side of things.
What is it about being an alien that seems to resonate with so many humans?
I don’t think you’ll meet anyone who has not felt like an outsider. I think it’s just part of the human condition to feel alone or to feel a bit different from everyone around you. I think that’s something that every single person holds inside them.
It’s fascinating too because there are so many different layers to why people feel that way.
I think people are wired to think in terms of groups and social groupings and whether you’re part of the group or not. I grew up hyper-aware of what the norms are supposed to be and who’s in the group or out of the group and I always saw myself as out of the group! But I think people are also automatically wired to try and figure out how to fit in, or try to decide what their role is in terms of a larger set of people.
I’ve always felt like an alien outsider and social media can really enhance that. When I look at Instagram, for example, it feels like the most exclusive club of happy, attractive people on earth and I feel like the ultimate outsider. I think the idea of how foreign life on earth can feel is seldom talked out.
Yes, totally, and Instagram is such a good example because there’s always an opportunity to feel like an outsider now. I might be romanticizing the past, but I feel like before Instagram you could’ve had your group and been part of the group and be happy, and now we see so many villages and tiny groups all over that you can’t help but feel a little bit outside of any group.
How natural was this alien figure for you?
It wasn’t even a conscious thought. When I wound up trying to write stuff on Twitter, I realized that no one really had their face online, or it was all kind of a funny picture or cartoon thing. I think there was this spirit of being anonymous but in a good way, like, I don’t want my face to represent the work here, I want the work to represent the work. That kind of spirit made the community a lot more inviting and pure in a sense, as opposed to people with faces who were trying to sell their jokes. That’s a long story to say that I knew that to start playing I had to create a different persona, and I thought I’ll just draw this alien and I’ll call it alien because I’ve always felt like that anyway. It didn’t really feel like a conscious choice, like, Well, I could do a dragon or a zebra or a hippo. I actually remember making it and being like, Oh, this makes sense. There’s no other thing I think I can be.
So you didn’t Google ‘most appealing cartoon figure’ as some kind of strategic manipulation?
Absolutely not [laughing]! I’ve always gone through my life feeling like an alien. Part of it was moving to the U.S.—and you’re a Canadian so you get this—and I know people are always like Canada and the U.S. are sort of the same, but there is a weird culture shift. Essentially I was in a new country for the first time and that country was the U.S. and there was this sense of, Oh, I feel like I belong but I don’t actually feel like I’m part of this, whatever ‘American culture’ means. I did feel a very distinct sense of alienation.
Your bio is pretty impressive and weirdly supports the idea that you are, in fact, an alien because you have multiple degrees and interests and they seem so disparate and you’re only 27. How do you do it all?
I have this desire to be a part of anything that I really love. I grew up reading plays and being a theatre kid in high school so I have to naturally be part of a theatre thing or write plays. For comedy it was the same; I grew up loving comedy and I have this desire to play along and try to make something good, too. And I guess the other thing is that I tend to like to play the disciplines against each other. It’s about finding balance. When I was in engineering school, I did a lot of comedy and some visual art just because I wanted to keep the artistic side of myself alive.
When did you decide that @jomnysun was going to be a book?
There were a few separate thoughts in my head. One of them was that I was in my first year of my urban studies program at MIT and I was feeling pretty overwhelmed and over my head, and I’ve always found that having a creative project is helpful for me in those situations.
What was the challenge of turning a Twitter account into a graphic novel?
It did feel like a pretty different process just in the sense that it became more of a puzzle. I think the idea was always to take the stuff that I had written— the book is about a third existing tweets and then mainly new stuff—and to craft a story around it, or to use those [existing tweets] as beads on a string that connect it all together. It was really fun to take these things that have no context or larger narrative and try to fit them into this story. It became this kind of puzzle for me and that’s what made me really excited about it. Once I’d figured out the puzzle I just wanted to solve it. That was a lot of the process and then the other part that was totally new for me was doing illustrations.
How would you describe your illustration style?
I was thinking a lot about how to make them simple but expressive and universal and appealing. But also just very cool-looking!
Did working on the book prompt you to consider what the feed as a whole means to you?
I think so. The account has always been a way that I can express what I’m going through in some sort of honest way. It’s a lot about working through these feelings and putting words to some of these things and then I get to find a bit of comfort in that act of figuring it out. I’m glad that it resonates with other people as well. It was a very meditative process for me to go back through the account and think about where I was at certain points and what’s changed and how much I’ve grown and how much I haven’t.
And amid all this you’re also doing a PhD in urban studies, which to some degree considers how online culture shapes the broader culture. Is that right?
There’s some elements of that, and how these online worlds affect the world and how those separate communities affect other communities, and then there’s this other part about what it actually means that everyone is kind of gathering online and how that maybe affects people in different ways. Why are people doing this? Why did I become attracted this group of comedy people on Twitter and what does that means in a broader sense?
Have you come up with any answers?
I have not [laughing]! One of the ways I’m attacking this draws on my background in architecture. I’m thinking a lot about what it means to gather in an environment that’s not a physical environment. In architecture we talk a lot about place and the idea that people imbue physical surroundings with this place of meaning and so is there a sense of place when you’re online even though you don’t have physical landmarks to inhabit.
How do you think you’ve shaped the broader culture with Jomny Sun?
One of the things that led me down this direction to the PhD was me thinking about how my work has shaped this little community, but also how I actually engage with social media and other people. All that stuff is really personal.
I’m also really interested in how online friendships and communities operate offline. I’ve made a lot of friends initially through Twitter who I’m now friends with in the real world and that’s a fundamentally new thing for me compared to when I was a kid growing up, so I’m wondering what that means and if those friendships are sort of different because of the way they started or if they’re stronger or if we can look at them the same way. Unfortunately, I don’t know anything about that! [laughing]
How many more years do you have left in your PhD?
I just finished my second year—so a lot!