Funny Asians Draw Funnies

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Asian American comic artists are on the rise. Last year, American Born Chinese by Fremont artist Gene Yang became the first graphic novel to win the Michael J. Printz Award for young-adult literature. Other artists like Derek Kirk Kim and Adrian Tomine have also been gaining recognition and winning awards for portrayals of the Asian American experience.

AsianWeek has long promoted Asian American artists and has featured the work of three in particular each week: the comic strips Secret Asian Man by Tak Toyoshima, Asian Americana by Ian Liu and Droodles by Alex Yu.

Mainstream newspaper comics have always been black and white, both in ink color and in characters. Besides the discontinued Boondocks by Aaron McGruder and Curtis by Ray Billingsley, the main characters in syndicated comics have all been white.

Secret Asian Man has appeared in AsianWeek since 2002, and since July 2007, the mouthless, bushy-eyebrowed Asian American cartoon has been syndicated in daily newspapers nationwide, challenging stereotypes and provoking thoughts about race while making readers laugh. The series is based on Toyoshima’s life and regularly deals with Asian American issues in a hip, refined manga style.

Before it became syndicated and read by a mainstream audience, the strip dealt mainly with Asian American issues. Early strips were angrier in tone, but as time went on and Toyoshima matured as an artist, the tone lightened. He raised questions in his strips for readers to ponder rather than merely venting. But he’s not afraid to still tackle heavy subjects like Vincent Chin, the Chinese American who was beaten to death in 1982 by two white autoworkers who believed they had lost their jobs to the Japanese.

Liu’s Asian Americana, on the other hand, tends to keep things lighthearted and subtle. The series, first published in AsianWeek in 2006, features several distinctively drawn talking heads — and an occasional panda bear — discussing Asian American issues.

Liu started his strip because he wanted to do something that related to his experience growing up as an immigrant from Taiwan; Liu’s main character, Justin, is based on himself, and supporting characters are based on friends and family. He originally wanted to do a Pokemon-type children’s strip, but it proved too taxing. “I was thinking to myself, ‘I’m thinking too hard trying to come up with storylines regarding something that isn’t related to myself as an Asian American,’” Liu recalled.

Toyoshima agreed it was more difficult to create completely fictional storylines and characters. “More talented people than myself can create scenarios and develop attributes out of thin air, but I prefer to take from life’s experiences and observations,” he said.

Yu’s Droodles, however, is on the opposite end of the spectrum. Running in AsianWeek since February 2007, the comic’s main character is an adorable monkey who exists in an artsy, surreal world that changes to Yu’s whim. And sometimes there’s a duck, also very cute.

For Yu, Droodles is more of an artistic exercise rather than a comedic portrayal of his life. The strip is a blend of Asian and Western influences that reflects himself as an Asian American. “It’s a lot more subtle than Western cartoons are. And it’s a lot more about visual backgrounds, not just characters and text. I feel that’s more of an Asian style of cartoons, but it’s still extremely Western. I grew up all Westernized,” Yu said.

The strip doesn’t usually address politics or champion any noble Asian American causes, but the fact that he is a published Asian American comic strip artist challenges a stereotype. “It’s something different, especially growing up Asian American and not being expected to do things like art, especially cartooning, which is kind of a frowned-upon art,” Yu said.

Liu’s goal is to have a strip that young people can enjoy and that offers a more well-rounded portrayal of Asian Americans than what’s offered in mainstream media. And he makes an effort to not offend — according to Liu, if a strip deals with a political or controversial topic, usually by the last panel the tone is considerably lighter. “I’m not an angry Asian man,” Liu said. “Let’s just say I’m a reasonable Asian man.”

Toyoshima’s SAM is also pretty civil, for now anyway. In “An Open Letter to ‘Secret Asian Man’ Fans” on IMDiversity.com, Toyoshima wrote: “SAM needs to be on his best behavior, at least for now. It’s like meeting your girlfriend’s parents for the first time. You’ll want to be nice and polite to make a good first impression. Then later, when they get used to you, you can start swearing and farting in the den with your future in-laws.”

Liu and Yu hope to eventually become nationally syndicated like Toyoshima. Asian Americana ran for a short period in an Asian supplement in the Houston Chronicle, but “it’s hard to get syndicated when people are thinking it’s relevant to only a minority of the readership,” said Liu, who just put out a book of Asian Americana strips on AsianAmericana.com.

As one can imagine, being a comic strip artist is no way to make a decent living. Toyoshima, 37, is an art director at a Boston alternative weekly, Boston’s Weekly Dig, and the creative director of BeerAdvocate, the world’s largest online beer community. Liu, 37, is an IT professional in South San Francisco, and Yu, 26, is a medical student at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. Yu said that if he were to make a choice between becoming a doctor and a full-time cartoonist, it would be a very difficult decision.

“It’s such a powerful tool,” he said of his art. “I think I could do more with that than as a doctor. I mean, not necessarily, but at least on some level, you know?”

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