A comic occasion

Phil Yeh is a storyteller, both by birth and by vocation, and has plenty of cultural baggage for his graphic novels.

Phil Yeh 311 (photo credit: Courtesy of Sorin Blum)
Phil Yeh 311
(photo credit: Courtesy of Sorin Blum)
California-based Phil Yeh (56), was in Israel last week to attend the annual FestiComics event in Haifa, at the behest of event curator Lee Blum.
Over the past four decades Yeh has produced scores of comics or, as he terms them, graphic novels, based on fantasy characters such as The Winged Tiger and Patrick Rabbit, who take trips around the world and meet all sorts of magical and other beings.
While he was here, Yeh also got into some philanthropic doing, helping to paint a mural at the Children’s Oncology Department of Rambam Hospital in Haifa and selling some of his works to help fund the activities of Larger Than Life NPO which supports Israeli child cancer sufferers and their families.
Yeh’s art is not just designed as a vehicle to tell nice stories to kids. Part of his working hours are spent helping to combat illiteracy among children, and to inspire them to nurture their dreams.
“I speak in schools,” he says. “I don’t teach kids to read per se. I am a motivational speaker, so what I have been able to do with my cartoons is to say, okay, let’s look at the people I know. I say, let’s look at my friend Jerry Robinson [creator of the Joker character in the Batman comics] who just passed away [at the age of 89]. Jerry was just 17 years old when he was hired by [Batman creator] Bob Kane, who was an ‘old man’ of 24.
“Jerry was wearing a jacket with his own drawings on it and standing by the subway minding his own business when Bob saw him and said: ‘Kid, are you an artist?’ and Jerry says, ‘yes, I’m an artist,’ although he wasn’t. He’d just finished high school.”
Robinson was duly taken on, at the princely sum of $25 a month – not bad for a kid of 17 in 1939 – and the rest is history.
“The point is I tell the kids in the schools about my friends who were so young when they started out. Kids, just out of high school, created Superman, and the idea is to get the schoolchildren to understand that these guys were not old, they were 18-year-old nerds.”
Yeh wasn’t too “old” himself when he started out. He began his journey into the world of comics over 40 years ago when, at the tender age of 15, he went to the first three-day comic book convention to be held in America, in San Diego.
The event was attended by a paltry 300 people, the vast majority of whom were teenagers like Yeh, but it brought the budding graphic novelist face to face with a couple of his heroes, Jack Kirby and Ray Bradbury. Kirby was famous for creating a whole host of popular super heroes, including The Fantastic Four, The Hulk and Captain America. Writer Bradbury, who is now 91, is best known for his 1953 dystopian novel Farenheit 451, and for a large body of science fiction, horror and mystery stories, including The Martian Chronicles (1950) and The Illustrated Man (1951).
IN FACT, Yeh first tried his hand at “real” comic art the year before the San Diego meet when, prompted his pal Shane, he entered a competition run by DC Comics, which published Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman and all manner of other best-selling super-hero literature.
14-year-old Yeh won the contest and received $5 for his troubles.
“That was a lot of money for a kid back then. That was fantastic. I always drew. I began when I was two years old, but that was the first time I’d got official recognition. I was over the moon.”
A year later Shane told Yeh about the convention and Yeh somehow persuaded his disapproving dad to drive him to the venue.
“My dad was a Chinese engineer and hated the idea of something so frivolous as comics. I was the eldest of four kids so, as far as he was concerned, I had to be an engineer. That’s the Chinese way.”
Parental displeasure notwithstanding, Yeh got his transportation.
“My dad took me and my younger sister there, and hung around during the convention.”
That was the turning point of Yeh’s life.
“I go up to Ray Bradbury and I tell him I want to write but I can’t spell,” Yeh recalls.
“Today I know I have dyslexia but back then I thought I was just dumb. And Bradbury tells me he can’t spell either and he tells me about editors who check other people’s spelling and grammar. And then I tell Jack Kirby I want to draw but I don’t know if there are any schools where I can learn that, and he just said: ‘You don’t need to go to college. Just do it!’” That was that. Three months later Yeh set up his own publishing company, Eastwind Studios, which still exists, and soon after that Yeh and high school classmate Mark Eliot published their own humor magazine called Cement, which they distributed on the campus and in the local community.
The following year Yeh and Eliot enrolled in an honors degree program at Cal State University where they studied journalism, art and film and they soon launched an alternative free publication called Uncle Jam, with Bradbury becoming an early contributor.
40 years on Yeh is still putting out Uncle Jam, along with all sorts of other pictorial publications, and passing on his hard-earned wisdom to children all over the world. Mind you, all that hasn’t left too much of an impression on his 89-year-old dad.
“When he sees me he still asks me when am I going to get a proper job,” laughs Yeh.