Phillip Yeh | Buzz Blog

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Phillip Yeh

Posted By on June 29, 2008, 3:02 PM

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As the Utah Arts Festival rolls into its final day today, we start taking a look back at some of the things that were showcased this year. Night Flight Comics was proud to bring in cartoonist Phillip Yeh to do a mural for the festival, encouraging children to not only read but be creative in life as well. I got an opportunity to ask Phil some questions, as well as browse by throughout the festival to snap pictures of the progress of the mural, all the way to it’s finished product. ---

Phillip Yeh

Gavin: Hello Phil. First, tell us a little about yourself.

Phil: I was born in Chicago in 1954 and moved to New Jersey right away for the first 6 years then on to a small town on the west coast called Los Angeles where I spent most of the next decade. I finished high school at Los Alamitos where I started publishing a little magazine and went on to study film at Cal State University Long Beach, where I launched a free arts paper called Uncle Jam in November 1973. I was 19 at the time and that paper would last for the next 19 years serving Southern California. My dad came from China in 1948 and my mother from the Midwest, of European heritage. This has given all my work a very global outlook.

Gavin: How did you first get into comics?

Phil: I started drawing at the age of two and made my own little books by the age of six. I really cannot remember a time when I was ever not drawing comics and painting. I have always believed that art was a great way to use your imagination and communicate. But I really didn't read many comics as a kid, I spent my time reading the classics and biographies and history books.I still find great ideas from reading and from traveling around the world and the people that I meet.

Gavin: How did you start “Cartoonists Across America”?

Phil: In 1985, I interviewed Wally "Famous" Amos for our newspaper Uncle Jam. He was the national spokesperson for Literacy Volunteers of America (now ProLiteracy) and the statistics about the terrible illiteracy crisis really hit home with me. I had started publishing my own books in 1976 and drew one of the very first graphic novels in America in 1977, so having more people able to read was —and still is— very important to me. Wally inspired me to get other cartoonists together to try and use cartoons and humor to call attention to this very serious problem in the United States. We thought at the time that we would go on the road until the year 2000. In 1999, Wally flew out from Hawaii to present to me with one of the first Alphie Awards from the Los Angeles Country Library Foundation along with Dr. Fred Cort and Edward James Olmos. Steve Allen was the host of the event at Sony Studios and in all the excitement; I declared in my acceptance speech that we would continue to tour until the year 2010, a total of 25 years. The actual illiteracy problem has only grown worse for most people today, since we started with all these endless electronic distractions. Reading is not a big activity for the average American and that is a shame.

Gavin: Tell us about the book Dinosaurs Across America.

Phil: So many Americans are not only functionally illiterate as a society but in areas like math and science and history and geography, we continue to lag behind much of the rest of the world. Every year, surveys show that the average American lack basic knowledge of the geography of their own country, which continues to shock the world. So in 1990, I created a comic book called Dinosaurs Across America which was reprinted 8 times, selling almost 200,000 copies. In 2006, when the Cleveland Museum of Natural History offered me a five month art show of the oil paintings from my book Theo The Dinosaur, they also asked me to reprint this comic again. Lieve Jerger, my longtime colorist and art director then began to color all the pages of the original comic, and last fall, NBM publishing of New York issued the first full color hardcover edition of this book. I hope to have this book in every single home, public, and school library in the next few years. In fact, School Library Journal recently named Dinosaurs Across America as one of the best 25 graphic novels in their March 2008 cover story. We also introduced a new comic book called Dinosaurs Across Route 66 last fall and I am currently working on yet another book called Dinosaurs Across California for this fall. I hope to produce regional books for most of the country in the next few years, first as black and white comics, and then as full color hardcover books.

Gavin: The books that you do are mainly aimed for a younger audience. Do you feel you're missing out by not doing more adult material, or do you feel it is more fulfilling doing books for that audience?

Phil: I am often confused by folks assuming that things like U.S. Geography etc and the themes of all my work are aimed at younger audiences only. The fact is that I always work for all ages in the tradition of Charles Schulz and the movies I loved as kid growing up when there was never an issue about families watching a G-rated movie. We simply watched movies because they were good. My work is aimed at all ages and I get fan letters from grandparents, high school and college students and from elementary school kids from all over the world. But it is true that I do not include sex and violence in my work but then I think that both subjects are already being worked to death from others.

Gavin: You tour around the world with your work frequently, but have said you'd stop doing it in 2010. Why so?

Phil: I dedicated 25 years of my life to promoting reading, the arts and creativity: that is a lot of time. The cost of travel and the fact that we have painted more than 1800 murals all over the planet without any steady funding from major sponsors has made this a real grassroots effort on every level. After 2010, we hope to finish my documentary film “Planet Literacy” that I started more than 20 years ago and I will continue to write and draw books and speak about the need for more art and music in our schools to inspire generations to come. I will always travel but the tour as we know it, will end. I have been on the road almost 23 years now and it does take a personal toll on family and health.

Gavin: What's your opinion on comics today, both good and bad?

Phil: Most of the work in our field in the field of music, painting, film, TV, etc., is very poor. Sadly, as this culture became more sub-literate and lazy, the quality of the work in all the arts suffered as well. My own sons are in their twenties now and most young people in the United States working today simply do not have the discipline to learn the history of their various fields to do the kind of work that one expects from all artists. It's better in other countries, but actually, as the bad habits of our country are spread to other so-called "advanced societies," we see this same downward trend appearing all over the world. I have always believed that we have to show the next generation how to make things better. I still have hope because there are still many young people willing to do the hard work in all these fields. Even though the majority of cartoons and graphic novels are not very good today, there are also excellent exceptions to confirm this general rule. We have to recognize that there are some wonderful truly classic books coming out right now, and support them, and also make sure that we still remember the classics from the past. One of my greatest regrets is that most Americans haven't a clue when it comes to our own great history in all the arts and that is why I am always mentioning those classic artists in my own work.

Gavin: Is there anything you think could be done to make it better?

Phil: The best that any of us can do is to keep spreading the word about the real joys and benefits from old-fashioned books and to suggest to young people, and older folks too, about the great books that are out there. We have to promote these good things like nature, gardening, playing an instrument, drawing, all the things that do not require huge electrical bills and fancy equipment. Those old fashioned things are truly great ways to get our kids to cultivate longer attention spans and truly inspire their imagination for the future.

Gavin: What made you decide to come do the Arts Festival?

Phil: Mimi Cruz of Night Flight Comics met me at a show I did and invited me. I have always had great events in Utah and have met more people there who actually speak a foreign language and have a more global outlook than in many other places that I have visited in my career. I am very excited about coming back after all these years.

Gavin: Tell us about all the stuff you're doing for the Festival.

Phil: Aside from signing my books at Night Flight Comics on Library Square , I will be reading from Dinosaurs Across America on Friday, June 27 from 7 pm to 8 pm. On Saturday June 28, from 2 pm to 3 pm I will offer a mini workshop for kids about how to go about creating their own graphic novels. When I think of KIDS I include everyone from 1 to 101. Cartoons have a way of reaching the kid in all of us and I never really believed that cartoonists and their fans ever grow up. Both of these events will be in The Salt Lake City Library. I will also be painting a mural in the Night Flight store during the festival and signing copies of my books.

Gavin: Why did you choose to do a mural?

Phil: We love to do these murals as a way for the media to get a vivid picture of the issues that we promote. It's hard to film literacy but when you are making a mural, you give a visual to the issue and to the solutions that we offer. We paint these murals on school walls, on bookmobiles, on foamcore, on vans and trucks and welcome anyone to contact us at to come to their community anywhere on this planet until the year 2010.

Gavin: Will you be doing anything else locally while you're in town, or mainly sticking to the festival?

Phil: I am just in town for a short stay on this trip but would love to come back and appear across the state!

Gavin: What can we expect from you the rest of the year?

Phil: I will be doing our mural events and speaking in schools and libraries throughout the rest of 2008 and all the way until this tour ends in 2010. We have the San Diego Comic Con in July 08 and then events in Illinois and Missouri for August and September as well as a big Kid's Festival in Phoenix that month. In October we will be in the San Francisco Bay Area and now we are lining up more events in the Western United States through February 2009. We try and appear in as many states as possible every year and in the summer of 09’, we hope to travel to Europe. I was in China twice in 2007, I have a new color comic strip in a great children's magazine called Little Star in China. The magazine is in English and directed at the International Students and their families in Beijing and Shanghai. Copper lace artist Lieve Jerger has been coloring all these works, and my partner Geoff Bevington in Chicago is now making many of these images into limited edition fine art prints. Geoff, Lieve and I are actually working on a brand new book called Steve the Dog and The Winged Tiger, a story of a couch potato dog becoming a Renaissance Dog. That book will debut in April 09’ in Chicago where I was born, but like all my work, it is designed for a universal audience.

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