Beyond Superheroes: Independent APA cartoonists featured in Small Press Spotlight

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Independent comics usually occupy the back shelves of the comic book store. Assembled in various shapes and sizes, they contain the kind of idiosyncratic content mainstream publishers and bookstores never know how to categorize. Blending personal experience with original writing and artwork, the stories told by these creators vary widely — some humorous, others poignant, all of them unique. In recent years, the number of Asian Pacific American cartoonists publishing their own comics has grown steadily. The quality of their work says as much about their commitment as their ability to craft engaging stories.

On a recent evening in San Francisco, as war protests snarled downtown streets, cartoonists navigated roadblocks to attend Creators’ Night at the Cartoon Art Museum. In the middle of a stark white art gallery with large, black-framed comic strips hanging on the walls, attendees gathered to hear their colleagues relate their experiences as self-publishers.

Derek Kirk Kim, Lark Pien and Jason Shiga are among the cartoonists featured in the Cartoon Art Museum’s ongoing Small Press Spotlight. Collectively, their backgrounds span many disciplines, from architecture, mathematics and animation to illustration and fine art. Outside of their day jobs, they produce and distribute their own mini-comics, short graphic novels that range in subject matter from straight fiction to autobiography. With several titles already behind them, each of them plans to undertake even bigger, more ambitious projects.

Self-doubting, neurotic APAs

Of the three, Derek Kirk Kim is the only one creating comics full-time — a luxury, he admits, that wouldn’t be possible had he not decided to move back in with his parents. Despite offers to work on major titles for mainstream publishers, the 20-something Kim chose to focus his efforts on his own creations. His work recently gained the attention of the Xeric Foundation — an organization founded by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle co-creator Peter Laird — that recognizes promising independent cartoonists. Kim successfully applied for the Xeric Grant last year and will use the funds to publish the first title of his own imprint in May.

The forthcoming book, entitled Same Difference, follows the lives of Simon and Nancy, two single 20-somethings who obsess over everything from “Oriental Flavored” ramen noodles to unrequited love. The story is laced with humor, pop culture, and what it’s like, as Kim puts it, “to be a self-doubting and neurotic Asian American person in America.”

Kim’s style took time to develop. His early comics drew heavily from traditional genres: superheroes, science fiction and fantasy. He began to take a different direction after meeting Gene Yang, himself a former Xeric grantee who creates a comic entitled American Born Chinese. Yang’s work eventually woke Kim up to the idea of exploring his own identity and experiences in his comics.

“Before I met Gene,” Kim explains, “for some reason I automatically assumed all my characters — the main characters — had to be white. I didn’t even think that they could be Asian … Gene kind of took me and shook me up.”

Kim took to heart Yang’s directive: “‘You should write about what you know,’ which is being Asian American.”

Kim’s website is called, appropriately enough, Small Stories Online. The site has become a virtual lounge, where readers offer continuous praise, as well as criticism. The feedback constantly keeps Kim producing work. Equally important, it allows him to woo a wider audience, i.e., readers who do not regularly go to comic book stores or conventions.

A Fascinating Mind

Jason Shiga has been a fixture in the Bay Area independent comics scene ever since he started creating cartoons in college, and even had a stint as an AsianWeek cartoonist with the surreal narrative Fleep. Lacking formal art training or even an interest in mainstream comics, Shiga eschewed a commercial look in favor of a more individual style, which he could truly call his own.

A math major from UC Berkeley, Shiga’s approach plays to his strengths. “I’ve always been pretty insecure about my drawing abilities,” he admits, “but I feel like I can overcompensate with my mathematical abilities.” Referring to his more recent work, he describes them as “sculptural puzzles” where “there’s always some kind of underlying mathematical gimmick.”

In many ways, Shiga’s recent books are as interactive as video games, allowing the reader to make decisions that affect the final outcome of the story. He bills his latest title, Hello, World, as “the world’s first programmable comic,” in which the reader plays a central role. “You’re basically a mom,” explains Shiga, “You get to pack your son’s lunch box and depending what items you put in there, that determines what happens to him when he leaves the house.” Not surprisingly, Shiga cites a popular series of children’s books as a major influence. “I’ve always liked the Choose Your Own Adventure genre. Those were great. The first 10 books of the series were a particular influence.”

That influence is quite obvious in the Oakland-based cartoonist’s Meanwhile Matrix, currently hanging on the back wall of the Cartoon Art Museum. In book form, hand-cut tabs spring from every page of Meanwhile, connecting all of the individual panels and storylines. For Meanwhile Matrix, Shiga arrayed all of the panels and storylines onto a single, giant poster-sized page, to form one horribly-complex but fascinating flowchart, bristling with cartoon branches.

Shiga estimates 50 percent of the work of Meanwhile involved the planning, while less than 50 percent went into the actual drawing. Factor in the time that went into physically cutting the tabs for each copy of the xeroxed mini-comic, and you start to get an idea of the time and effort Shiga pours into his creations.

Still, one wonders if he can physically keep pace with his formidable imagination. “It’s just so much work to self-publish,” says Shiga. “I mean there’s a lot of advantages, you know, there’s the immediacy of finishing the comic, and having copies to hand out to friends the next day. So yeah, that’s really great. But still it’s a lot of work.”

Shiga, who works for the Oakland Public Library by day, has already started drawing his latest creation. “My next comic will take place in the library and will be an adventure story called Book Hunter about a library policeman who tries and tracks down a book that is missing from the library.” Rubbing his chin, he adds with chagrin, “It’s sad what my life has come to.”

Stories from the Ward

Unlike Kim and Shiga, Lark Pien’s comic creations are rarely scripted ahead of time. Instead, they emerge from a combination of sketches and writings she studiously keeps in her sketchbook. That process explains the introverted and introspective tone that infuses her stories. Two of Pien’s self-published mini-comics, Stories From the Ward and Long Tail Kitty, contain a beguiling mix of surrealist fiction and more traditional character-driven narratives. Her distinctive style has gained Pien recognition among cartoonists, male and female. In addition to the Small Press Spotlight, her work is featured in the Cartoon Art Museum’s exhibit on women in comics.

An avid comic book reader in her early years, Pien’s interest waned during college where she studied architecture. She did, however, develop the habit of keeping a sketchbook to record her ideas and thoughts. After college, she fell under the spell of independent comics and, with the encouragement of Kim and Jesse Hamm (creator of Bitten Apple), started self-publishing in 1997. Asked what motivated her to take the leap, she answers, “I think I got old and I said to myself, ‘Self, what do you want to do with your life? What do you want to look back on and say made you happy?’ ”

Through her studies and her travels, Pien has always been absorbed with art. “I took one life drawing class and I totally regret not having taking more art classes because I found out I really love art. My mind works that way. I’m always thinking about composition.” Her formal training in architecture has also served her comics in unusual ways, “I like that structure … it allowed me to abstract things in my own way so my style is really true to me.”

Pien still takes on the occasional architecture job to pay the bills, but she readily admits her heart is more creating fine art, specifically, comics. So far, her earnings continue to keep pace with her expenses. “Long Tail Kitty pays for itself plus some. It’s doing well enough so that I can publish it and my other books which don’t sell as well.” Looking ahead, she’s excited about creating more outlets for her work. She’s recently been looking into merchandising opportunities for her characters, and while she denies any plans to manufacture Long Tail Kitty toilet seats, she does look forward to learning about this avenue for her creativity. “It’s a part of the industry that I never really thought about before but it’s actually there,” she explains.

Ultimately, Pien and her fellow cartoonists see independent comics as a natural extension of their lives. As such, Pien believes that comics don’t belong only in comic book stores. “There’s enough material out there to appeal to more than just 14-year-old teenage boys, which is what people think of when they think of the comic book store … I’d like to see mini-comics especially in boutiques or coffee shops, or record shops, you know, just everywhere.”

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