The Animator Documenting Maine’s Changing Landscape

Hanji Chang, animator of cult-favorite cartoon “Temp Tales,” environmental PSAs, and children’s music videos, looks to what’s coming next.

Animator Hanji Chang with a Temp Tales illustration,
imitating a now-infamous Elizabeth Holmes magazine cover.

The first time Hanji Chang’s animation work went viral, she was a student in the new media program at Maine College of Art in 2012. In the video, titled “Meat Recall,” Chang animated her husband Andy O’Brien’s comic about working in a Hannaford call center. The under-two minute clip features a chaotic, enthusiastic, and foul-mouthed exchange between a call center employee and an East Millinocket resident with a thick Maine accent, both voiced by O’Brien. The video struck a chord with Maine audiences unaccustomed to seeing something so authentic to their state depicted in a cartoon. From the character’s New England Patriots beanie and flannel shirt to the fridge full of Geary beer and Twisted Tea, Chang and O’Brien captured a working-class Mainer stereotype that felt reverential and real.

Thus began the popular, decidedly not-safe-for-work Temp Tales web series animated by Chang and written by O’Brien. Created under the stitched-together name O’Chang Comics, the series follows 30-something Atom O’Chang (voiced by O’Brien) as he works a series of odd jobs along Maine’s coast. With the tagline “by Mainers, for Mainers,” Temp Tales was inspired by the couple’s experiences working various short-term jobs after the Great Recession and introduces viewers to a cast of characters loosely based off real Mainers that the couple met along the way. “We always have this undertone of a class struggle and the idea of big corporations and rich people versus working people [in Temp Tales], because that’s the background that we came from,” says Chang, who has done everything from painting houses to yard work alongside O’Brien, who now works for the Maine AFL-CIO labor union federation. “Labor and class are something that we are passionate about.”

Chang and O’Brien met in Taiwan and moved to his home state of Maine in 2007. The couple settled into life in Portland, where Chang says she was met with interactions that made her feel like she didn’t belong, including people mispronouncing her name and incorrectly saying she was from China or Thailand. She started to turn these anecdotes into comics. In one, she and O’Brien are referred to as John and Yoko in a series of scenes around Portland. In another, when she gets pulled over for driving erratically, it’s chocked up to “cultural differences.”

Chang is used to being viewed as an outsider. Born and raised in Taiwan to a Korean mother and Taiwanese father, as a child her Korean lineage often set her apart from her peers. Her name, Hanji, is actually a nickname meaning “Korean chick” in Chinese, which she finds is easier for people in America to pronounce than her real name, Chen Hua. When she was four years old, her family moved to South Africa during the end of apartheid, and she was the only child of Asian descent at her elementary school. Once they returned to Taiwan five years later, she had to be held back in school because she needed to relearn Chinese. “I feel like my entire life I’ve just been trying to fit in and adapt,” says Chang.

When Chang and O’Brien used to attend comic conventions and meet-and-greets around the state for Temp Tales, some fans seemed to be let down when they discovered who was behind the screen, Chang says. “I feel like they’re kind of disappointed when they meet us because they were probably expecting big, hairy dudes, and then they see me, an Asian woman, drawing them.” Despite those negative interactions, her work on Temp Tales has made her feel more accepted and a greater sense of belonging in the state. “I feel like I’ve done something for Maine, and I want to be considered a Mainer,” she says.

Although Temp Tales are her most widely recognized animations, Chang, who lives in Rockland and works remotely as an animation instructor at Maine College of Art and Design, has expanded into environmental public service announcements and children’s music videos. While finishing her degree in 2014, instead of writing a final essay for a marine biology class, she created a video called “Attack of the Green Crabs” about the invasive crustacean’s population in Maine. “I thought, there have to be a lot of people like me who care about this but aren’t scientific brain types and would like something that’s easier to digest,” says Chang. “So, I thought, maybe I’ll just use what I know how to do and write my essay through animation.”

A “Temp Tales” take on Maine’s state seal.

The video gained attention from environmental groups, including the Maine Sea Grant Program, which commissioned Chang to create a two-part series titled “A Climate Calamity in the Gulf of Maine.” Drawn in a similar style to Temp Tales, the environmental PSAs were met with opposition from some fans of the web series, who told Chang and O’Brien to stick to humorous videos. However, Chang feels strongly that using animation makes environmental issues more accessible. “Even if [viewers] don’t agree with me and even if they don’t get it, at the very least they are entertained by it.” More recently the duo, under their animation studio Puckerbrush Animations, partnered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to create a video about Maine’s endangered Atlantic salmon population and are currently working on a video focusing on sturgeon.

Moving forward, Chang is excited to tell new stories. When Temp Tales took off, numerous storylines she wanted to explore on the O’Chang Comics channel took a backseat. Now that Chang and O’Brien are getting close to wrapping up the Temp Tales’ “Great Lost Strain” storyline (which follows a search for a mystical marijuana strain growing somewhere on a Maine island), they’re planning out new ventures focused on New England history, such as a story about Maine mill workers going on strike and the history of how the idea of witches came about. Fans of the web series needn’t worry, though. “We’re still going to do Temp Tales,” Chang says. Regardless of what the videos are about, you can count on them continuing to champion the working class with plenty of humor.

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