Secret Asian Man and the Art of the Comic Strip: An Interview with Tak Toyoshima

Every year, I ask the students in my graduate proseminar on Media Theory and Methods to interview a media maker and to try to get a sense of the theoretical assumptions underlying their work. In part, this exercise is designed to give students some experience in conducting and interpreting interviews. In part, it is intended to get them out of the classroom and testing how the ideas we’ve been exploring in academic terms throughout the course relate to what’s happening on the ground. I featured one such project at the end of last term – Whitney Trettien’s profile of embroidery artist Jenny Hart. Today, I share another – this one focusing on the realm of indie comics.

Secret Asian Man and the Art of the Comic Strip

by Lan Xuan Le

Tak Toyoshima is the creator of the comic Secret Asian Man, a national daily strip in the United Features Syndicate. UFS, which acquires titles like Toyoshima’s, promotes and sells comic strips to newspapers around the world and nationally distributes series like Dilbert, Marmaduke, and the Peanuts Classics. In a recent move to deliver more diverse content, UFS added Secret Asian Man to its list of comic features, making it the first nationally syndicated comic strip featuring an Asian-American protagonist. Secret Asian Man started in 1999 as two-page spread in Shovel Magazine, an alternative publication that would later become Boston’s Weekly Dig newspaper. Appearing both in print and online at Toyoshima’s website, Secret Asian Man gained a broad, popular following that eventually vaulted the comic strip onto the national stage this year.

The comic strip Secret Asian Man focuses on the life of Osamu (SAM) Takashi, a second-generation Japanese-American, and his friends and family. SAM is loosely based on the creator and is the mouthpiece for Toyoshima’s views on race and marginalization as it functions in the United States. Often shocking and bald in its indictment of racism, sexism, and general intolerance, Secret Asian Man is the only national daily comic strip that regularly focuses on the lives and relations of marginalized groups that include homosexuals, the otherly abled, people of color, and religious minorities. Especially interesting is the strip’s representation of discontent Asian-Americans and the ways in which people of color selectively reject or deploy racialized media representations to their advantage.

Medium and Message

For Toyoshima comics are not just funny pictures. They are sequential art. “I’ve always loved comics, specifically comic books. Sequential art is one of the oldest forms of storytelling dating back to cave paintings. As a child I was always drawing. My dad was an artist, my older brother also enjoyed drawing so it seemed natural. I also loved telling stories and creating characters and adventures which is probably why my brother and I ended up playing thousands of hours of Dungeons and Dragons. The art of comics brings both of those things together. A really good sequential artist can convey a story without any dialog and make that story open to anyone in the world.”

The discursive power of comic strips is due in large part to its accessibility. Toyoshima sees a unique intensity in people’s relationship to comics, and tries to reach people through this link. “Despite its innocent appearance, comics have a very strong effect on people in a very everyday kind of way. People will cut out comics and tape them to their door or office cubicle. People identify with comics and feel a sense of connection that is very different than other forms of art. It’s a very practical medium and a very accessible one. Everyone from kids to the elderly read comics.” Comic strips can be read in newspapers, online, or in book compilations, making the physical access to them much easier. The material barriers to the comics medium are also much lower than media like film and radio, requiring at its most basic pencil, paper, and a perhaps a photocopier for distribution.

“Having never been a big newspaper comic strip fan growing up (I read more comic books) I never gave the impact of comic strips much thought. To me most of them were not funny and were just filling the space they were given. There is a safety to the comics page that never appealed to me. Even now, many papers have a 1950’s moral code when it comes to their comics despite the fact that they have some gunshot victim on the front cover and a half naked woman on page six.” It may be exactly this perception of the comic strip’s “1950’s moral code” that gives Secret Asian Man the power to reach people. Comic strips have traditionally been a source of comfort and ritual for many people in their daily lives, the introduction of difficult issues via a familiar, reassuring medium may work to Secret Asian Man‘s advantage.

Toyoshima also considers very carefully the balance of social critique and humor in his strip, especially in light of his commitment to quality. He must because of the charged nature of his subject matter. “The key is to know how to get messages about touchy subjects like race across without scaring everyone away. If I ran in there screaming about racism and injustice I’d be canceled in a week. On the other hand I don’t want to pander to their audience and just replace some other safe comic strip with my own.” Indeed, pandering is its own danger, because Secret Asian Man would become just another empty gesture to diversity, raising the attendant specter of affirmative action.

Awareness of audience was an aspect that developed over time for Toyoshima, especially as the comic strip moved from the Weekly Dig to newspapers across the nation. “I never had a specific audience in mind. I knew that there would be a natural Asian American following but I didn’t intentionally go after them . . . In later years of the weekly strip, I did start to broaden the subject matter to include the racial experiences of other groups. You can only bitch about kung-fu movies so many times before it gets played out.” While commitment to and repetition of a core thematic issue works for ongoing comic strips, the repetition of particular jokes is not. The comic artist’s challenge is to find the balance between familiarity and freshness.

Being a daily medium, comic strips are very much in dialogue with its audience. It is a relationship that forms over time. “Once you figure out the level of the audience you have to earn their trust. Once you do, you have a very powerful tool in influencing a lot of people. Just being the only Asian on the page is already powerful. Over time I have realized the truth in the saying ‘You can catch more flies with honey.’ No one likes to be yelled at. I want to entertain people but not without leaving them with something to think about.” Again, the comic artist must maintain a tight balance between his message and the entertainment factor, and it is in this productive tension that humor lives. Humor, which has long been the way in which we express pain, is as much the comic strip’s medium as newsprint.

The central theme of Secret Asian Man really lies in the interplay of identity, power, and the politics of imaging-making. “The comic strip now focuses on groups and how they shape our identities and perceptions of each other. Everyone belongs to groups and every group has preconceived notions about other groups. Race, religion, sexual orientation, politics, sports teams, economic brackets…etc. . . .That’s the dynamic that I love to explore because it’s our everyday actions and attitudes that make the world go round.” There is room in the daily comic strip to explore the nuances of issues like race and marginalization, to capture the shifting negotiation between groups. In many ways, serial comic art could be a natural home of complex ideas because comics live beside us over months and years in a way that many media do not.

Ultimately, for any artist, Toyoshima values the time it takes to develop one’s artistic sensibilities. “You have to have patience if you want your message to be effective but it’s also important to go through the brash teen years of your artistic career to help you realize where to go from there. Some people get stuck there for fear of being called a sell-out when they progress, but I think stopping your progression for fear of what others will think of you is the ultimate sell-out move.”

Medium and Process

Toyoshima, like most artists, begins with the idea. “The writing comes first. Ideas come at random times so I usually keep a pad and pen handy. Either that or I e-mail myself story ideas and go over them later. The ideas can be as short as one word or as complete as a finished dialog.” But each concept requires a different kind of timing and layout to make the humor work. “From there I look at the idea and flesh it out, give it a solid ending and pace it out. Some ideas are best executed in a single panel. Others require some set up and delivery.” The wide variety of stories and jokes that must exist to keep a daily comic strip interesting requires that the comic artist have a wide repertoire of narrative techniques from which to draw, which means he must be as able a storyteller as he is a visual artist.

Despite the profusion of digital technologies, ink and paper remain Toyoshima’s media of choice. “I’m still a hands on kind of guy but I do use the computer as well. All the roughs and finishes I do with pencil, brush, tech pen and ink. The digital part comes in after the final inks are done and scanned in. Then I take the ins into Photoshop, clean them up and color for Sundays, grayscale for dailies.” But art is more than just the product, it is also the process. “The romantic in me loves the feeling of paper and the smell of ink. The experience feels so much more real and personal. Whether it shows in the final product I don’t know but it’s something I imagine I’ll always do. I have very mixed feelings about completely digitally done artwork.” Toyoshima really values the materiality of making art, which implies that he sees art as both a physical process and an imaginative process.

The process of creating the artwork, for Toyoshima, is visible in the art itself. It leaves a trace that you can see. “I love the idea that there is an original one of a kind piece out there, not some source file. I love original art and have bought pieces from artists I love (or can afford) and to stare at the artwork an inch away from my face I can learn so much about the artist’s process and I get a much deeper appreciation for the piece.” Focus on process also implies finding value in craft and the innovation that arises out of mastery of craft.

Toyoshima once worked as the inker for The Tick before starting Secret Asian Man and finds that there are differences in how each format shapes his artistic process. “For years I worked on comic books where you get pages and pages to tell your story. In comic strips you often have less than a quarter of a page to get your point across. I try and reserve the more wordy strips for special occasions.” Length and format, he learned, strongly shape the kind of content that can be featured, and consequently the resulting audience. “Building stories is also different. With comics you can tell a continuous story for issues at a time. There is an assumption that readers have been following the series. In comic strips, you can have an ongoing story but you have to reset the story every day just in case someone missed the previous day. I look at the Spider-Man comic strip and to me it’s unreadable because it moves so slowly compared to the comic books!” Despite the serial nature of both comic books and comic strips, the length of each format molds the core assumptions about speed, time, and narrative style.

The reduction of length between formats also forces Toyoshima to concentrate on efficient, creative communication of meaning rather than creative use of the comic frame. “The format switch from comic books to comic strips was a little difficult, mostly because of the adjustment to the space allotted. Also, when you draw comics, your canvas is a lot bigger and you have more opportunities to do fun things like break panels, have action bleed to another panel, vary panel sizing etc. With comic strips you’re pretty much limited to three to four panels max. You have to set it up, build it up and deliver the punch line very quickly. It can be a challenge to not fall into the habit of doing gag jokes. Just uninspired stuff that fills in the space that day.” The reduction in length also requires an increase in the precision of message delivery, especially because each format favors different kinds of content and narrative technique.

Some lessons, however, do carry over between different kinds of comic art. “My experience on The Tick taught me a lot about the art form in terms of knowing what will reproduce well in print, how to add depth to B+W at and most of all it built up my endurance for drawing.” Reproducibility on newsprint favors certain robust, bold drawing styles, affecting everything from the level of detail in drawings to the depiction of depth. Print culture, in a way, defines the visual aesthetic of comic strips, favoring simplified, iconic art.

The frequency of a comic strip’s publication also creates expectations and parameters about content. The more frequent and popular publications tend towards more conservative values. “Weekly newspapers allow for a lot more freedom in terms of language and subject matter. I look back of a lot of the strips I did for weeklies and there no way they could run in a daily paper. But it also made me realize that sometimes I used bad language unnecessarily and relied on shock humor a little too much. It’s easy to get a reaction from people. It’s harder to earn their respect.” Toyoshima must again balance the tension between broader appeal and addressing his core message.

While a single author can be credited as the creative impulse behind a comic strip, the process involves collaboration and multiple inputs. “Once I pace it out, I rough the strip in pencil, scan in the rough, lay it into a lettering template, add the lettering and word balloons and send a PDF off to my editors at United Features Syndicate. They then turn around some edits, we fight and cuss and the end result is almost always better than the original. They do a great job there.” Conflict between creative minds can be a valuable process, especially when it challenges the artist to examine their assumptions. There is value, however, in the way Toyoshima becomes an authorial brand, especially with his presence on the web. Toyoshima is a regular, frank blogger, which allows his audience deeper into the creative process and creates a sense of closeness and community with the creator.

Comics as a medium is defined by its physical constraints – length, avenue of distribution, frequency of publication – as well as its social and aesthetic environment – the type of publication, audience, content, and collaborators. These factors already shape what the comic artist can do with his or her medium, leaving a somewhat defined space in which the artist may work. But out of these constraints creativity may often arise, giving us innovative series like Secret Asian Man, which makes visible – both physically and discursively – the bodies, voices, and experiences of marginalized people.

Lan Xuan Le

Swarthmore College, BA Biology and Asian Studies 2004

Boston University, Masters of Public Health 2007

Lan Xuan Le, who has BAs in both Biology and Asian Studies from Swarthmore College (2004) and a Masters in Public Health from Boston University (2007), has been part of the “games for health movement,” conducting a qualitative study and co-authoring a white paper for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation on the use of games to combat childhood obesity. She also has a strong interest in the globalization of media and the construction of alternative understandings of what it means to be Asian and Asian-American through popular culture, an interest which led her to design, research and execute a library exhibition of anime and manga for Swarthmore’s McCabe Library. She wrote an undergraduate thesis on problematic gender and sexual representations in Japanese popular culture with a particular focus on Card Captor Sakura, a paper which won the Swarthmore College Asian Studies Program’s top writing prize.