Tak Toyoshima, author of the comic strip Secret Asian Man, is the first and only Asian-American to have a comic strip syndicated and printed in daily newspapers around the country. Secret Asian Man debuted in 1999 and ran in syndication with United Feature Syndicate from July 16, 2007 to September 19, 2009. It was the first ever syndicated comic strip featuring an Asian American lead.
Recently, Toyoshima published all of the SAM strips he drew for United Feature Syndicate into a book, Secret Asian Man: The Daily Days. Toyoshima was kind enough to send Racebending.com a few copies to read and to give away (hint: visit our WonderCon table!).
Racebending.com was able to email interview Toyoshima about his work. Interspersed throughout the interview are comic strips excerpted from The Daily Days and Toyoshima’s website..
NOTE: The opinions espoused by the interviewees represent their viewpoints alone, and do not necessarily represent the views held by the staff of racebending.com
RACEBENDING.COM: Please tell us about yourself and about the Secret Asian Man comic strip.
TAK TOYOSHIMA: I’ve been producing SAM since 1999 in monthly, weekly and daily formats and have enjoyed making every single one of them.
RACEBENDING.COM: Secret Asian Man is famous for its daring social critiques, where characters talk openly about issues like stereotypes, politics, and racism. What inspired you to create comic strips about controversial topics?
TAK TOYOSHIMA: Sometimes it strikes me as odd that talking about things like race, religion, politics…etc would be considered controversial. I think it’s a reflection of how those things are viewed in our society. They are things that, for the most part, aren’t discussed in the open. Usually in a small group among friends. I just want everyone to feel comfortable enough to talk about these things without feeling like they are going to offend anyone or will be made to feel bad about their opinions.
RACEBENDING.COM: Have you ever received any flak for the content of your comic strips?
TAK TOYOSHIMA: I have definitely taken my lumps from readers. My favorite ones are from readers who state they enjoy the strip then proceed to tear me a new one. Mostly people tend to remind me of things they think I am forgetting like if I talk about the Hiroshima, readers bring up the rape of Nanking. But I do love being wrong about things, too because I don’t want to come across as a know-it-all. Because I’m definitely not.
RACEBENDING.COM: Osamu “SAM” Takahashi is one of the very few leading comic strip characters of color. Has it been difficult establishing him in the mainstream because of his ethnicity?
TAK TOYOSHIMA: Very interesting question that I’m not sure I have the answer to. I think there is an undeniable “Asianness” to the strip. Hell, it’s called Secret Asian Man. And in this country, things that are called out as Asian tend to not do so well. It makes people think that that’s all there is to the character. This is why I even posed to question to readers whether or not I should keep the name or change it to something a little less…threatening for lack of a better word.
It’s difficult to establish a comic strip, period. But I do get the sneaky feeling SAM’s ethnicity hasn’t necessarily helped gain acceptance in the mainstream.
RACEBENDING.COM: In your experience, have you found comic characters who are white to be more “neutral” or “universal” while characters of color are viewed as “niche” or with a smaller audience?
TAK TOYOSHIMA: Not necessarily. White people have plenty of character. I think they have a big future in mainstream American culture!
It’s true that ocassionally a character’s ethnicity becomes the focus of their personality but it can also work in our favor. Ninjas are badass. Good math skills CAN come in handy. When I hear people talk about kung-fu movie stereotypes, I start thinking “I LOVE kung-fu movies!” It’s certainly part of Asian culture, why not be proud of it? Well-developed characters almost have to become stereotypes or caricatures so people will know what to expect from them in the context of a story.
The times it does bother me is when characters become limited by their ethnicity. Asian guy can’t speak/read English well. So sorry, bad Engrish. Or when it becomes an easy way to develop a bad guy. Evil Korean dictator or sneaky Chinese spy.
RACEBENDING.COM: Your comic often depicts Sam’s five year old son, Shin, learning about race and ethnicity. This is territory where other comic strips with child characters, like Family Circus and Dennis the Menace, don’t go. What inspired you to depict Shin growing and learning and asking questions that adults might be too scared to ask?
TAK TOYOSHIMA: I would love to read a strip where Dennis the Menace sits down on Mr. Wilson’s porch and asks, “Mr. Wilson, are you old enough to remember lynchings in the South?” Hilarity ensues.
A lot of my wanting to include Shin comes from my years of being a pre-school teacher. Kids are brutally honest and their observations are so spot on that it makes me realize how clouded adult’s heads can become with assumptions and expectations. Getting into Shin’s character helps me to refocus and see things for what they really are.
RACEBENDING.COM: In your July 19th, 2009 comic strip you note that concerns about the depiction of Asians in Hollywood are at the back of the line of social progress complaints–yet, discrimination against people of color in Hollywood is a re-occuring theme in Secret Asian Man. What led you to dedicate so many strips to this issue?
TAK TOYOSHIMA: Everyone is familiar with Hollywood movies so it’s an easy and effective way to get the point across about the lack of and misrepresentation of Asians/Asian Americans. And lets face it, I’m a TV/movie junkie so I love talking about it.
The only color Hollywood sees is green. I don’t think there’s an active agenda to keep anyone down but all too often the bottom line excludes Asian Americans because they have to past record of raking in the big bucks. It’s a frustrating catch-22 but that shouldn’t stop us from trying and making noise whenever we can.
RACEBENDING.COM: Having commented on Hollywood casting so many times in your comic strip, how did you hear about the casting of The Last Airbender? What was your reaction to it?
TAK TOYOSHIMA:I can’t remember exactly where I heard about the Last Airbender casting but I definitely got all the details at racebending.com. I wasn’t overly shocked, especially after similar treatment of Dragonball and rumors of a live action Akira starring Leonardo DiCaprio(!) that doesn’t take place in Neo-Tokyo. That’s like Gone with the Wind redone during the LA riots…actually, that sounds kinda cool.
RACEBENDING.COM: Secret Asian Man, Penny Arcade, and Watch Your Head have all printed comic strips critiquing the casting in The Last Airbender. What about the medium has allowed comic strip artists to be vocal about this issue in their professional work? What are your thoughts on comic strips as a form of expression and as a forum to critique discrimination in society?
TAK TOYOSHIMA: I grew up a comic book fan and eventually did work in the industry. I sort of fell into comic strips which is a very different medium. There are familiar signs like panels and dialog bubbles but the pacing is completely different and when producing strips for a mainstream, daily newspaper-reading audience–as well as having to pass strips through syndication editors who will feel safe with what they are releasing to papers–I quickly felt my list of topics shrink.
Snoopy didn’t didn’t talk about Chinese comfort women much.
The strips began in more of an alternative newsweekly tone where I could get away with a lot more in terms of subject matter. Many of weekly papers straddle the line between humor strip and editorial cartooning. But most editorial cartoonists talk about politics or sports. I saw an opportunty to get something a little different out there and introduce people to an Asian American character to boot!
I think comic strips are a great medium for discussing edgy topics because they are very disarming. Most people expect a gag strip but when they are left with something more thought provoking I think it’s more rewarding. Comic strips lower people’s defenses and if mixed with the right balance of humor and entertainment a comic strip message can go very far.
RACEBENDING.COM: Many supporters of racebending.com are aspiring artists. What advice would you give them, especially if they want to incorporate their political and social beliefs in their work?
TAK TOYOSHIMA: There are no rules when it comes to political/social activism in your work. The one thing to never forget is what your message is. If you find yourself catering to your audience your message will get confusing. On the other hand you also don’t want to only appeal to people you agree with.
The point of activism isn’t to just yell at people for what they’ve done and tell them they’re idiots but to open the minds of people who do not agree with you to another perspective. A line of pro-lifers facing a line of pro-choicers will result in nothing but a sign making contest.
If you’re interested in meeting Tak Toyoshima, Secret Asian Man will be at the Boston Comic Con on April 10th and 11th!
You can follow the newest Secret Asian Man strips at the SAM blog.
And if you’d like an autographed copy of Secret Asian Man: The Daily Days of your very own, or original art, visit SAM’s Merch page and tell ‘em Racebending.com sent you! Avatar: The Last Airbender fans may also be interested in some of Toyoshima’s shirts at Blacklava.net, including one that features Aang.
Racebending.com would like to thank Mr. Tak Toyoshima for this interview.