Phil Yeh holds a unique place in the comics community not only as a comics creator (he’s been called, “the godfather of the American graphic novel”) but as a prominent activist for promoting literacy through comics. He’s been around for quite awhile, going back to the very first San Diego Comic-Con in 1970. Phil is a passionate, colorful, and outspoken voice in comics and, as I head out to SDCC, he’s someone who can definitely help take stock of things.
Blog@Newsarama: Phil, I’d like to start by focusing on the San Diego Comic-Con and branch out from there. You have been very active in comics over the years and you go back to the first San Diego Comic-Con. Can you tell us about your earliest experiences with what started out as a modest comics convention?
Phil Yeh: I was a 15 year old kid growing up in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Los Angeles near Watts. I knew a couple of kids in my area who read and maybe even “collected” comics with a passion but most of us just read comics very infrequently. Sports was the big thing for most of my friends. But I managed to see this tiny ad in a DC comic book about a convention at the US Grant Hotel in 1970 and asked my dad to drive me down. My sister Kathy went with me too as I recall. The funny thing is I actually was published in DC Comics that same year. I sent this idea in for a promo cartoon that Henry Boltinoff did and my name got in print and I had this check from National Periodical Publications for $5. My first and last check from DC Comics who I am sure must appreciate my role later in helping Jerry and Joe get some money for Superman.
Anyway, I went to the convention at the U.S. Grant hotel and met two of the greats in that room with maybe 300 people. Ray Bradbury had always been one of my favorite writers, I never read many comics as a kid or now, but I love to read books. Classics especially but some living authors too and Bradbury was a big deal to me and even now. I told Ray that I wanted to be a writer but I had problems in school with spelling and grammar and didn’t know if I could become a writer. He told me that there were editors to correct those things and that I really should just do what I loved.
I then walked up to this giant of a man in our comic book industry and who, to me at 15, was a GIANT and told him that I wanted to become a comic book artist. Jack Kirby in reality was not that tall of a man but, to this 15 year kid from the ghetto, he was HUGE. Jack smiled and told me to just do it. “If you want to draw then you should draw and if you want to tell stories, just tell stories. ”
Both Ray and Jack made this seem so very easy and that fall I would start my own publishing company and never look back.
Blog@: From your vantage point, how would you describe the evolution of the San Diego Comic-Con?
PY: For those of us who were teenagers or very young people when this all started like John Pound, Dave Stevens, Scott Shaw!, Bill Stout, and so many others in those early days, I believe that San Diego was a great place to meet professionals (old people in their 30s and 40s and even older!) who were very open in most cases to giving advice about this profession. Shel Dorf must have had the best address book in the country since the guest list in those very early days when Comic-Con was very small compared to now, included Charles Schulz, Robert Heinlein, Frank Capra, Bob Clampett, and so many people from the very beginning of science fiction and comics. You really had this chance to get to know these people and since I started a free newspaper called Uncle Jam in 1973, I had even a better reason to interview some of the greats for our publication. We did Uncle Jam from ’73 to 1990 when I had to put the paper on hold because we were touring the world as Cartoonists Across America & The World, but this summer as San Diego Comic-Con celebrates its 40th event, we are launching Uncle Jam as a full color magazine. The best part is that we have a new interview with Ray Bradbury in this issue!
Blog@: You have been to countless comics conventions, festivals and events. How does SDCC compare with them?
PY: Unfortunately, I don’t think that the average person who attends Comic-Con today is much of a reader or art lover and this is perhaps the biggest difference when I am invited to conventions all over the world. Phil Ortiz (of The Simpsons and I) were invited to the Third Annual China Cartoon and Animation Festival in the spring of 2007. We were special guests in my dad’s hometown of Hangzhou and even though The Simpsons are officially banned in China, more than 420,000 people came out. People of all ages come which is always the case when I do these events abroad and they actually love to read our books. Sadly, in San Diego, the majority of the people now come to get free bags and to play video games. They do not seem to care much about the actual creators and this art form and that deeply saddens me. But the worst thing now is how many people actually seem happy to say that they do not read. They do not read comics either or anything else. California is now 48th in literacy in the USA and one of the reasons that I continue to work so hard on our Cartoonists Across America tour is because California like many US States has cut out the arts and music from our schools creating a whole generation without a real sense of appreciation for art.
So when I am in Mexico City (I was the guest there many times), China, Singapore, Hungary, Italy, Canada anywhere in this world, we always see a great difference in terms of people actually reading and buying our books. In October, we have been invited back for the second time, to paint a mural at the Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany. This is an international rights fair but unlike BookExpoAmerica in the states, they open it up to the general public at the end and 300,000 people show up to BUY books and meet authors and artists. So there is a huge difference between what Comic-Con has become and other nations. Of course, there are many people who believe that the average citizen everywhere is becoming dumber and dumber since reading books and magazines and newspapers is supposed to be out of style.
I guess I am fighting harder to see that there is always a place for print even though I am doing this interview on the Web, eh?
I know that people can and do read things online but I really just question how much depth of knowledge the average person gets from the internet because I have three sons in their 20s so I am around young people from time to time (I talk to about 100,000 students each and every year) and I just do not see a real sense of history in this generation. I also know that most of these kids do not read ANYTHING in this country because they proudly share this with me which might explain the terrible sales of all books in this country including comics.
Blog@: Over the years, you’ve met a number of legends in comics, show business and politics. I know you have a lot of good stories. Would you like to share something that comes to mind with us?
PY: Well, aside from Jack and Ray at that first Comic-Con, I have been lucky enough to meet many well known people from all fields in my career. I have a wide variety of interests so I think that some of the highlights of my life include attending Bucky Fuller’s birthday and meeting Mayor Andrew Young on our first tour when we stopped in Atlanta. I also enjoyed our visits with Charles Schulz and was proud to paint a mural in Santa Rosa honoring his work after he died. My interview with Jerry Siegel in 1975 which we published in my free newspaper was a landmark because it opened the floodgates for national media coverage and a settlement from DC Comics at that time. What happened to Jerry and to Joe Shuster and to so many others in our field is a tragedy that should serve as a lesson for the future since most big companies love to rip artists off if they allow them to do it.
I have always worked for myself and perhaps that is why I am able to speak so freely. I know that when you are employed by these people as many of my friends have been, sometimes you just put up with the unfair treatment to support your family.
My best friend was the late legendary Alfredo Alcala. I could talk about his life and passions endlessly. He was a unique person in every sense of the word. We got along well because we never spoke about comic books. His loved UFOs, Atlantis, Lemuria, great painters who actually knew how to paint and draw and he loved history. I could say the same thing when Jean “Moebius” Giraud came out to live in Los Angeles to work on Tron and other films in the early 80s. We hit off when it came to things metaphysical. I championed his work in the pages of my free newspaper and he was gracious about doing covers for us and also about talking about the vast difference that Europe had towards our comic book art form and the way that America too often looked at this form.
I have to mention Sergio Aragones who has been a friend to me since I was a teenager and who also encouraged me in so many ways over the years. I asked Sergio to write an introduction to my first graphic novel in 1977 and he told me that Don Rico should also write something for the book. It was one of the first modern graphic novels and I wanted to have some star power attached to this crazy idea. Sergio has always been one of the most well known and respected talents in the comic book world. I travel all over the world and everywhere I go, people, especially cartoonists, ask me, “Do you know Sergio?” I always tell them that I never heard of him! What must I look like before revealing the truth! I have been very fortunate that so many great older artists like Roger Armstrong, Leo and Diane Dillon, and Alex Nino became mentors and friends.
I was able to convince the late Rick Griffin to do a cover for our free paper and also to do an interview in 1976. Rick was among my favorite artists and definitely inspired me to stick with this art form and the same for Hal Robinson, who worked for Easyriders magazine, I rode motorcyles in my youth because of Hal. We met about 12 years after I bought a bike and he told me that he didn’t even ride them but man, Hal could draw them!
Alex Nino is another one of the artists who really made me want to draw all the time. His work still amazes me and I am so glad that in this new preview issue of Uncle Jam, we can run the logo he designed for us inside the issue in full color. I am forever sharing stories with students about these incredible talents.
Another person who encouraged my writing and was a dear friend was Herbert Huncke. Huncke and I met through my friend Jerry Poynton in the early 80s around the time of the celebration of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road 25th anniversary. Huncke was a real influence on some of the Beat writers like William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. I recently did a painting of some of the legendary people who lived in the Chelsea Hotel and also wrote about the Chelsea in my new Dinosaurs Across New York book. I am always trying to pay credit to all these people in my books and art.
The list of people who changed and influenced my life is pretty endless. I have been very lucky.
Blog@: You mentioned Uncle Jam, that you started up when you were fifteen or sixteen. What was that like? Were you part of the Underground movement in the ’70s?
PY: As far as the Underground movement goes I was probably one of the youngest people to do a little work in the Underground scene in San Francisco in the early ’70s. My old partner Mark Eliot and I loved National Lampoon and the few underground comix we saw in high school. Griffin’s Man from Utopia changed my whole life and I made the decision to do this professionally after reading that book. We also loved Cheech Wizard and although I didn’t get to meet Vaughn, his son Mark and I are good friends. I loved the Freak Brothers and the Air Pirates and we got to meet so many of these artists in those early years. When we were in high school, Mark and I flew to San Franisco and actually walked to the Mission District from this cheap $4 hotel on Lombard to meet Gilbert Shelton who created the Freak Brothers and Ron Turner at Last Gasp. Ron gave us a shopping bag of those early comix, said that we had to have a library of good stuff to get started!
To this day, people tell me that I draw in that Underground style as if that is an insult. I love detail and I loved so many of these artists. The success of the Griffin show at the Laguna Beach Museum of Art and Robert Williams’s career tells me that truly original art that comes directly from the artist and not some corporation’s idea of what art and stories are about, is still the best way to have value years later. Museums in the United States are finally catching on that cartoon and comic art can indeed be considered ART.
Blog@: Even Cazco Gets The Blues was your first graphic novel in 1977, one of the earliest American graphic novels. You’ve continued to regularly create work ever since. In 2007, your graphic novel, Dinosaurs Across America, was published by NBM and, in 2008, it was named one of the best 25 graphic novels by the School Library Journal. That is quite a journey. Tell us what it’s been like as a cartoonist and how you and your work has evolved.
PY: Well, I did Cazco in China in 1980 and introduced a character called The Winged Tiger in that story and the concept of animals doing martial arts in a flashback to ancient China in that same book which has influenced a few people. I always loved the story of the Monkey King as a kid. My dad is from China and art and the brush strokes of Chinese writing was in my genes although my mid-western mom forbid us kids from learning Chinese. I did get a chance to play with martial arts which came in handy in my neighborhood (my youngest sister Kathy became a national champion in Tae Kwon Do and is still single!) and I watched tons of Shaw Brothers and then Bruce Lee films as a kid in LA’s Chinatown. I always thought that I would include my Chinese background in my work and also my Celtic background from my mom’s side of the family. I am now working on a 300 page graphic novel called Cazco: What a Long Strange Trip Its Been which is a loose autobigraphy of my own life. Cazco is half-Tibetan and half-Irish and always feels like he doesn’t belong anywhere. I started him in college at Long Beach State University in 1972 and he has been in many of my books over the decades. Lieve Jerger has colored a preview edition of this Cazco book and it’s on our website but the final 300 page book will be done in black and white.
What can I say about the Dinosaurs? I did them as a joke to have icons that could promote reading on our Cartoonists Across America tour and they were never designed to be stars of a book or to even move. They are always pretty much in the same pose or in their spaceship in all these stories and of course, these reading dinosaurs have probably the greatest success of anything that I have done. They were featured in a full color children’s book called Theo the Dinosaur, that my friend Kevin Eastman funded, with an introduction by First Lady Barbara Bush. In fact, the first book signing was held in The National Archives in 1990! That same year I painted a mural with cartoonists from 40 nations in one of the main squares in Budapest and then the Hungarian government issued a postage stamp with the dinosaurs for the United Nations International Year of Literacy. The list of companies and organizations who have used the dinos is really endless from Panasonic, Levi’s, IBM, The International Reading Association and on and on.
In 2006, the Cleveland Natural History Museum gave me a show of those original oil paintings from the Theo the Dinosaur book and asked me to reissue the Dinosaurs Across America comic book which we reprinted 8 times selling 180,000 copies in black and white. This show and that reprinted comic led to us making a deal for a full color hardcover Dinosaurs Across America with NBM in New York. I have often told Terry Nantier that this book can sell one million copies in this country and we are slowly on our way!
In the meantime, I have published Dinosaurs Across Route 66, Dinosaurs Across California and Dinosaurs Across New York and am working on five more titles for 2010′s tour of the USA.
I have made my peace with these dinosaurs and in fact, the stories all now feature Patrick Rabbit insisting that he should be the real start of these books and how he can’t stand the dinosaurs! It makes for good comedy as I am getting across real facts about the places and people I think would best inspire people of all ages.
Blog@: In 1985, you founded Cartoonists Across America & The World. There’s never been anything quite like it before, I don’t think. You have travelled the world promoting literacy and the arts through comics and through your mural events. You’ve led groups to paint over 1700 murals all over the world. You have people come up and tell a story through comics and your dinosaur characters fighting for literacy usually find their way into the mural. And you always have copies of your latest comic book to give away. You’ve said you’ll bring these events to a close in 2010. What would you like to share about this remarkable project you’ve led for so long?
PY: If you want to go broke, promote education in the United States! Writing and drawing comics that my own field saw as “educational” basically got me erased from the traditional comic book industry media. It’s funny that I was interviewed in The Comics Journal before we started this tour in 1985 and there have been almost nothing mentioned since we went on the road to promote literacy, creativity and the arts using COMICS. Sadly, the comic book industry in so many ways is a good old boys club and so many of the people with any power have such a narrow vision about what this art form can do to change the way people get educated in this country and throughout the world.
I have never worked for anyone else and I just do my own thing. We have been on the front page of more than 400 newspapers but I am only an official guest at this 40th anniversary Comic-Con because I was at the first one. I did get the Bob Clampett Humanitarian Award from Comic-Con in 1989 but honestly, most of this industry doesn’t see what I do in terms of my art and writing and that is truly a shame. But then our books are non-violent and family oriented and the comic book industry doesn’t really love those two things very much. Our tour was featured in the cover story of Archie’s Pals ‘n’ Gals #200 in 1988 written by my friend George Gladir, co-creator of Sabrina the Teenage Witch and now all these years later, George has us in the San Bernardino Library in Betty and Veronica Digest this September. Linda Adams, who works in the San Bernardino Library invited me to speak a few years ago and changed my entire life. Linda has become my partner in all things and she has help get our work in front of more people around the world. Linda was also the reason for the NBM deal and I cannot ever thank her enough.
Blog@: Looking back at the time of the first SDCC, 1970, I wonder about all that has come since. In your role as an activist, you must feel our current sea change in Washington has been a long time coming but is bringing back to life a need to come together and improve ourselves and the world. At least we’re heading in the right direction, aren’t we?
PY: I will get in touch with the Obama people later this year and propose painting a huge mural in Washington, D.C. as we have done many times before. I did a mural for the celebration of the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution in 1987. Leigh Rubin and I created a very special issue about this subject in Penguin and Pencilguin #2. Leigh has since done well with his Rubes syndicated cartoon. We also painted a mural with Barbara Bush in the Library of Congress and then brought a 54 foot truck in front of the Library of Congress during the Clinton administration but sadly Bill Clinton and George W. Bush didn’t support our work at all. Lip service is the order of the day in this country much like in Communist China in the days of Mao and the Gang of Four. Print banners and chant slogans like “No Child Left Behind” and that solves all your problems as the United States continues to be among the least educated countries on the planet.
So am I hopeful that we have a guy who worked in the Southside of Chicago (my own birthplace) with a huge multi-ethnic background as I have in my own family, in the White House. I always give all politicians a fair shake no matter what party they belong to and then after I make them a very clear and honest offer to help promote things like literacy and the arts and we get the same old fake politcial empty promises in return from the vast majority of these people, I then know if they are real or just real on TV.
I want to believe in Obama and I am always an optimist but I have been an activist for most of my life and the number of honest and real people in politics is a very very small number. Sadly, most of these people are only in politics for their egos, the power and all the money that they can steal during and afterwards. I have very little respect for most of them. But as an optimist, one always has to believe that someone actually means what they say.
Bucky Fuller had this great line, “The more that you know, the more that you are an optimist.”
And I am still very much an optimist about the things that I am passionate about like world peace and education and integrity in the government. I also want to live to see the Chicago Cubs win the World Series so even though I was born on the southside of Chicago and should root for the White Sox, I guess I never did go with the crowd. Otherwise I would not have decided to promote literacy using comic books.