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Gene Yang, Larry Hama and Jae Lee!


I enjoy attending lectures, panel discussions and presentations; unfortunately they are hit or miss, with the majority of them being duds. We all suffered through it in high school and in college, fulfilling our academic requirements. Why subject ourselves to it now when it isn't necessary? Because you never know. It's hard to find people that can engage and have substance behind what they say. But when you do find yourself in the presence of these type of speakers, everyone around you transcends into the 'zone' collectively hanging onto the panelists' every word.

Saturday night was one of those rare moments where I had a great time sitting in the audience for a panel discussion, Thinking Inside the Box: Asian Americans in the Comic Book and Graphic Novel World. Elmo forwarded information about the panel earlier in the week and I immediately registered not because of the topic but because of the people on the panel. Three stood out immediately, Gene Yang, artist and writer of American Born Chinese, Larry Hama, the man behind G.I. Joe, and Jae Lee, the master of shadows and artist of Transformers / G.I. Joe (one of my favorite renditions of the mighty robots) and creator of Hellshock.

The panel was held at the MoCA, not the Museum of Contemprorary Art, but the Museum of Chinese in the Americas. Located on the corner of Bayard and Mulberry Street, I've walked by the building thousands of times on my way to the Canal Street station but have only step foot in it a handful of times. Walking up the old decrepit stairs guided by the dim lights overhead I wondered how the panelists felt on those very same stairs earlier that night. A far cry from the glitzy convention centers or hotels most comic artists are used to when attending various comic cons or shows.

Compared to a panel I attended earlier in the year at the Asia Society, this panel was much more intimate. Constrained by the small spaces regularly found in Chinatown, the rows of metal folding chairs were lined right up to the front where the panelists sat. They could not hide behind a table nor did they have the luxury of sipping on beverages provided by the host. I wish I had known about the conditions they were to have the discussion in, I would have picked up a few bottles of Gatorade on the way there. Anyway, as with most Asian-related events, a panelist was late to the discussion so it didn't start on time. Twenty minutes past seven it began with the panel host, Vertigo editor Pornsak Pichetshote, introducing himself followed by introductions from the others. While there were six panelists, I was only familiar with three of them.

Gene YangGene Yang, most of you probably never heard of him. His graphic novel, American Born Chinese was a 2006 finalist for the National Book Award. Heard of the book when it was first released, think once again, Elmo was the one who tipped me off to it. He works at a high school as a database administrator and computer science teacher during the day, breaking out the pencils and pens in the evenings. If you haven't check out his book, buy a copy! I thoroughly enjoyed it and if you don't want to plunk down the cash, feel free to borrow my signed hard copy (but don't mess it up). Guess I look like someone on the West Coast because when I went up to him to get his autograph he asked me if we had met before in the Bay area.

Larry HamaLarry Hama was the most experienced individual on the panel. Remember when you bought all those G.I. Joe toys and read their background story on the back of the box? That was all him, he basically created the GI Joe universe! His GI Joe series believe it or not had a high female readership because it depicted strong female characters along side the 'Joes'. Had no idea! I could have picked up the girls with my G.I. Joe comics.

He also had a great story about working at Continuity Studios with the legendary Neal Adams. Neal, as with many perfectionists out there could not tolerate those who did not give their best. Many people can see a great image in their mind but are never able to commit it to paper because they 'settle'. Naturally the table across from his drafting table remained empty for a long time until Larry got there. Though he didn't escape Neal's wrath, he did learn a lot from him (all you had to do was ask apparently, and Neal would spend the time to teach you). During one encounter, Neal stood behind Larry munching on a donut for a good ten minutes watching him draw. Finally he said something along the lines of, "I guess you don't know about the 36 planes that make up a person's nose."

Amateurs would bring their portfolios to Neal for critiques constantly and Neal would reduce them to a pool of tears. However one individual kept coming back, and he did this for a good two years until eventually, one day after looking over this individual's work, Neal called an editor at Marvel and told him he would be an idiot not to give the guy a gig. That person was Frank Miller who coincidentally had as much of an impact on Batman as Neal Adams.

An interesting note on how Larry works, he doesn't fully script out his stories beforehand. He just writes or draws and lets the story develop on its own. Interesting approach and given his track record, I'm not complaining. I loved the comics when I was younger, especially the whole interplay between Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow.

Jae LeeJae Lee was the main reason I attended the panel but unfortunately he didn't get as much speaking time as the others. If you haven't checked out his Transformers / G.I. Joe series please do! I've been looking at some of his original work for sale, though most of the good pieces have already been sold, I might pick up this Grimlock page. Only thing holding me back is the fact that all my comic book related items are still in storage. Unsure of putting them up... Anyway, after high school, he spent two months studying commercial design before quitting. He showed his work at some conventions and immediately got hired by Marvel.

Anyway, I really loved the panel, you could hear the passion in their voices when they talked about the industry and their work. It's really hard to communicate it here but after walking out of there I wanted to get to my drafting desk ASAP and finish up Elmo's comic right away. Of course that feeling has subsided, guess my condo isn't really a creative environment. I need a studio to work in, with inspirational people working alongside me.

On another note, I sat in on some Columbia MBA classes, Michael Dell's brother, Adam teaches there and he was also a passionate speaker. Made me want to become a VC after walking out of his class, Business Technology and Innovation. Maria Shim, head of investor relations at Google was a guest speaker and she too was a passionate speaker. Guess it's not too hard to drink the Kool-Aid from a company like Google.

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