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9.17.2010

guest post: su*per*he*ro


I'm on vacation! Taking a much-needed break. But don't worry. While I'm away, I've enlisted some great guest bloggers to keep things going around here. Here's Jerry Ma talking about comic books.

su·per·he·ro
Spelled[soo-per-heer-oh] - noun, plural -roes.
a hero, esp. in children's comic books and television cartoons, possessing extraordinary, often magical powers.

Comic books... often thought of as a hobby for "fanboys" or "nerds." Generally, comic books are looked at as a hobby to be embarrassed about. Not too many guys are bragging about their comic book collections the same way you see meat heads brag about their "fantasy" football teams.

I have such a strong respect and appreciation for the comic book medium. Especially the artists, as I've always dreamt of being one. I still remember sitting in the back of my father's art supply store with my two brothers huddled around the latest issue of Power Man and Iron Fist. Being able to create and tell a story visually was and still is amazing to me. Comic artists are the most underrated artists around. They're often looked upon as guys that draw muscled freaks in spandex. When people don't realize that is such a small part of being a comic artist.

Sure, the men and women in comic books are idealized and most likely impossible to look like. But this is a world based off of your wildest dreams. When called upon to draw Spiderman slinging his webs through New York City, very rarely does the casual reader take the time to appreciate everything on the page that isn't Spiderman. This artist had to draw buildings, taxi cabs, people reacting to seeing ol' web head flying through the air, street signs, hot dog stands, etc. The artist and writer have to tap into their imagination to create a world real enough for you to believe.

Comic books are today's mythical characters. Today's "funny book" stories are tomorrow's legends. We allow ourselves to be absorbed into this world of imagination and creativity. The comic medium is so much more powerful than we know. It's everywhere we look whether we know it or not. Every time you turn on your TV there is a good chance you'll see a commercial for a show or movie based on one of those "funny books." When you listen to the latest hip hop track, there is a good chance there will be a "funny book" reference made. Comics are everywhere and they're influencing everything we see and hear. Which is why they have so much responsibility.

As an Asian American, the common conversation is always "why aren't there more Asian American actors and actresses?" Please don't tell me that we as Asian Americans lack the talent to produce actors and actresses that the average American can relate too. And please... I've heard enough stories of how America doesn't want to see Asians on the big screen to make me sick for the rest of my life. How can America not want to see Asian faces on the big screen if this conversation is always being brought up? I just won't buy into this ridiculous theory. So instead of constantly asking why, why and why again, I just beg and plead to everybody reading this (all three of you) to think about your superhero.

It really is up to all of us to come up with heroes, super or normal, that the casual reader will want to believe in. I've had a somewhat unique path to what would be considered a horrible comic career. Ha ha.

I've been trying to break into the comic industry since I first put pencil to paper and I have been going to comic conventions for a long time. In the beginning as a fan and now, where I am an exhibitor with my own booth. When I first started off exhibiting, I was just scraping together a few bucks to be a part of Artist Alley, which was the cheapest way "in" as an exhibitor. They would throw you into the back of the floor with a table and two chairs. And the rest was up to you. I did this for a few years, and man, it was depressing. I'm sitting there trying to pretend like this is exactly what I had in mind when in fact, it was the farthest thing from the truth.

Now, don't get me wrong, it wasn't all bad. I met a lot of good people back there. People that I'm still proud to say I'm friends with. And I also was subject to everyone's "great" idea. It seemed like everybody had the perfect idea and I was the perfect artist for it. I think I received about twenty offers like this every convention. Of course, they were always being pitched by a guy that looked like he was still getting lunch money from his mommy.


I had this comic of my own called Burn. I worked on it with my two brothers Rich and Jim. We were so proud of this book. I know I personally put everything into it. As a matter of fact, it started when I graduated from The School of Visual Arts and worked at Morgan friggin' Stanley for four and a half years! I wish I could say I learned a lot and grew as a person from that experience... but I really hated it.

Eventually, I quit and decided I was going to take all that corporate banking money I made... and invest it into my own "great" idea. It was going to be a story of these brothers and friends. It was going to be about love at first sight, loyalty, betrayal and not have a goddamn happy ending. It was going to be like a badass John Woo movie... back when he was good! And it was going to be set in Chinatown New York City! Featuring an all Asian cast!

So the book comes out, and lo and behold...we did ok. First of all, we were picked up for national distribution (no small feat for three brothers self-publishing) and we did better than triple the average sales of a first-time indie comic at the time.

Things were good. It was summer time in the NYC. I had just published my first comic and then the craziest thing happened. I was walking through SOHO shopping. I get a call on my then-ginormou-sized cellphone and it's some weirdo asking if I was Jerry Ma. After figuring out that this wasn't one of my friends prank calling me, this guy tells me he's the assistant to the assistant to the guy that wants to make my comic Burn into a live action movie. Pause. That's right... you heard me right. A movie??? Based off the one issue I made???

It was June... and if you know anything about comics, you know that in a few short weeks Comic-Con is coming up in San Diego. So he asks me if I'm going. I lie and say of course. To make a long story short, I'm now fielding calls from multiple people all telling me they want my comic. They all think it's going to be huge. They're throwing names at me like you wouldn't believe. Nick Cage, Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, Mark Wahlburg... Is this really happening?

But wait. I ask them, "You do realize this is a story about Asian Americans from Chinatown New York, right?" Then it hits me like a ton of bricks. "Come on man. You should know better than that. The girlfriend... she can be Asian, and the bad guy... he can be Asian too. I'll even give you the best friend. But the hero? Come on... you know better than that."

I lost a lot of sleep those next few days. Obviously, I never agreed to those "terms." My brothers and I created Burn because we wanted to show everybody that it's OK to be Asian. We can be the heroes too. For a long time after that "decision" (please Lebron, don't sue me), I wanted to throw the towel in. Maybe comics weren't for me. I mean, I had to get a job designing kids socks to make a living for pete's sake. I wasn't on the path to fame and fortune like my hero Jim Lee.

Then about six years ago, when I was saying it was going to be my last year going to comic conventions, this guy Keith Chow comes to me in artist alley and tells me about his "great" idea. Honestly, I'm hardly listening to this guy. I just want him to finish his story and leave so I can go have a drink with my buddies. But then his "idea"... I can't believe it... but... I... like it.

Keith has been talking to Jeff Yang about making a comic of all-Asian heroes, all done by Asian creators. I wanted to jump over the table and hug the guy. All of a sudden, we're talking on the phone and we manage to get Parry Shen on board too. And we make this graphic novel called Secret Identities. We make stories that belong to "us." And nobody can take them away from us. These are our heroes. We have created a world that is real enough for the casual reader to believe in. We got to make our own super heroes. And what's crazy is we're going to do it again.

Jerry is the founder of Epic Proportions and the art director of Secret Identities. On top of speaking at different schools about all things APA, he likes to design t-shirts in his spare time.