TV, Books, Movies, Style, & Online Media

July 1, 2007

A Chat with Tak Toyoshima

By Denise Tong

Secret Asian ManUnited Feature Syndicate, home of Peanuts and Dilbert, has a new member of the family: Tak Toyoshima’s Secret Asian Man. On July 16 SAM will hit newspapers worldwide and debut on Comics.com, becoming the first nationally syndicated Asian American comic strip since the Legend of Bruce Lee strip from the early 1980s.

The comic’s titular character, Osamu “SAM” Takahashi, is loosely based on Toyoshima. Like his creator, SAM is a comic strip artist, a second-generation Japanese American with a wife and son, and a person acutely aware of race relations.

Born and raised in New York City, Toyoshima grew up an avid illustrator and comic book fan. He went on to study advertising at Boston University and later took his first step into the comics world as an inker for New England Comics’ The Tick.

He then became the main illustrator for Boston publication Shovel Magazine, which birthed Secret Asian Man in 1998 as a monthly two-page comic. That same year, he produced a self-published comic book called The Couch.

Shovel later became what is now the alternative newspaper Boston’s Weekly Dig and SAM morphed into a weekly comic strip that was eventually published nationwide. Toyoshima moved into his current position as Dig‘s Art Director and became known for his humorous but unflinching look at race relations in America.

Secret Asian Man received more exposure from its inclusion in the 2004 collection Attitude 2: The New Subversive Alternative Cartoonists and in the 2005 compilation East Main Street: Asian American Popular Culture. Finally, the strip was acquired by United Feature Syndicate in December 2006.

SAM‘s audience naturally includes Asian Americans, but its universal themes of identity and social relationships have drawn many fans from countless other backgrounds.

Toyoshima talked with Current Vine about race issues, making SAM a daily, and the instrument he’d like Snoopy to play.

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Q: As someone who grew up illustrating, when did you decide to go the comic strip route?

A: Right after I graduated college, I wanted to get a job in the comic book industry. I got my shot when I was picked up to be an inker for The Tick. I didn’t start doing a comic strip until I met the guy who started Shovel. I had two whole pages to work with, so the pace and sequential storytelling was very similar to that of comic books, just shorter.

A couple years later, Shovel became Boston’s Weekly Dig. When we started accepting submissions for weekly comic strips, I wondered if I could keep up with that pace and adapt to the change in format and size.

Fast forward a few more years and a couple hundred strips later, and here we are at the beginning of a daily launch. So you could almost say that I didn’t intend on becoming a daily comic strip artist; it just turned out that way.

Q: How would you describe the visual style of your strip and what or whose work has influenced it?

A: My style is very simple and iconic. I learned to love clean, tight lines during my stint as an inker, since it was my job to bring pencilled artwork to a finished, reproducible product.

Some of my artistic influences include Akira Toriyama, Tezuka Osamu, Frank Miller, Frank Frazetta, Sam Keith, Hayao Miyazaki…I could go on and on. I love simple, bold character design co-existing with complex backgrounds. I use this style more on larger illustrations and not necessarily comic strips where the artwork may come across reproduction problems.

Q: You blog on your site every week—why did you start to do this and what has been the response from readers?

A: I always have more to say than I can get across in a single strip. I felt it was important for readers to see where I was coming from in a format where I wasn’t worried about delivering a punch line or visual gag.

The response has been great—most of it is for the strips, but I do get the occasional comment about things that I ramble about. People like to share their personal experiences as a member of a race, religion, or sexual orientation. They react to strips about interracial couples, mixed race kids, exoticized Asian women, and de-sexualized Asian men. And then there are the strips about Asians themselves.

I think people appreciate when they have a mirror held up to themselves and see their flaws and quirks. It’s a reminder that we all have our work cut out for us.

Q: Which SAM strip has generated the most feedback?

A: The one where I posed a question to the readers that I was wondering myself: Should I keep the name Secret Asian Man or change it to just SAM? I had received some feedback from editors at papers and an unnamed syndicate suggesting that changing the name would make the strip more approachable to non-Asians.

I got maybe a hundred e-mails; 95% of them voted for keeping the name. I was very interested to see the arguments for changing it—I wanted to make sure I wasn’t closing a door on myself. You can see what conclusion I came to.

Q: Which comic books do you collect?

A: I used to be a mad collector of mostly superhero stuff. Then cooler independent books came out and I started collecting those. I had hundreds of comics in enough boxes to make a platform bed with. I was one of those bag and board collectors who kept an eye on the comics market so I could flip books and get higher quality ones.

Now my wife and I are down to about three boxes of our favorite treasures. For me it is silver age Marvel superhero comics like X-Men, Silver Surfer, Spider-Man, Thor, The Hulk. My wife has a sick collection of DC’s Sandman and Hellblazer.

I have pretty much cut down my comic book buying to zero. There will be the occasional graphic novel—most recently American Born Chinese—but that’s about it.

Q: If you could do a crossover strip with any other cartoon, past or present, which one would it be and what would happen?

A: I’d love to do a crossover with The Boondocks and make an appearance in Peanuts as the only Asian kid, but of course Boondocks is gone and Peanuts is all the classic stuff.

For Boondocks I can imagine a black civil rights march crossing paths with an Asian protest march, followed by an intense comparison of historical injustice notes—all ending in a friendly game of stickball.

For Peanuts I’d want to see how all the characters would make the new kid feel at home in their neighborhood. When they realize that he’s just a kid like all of them, they celebrate with a big ol’ bonfire and fire festival dance, everyone in full Japanese regalia. And Snoopy on the taiko drums.

Q: What is your ultimate goal with the strip?

A: I want the strip to be a bridging text between Asian Americans and mainstream America. I don’t want to crap down people’s throats with stories of oppression and suffering. Okay, well, maybe sometimes I do. But I think there’s a lot of work to do on both sides of the fence and I’ve always had a knack for seeing both sides.

I also want it to be educational. Every now and then I do straight biographical or historical event strips that bring up things that may otherwise barely get any exposure. I’m very excited to have the reach of a daily strip to bring some of these stories to the masses. It’s like a big open Asian American history class.

Q: Many Asian Americans feel torn between their Asian ethnicity and their American nationality. Did you ever feel that way over the course of your life?

A: Absolutely. But Asians are definitely not alone in feeling like this and that’s where we should feel better about it. Internal conflicts arise when we are forced to choose between wanting to be treated just like everyone else and demanding special recognition for our differences.

Then there is the whole debate over the overly broad term “Asian American.” Asian Americans, as well as every other type of American, need to come to terms with the fact that whatever they do to express their cultural heritage should be considered American. That’s the beauty and hope of this country.

Q: What’s your take on the “model minority” stereotype of Asians being smart and hard-working?

A: That label can be very dangerous. It pigeonholes Asian Americans and brings with it an expectancy to behave and perform in a certain way: “Good, hard-working Asians should not stir the waters and complain about conditions in their workplace. Be thankful for the work you have in front of you. Do not disrespect the advice of your parents. You want to be a musician? Tough, you’re going to medical school. Being a musician is a hobby.”

Of course, we may start to see a shift in the ideal image of AAs; there are some out there making a lot of noise, good and bad.

Q: What do you think of political correctness with respect to dialogue about race?

A: The only person I like to answer to in terms of political correctness is myself. The people I work with and see every day know I’m capable of the rawest, nastiest humor they’ve ever heard, but I’m also smart enough to know that not everyone is used to that. There is a place for propriety and manners.

But when people start to insist that those rules must always apply to everyone at all times, my undies get in a bunch. There are too many exceptions to the rules. Dave Chappelle can say “nigga,” Bobby Lee can dress up like a kung fu master and get laughs, Carlos Mencia can do jokes about “beaners” selling oranges on the highway.

In an ideal world, there would be no malice in any hateful sounding word. Words like “beaner,” “chink,” “cracker,” and “nigga” are used in jokes because they still have that film of “wrongness” that makes people laugh in nervous reaction. The day these words lose their power and meaning is probably the day we have world peace and the Ewoks will be celebrating in the woods.

With regards to my comic strip, I thought going into a daily format would be a challenge in this respect. My archives show that I’ve said some pretty un-PC stuff that wouldn’t fly in the dailies.

But to my surprise, the dailies have been refreshingly freeing. Now I don’t have to create strips with the purpose of pissing people off or shocking people. It’s like SAM 101 on a massive scale—I get to focus on the basics again. Not everyone knows the term “model minority”; I have to explain that. Not everyone is aware of Vincent Chin; I have to tell that story. Internment, the 442, Chinese railroad workers, why there are so many Chinese-owned laundromats, Sessue Hayakawa, and so on.

Q: Which sites do you visit that discuss these issues?

A: At top of the list has to be AngryAsianMan.com. Phil Yu has done a wonderful job building that site up to what it is now—always loaded with the latest in AA news and happenings. I think it has become an essential hub for the AA community.

IMDiversity.com‘s Asian American Village has a great academic take on AA issues; Jeff Yang’s InstantYang.BlogSpot.com is always insightful; Racialicious.com has lots of great stories and a feeling of advocacy throughout. InTheFray.org does not focus solely on AAs, but on any marginalized group that falls victim to injustices—plus they run this really cool comic strip called Secret Asian Man.

Just the fact that I can rattle off this many sites off the top of my head should make us all sleep better at night.

Q: Which Asian Americans do you think are doing some truly great work right now?

A: I think there are so many AAs doing great things right now—Congressman Mike Honda calling global attention to the comfort women controversy, Justin Lin kicking ass in Hollywood, Gene Yang’s National Book Award nomination, Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. They’re everywhere!


Image courtesy Tak Toyoshima.