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Cartoonist with A Mission

January, 2007
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IMG_2590 Known as the godfather of the modern American graphic novel, Phil Yeh is a real-life hero who has been traveling the world for 22 years promoting literacy. He’s painted more than 1,600 murals and spoken at schools, libraries, museums and conferences across the world. Yeh also started an organization called Cartoonists Across America and the World, which promotes cartoons as a way to inspire people of all ages to read more. He has self-published more than 80 educational, non-violent comic books and is passionate about literacy, education and the arts.

  Yeh has received plenty of recognition over the years for his hard work. Former First Lady Barbara Bush honored Yeh at the White House. American Profiles Magazine featured Yeh last May as a "Hometown Hero," and he will also be included in the magazine’s book "Hometown Heroes: Real Stories of Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things All Across America," which will be released in April.

  This February, Yeh served as a guest judge for LittleStar Environmental Poster Design Competition, and he sat down with LittleStar to talk about his cartoons and plans for the future.

  Q: Do you have some suggestions for the students who participated in the poster contest?

  Phil: I think that most the contestants displayed a very good grasp of making the posters simple and effective in terms of communicating their ideas. The best way to learn how to create any piece of artwork is to research other pieces in the same field. The library should have several good books on graphic design showing everything from posters to t-shirt designs. All artists need to see as big of a variety of art in all styles as they can. This is the best way to increase you options for your own work.

  Q: How did you become a cartoonist?

  Phil: I actually started my own publishing company at the age of 16 to publish my cartoons, but I was drawing for about 14 years before that. I cannot remember ever not drawing. My first teacher in New Jersey told me years later that she had save my work from when I was only 5 years old. It is important for all of us to understand that anyone at any age can become an artist or a musician. I like to tell kids that you can draw, make films, play music etc at any age as opposed to getting a driver’s license.

  Q: Where does your sense of humor come from?

  Phil: My father is from Hangzhou, China, and he came to the United States to study in 1948. He met my mother, who is from a European IMG_2603 heritage, and they were married in the early 1950s. I was born in 1954. After we lived in New Jersey, we moved to Los Angeles for the 60s. I actually grew up in a very tough neighborhood, now infamous for the many street gangs and poverty, before we moved again in 1970 to the suburbs. When you are raised with the multicultural experiences of my family and my neighborhood, you have to see the humor in all these things. [When I was growing up], the cartoon characters in the United States were all white kids living in some typical suburban neighborhood. Nothing even came close to the place where I grew up. So it was totally natural for me to draw stories for my friends reflecting the many different backgrounds that they had. I also loved to read and study history and always believed that we would one day get a chance to go back to China.

  Q: When did you first come to China?

  Phil: In 1979, I made that first trip back with my dad and one of my sisters to see my grandfather, uncles, aunts and cousins for the very first time. It had been 31 years since my dad had been home. I wrote a graphic novel about this trip as well as a series of articles about my travels throughout the country. I have since been back to China in 1985, 1988, 1995 and now with this trip in 2007. I hope to come back now more often.

  Q: Do you like Chinese cartoons?

  Phil: Actually, I always make it a point to check out the big bookstores and see what is available. I grew up with the beautiful black and white comics about ancient Chinese legends like The Monkey King. I have a great respect for the visual arts in China and always enjoy meeting Chinese artists.

  Q: How do you see the difference between the Chinese/ Japanese cartoon/ cartoon in Asia and the American cartoons?

  Phil: I am not a big fan of Japanese manga although my partner Jon Murakami is a huge fan. One of the dreams that I have in China is to expose the Chinese artists to some world-class artists like my friend from France, Jean Giraud, the late Rick Griffin from America, and Mulan artist Alex Nino, who is from the Philippines and just retired from Walt Disney animation. The artists have been embraced around the world, but sadly I do not see much of their work in China. I truly hope to change this in the coming years.

  Q: Would you tell me about your organization Cartoonists Across America and the World?

IMG_2600   Phil: We have always been a grassroots organization and we don’t work with one political party or another. We work with companies and communities who actually see a real value in all of their citizens being educated.

  The first two people to endorse our work in 1985 were Barbara Bush, the former First Lady, and Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts. I love to tell people that I am a liberal Democrat, but, in truth, I get very little support from the Democrats. These days, we get little support from any of the big politicians. The general tone of the United States now is that many of the powerful claim that there is simply no money for the arts or literacy programs.

  We have always believed that all the arts and music can play a very constructive role in making anyone smarter. Cartoons of course are very easy to use in education because they are visual and this is how we have used them in our work.

  Q: It is said that you have been traveling for 22 years promoting literacy. Why you enjoy this kind of life?

  Phil: I do not enjoy the endless flights and the hassles of modern travel, but once I get to a place, I always find that the energy of the students makes up for the travel. What I have always believed in is that each of us has to try and give something back to this planet. My work covers many themes from anti-smoking, anti-drugs, good diets, history, geography etc. but the one thing that we are proud of is that we are using humor to get the messages across to all readers. I firmly believe that education can be fun and try and get that across in our work.

  Q: What do you speak about at the schools you visited?

  Phil: I am one of the few people on this planet who personally knew a lot of the creators from the guys who made Superman to Charles Schulz who created Snoopy and hundreds of others. When I tell students how these people came up with the idea for their characters, I am giving them real advice that few people can offer to our students.

  Q: How do you help encourage the teenage cartoonists in their work? Do you have some words of wisdom for them?

  Phil: I think that I have a very good eye for new talent and over the last 37 years, I have helped many artists become famous through exposure in my newspapers and magazines. Aside from publishing my own books, I published an arts newspaper in California from 1973 to 1991. We featured some world famous artists and writers and introduced many others.

  Q: What do you see the future for graphic novels or books?

  Phil: There is no question that graphic novels are the last best hope in the United States to save reading. My sons are 27, 25 and 23 this year and sadly their generation in the United States doesn’t often read for pleasure. Theirs is a world of video games, cell phones, television, movies and the Internet. Anything but reading!

  So I see graphic novels as I always have. They are films on paper with pictures and with the words. You have to read in order to enjoy them. And reading is the only way to develop thinking, and this might explain why so many people who never read are unable to think well.

  The educational crisis in the United States should serve as a real warning to every other country as to how to create a better future for their people. The only thing keeping America strong now is the influx of grad students in all the sciences and medicine. We are in real danger of not having our own citizens able to compete with those from other countries.

  Because of my family history in education in China, I have a deep respect for teachers and for education in general. Asia as a whole generally shares these values and one of the nice things about my world travels is I can share what works and what doesn’t all around the world.

  The future of this planet will largely depend on creating a world with smarter leaders who will make honest decisions to better all people.

  There is nothing more important than promoting education in this world.


By Xing Yangjian

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