An exploration of why there seems to be a glut of Asian American graphic novel superstars.
by Oliver Saria
For those interested in seeing a window into the arcane world of Asian American graphic novelists, but who are too lazy to actually read their books even with all the pictures, it’d be worth your time to check out Mythomania, the live-action Web series written and directed by award-winning graphic novelist and budding filmmaker Derek Kirk Kim. (Full disclosure: I know a thing or two about Mythomania because Kim is one of my housemates and he shot it in our condo.)
In the second episode, a group of cartoonists gathers for a dose of actual human contact in what is otherwise a very lonely, arduous endeavor—writing, drawing, lettering, stapling and selling a self-published mini-comic. The Web series is based partly on Kim’s real-life experiences from about a decade ago when he was a fledgling cartoonist living in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he would regularly meet with other fledgling cartoonists for Art Night. Gatherings of visual artists are not uncommon in cities like Chicago, New York and Portland, Ore.—places generally in close proximity to an art school or anywhere artists happen to coalesce. Other Art Nights across the country may go by less generic names, but few have reached the kind of semi-legendary status associated with Kim and his cohorts, who have produced some of the most acclaimed graphic novels of the past decade.
Kim went on to achieve the rare feat of winning the comic industry’s “triple crown” of awards—the Ignatz, the Harvey, as well as the “Oscar” of comics, the Eisner—for his groundbreaking graphic novel Same Difference and Other Stories (First Second Books).
Gene Yang, who actually proposed the first Art Night, was a finalist for a National Book Award in 2006 for American Born Chinese (First Second Books), the first graphic novel to ever be considered for the prestigious prize. In 2007, the book won the Eisner Award for best new graphic album and the Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in young adult literature. Lark Pien, another Art Night alum, won the Harvey Award for her color work on American Born Chinese. Kim and Yang both won their second Eisners in 2010 for their collaboration, The Eternal Smile, a collection of short stories. Other notable alums include: Jason Shiga, another Eisner winner for his mind-boggling work of genius, Meanwhile, a choose-your-own-adventure story on steroids; and Korean American Hellen Jo’s coming of age mini-comic Jin and Jam #1 (Sparkplug) was nominated for an Ignatz in 2009.
Jo, an art school dropout who now works as an assistant story board revisionist for The Regular Show on Cartoon Network, states unequivocally, “I definitely learned more at Art Night than art school. I kind of developed my stylistic choices there.”
For Shiga, who is of Japanese and Chinese descent, Art Night was his art school. Shiga graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, with a degree in math and didn’t start drawing comics until he took an equally legendary student-run “DeCal” class about how to make comics during his junior year. One of his classmates was none other than Adrian Tomine, creator of the much-heralded comic series Optic Nerve and perhaps the nation’ s most well-known Asian American graphic novelist. However, it wasn’t until Art Night that Shiga began to take his comics more seriously.
OK, not as seriously you might think.
“I’m making it out to be more serious than it is, like this really intense training,” Shiga admits. “A lot of it was debating [Robert] Crumb versus [Frank] Frazetta and which Star Wars movie was the best.”
The group also discussed more serious topics like whether one can make a living off of comics and the age-old quandary males with nerdy interests continually face: How do we get more women into this stuff?
The story of Art Night, though, begs another question. Like spelling bees, import car rallies and dance crew competitions, Asian Americans have carved a prominent place for themselves in mainstream and alternative comics. And while no one officially tracks the demographics, it’s a phenomenon that hasn’t gone unnoticed. According to Yang, “Compared to other media in America, there’s just way more Asian Americans in comics than anywhere else.”
Why is that so, you might ask? “It’s hard for me to wonder why Asian Americans are so into comics without reinforcing a bunch of really terrible stereotypes,” Jo cautions before she launches into some classic Asian American stereotypes. “I think maybe Asian kids in our generation were really quiet, so what can you do when you’re quiet and you’re a kid? You can draw by yourself and you don’t need friends for that, and you get really good at it. And then later you become a famous cartoonist. My guess is Jim Lee was a really lonely child, and that’s why he became a good artist.”
Kim adds, “Doing comics is like studying for the SATs—just locked up in your room. [Asian Americans] are used to it, just staying in a room, staring at a page, hunched over a desk.”
“Here is where I get into broad racial generalizations,” Shiga prefaces. “Comics is a medium that rewards diligence because it’s so time-consuming and it takes so much labor. And basically Asians are kind of nerdy.”
Yang adds, “Comics have always been an outsiders’ medium. So in America, a lot of these early cartoonists were all these poor Jewish kids that grew up in the ghetto.”
Given the low barrier of entry and few gatekeepers, Asian Americans seem to have taken advantage of that same dynamic.
Douglas Wolk, author of the Eisner-winning book Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean (Da Capo Press), attests that “comics have always been pretty frictionless for people getting into it who are incredibly good.” And if there were few barriers in the early days, virtually none exist now. “There is no longer the barrier of entry of ‘how am I going to find someone to publish me,” Wolk explains. “How you find someone to publish you is that you hit publish on your computer.”
Kim stumbled upon this fact in the early days of Web comics, becoming an inadvertent pioneer. By the mid-1990s, only one comic book distributor, Diamond Books Distributors, emerged out of industry consolidation. As a result, small-scale printing of alternative comics effectively ended. Thus, cartoonists turned to the self-published mini-comic and—with the advent of the Internet—the emergent Web comic. Kim wrote most of Same Difference and Other Stories during a two-year stint as an English instructor in Korea, channeling his homesickness and isolation into poignant vignettes of friends hanging out in Bay Area haunts. By then, he was completely disillusioned with the business of comics. Kim recounts, “I was trying to go into mainstream comics and said, ‘F-ck that.’ Then I did alternative comics and said, ‘F-ck that too,’ because there was no making a living at that point. So I decided to go straight into mini-comics. No money, just complete personal expression. But when I went to Korea, I could no longer even do that because I couldn’t get to conventions to sell my mini-comics. So the only way I could get my comics out to American readers was through my website.”
By the time he posted the last online installment of Same Difference in 2003, his site boasted one million hits. Soon publishers came calling and when they asked for more material, Kim recommended his Art Night buddies for publication. In Kim’s case, at least, the axiom “a rising tide lifts all boats” would seem to apply.
But Yang points out that the link between words and art are deeply ingrained in Asian culture and perhaps transcends socioeconomic factors.
“Within traditional Asian art, there’s always a pairing of words and pictures together that you don’t find in traditional European art,” says Yang. “So that idea of words and pictures coming together is very Asian.” This might partly explain the important role comics play in many Asian cultures.
Kim was born in South Korea and immigrated to America when he was 8 years old. “In Korea, every kid reads comics,” he says. “There was nothing abnormal or weird about it. I honestly can’t remember when I didn’t read or draw comics.”
Once he arrived in the United States, his memories of manhwa (Korean comics) began to fade, overpowered by the mainstream American superhero comic books. Had Kim immigrated to America as a kid now, however, that might not have been the case.
“I’m positive if I grew up in this age where manga is very common, I wouldn’t have gotten into the superhero comics,” says Kim. “I would have slipped right from Korean comics to manga.”
Though considered a separate genre from alternative comics, the line between manga and other genres has now blurred, according to Shaenon Garrity, an editor at VIZ Media, the largest distributor and licensor of anime and manga in North America.
“Now all comics are sort of heavily manga-influenced in some way or another,” she says. “As manga fans get older and as manga gets more pervasive in the comics world, you get more overlap.”
Yang, who moonlights as a high school computer science teacher, has noticed what kids are doing these days.
“Everybody under the age of 25 draws in this manga-influenced style,” Yang says. “So, in that sense, at least even the white kids that are coming up are combining East and West in a way that is very Asian American.”
Wolk predicts, “In the next few years, you’re going to be seeing a lot more of kids who started in on manga when they were 10 and 12 years old; they’re going to start popping up a lot more.”
And don’t be surprised if a lot of those kids are female.
“It’s interesting thinking about those early days of Art Night, when we were talking about getting women to read comics,” Shiga remembers. “History seems to have borne out the answer. Which is manga.” According to Garrity, thanks to the popularity of shojo (manga targeted at female readers), women and girls account for half of VIZ’s readership. The influx of females to the medium is unmistakable. “Every year [at Comic-Con],” Jo has noticed, “there’s an explosion of women of all races.”
The next great American graphic novelist, in fact, might very well be an Asian woman. Jo plans to release the long-awaited Jin and Jam No. 2 next spring, while up-and-coming cartoonists such as Jen Wang and Laura Park are worth keeping an eye on. Wang, a San Francisco native currently based in Los Angeles, attended Art Night as a high school student and recently published her first full-length graphic novel, Koko Be Good (First Second Books) to positive reviews. Park, based in Chicago, most recently illustrated the book Middle School, The Worst Years of My Life (Little, Brown & Company), written by James Patterson. Park is also the author of the mini-comics series Do Not Disturb My Waking Dream, for which she won an Ignatz. Wolk predicts, “If Jen Wang ends up doing more comics, five years from now, she’s going to be super famous. [And] If Laura Park ever gets around to publishing an actual book of her own stuff, jaws are going to drop.”
With so many talented Asian American cartoonists out there, and so many yet to be discovered, it’s not hard to imagine that another soon-to-be-legendary Art Night is happening somewhere right now.
This article was published in the December 2011 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today!