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November 28, 2010


CR Sunday Interview: Rina Ayuyang

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imageBorn and raised in Pittsburgh long before it became a hub for regional cartoonists and a Bay Area transplant by way of San Francisco State University long after that region had established itself as one of the world's great cartooning locales, Rina Ayuyang may be familiar to you as she was to me as a intermittently prolific cartoonist behind such small-press and handmade efforts as her series Namby Pamby and, more recently, as a co-host with fellow cartoonist Thien Pham of the comics podcast The Comix Claptrap. You may or may not share my experience reading her new collection Whirlwind Wonderland: a slow but insistent rediscovery of a comics talent with a unique voice and a broad array of skills as writer and artist to employ on its behalf. I'm delighted she took the time to speak with me about the Sparkplug/Tugboat book, which offered several of my favorite comics moments all year. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: I read a profile of you in a Pittsburgh newspaper, and you spoke about the influence of having grown up in Pittsburgh. You mentioned the Pittsburgh sports fan element and about the context in which living in Pittsburgh placed your Filipino heritage. I'm sort of fascinated by that whole Pittsburgh region, and I wondered if there are elements beyond that you ascribe to being raised there. Also, given the fair number of cartoonists in Pittsburgh, do you feel any camaraderie with that area as an artist?

RINA AYUYANG: Pittsburgh is a great town. It has that unshakable reputation of being a city with smoke stacks, steel mills, and-soot covered buildings but it's truly a beautiful, idyllic place. Just the various neighborhoods, the landscape, the history -- the city itself is inspiring. Pittsburgh has this interesting community of hard-working, passionate people who do not put up with a lot of bullshit. Though they value family, love their sports and are practical-minded, they also take time to celebrate and nurture creativity and the Arts. There were always places for me to see and do art in Pittsburgh. I spent a lot of my time roaming around with my sisters in Oakland, hanging out in the Carnegie Art Museum and the Frick Museum, going to the Three Rivers Arts Festival, the Warhol Museum, staring at art and architecture downtown.

When I left Pittsburgh, I wasn't thinking of the burgeoning comics scene at the time at all. My brother was living in San Francisco then, so I thought it would be a great opportunity for me to leave for a couple of years, go to college, and figure out my art career.

Years later, when I started making comics in San Francisco, I finally found out about the huge comics and zine community in Pittsburgh. I recently did a reading at ToonSeum and got to meet cartoonists Ed Piskor, Rachel Masilamani, Pat Lewis, Jim Rugg, and Bill Boichel who runs Copacetic Comics. I felt so at home. They are really nice people, and are all forces in the comics world in their own right. But, there is definitely a serious comradery in general, among people around the world who are from Pittsburgh. We are like veterans who rap nostalgic about the war or something. There is real pride for the city and for the people who live or have lived there and have become successful through hard work and determination.

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SPURGEON: Brian Heater suggested in something he wrote that a way to read your work is that a story ostensibly about one thing is really about another -- that your Pittsburgh Steelers story is less about the Steelers than it is about relationships. Do you feel that's true, and if so, is that intentional? Do you create with some sort of area of exploration in mind, or do those things suggest themselves as you make your comics?

AYUYANG: That story, the "Miracle Season" was for the Friends of Lulu: Girls Guide to Guys Stuff anthology. It was in keeping with the anthology's theme of gender roles. In the story, the traditional view of gender roles was flipped, as I was the one who liked sports and football while my husband enjoyed books and Scrabble.

I think it is true that there's more than meets the eye in what I write. Sometimes it's intentional from the start, especially with the one-pager comics/sketches that I draw for my blog. Other times it just happens as the story evolves like the "Crack O'Dawn" or "Regulars" stories in the book. I always feel that even though I'm writing a series of ordinary events that not everyone may care about it, like daydreaming in the bus to work or eating in an old favorite diner, I owe it to the reader to deliver some story or some experience that's meaningful to them or at least worth the ride.

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SPURGEON: In your interview in Asian Journal, you talk about discovering comics from people like Dan Clowes and Lynda Barry. How did that happen, and do you remember what it was about the works you were reading that inspired you to make your own? Because with Namby Pamby it seems like you knew right away the kind of experience you wanted to engage in comics form.

AYUYANG: Well, stuff by Dan Clowes and Lynda Barry told me that comics wasn't just the Sunday funnies and newspaper strips, or just about superheroes or detectives. There were other worlds and ideas that you could explore through comics. I did know early on that I wanted to write about things I cared about, things that not everyone would be interested in, or things that weren't too out of the ordinary I think it was John Porcellino, Chester Brown's autobio, and Adrian Tomine's short stories that told me it was okay to make comics about subtle and quiet things. I was totally motivated to just try because of those cartoonists, and so I drew my first mini-comic Namby Pamby.

SPURGEON: Is there anyone you feel is an influence on your work that might not be obvious to someone reading it, even someone generally comics-informed? You had such a broad range of influences as a kid I wondered if you latched onto anyone when you were older in the same fashion.

AYUYANG: I was inspired first and foremost by the humor in comics like Peanuts, Nancy and MAD Magazine, but I pretty much liked looking at all kinds of comics and artists' work when I was a kid. I think my work isn't pinned down to one particular style because of that. I'd scrutinize illustrations in children's books and architecture books. I was drawn to and am still influenced a lot by the realism I found in those books, as well as old detective and adventure comic strips, like Milt Caniff or Alex Raymond's stuff. I love the draftsmanship and the details in the background of those comics. They taught me to be a good observer of buildings and objects in space.

My style is influenced by a mishmash of different artists and cartoonists. You know, when I see this awesome page by Jaime Hernandez, it makes me think more about the line against the white space of the page, or when I look at Joann Sfar's work or Hinker Blutch, I want to make looser and brushier marks on the page. I'm not saying that I'm in any way successful at doing these things with my own work, but it makes me think of different approaches. One time I saw a Bruce Conner exhibit, I think, at the San Jose Museum, and I was just floored by how different his styles were and all the different type of mediums he used. He would do mandala art, collages, and then video art -- all of them had a different approach, and it was hard finding a unifying theme or a stylistic expression that could define who he was as an artist. I liked that about him, and it told me that I didn't have to be tied down to one type of style or medium.

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SPURGEON: Where did the Comix Claptrap impulse come from? I enjoy the podcasts, but they also have a really loose energy to them. How much of a learning curve was involved for you? Is there a particular moment from those podcasts you've enjoyed?

AYUYANG: There were all of these comics podcasts that I was listening to at the time. I thought it would be interesting to do one with cartoonists talking to other cartoonists about the craft, industry controversies, and experiences that we could all relate to, like self-publishing mini-comics or dealing with printers. I was driving from a comics reading or something, and had shared this idea with my husband, Ken and cartoonist, Jason Shiga. Jason barked from the backseat that Thien Pham and I should do a show together. When I asked Thien, he was all into it as you can imagine, so we just went from there. We had fellow cartoonist Josh Frankel pretend to be reporting from the Comic Relief store in Berkeley, but that premise died pretty quickly, though of course we still have Josh talking about new comics, but in the comfort of his own home.

I always wanted to produce a podcast in general. Seriously, anyone can do it. I mean obviously anyone can if Thien and I do it because we have no real journalistic or communications background and no formal training which shows a lot. It was like starting a cable access TV program. We felt we could do and say anything because we never really believed anyone would be noticing besides family or cartoonist friends who knew us personally. I think that's where the "loose energy" comes from. However, when I was attending APE one year, all of these people would come up to us and talk about how they loved the show, or how they disliked one of Thien's comments, or that we were like Regis and Kelly (which was horrible). So we realized that it was bigger than we thought. I was at first kind of embarrassed by the attention and thought that we needed to act and make the show more professional, but strangely enough more and more cartoonists were saying yes to being interviewed by us which amazes me to this day. Thien is great at speaking his mind and keeps it entertaining, while I on the other hand stutter a lot and have a horrible radio voice, but I do ask the pertinent questions. Anyway, we try to tape regularly, but we still regard it as a side project to our day jobs or our comics projects. So sometimes we'll have a long break in between.

I think the moments I really love when the cartoonists let down their guard and say funny things that you never thought they would say like the one with Renee French talking about Spock, the one when Dan Clowes speaks in Pittsburghese, or Jaime Hernandez talking about the Rose Bowl Parade.

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SPURGEON: I think of you as part of the Bay Area cartooning community, and you've talked in the past about how moving from Pittsburgh to San Francisco was empowering because of the different communities involved. As an artist, as a cartoonist, how important is a sense of community in terms of what you do. The necessity of community is a subject of endless debate among cartoonists, so as someone cognizant of the advantages and disadvantages of same I wonder what you thought about the creative community within comics.

AYUYANG: Yeah, it was totally empowering for me to move to San Francisco from Pittsburgh because it was right after high school, a time when I was just happy to get out and do my own thing. However, when I was starting out in comics, I didn't go out and meet with a lot of Bay Area cartoonists. It was because of my own hang-ups. I'm pretty shy in big groups, and also I didn't think I was good enough of a cartoonist to hang around any cartoonist. Before I had the guts to meet anyone in person, I would trade my comics with zinesters and cartoonists via mail, and correspond with cartoonists by email or the message boards. It was safer for me. If they criticized my work, I could just sob into my pillow rather than have to deal with it for another hour at a bar.

Finally after a couple of years even after I "met" these people online, I gained more confidence and finally went to a comics jam in Berkeley. I remember Jesse Reklaw, Joey Sayers, Josh Frankel and Fred Noland were there. Jesse said something like, "Geez, it sure took you a long time!" So I do think community is important whether you find it online, through the mail, or in the same city with one other person or hundreds. It's good to get another perspective about your work, about comics and the industry in general. It's very easy to be isolated as an artist. You're always lost in your own art and your own ideas and opinions. You're thinking about those things all the time, and it's easy to forget the world and people around you. With that said I've learned as with any relationship that it's nice when the company is positive and upbeat. I mean, debate and differing opinions are great, but when it's mainly negative and divisive, then it's just not fun anymore.

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SPURGEON: You posted a one-pager on your blog last month that fascinated me, where you kind of answered once and for all the question of why you do autobiographical comics: that you need them as a reminder of certain moments in your life that might be lost to the sound and fury of everyday existence. Where did that comic come from; moreover, can you talk about how that rationale occurred to you?

AYUYANG: A lot of those one-page doodles that I post on my blog are my most personal work. That one in particular was something I drew just to remind myself why I do the kind of comics that I do and that it was okay to do them. All of these different things were happening all at once, and it was hard to stop and to savor each one as an individual moment. I guess the stuff on my blog is a way to take a snapshot of each of these moments. I was also thinking about the recent strips I was putting up on my blog. I haven't been posting a lot of them since my son was born, but the ones I was posting seemed redundant to me, like it was always about me being tired or driven insane by being a new mother. And I was wondering if I should make the reader go through this whole process of, I guess, self-discovery with me.

When I make comics, I try to keep the reader in mind, like how much of myself do I want to reveal to them and how can I share my thoughts in a way that they can digest without it being preachy or too cryptic. But what I realized is that as much as I want to make the reader happy, my comics-making is a completely personal and cathartic experience for me. So, as corny as it sounds, ultimately I have to do it for me and be okay with it. So, the strip was really a question or maybe even a challenge directed to myself, and not so much an answer to the people ranting on the Internet about how bad and unnecessary all autobio comics are. Ha.

SPURGEON: I'm not sure that I've ever talked to anyone about working with Dylan and Sparkplug. How was that experience? How was the book conceived, and how were they as a partner in seeing it to fruition?

AYUYANG: I had known about Dylan Williams as a cartoonist first with his self-published comic series Reporter. I never got to talk to him but was a fan of his comic. It was only until maybe 2005 or '06, that I met him and started bothering him in person. He began selling some of my minis through Sparkplug's distro. The same with Greg Means, I knew him as Clutch, and I met him at SF Zine Fest around this time, too. After my mini-comic doodle daze came out, we all sat down one day at a vegan restaurant (because of Dylan, of course), and they told me that they were going to start publishing a couple of books together, much like the efforts with their free comics Nerd Burglar and Bird Hurdler (which was also co-published with Tim Goodyear and Dinosaur Teenage). At first, I proposed to them a book like doodle daze with more spontaneous drawings from my blog, but I was also working on the fifth issue of Namby Pamby at the time, and they were really interested in that as well as making it a collection of older stories. They were hoping to get it out by the end of 2008, but plans were delayed because I became pregnant with my son.

Dylan is a very mellow, positive guy. So is Greg. They have different tastes in comics. I think Dylan is more interested in the wild art comics, while Greg is very interested in humorous, playful storytelling, which complements each other very well They were both very supportive and so easy to work with. They both pretty much let me do whatever I wanted with Whirlwind Wonderland. They just told me the page count and let me do my thing! And, they were very patient with my slow progress and everything that was happening in my life at the time. We got things done fairly quickly once all the art was complete. I'm pretty honored to have been published by those two. They are both enthusiastic champions of cartoonists, especially those that have flown under the radar.

imageSPURGEON: This is a terrible question, but does having a book out change how you feel about your work, or how people treat you in terms of your work? I find that people that may not understand much about publishing or creative work understand the idea of doing a book, and I also know that sometimes seeing one's work between two covers can lead to a scramble for meaning, or at least some introspection.

AYUYANG: This is something I think about a lot of the time, actually. Sometimes I look at my work in Whirlwind Wonderland and ask myself if it was really worthy of being published by someone. I think with self-publishing there is less pressure to have success with a book. Luckily, I didn't feel a lot of pressure from Dylan or Greg. They print the book and then send it on its way, and whatever happens -- happens.

I think I put more pressure on myself to get out there and promote it, more so than I would a new mini-comic. In general, when one of my stories is published, I can't read it right away. It's like when you cook a big meal and you can't sit down to enjoy it and you lose your appetite instead. However, I read Whirlwind on the bus a couple months after the release, and I enjoyed it. So, at least I like it if no one else does. I think my family likes it, too, so that's good. Ultimately, I think it was a good first book for me to manage. I mean people were excited to see it, but I think there weren't huge expectations for it.

SPURGEON: The Murder She Wrote story is one I'd heard about before reading it -- this may be an impossibly broad question, but can you talk a bit in what you wanted to accomplish through the tone of that story? On the one hand it's this totally sincere tribute to the television show, but it's also self-aware as to its limitations and dependency on formula. Is there a broader point that you think people can take out of that one?

Also, seriously: she kills all those people herself, right?

AYUYANG: Yeah, she totally kills them and then they are reborn in episodes of Star Trek: Voyager. No, well, the comic was a tribute to the show in all its formulaic beauty. I love that show, seriously. I love the campiness and predictability of it. It's comfort food for me. I also loved how these geriatric TV shows were pitted against the NBC "Must See TV" shows like Friends that were aimed at a younger and hipper audience. So, it was an ode to all the so-called quirky unhip shows that were being replaced or being canceled. At the time I did this comic, I was watching Murder She Wrote on syndication where it was also starting to be replaced by shows like Dog the Bounty Hunter or LA Ink or something.

SPURGEON: One of my favorite stories in the book is "Lapog." Can you talk about how you created that piece, in particular how you designed the pages? Two things I found interesting: one was that you switch back and forth from first person to these affecting, kind of wide-angle shots that encompass everyone in the room; another is that I thought the story was very dense, you accommodated a great deal of text.

AYUYANG: Oh thanks! I did that piece for one of Stripburger's travel-themed issues, and I thought about a trip I took to the Philippines for the first time ever in my life. It was a bittersweet trip because on one hand, it was a vacation and I got to meet my paternal grandmother for the first time ever which was exciting; but on the other hand, the trip was for a funeral, which of course was heart-breaking and depressing.

The wide-angle views and the tight panels were a way to take in the entire spectacle I was witnessing first hand. There was a lot to cover in not too many pages which I guess kind of matched how I felt at the time. I mean, it was a whirlwind trip, you know. It took two days to travel there, and we only had three days to really do anything. Well actually two days for the funeral and one day to do tourist stuff. The text acted pretty much like a journal entry of my time there. My stories in general, though, tend to be text-heavy. I'm trying to get away from a lot of voiceover in my current work, and let the art just tell the story. I'm not sure how well that's going though.

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SPURGEON: The color pages were very pretty; why are there so few of them? Were you happy with the way they looked?

AYUYANG: Yeah, I like how they came out, too. In the beginning, we didn't think we could include any of them in the book, but there was some room in the budget to include 10 pages or so of these drawings. So, I selected a few that seemed to work and didn't ruin the flow between the old and new stories. I'm glad that we were able to include them somehow. These were pages that I drew and posted on my blog. I drew them in an old datebook that had Van Gogh reproductions in it that my mother gave me one year. I can never stay organized and manage a datebook. It's a nice datebook though. I didn't want to throw it away so I decided to draw in it instead.

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SPURGEON: The story about attending twin family functions… I think one reason it works is because you really settle into it and give it a ton of breathing space, it just kind of moseys along. What made you decide to do the story at that pace as opposed to something more summarily told or something in a single scene or two? What were you trying to capture by making that encompass such a lengthy set of experiences?

AYUYANG: Well, I had been doing short stories for a while, and a lot of them were four pages or even just one page long. I always noticed that the ending of these stories were so abrupt, like they stopped before anything really happened. I think I did this mainly because I had no clue how the story was going to end, so I just ended it. For example, this story that I did in Namby Pamby 2 called, "Bunny Ears" was four pages of this little girl crying because of this pathetic outfit she had to put together for Halloween, and at the end, the girl is still crying. What was the point? There was no closure! I felt like I was tricking the reader or mocking them. So, I wanted to really take it one step at a time with "Death Anniversary" because it had a big cast of characters who kind of all resembled each other.

I also wanted the reader to fully understand the contrast in relationships between me and my immediate family, and me and my extended family by depicting details of my interactions with all of them. The title "Death Anniversary" wasn't just describing the first event, but it was a play on the experience of having to go through these family functions every year, like that Sondheim song, it's "...A Little Death" every time. Of course, I am kind of exaggerating here. Actually, there were going to be three parts to this story. I think the third part was going to be either a wedding or funeral reception scene, but that it seemed too similar to the second function, Lola's birthday celebration. So I pitched the third part altogether.

SPURGEON: I think my favorite scene in the whole book is when Ruth rifles through his giant backpack and pulls out a bag of funyons. I thought it was perfectly pitched and very funny. You've talked a bit in some of your other interviews about finding smaller moments of interest; is that true of humor as well? What do you find funny?

AYUYANG: I like that funyon scene. too. I wanted to show some of the quirks that Ruth had; he was aloof about a lot of things, but he was very safe and comfortable in his own routine with his huge backpack that carried his huge box of Kleenex (because of his allergy issues) and a big bag of funyons, if ever he got hungry.

Again, I really love the humor from comics. The humor in Peanuts is so subtle, and it's timed so perfectly. It's like a wink, you know. I also love the screwball comedy in Merrie Melodies cartoons and old movies like in The Thin Man, when all this craziness ensues, and then all of a sudden there's a slow-motion sequence of Asta the dog jumping up in the air. That's hysterical! And Mel Brooks movies! Man, I love those. And yeah, tiny things in daily life are hysterical, like the awkwardness between people in a carpool. It's the little nuances, the little bump that makes something not as serious as it could be.

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SPURGEON: "Arroz Caldo" is extremely sophisticated in a lot of ways. You have these tight-tight-tightly structured dialogue pages with you and your father, you have scenes where there's narration over a complementary action (your father shoveling the snow) rather than a straight depiction, and you intersperse past and present. Was that one as difficult to execute as it seemed?

AYUYANG: I always wanted to do one story about my dad, about our relationship and how it had evolved. Now as an adult and a parent, I understood where he was coming from, and what kind of mindset he was in while he was raising my siblings and me. He had just arrived in the U.S., had to put his career aside, and take on this new role as a dad all of a sudden, something that he had no real training for or real role model to learn from. I also wanted to write a story about our views of the past, how we dwell on the negative moments more than the positive ones and how that shapes how we characterize a person. So, there were a lot of things I wanted to cover, and I broke them down through design elements, like the childhood memories were these one-pagers with beveled panels, while the pages with voice-over narrative presented the present and future with my dad doing his daily chores. Then, there was the phone dialogue between my sisters, my mom, my dad and myself. The pages with the tight layout of my dad and I talking on the phone were from a previous story called "This is the Day," that I eventually included in this other mini "Overwhelming Wot-Not," which explored my bouts with artist/writer's block. In one part, I finally get desperate and ask my dad for a pep talk. I liked the overwhelming and overlapping word balloons and my dad's different expressions in those pages.

I really liked how it all came together. Everything was tied up so easily, which rarely happens for me.

imageSPURGEON: What's next for you, comics-wise? Is there a longer work forthcoming?

AYUYANG: I am in this group art show called "Party Crashers" at the Arlington Art Center in Virginia. It's going to exhibit comics by Gabrielle Bell, Warren Craghead, Jeffrey Brown, Jim Rugg, Dash Shaw and other great artists. To be honest, I have no idea why I'm in this show. It's up until January 2011.

As for comic books, there is a longer book that I have been working on forever, since the "Acacia" story that I did for the SPX 2005 anthology. It's this book called Heirloom, which will cover stories that my dad and mom have told me about their life in the Philippines through the years, as well as more stories of my experiences growing up in Pittsburgh. It's some of the same type of stories that you've already seen in Whirlwind Wonderland. Also, there's this crazy detective comic that I've been dabbling with called Bobot in San Francisco. The first issue of that might be ready for upcoming Stumptown Festival. We'll see, though.

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* cover to the new book
* sketchbook self-portrait
* page from Pittsburgh-related story in WW
* random panel I liked from WW
* Team Comix Claptrap, swiped from the Facebook page
* from the collection
* the sketchbook page about autobio mentioned in the interview
* panel from a bus-related comic
* one of those color pages
* crowd scene from the laconically-pace story about twin celebrations
* one of the tightly-constructed conversations, daughter/father
* from Bobot
* a drawing from the sketchbook that I liked (below)

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* Whirlwind Wonderland, Rina Ayuyang, Sparkplug Comic Books/Tugboat Press, 128 pages, 2010, $15

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