Phil Yeh is a man on a mission. From the early days of comic book fandom, he has known the industry’s most accomplished and under appreciated practitioners. Jerry Siegel, Sergio Aragones, Jack Kirby, Wally Wood, Rick Griffin, and Alfredo Alcala influ-enced Phil as he developed his skills as a publisher, artist, and writer. Through the ef-forts of Phil Yeh, and a 1975 interview, recognition for Jerry Siegel was finally awarded for his contributions to the early comic book industry.
Today, Yeh has been published by NBM and Image Comics as well as touring the world to promote literacy awareness. His books, Dinosaurs Across America and Di-nosaurs Across Route 66 have been best sellers around the world. In addition to 80-plus books he’s created, his Cartoonists Across America companion artists have produced, his efforts to promote literacy have been tireless.
Tim Lasiuta: Phil, you have been a professional cartoonist since the early 1970’s, and Cartoonists Across America & the World Tour has been a part of your life for almost 25 years. With three years left on the tour, what kind of progress has the industry made to encourage readers of all ages?
Phil Yeh: The battle to expand the comic book market has consumed a huge amount of my life from my earliest days as a publisher of my newspapers, books and magazines to the last 23 years of this global tour. Sadly, we have not had the support from the established media in the comic book world or the big players. But we continue to work worldwide and have never allowed the closed-mindedness of the American comic book industry to stop our efforts anywhere. We continue to go it alone in most cases, always hoping for the day when smarter people will actually see the real potential for this art form in this country.
With three years left of this tour, we have to believe that we can get some sort of movement again in the American Comic Book industry. I am encouraged that we will paint a big mural at the New York Comic Con on April 18-20 of 2008. That may be a break. We have never been invited there before and again, I have to believe that more and more people in the comic book industry may wake up and start to call us in this country before this tour ends in 2010 after 25 years. After doing thousands of events around the world for the last 23 years, we have to have a sense of humor, we finally were invited to do a graphic novel workshop in Manhattan last December 07 and NBM has recently published a color edition of my best-selling Dinosaurs Across America graphic novel, to rave reviews. Just how many comic bookstores will see the vision and carry a book that appeals to all ages and all sorts of people remains to be seen.
Comic book stores and publishers will never grow this business unless they start to market outside the very, very small numbers of fan-boys. But then, I have been known to bang my head against the wall with little result. But we are still trying and welcome all the folks in the comic book ghetto who would like to change things for the better to please contact us.
PY: I was working for a small weekly newspaper in 1975, part time art directing for the Marina News in Long Beach, California. My editor Helen Arterburn was in her 80s and a wonderful. She got tons of press releases all the time that didn’t fit the audience on the beach and one day handed me this single spaced press release that a very bitter Jerry Siegel had written about how he and Joe Shuster had been cheated on their character Superman.
Naturally, I was immediately interested and I called Jerry to arrange an interview as-suming that all the press was hot on the story. When I arrived at Jerry’s apartment in Los Angeles, the truth was that not a single reporter had called Jerry who had sent
these press releases to everyone he could in the media.
Gerard Jones in his book Men of Tomorrow documented the story of this inter-view I did in 1975 and sadly got some things wrong but at least gave me credit for what we did for Jerry and Joe. Jones claims I was a dope-smoking Filipino and other non-sense and I now have to correct his sloppy journalism when asked about the true story.
My third wife Philamer is a Filipina and my best friend Alfredo Alcala was a Filipino but as I have stated in this interview, my own background is slightly different! And I have made it a point to always state that I have never smoked dope or taken illegal drugs in my life! That was extremely rare growing up in my high times and in the underground but I have always followed my own path in life and never afraid to tell the truth.
Jones got the basic story right. We were the first to break the story and then behind the scenes I called Warner Communications and told them that my newspaper Cobble-stone (we went back to Uncle Jam 2 years later) was read by many of the major media people in Southern California and I knew that once we ran the story the Los Angeles Times and others would pick it up immediately which they did. That got the news to Jerry Robinson and Neal Adams who picked up the battle in the East but I was quietly talking to WB the entire time which may explain why I never have worked for DC comics!
This was the time of the first Christopher Reeves’ Superman film and WB didn’t want the bad publicity so they settled on a deal for Jerry and Joe that gave them some justice but no where near what they deserved. The battle continues long after both men have passed away and I am happy that we had a small part in this saga. Artists’ rights have always been a passion of mine and sadly, too many artists and writers continue to be treated like dirt by the people who profit from their work but this subject would be
an entire book. I have been very fortunate to know many of the world’s best artists and writers personally and have learned a lot from their experiences both good and bad.
TL: Anyone reading this interview will be familiar with comic books, ani-mated films, and graphic presentations. What age groups are you focusing on and how can the media has a whole reach the various demographics?
PY: We have always focused on all ages from 1 to 101. I believe that the best of what we do is perfect for all ages and my travels all over the world have proven this to me repeatedly. We have found that people can love cartoons when they are little children as easily as they can when they are great-grandparents. I have had personal experience with fans from all across the spectrum, from former First Lady Barbara Bush, to kids in elementary school around the world.
TL: We understand you have been invited to paint a mural at the New York ComicCon this year after a long absence. Having yourself painted more than 1,700 murals around the world, can you tell us about some of the highlights of this tour?
PY: There are so many, it would take me an entire book to list them all. We have amazing events all over the world each and every year with crowds in the thousands and in small towns where only a few hundred may see us. The best part of these public mural events is that so many kids of all ages have painted them with us and so many of the murals are up for many years on wall
s, trucks, bookmobiles, billboards, and just about anything you could name. Those who have painted with us are a real diverse who’s who of artists and noted people including: former First Lady Barbara Bush, actor Alan Alda, Ninja Turtle creator Kevin Eastman, my dear friend and master-with-the-spray-can Mark Bode, and more artists than I could name along with thousands of kids of all ages.
TL: Not only are you a mural artist, but also NBM has picked up a color edition of Dinosaurs Across America later last year on the heels of Dinosaurs Across Route 66. What is the appeal of Dinosaurs to the reading public (and your writing) that inspires you to educate? Where else can Dinosaurs roam?
PY: The NBM book is a real classic. Lieve Jerger, unique copper lace artist and my longtime art director, found out she loves to colorize and she did a fantastic job on this book. We believe that this book should sell a million copies in the United States where one out of five Americans cannot find the US on a blank map of the world. I truly believe that this is one book that belongs in every home, school and public library in this country. It makes learning U.S. History and Geography fun and there are so few books that can pull this off. This is one of the reasons that I truly believe in the power of comics to educate! Done right, they can reach all ages in a fun and entertaining way and actually get people to think and become smarter.
We just released a new Dinosaurs Across Route 66 comic book last fall that is selling well and also getting great reviews. Two women who collect classic Corvettes read one of the nice reviews in the San Bernardino SUN newspaper in December and immediately bought 22 copies of this comic! That is the type of response we love to see and we continue to see all over the country on this new Route 66 tour that takes me from California all the back to Chicago this year.
My dream is to have this series go all over Europe next but I would also love to do Dinosaurs Across Canada and Dinosaurs Across Mexico as well. I can see a bilingual book for the Mexican one.
TL: As a cartoonist, you were invited to be a special guest at the 3rd annual Cartoon and Animation Festival in your father’s hometown of Hangzhou, China. Can you please tell us about the event? What kind of impact did that have on your work?
PY: About 420,000 fans came out to see us at the Third Annual China Cartoon and Animation Festival last spring in my dad’s hometown of Hangzhou, China, and believe me, we reached an audience of all ages as we do all over the world. The work we do is kid friendly and people friendly. We made the biggest tent possible and try and do work that inspires all people of all cultures. I have also painted murals and appeared in Japan, Singapore, The Philippines and Taiwan in addition to my trips to China and the response to our characters and our campaign has always been fantastic. You do not have to convince people of the merits when you have educational content in Asia.
TL: Not only did you travel in China, but in February of 2007, you were invited to be a judge in an environmental poster contest sponsored by Little Star magazine, a leading magazine for International Schools in China. How did this event lead you to create a new full color series called The Winged Tiger in China?
PY: I was invited to Beijing, in February of 2007 to judge a children’s art contest by a leading English language magazine called Little Star. They asked me to contribute a new four-page color comic called The Winged Tiger in China. Lieve and I have been doing that strip for about a year now. I have been going back to China since 1979 and I have seen it grow like crazy. One hopes that one day my work will actually be printed in Chinese. You have to have a great deal of patience when working in China and luckily, I have spent 38 years working with the American publishing industry so I know all about patience.
TL: The New York Times called you The Godfather of the Modern American Graphic Novel in a piece on your Graphic Novel Workshop at the American Comic Master Exhibition at the Newark Museum in 2006. Can you give us a sense of your history with this form?
PY: Our work in Long Beach with the Graphic Novel was really about being in the right place at the right time. So many artists lived in the area then and there was a sense of real community and idealism then. I was fortunate to have Sergio Aragonés and the late Golden Age artist Don Rico agree to write and draw the introduction to “Even Cazco Gets The Blues.” And I was very lucky that Bud Plant and Phil Seuling were distributing books to the direct market in those days. They both supported my first few graphic novels, which definitely broke some new ground as far as styles and themes for “mainstream” comics.
I have tried to always promote cartoon and comic art as fine art and will continue that battle until I am dead. I was excited about coming to speak at the American Comic Masters show in Newark but sad that Charles Schulz and Jack Kirby and so many other masters of the form didn’t live to see that show. I also spoke up that more people of color and more women needed to be included on the museum stage.
TL: The media as a whole gravitates to the flashy and popular. How has the comic book media reacted to your campaign in North America? What about the global reaction to illiteracy among young readers? Is Europe more proactive than America?
PY: We have always had fantastic media coverage all over the world with the exception of the traditional comic book press and the national celebrity driven national media based in New York City. But as a former journalist and publisher of a newspaper myself, I don’t really have a lot of respect for the so-called “journalism” in either circle these days. We probably get more media coverage in the local mainstream media than most cartoonists but unfortunately it is the national press that gets you the name recognition. So we keep doing those big events in places like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles and see if maybe we can interest some sharp reporter in our work.
TL: Along with the world tour, can we ever expect the mythical film, Planet Literacy to be released?
PY: It’s my dream to finish the film in the next few years and I believe that we will get it done. The old interviews and footage of us 20 years ago is wonderful – we were so much younger and thinner then! I am so glad that we have a nice sequence with Moebius drawing in one of my comic books. Overall we have some nice stuff in this film and hope to add more interviews with noted people from all fields and some footage from around the world in the coming three years. All financial backers please call us and we can get this film done.
TL: What does the future hold for Phil Yeh, and Cartoonists Across America? Any books in the works? What happens on the last year of the tour during 2010?
PY: I am going to go back to painting fine art this year starting with new original watercolors and then giclee prints from these new wo
rks. I had a gallery in Long Beach for 11 years and sold many paintings before I began this Cartoonists Across America & the World Tour. After more than 80 books, I am ready to paint more and draw a little less. But I have five major book projects in the works right now so there is no danger of me stopping drawing right away. Our new Steve the Dog and The Winged Tiger book will come out within the year and my partner Geoff Bevington is really doing some nice work on this project which of course is brilliantly colored by Lieve Jerger. This is an illustrated children’s book set in my birth city of Chicago and I am really excited about seeing this come out. I wrote the thing a decade ago, so one can see that sometimes things take a little longer to come out than one likes. As for the tour, we hope that the film will inspire other artists to pick up the torch and continue the work that we started. Anyone can do something creative to promote literacy and the arts and that has always been our core message.
To find out more about Phil Yeh and Cartoonists Across America, you can check out www.wingedtiger.com