Phil Yeh, Godfather of the American Graphic Novel

Wee Pals creator, Morrie Turner, MAD Magazine and GROO creator Sergio Aragones, Snoopy's creator, the late great Charles Schulz and Winged Tiger's Phil Yeh at the Second Annual Sparky Awards in San Francisco.

Left to right: CAA European Vice-President Klaus Leven, Phil Yeh, Edward James Olmos, Steve Allen, and Dr. Fred Kort at the presentation of the first Alphie Awards from the Los Angeles County Library Association in September of 1999.

Author Ray Bradbury, long-time supporter of the Cartoonists Across America mission.

Phil Yeh, the true Godfather of the modern American Graphic Novel, was the first journalist to uncover the plight of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two Cleveland men who created SUPERMAN. Phil Yeh is far more than a footnote in the current hot graphic-novel-craze sweeping the mainstream media from coast to coast. He authored the first, all-original-material, American graphic novel in 1977. Read on for the full story.

On August 1-3, 1970, the first three-day comic book convention was held in the U.S. at the Grant Hotel in downtown San Diego. Founded by
Shel Dorf and some dedicated fans, many of them in their teens, this DSC00128.jpg first West Coast comic book convention would grow in the decades that followed to become the biggest celebration of the comic book art form in the United States. The first San Diego Comic-Con was actually titled the Golden State Comic-Con and drew a “crowd” of 300 people.

Phil Yeh was a 15-year-old teenager who had dreams of making a living as a cartoonist when he met Jack Kirby and Ray Bradbury at that first convention. He convinced his father to drive down to San Diego from LA and was on his way to learning how to get into this business of drawing cartoons for a living. One of the really nice things about that first convention was the unique chance to hear Bradbury and Kirby speak about how they approached their work and to meet them in person. Shel Dorf’s incredible vision was to have as many professional artists and writers come to San Diego each year, where they could share their wisdom with another generation. These professionals definitely made an impression on the teenage artist who had grown up in Watts, one of the toughest neighborhoods in Los Angeles. That fall, Yeh was living in Seal Beach, California. He had just turned 16 years old when founded his own publishing company in order to publish his own work and the work of his friends. The company was named Eastwind Studios, and continues to publish today.

In 1971, Yeh and Los Alamitos High School classmate Mark Eliot published their own little humor magazine called Cement on campus and throughout the community.  They continued to go to San Diego for the Comic-Con and met more artists and writers who shared their vision of what this art form could become in the future.  In the fall of 1972, Eliot and Yeh entered Cal State University at Long Beach where they were both enrolled in the Honors program. This allowed them to explore journalism, art, and film. This provided a perfect base to build their small publishing company. Yeh landed a job with the daily school newspaper to draw a comic strip about a Tibetan foreign exchange student called “ Cazco in College” his first day on campus. Around the same time, Yeh met Richard Kyle, the owner of Wonderworld Books in downtown Long Beach. Richard would become a friend and mentor to the young artist. In 1973, the CSULB paper’s editor decided to move Yeh to editorial cartoons and discontinue “ Cazco in College” as a daily strip. This unpopular move by an editor with little vision or sense of humor prompted Yeh to do the next logical thing in his career. Along with his old partner Eliot, the two 19 year-olds launched their own alternative free paper and called it “ Uncle Jam.” The first issue appeared on November 5, 1973, and featured a cover by another CSULB student named Roberta Gregory who would go on to create an excellent animated series for the “Oxygen Network” and a bestselling series of books called “ Naughty Bits .” For the next 19 years, Uncle Jam featured many fine articles about health, books, the arts, and travel, as well as interviews with some of the most important contemporary artists, including many of the masters of the comic art form - from Harvey Kurtzman (creator of MAD Magazine ) to Jean (Moebius) Giraud .

What made Uncle Jam legendary was the use of first-class artwork for all the covers of a FREE paper, and its early use of color in newsprint. Ray Bradbury was an early contributor to the paper and he continued to inspire Yeh to dream of bigger things.

In 1975, Yeh became the first journalist to interview Jerry Siegel , co-creator of Superman , on the tragic story of how he and Joe Shuster were cheated over the rights to their iconic character. Once Yeh’s article was published in Southern California, the rest of the press picked up on the story and justice finally had a chance, thanks to the efforts of artists like Neal Adams and Jerry Robinson in New York. The interview with Siegel further reinforced Yeh’s decision to continue to publish his own work alone and to remain independent from the big conglomerates.

Long Beach, California, remained the center of this publishing and artistic activity.  In 1976, Yeh opened his own art gallery in Long Beach and began showing many of the artists that he was now introducing in his newspaper and in his books. Although the paper was then distributed in independent bookstores, public libraries, museums, science fiction and comic conventions, and other places where intelligent people gathered from Santa Barbara to San Diego, the focus of their work remained in Long Beach where Yeh continued to have spirited conversations with his friend Kyle about the state of the comic book art form and how to make it a better market for all artists.

In 1976, Yeh published his first Cazco comic book with a $1.50 price tag and a bigger size than the standard comic book. This would lead to a joint project with Roberta Gregory and other artists called “ Jam” in 1977. Inspired by Kyle’s own publishing efforts and sage advice on what might sell and what might not, Yeh decided that he would also try and create a graphic novel of all-new material called “ Even Cazco Gets The Blues” in the summer of 1977. He asked his friend Sergio AragonÄs to write an introduction. Sergio suggested that he would draw the intro and that Golden Age artist Don Rico would write an introduction for Yeh’s project. When Sergio introduced Rico to the young artist, Rico showed him the work of woodcut master Lynd Ward and encouraged him to go on with his own book ideas.

Richard Kyle is credited with using the term “Graphic Novel” as early as November 1964 in CAPA-ALPHA #2, a newsletter published by the Comic Amateur Pre DSC03430.jpgss Alliance. Kyle would later go on to publish both magazines and books as well as running one of the best comic book and science fiction bookstores in the city of Long Beach, California. Long Beach was really the birthplace of the modern American graphic novel. He used the term graphic novel again in 1976 when Kyle and Wheary published George Metzger ’s “Beyond Time and Again,” a collection of comic strips that had been serialized in underground papers from 1967-72. This hardcover book was subtitled “A Graphic Novel” on the inside title page.

There are many other artists and publishers who also share in this early development of the graphic novel art form, such as the early efforts of New York publisher NBM’s and those of artists like Gil Kane, Jim Steranko and, of course, Will Eisner. In 1978, a year after Yeh’s graphic novel appeared, Eisner’s “A Contract with God” was published to great fanfare. Eisner’s publisher was fond of saying that this was the “first graphic novel” and out of respect to this great talent, no one really questioned that “fact”.  Sadly, over the years, the contributions of the many artists, writers, and publishers in the Southern California area were overlooked by the mainstream media, who are mostly working in New York City. The comic book industry press often had to overcome its own conflicting interests when writing the “news.”

Yeh introduced “Even Cazco Gets the Blues” at the American Booksellers Association show and became one of the first comic book publishers to push for sal DSC03433_1.jpges of this material in mainstream bookstores. He would later take his work to the American Library Association convention and do the same for libraries. He went on to produce a new graphic novel each and every year for the next 15 years. In 1980, Yeh wrote “Cazco in China” based on his first visit back to his father’s country. That landmark book introduced old legends, talking animals, and martial arts.  In 1982, Phil was invited to speak to Art Spiegelman ’s class at the School of Visual Arts in New York by two young students. Phil’s never lost his passion for creating better graphic novels and for seeing the comic art form accepted on par with other fine arts. He continues to tell artists of all ages and cultures to consider this art form DSC03434_1.jpgas an excellent way to tell their personal stories. In recent years, we are starting to see more graphic novels OUTSIDE THE SUPERHERO GENRE turning into critically acclaimed films. Examples include: “ Ghost World, Road to Perdition, and American Splendor”

In 1985, inspired by his friend Wally “Famous” Amos , in the face of a serious global literacy crisis, Yeh started the Cartoonists-Across-America-and-the-World organization to send out the message that cartoons can be used to actually inspire people of all ages to read. This band of artists has toured the world, painting more than 1500 colorful murals and speaking at schools, libraries, museums, and conferences. The group pledged to tour for 25 years and Yeh still speaks all over the world about the importance of encouraging everyone to tell their own stories through the graphic novel medium. If one cannot draw, they can be the writing half of the team, and vice versa. There is absolutely no age limit on creativity and the subject matter for graphic novels can be as wide as that of novels or films or any other form of entertainment.

In 1990, Yeh’s friend Kevin Eastman , co-creator of “The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” funded publication of Phil's book “Theo the Dinosaur,” a story for all ages, told in a series of colorful cartoon oil paintings. These paintings have been shown in art ga DinoBookmark.jpglleries in Carmel and San Francisco, California, and in New York City, and in a five-month exhibit in  the Cleveland Museum of Natural History from Spring 2006 through August 2006. Yeh will be there for the opening in April and again in June for a special mural painting with kids of all ages.

In 1993, his wordless graphic novel “ The Winged Tiger” was published and later voted as one of the 25 best graphic novels in print in the book, “100 Graphic Novels for Public Libraries” by Steven Weiner. The father of the Graphic Novel, Will Eisner, said these words about Yeh’s book:  

“The Winged Tiger is a most imaginative concept and a singular achievement. The employment of imagery as language is at the very cusp of modern communications. It is the new literacy.”

Scott McCloud, is the author of “Understanding Comics,” and was also one of the students who invited Yeh to speak in Art Spiegelman ’s class. Scott said:

“The Winged Tiger is a remarkable feat of human imagination. Phil Yeh’s vision of a universal language is inspired and compelling. Highly recommended to readers of all nations.”

In the fall of 2005, the comic art form got a major boost to the overall art form of the COMIC STRIP and COMIC BOOK with two major museum shows of 15 American masters of the art form. After more than a century of neglect and disrespect by the so-called cultural elite in the United States, this great art form finally received its due respect. Recently, a single black-and-white original page from “ Batman” by artist Jerry Robinson , creator of “The Joker,” was sold at auction for $190,000!

Included in the show at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles was comic book artwork of Jack Kirby, Robert Crumb, Harvey Kurtzman, Will Eisner , and also Art Spiegelman , who won the Pulitzer Prize for his graphic novel “Maus.” The show included no women artists and very little cultural diversity. One can only hope that museums in the future will better reflect both the diversity of the talent available in this field in terms of subject matter, ethnic origin and gender. The exclusion of the many talented women cartoonists in this groundbreaking show is a total lack of balance.

Will Eisner has been called the Father of the Graphic Novel , and Phil Yeh has decided, as he enters his 50s, to take on the handle as The Godfather of the Graphic Novel, as he co DSC03711.jpgntinues his life-long mission to bring respect to this art form that he has loved all his life. He also wants to teach as many students as possible how to make, publish, and sell their own graphic novels all over the world.

Currently, Yeh is touring the United States through the fall of 2006, conducting graphic novel workshops in public libraries and in schools. After the fall of 2006, Yeh will be focusing on the rest of the planet through 2010. You can book him for an event anywhere on earth by emailing to < > or through the company’s colorful website.

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