Daily Archives: June 13, 2011

Gene Luen Yang on Thien Pham

Thien Pham is the illustrator of our upcoming graphic novel Level Up.  Superficially, at least, Thien and I are a lot alike.  We’re both Asian American cartoonists in our mid-thirties. In addition to making comics, Thien and I also teach at the same high school.  We both have younger brothers working in the medical field.  (We refer to them as the good Asian sons.)  Thien and I even grew up in the same town and went to the same comic bookstore when we were kids, though we didn’t know each other at the time.  On those surveys where you bubble in little dots with a #2 pencil to describe who you are, most of our dots would probably match.

But honestly, I don’t think Thien and I could be more different.  This became increasingly apparent as we worked together on Level Up.  I like planning things out.  I like outlining before I start writing.  I like getting feedback and revising, and then getting more feedback and doing more revising.  I like figuring out exactly how big a word balloon ought to be before ever setting pencil to paper.

Thien has a completely different philosophy of art.  He likes putting lines and colors down as quickly as he can, “capturing the inspiration” (his words) before it disappears.  When he writes a story of his own, he likes making it up as he goes.  And when he gets to the end, it’s the end. No revisions necessary.  He likes drawing word balloons without measuring, light-boxing, or using any of the other tricks most cartoonists use on word balloons.  Thien just trusts that they’ll be big enough when the time comes to letter.

It took us years to make Level Up.  And I must confess, I spent a significant amount of that time rubbing my temples and explaining to Thien the importance of rulers and deadlines and knowing the average number of words that will fit in a square inch of white space.  Thien would nod, chuckle to himself, and then keep making comics his own way.  Eventually, he took to calling me “Tiger Partner.”

Here’s confession #2: Despite Thien completely ignoring most of what I had to say, Level Up turned out all right.  When Thien’s on, he’s really on.  That “capturing the inspiration” stuff actually seems to work.  The book’s art has a looseness to it that makes for a breezy, endearing read.  And the word balloons… well… word balloons can always be resized in Photoshop.

Working with Thien and seeing his process up close has even changed my own work.  I still like planning things out, but I no longer use rulers when I ink backgrounds. Letting those little inconsistencies creep into your drawings makes them more alive.  Life, after all, is inconsistent.

So here’s a shout-out to diversity in partnership.  Working closely with someone who’s very different from you — and not necessarily in the bubbled-dots ways — can be frustrating, but it can also be rewarding.  You can learn a lot about what makes art, and what makes people, work.

So thanks, Thien, for putting up with your Tiger Partner.

Preview Level Up:

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://www.diversityinya.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/geneYang3501.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Gene Luen Yang began self-publishing comic books in 1996. In 1997, he got the Xeric Grant for Gordon Yamamoto and the King of the Geeks. Since then he has written and drawn a number of stories in comics. American Born Chinese, released by First Second Books in 2006, became the first graphic novel to be nominated for a National Book Award and the first to win the American Library Association’s Printz Award. It also won an Eisner Award for Best Graphic Album – New. The Eternal Smile, a collaborative project with Derek Kirk Kim in 2009, won an Eisner for Best Short story. In addition to cartooning, Gene teaches computer science at a Catholic high school in California. Find out more about Gene at www.humblecomics.com.[/author_info] [/author]