PHIL YEH ANSWERS 15 QUESTIONS WITH JULINDA MORROW
I’ve never met Phil Yeh but he seems to have an aura of kindness about him.
I’m sure that this is the first time many of our readers have heard of Phil Yeh, but – let me tell you – Phil’s a comic book veteran. In fact, it might be safe to say that no one person has championed comics and literacy like Phil.
In 1985 Phil started the organization Cartoonist Across America & the World. A troupe of artists traveled the globe painting over 1500 murals, speaking at libraries, schools, museums and conferences educating the public about the benefits of using comics to promote literacy.
Phil has actively self-published his own comics material since the 1970s. Check out the Cazco series; or the Frank The Unicorn series; or The Winged Tiger series; or The Magic Gumball Machine And Company; or Uncle Jam; or…Phil Yeh’s list of creative endeavours goes on and on.
But be warned, Phil doesn’t do superheroes. However, any person who promotes independence, comics and literacy like Phil is a true hero in my books.
A gallery of Phil’s playful art follows the interview.
Julinda Morrow: What path led you to comics and sequential art?
Phil Yeh: I attended the first San Diego Comic-Con in 1970 while still a teenager. I didn’t really collect too many comics and I had no idea what to do with my life. I loved to read but could not spell or type to save my life (years later, I learned I had a mild case of dyslexia which still made reading okay but spelling impossible). At that first Comic-Con, I was one of 300 fans in the basement of the U.S. Grant hotel and they had two guests. I was a fan of the first [guest] having read most of his books in middle school. My Chinese engineer dad had driven me down to San Diego from Los Angeles and stood behind me. I told the author that I could not spell and that I could not type without looking at the keys. The guest – Ray Bradbury – chuckled and said that they have editors to correct spelling and grammar and that you could even write your books in longhand! It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.
The other guy at that first Comic-Con was a giant in this industry of comic books and although I didn’t read many comics, I knew his name and art style. I asked him what college should I go to study cartooning and he – Jack Kirby – told me that there weren’t any colleges that taught cartooning! Just do it. A few months later, much to the displeasure of my father, I formed my own publishing company while still in high school and started making my own books. My dad is 89 as I am typing this and he still would love for me to get a real job.
I did end up at Cal State University, Long Beach, a few years later. I am the oldest son of a Chinese immigrant dad and a Midwestern mom of European descent so I went. I changed my major from Art to Journalism to Film when the art courses became more about theory than making good art. I was also a politician believing that might be a way to change the world. It wasn’t – but my political activism in 1971 led to me forming my own magazine that we still publish today. It’s called Uncle Jam, covers health, books, the arts and travel, and celebrates our 39th year this fall. You can even read the last couple of issues online at www.wingedtiger.com.
I made a few films in college, too, but my type of film featured multi-ethnic characters and there wasn’t a viable market for the kinds of films I wanted to make. So in 1977, I was one of the pioneers in Long Beach, California, for the modern graphic novel. I was inspired by Richard Kyle, my friend who owned a really unique bookstore in downtown Long Beach. He coined the term “graphic novel” in the 1960s and published his a few months before I did. Even Cazco Gets the Blues featured two friends generously writing the introductions. Sergio Aragones and Don Rico cannot be thanked enough for the kindness they showed this young man! The 1977 book was launched at the American Booksellers Association show which has become BookExpoAmerica. I was the only publisher selling graphic novels and it was slow going. Luckily for me, two other friends agreed to buy half my print run to enable me to launch a series of graphic novels for the immediate future – Bud Plant and Phil Seuling were responsible for making our company possible. A year later, Will Eisner did “the first graphic novel” and the form had a real champion.
JM: What schooling or training did you receive?
PY: Well, I learned in school not to believe too many things that teachers told me because they were dead wrong. Unfortunately, too many teachers are just there to produce robots. Thank God I did have a few good teachers! I listened to Ray Bradbury’s advice and just read everything I could and still do.
JM: Who, in your opinion, are the pioneers of sequential art?
PY: There are many great pioneers of Sequential Art, from Winsor McCay to George Herriman to Milton Caniff to Walt Kelly to Will Eisner to Jean Giraud to Hugo Pratt to Joe Kubert to Alex Nino. The list is endless but these people I have mentioned all bring to the table a very clear way of telling a story in pictures. I include myself on a list of later day pioneers who wanted the graphic novel to be much more than superheroes. I was able to influence many of the people around me and also the younger generation even though I have not had any film, TV shows or video games.
JM: How do you define sequential art?
PY: Using pictures to tell a story. It can be without words (as was my 1993 Graphic Novel The Winged Tiger, with illustrated introductions by Moebius & Wendy Pini) or it can have words.
JM: Do you find that sequential art provides you with near-limitless possibilities for storytelling or do you experience it as constraining?
PY: Yes! With sequential art you can virtually tell any kind of story with any kind of effect. I have worked in film, in radio, in prose and in painting, and I think that sequential storytelling provides the greatest way to get across any point. Sadly, it is often used to rehash trite clichés and disappointing dialogue; but done right, it is among the highest art forms there is – which is why I agree with Joe Kubert that we need a world-class Museum of Cartoon Art in North America. I am pushing for this museum to be named after my late friends Shel Dorf & Richard Alf who founded the San Diego Comic-Con in 1970. This museum would celebrate the writers and artists who made our art form great, not the film and TV people who have made billions from our work.
JM: What qualities or resources do you believe are most important for a sequential storyteller to have?
PY: A solid background in all kinds of literature and if you have the opportunity to travel, go for it! Read everything and learn to draw from life!
JM: How do you approach your work process?
PY: I live my books. I travel throughout the world and also spend a lot of time dreaming while almost awake. Many of these waking dreams find their way into my stories.
JM: How many hours a day do you work? Are you uniformly productive on any given day or more productive on some days than others?
PY: It depends, as sometimes because of a stroke I suffered in May 2011, I do not pick up a pen for months. But I am always writing and rewriting in my head and often working on several projects at once.
JM: Was it a struggle, at the start of your career, to find work and make ends meet?
PY: No, because I own my own publishing company, which saves a lot of time. The vast majority of publishers – I am including the bigger names here – haven’t the slightest idea if something is good or not. You must be creative in marketing and we, over the years, have been so. I have always made a living from my art and although it has become tougher in the United States because we have more than sixty million adults who cannot read or write and another hundred million who do not read one book a year, the potential is still unlimited for sequential art outside the United States. Billions of people read English, it is the second language of the planet, so even without translations, a graphic novel in English can be understood by many people. Translate them and you have almost a hundred percent market penetration.
JM: What has been your most valuable professional experience?
PY: Meeting and then becoming friends with many people in this field. My best friend was the late Alfredo Alcala, whom I met when he came to California via New York from The Philippines. He was instrumental in giving me insight into art and had read everything in his native country. He didn’t like to fly, so books became his ticket to see the world. I also met Sergio Aragones very early in my life and his world views (he had been everywhere) really inspired me to travel. I also got to know my idols in art, the late Hal Robinson of Easyriders and the late Rick Griffin of The Grateful Dead and Surfer magazine, and Mulan designer Alex Nino, who has one of the most original styles on this planet . Finally, in the early 80s I got to know the late Jean Giraud a.k.a Moebius. All of these people and many others played significant roles in my artistic development.
JM: What inspires or informs you creatively?
PY: I am inspired by things that need to be changed so in my work, I create a new way of doing things. You can imagine unlimited possibilities.
JM: What is your position on digital comics? Are they a good thing or a bad thing?
PY: My colorist Lieve Jerger uses the computer to color my comic book work; and my former colorist Tom Luth, swears by these machines; and I like the fact that I can type an email and have it instantly shoot across the universe. But honestly, beyond emails, I love to draw with an old fashioned dip pen and bottle of ink. I have arguments with some of my friends about their drawing without any originals. I don’t agree! So as far as digital comics go, count me out!
JM: If you were to make any changes to the industry or the market what changes would you make?
PY: I would introduce every student to comics from very early childhood and use comics throughout their schooling. I would have each and every student try and draw with a dip pen and bottle of ink. I would have everyone learn to paint and play music and express their creative side as much as possible. I would have them learn to love books and not have any electronics at all in their schools until middle school or maybe high school. While I’m at it, I would have every child learn the joys of a garden and of nature and then have them draw from nature. This way, there is no need to change the industry or the market.
JM: If you could apprentice under any artist at any time in history and anywhere in the world who would it be?
PY: I think it would be fun to hang out with Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh was very tortured in his life, but I love to argue about things that are important to me and Vincent seems like a good person to spar with on an intellectual level. He is my favorite painter so maybe I would be able to have him do a painting for me!
JM: What, in the future, would you like to accomplish creatively?
PY: I hope to get my next graphic novel (of over three hundred pages) published in 2014. It’s been forty-two years after the first appearance of Cazco, a strip I did back in 1972 when I started college; it covers more than forty years of my alter-ego traveling around the world searching for publishing success and never finding it. It is a timeless story for anyone. The book is called Cazco: What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been and there is a little sample on our website www.wingedtiger.com which I did in 2007 as a first chapter. Only three hundred pages to go.