He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his lovely wife, Theresa, and son, Kolbe, and teaches computer science at a Roman Catholic high school. (from FIRST SECOND is an imprint of Roaring Brook Press)
Sandbox- What was the first comic you read that had an impact on you and which is a Rosebud of sorts to you?
Gene- I was in high school in the 80′s when Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen and Maus came out. All three of those books expanded what I thought comics could do,as they did for many other people. I also loved the old Kitchen Sink reprints of the Spirit and the UncleScrooge stories by Carl Barks and Don Rosa.
Sandbox- Do you read Adrian Tomine? Has he an influence in your work or any other Asian artist?
Gene- I do read Adrian Tomine. He’s a brilliant storyteller who really knows how to punch you in the stomach with his comics, but in a subtle way. Like a ninja. I deeply respect his work. I don’t know if he’s had direct influence on my work, though. Our styles, both art and writing, are just so different.
I’ve been heavily influenced by the Asian-American crew of comics creators that I run with: Derek Kirk Kim, Jason Shiga, Lark Pien. Jesse Hamm, who is not Asian at all but still awesome, is another personal friend who’s really influenced my comics.
As for Asian artists who I don’t know personally, I’d have to say Osamu Tezuka. I am constantly blown away by what he can acheive through his comics.
Sandbox- Would you consider the Monkey King as one of the first super-heroes?
between the Monkey King and the modern American superhero. But every ancient culture had its heroes: Greece had Hercules, Israel had Samson, and India had Hanuman, who many say is a precursor to the Monkey King. I think it’s in our blood to create heroic literature. Heroic literature is an expression of our ideals – it keeps us going, gives us something to shoot for.
Sandbox- What are the tools of your trade? Favorite pen or pencil, Photoshop or Illustrator?
Gene- I sketch with a blue pencil and draw with whatever #2 pencil I can find. I ink most of the page with either Winsor-Newton Series 7 #1 brush or a Japanese brush pen. I finish up the inks with pigmas or sharpies or whatever is handy. I do all this on vellum, which allows me to do my pencils on one side and inks on another.
Afterwards, I scan it into Photoshop and clean it up there. I also do my lettering in Photoshop.
Sandbox- Why do you think there are less kids reading comics and what will bring them back?
Gene- Well, I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but I think there are a lot of kids reading comics these days. The graphic novel section of our local bookstore is constantly filled with kids. They just aren’t reading the same kinds of comics as we read when we were kids.
Part of the problem, I think, is that the storylines of American superhero comics have just gotten too convoluted. It really is impossible for new readers to just jump in.
Manga really brought kids back to comics. Manga stories are often ridiculously long, too, but there’s an ending at least. They seem more manageable. Plus the fact that a single creator almost always sees the story through from beginning to end gives manga stories a cohesiveness that’s often missing from American comics.
Sandbox- Which graphic novel has made the biggest dent in the industry?
Gene- Oof. There are so many ways to answer that question. In terms of raising the literary bar, of convincing the world that comics is a serious medium worthy of attention, it’d have to be Art Spiegelman’s Maus. I mean, it won a Pulitzer!
Gene- I’d love to sit down and have a conversation with James Sturm at some point. We’re both very interested in comics as applied to education. Many of the people I’ve long admired I’ve met already at conventions and things. That’s one of the benefits of being a part of the comics industry. There isn’t all that much that separates a fan from a creator.
As for who I’d like to work with… Comics is an intensely personal medium. I have a hard time imagining working with someone I didn’t know personally beforehand. The collaborations I’m interested in are all with personal friends.
Sandbox- How deep are your Christan believes embedded in Asian mythos in your story? Is there a conflict between both or a marriage between both?
Gene- With the Monkey King portions of my book, I replaced the Buddhist elements with Christian ones. I wanted it to be an Asian-American expression of the story, so I wanted to combine Eastern and Western mythologies (though as a Catholic I believe that the Christian story is more than a mythology). I was conflicted about it when I wrote and drew it, and in some ways I’m still conflicted about it. I think that conflict mirrors the conflict I feel about being both Asian and American. Whether it works well in the context of my graphic novel is up to the reader to decide.
Sandbox- Why is there in your opinion a negative reaction for your nomination for your book by some in the Internet community?
Gene- Well, I responded twice – first to Wired Magazine’s Tony Long and then to the Wall Street Journal. Overall, I think it’s a good thing for comics. At the very least, there’s a debate about the literary worth of comics now. It’s no longer an assumption of the public that comics are only for the semi-literate. There are educators and librarians on both sides of the debate. And really, most of the educators and librarians are with us.
Sandbox- Is the manga craze big in your neck of the woods? Seems like many non Asian contributions are appearing and diluting the true manga. Are you a fan?
Gene- Yes, manga is big. When I first started teaching almost ten years ago, none of my students read manga. Nowadays I see students swapping graphic novels all the time, and most of the volumes they’re pulling out of their backpacks are manga. I think it’s a good thing.
I don’t know what the definition of “true manga” is. When American artist Paul Pope was doing work for a large Japanese publisher, was that considered manga? Does a creator have to be ethnically Japanese in order to create “true manga”? It seems somewhat arbitrary.
I think globalization is changing comics. There’s a lot of cross-pollination between the three major comics industries (American, Japanese, European) now, and I think we’ll see more and more artists influences heavily by all three. Sort of like Paul Pope.
As for me, I hated manga and anime when I was young. I was a big fan of Disney animation, and anime in the 80′s just didn’t have the sophistication of movement that classic Disney animation had, though clearly it was more sophisticated in many other ways. I also couldn’t get into the storylines. I’d get into these arguments with a manga-fan friend of mine about the sizes of the eyes and such. In college, though, I discovered Osamu Tezuka and Hayao Miyazaki, and that changed everything. I still don’t read a lot of manga, but I love the works of specific artists, like Tezuka and Miyazaki.
Sandbox- What are your plans for your next project?
Gene- I’m working on a graphic novel with Thien Pham, a fellow Bay Area cartoonist who does a strip in the East Bay Express called “I Like Eating.” Our graphic novel is called Three Angels, and it’s about a video game addict who is asked by three angels to go to medical school. We’re exploring the tension between passion and destiny. It’ll be out from First Second Books in 2008.
Gene- Neither. He prefers the company of pigs, monks, and sand demons.
Sandbox- Good luck on November 15. *