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May 1, 2009

OP-ED: Phil Yeh Discusses Words, Pictures, and Learning to Read


Phil Yeh is a writer and the creator of the educational Dinosaurs Across graphic novel series from NBM Publishing. He also started a literacy tour nearly a quarter of a century ago, a tour that has taken all over the globe. Here, he writes of his experiences in the industry and how graphic novels could properly be used to help teach both children and adults.


When I started Cartoonists Across America and the World way back in 1985, I really felt that this campaign was a wonderful way to promote literacy, the arts, and creativity through the use of comics. It all began after my friend Wally “Famous” Amos explained the terrible illiteracy stats in the United States. At the time, one out of five American adults could not read or write. Believe me, today it is much worse! I honestly felt we cartoonists could change these stats and get more Americans into the magic of books, all books, but especially graphic novels, which in an older generation were just called comic books. Comic books were always a great bridge to get kids from picture books to chapter books and, later, real literature.

Of course, in the United States, comic books have had a terrible image for decades, thanks to the Red Scare and the insane theories of Dr. Fredric Wertham, who actually convinced a majority of narrow-minded, ignorant bigots in the Congress during the 1950s that comic books were going to drive their children into crime and into joining the communist party.
The real enemy of any free society is keeping the majority of people ignorant, and that is unfortunately what many powerful people are still trying to do, even in this so-called enlightened 21st century. If people are unable to read, and especially read the small print, dishonest people with money and power can manipulate them in all sorts of ways and ruin their lives while gaining wealth and power. That is a lesson often repeated in history. But then, people without the ability to read and write do not have access to books and that history that again serves the powerful as they continue to ruin this planet.
Education really can be a great equalizer, but the majority of politicians simply mouth the words and seldom back their talk with actual meaningful action. Sadly, the American education system is one of the worst in the industrialized world, filled with massive corruption and decisions not made to enlighten children but to control them. Thinking and creativity have long suffered as more and more American schools cut their art and music programs with little regard for the incredible benefits the arts can offer all of us.
So I took up Wally’s challenge to lend a hand in the battle for truth, justice, and the “American” way and decided that my many years as a comic book artist, newspaper publisher, and one of the first American publishers of graphic novels (in 1977, with my book Even Cazco Gets the Blues) to hit the road like Woody Guthrie and Jack Kerouac and see what I might do to improve the illiteracy crisis in the United States.
A groups of cartoonists, Leigh Rubin, Wally Davis, and RC Williams, joined me on that first tour in a van that would take us to 34 states and two Canadian provinces before most of the others would see the insanity of this whole idea. We got great media coverage on that first tour in 1986, but we didn’t have any real sponsors to speak of and I was fast running out of credit cards. RC Williams stayed with the road trip idea and other artists from around the world would join in various locations on the tour, which was supposed to end in 2000, a nice 15 years of my life. In 1999, when the Los Angeles County Library Foundation decided to honor me and actor Edward James Olmos for our work on behalf of literacy, Steve Allen was the host at SONY studios, and Wally flew in to present me this giant bronze bookworm, I decided, since the illiteracy crisis was much worse than when we started in 1985, to continue this tour through 2010. A round 25 years of my life. A full quarter century of madness.
Since that first tour in 1986, we have produced more than 80 books, painted more than 1,800 colorful murals in 49 states, three Canadian provinces, and a dozen countries. The only state in the United States untouched by our crazy colorful cartoon murals is Alaska, and I always like to mention that if anyone has a contact in that state, please email me. In 2007, we were invited back twice to China, and had more than 420,000 fans at the 3rd annual Cartoon and Animation Convention in Hangzhou (my dad’s hometown). I was asked to be a judge for their art contest and I can tell you after visiting China for more than three decades, their investment in the arts is paying off in wonderful ways. I see the same thing throughout the world when I do these international events. There is a tremendous amount of talent in all these countries and I am very optimistic that we Americans might someday become inspired to actually put down the iPods and get to work ourselves again!
So now, it’s 2009 and we are in the 24th year of this tour and I am busy writing and drawing a series of comic books that later in color and hardcover will be known as graphic novels (one has to have a sense of humor about this country) called the Dinosaurs Across America series. The first full-color hardcover of Dinosaurs Across America came out in 2007 from NBM publishing in New York. I had brought the black and white Dinosaurs Across America series back after the Cleveland Museum of Natural History gave me a five month art exhibition in the spring and summer of 2006. NBM is one of the pioneers of the graphic novel in the states, so this seemed like a perfect fit.
The new Dinosaurs Across America graphic novel was a new colored version by my longtime colorist Lieve Jerger, who hails from Belgium, where comic art is considered the ninth art. The earlier black and white Dinosaurs Across America comic book, which I published in the 1990s, sold out of eight printings before NBM did their version. This was 180,000 copies sold of an independent black and white comic book that told folks from 1 to 111 all about the 50 states in a really fun way. It seemed natural and logical to see this book in hardcover and in color for the school and public libraries, but nothing logical really happens in the American comic book industry.
Do kids love comics that can actually teach them something like American history and geography? Absolutely! Dinosaurs Across America was revised and in a new second printing from NBM last fall and the reviews have been truly outstanding, including winning awards like the Children’s Choice Award from the Children’s Book Council and the International Reading Association in 2008. I have talked to hundreds of thousands of kids and adults all around the world and I can tell you that the vast majority of people have no problem with a comic book or graphic novel that actually gives them some real information in a fun way. Somehow, this fact is lost on the majority of people who still run things in the comic book and publishing industry in this world and for the majority of school and library systems. I sign thousands of books each and every year and meet people who read and enjoy my work from around the world, so I know that the mainstream publishers are very much out of touch with the reality on the grassroots level. But then, what else is new?
So in 2005, I decided that I would add a new series of programs to my road travels based on defining and explaining graphic novels to the public, especially the American public, which in the 21st century has even less knowledge about novels—graphic or otherwise. When I speak to the average American in the United States now, they cannot even name a single artist! It’s really a sad thing and not one that any visual artist or writer should celebrate. My new graphic novel workshops are designed to clearly explain what a graphic novel is and isn’t. When I published one of the very first graphic novels in 1977, I was explaining the form to everyone I met. We had one of the first booths at the American Booksellers Association convention that year and also would be one of the first to attend the American Library Association convention. It has been over three decades of explaining this art form to the general public in the States, which, unfortunately, seldom ever reads comics or graphic novels at all now.
I believe that we need to better educate the American public and that graphic novels are a fun way to do this. Anyone who has watched Jay Leno knows that we have a serious knowledge gap in this country, and you really see this if you actually speak to more than 100,000 people each and every year.
So in the follow-up books of this Dinosaurs Across series, Dinosaurs Across Route 66 (2007), Dinosaurs Across California (2008), and Dinosaurs Across New York (2009), I am making a real effort to talk about artists and writers, especially who may inspire a whole new generation to know something about the past. Of course, we are also talking about scientists, doctors, teachers, librarians, and inventors in this series, with the idea that perhaps if Americans would take a long look at their own past, they might actually understand how to create things again and take care of their own future. Knowledge really can save your life!
I am always an optimist and know as the son of a father who came here from China many decades ago that many people from all over the world will draw inspiration from this series and I also know that billions of people actually speak English as a second language and that comics or graphic novels are an excellent way for anyone to learn a language. Common sense would have good graphic novels in every school in the country, but sadly, the old misconceptions about this art form still very much exist in this country. We have a great deal of work to do yet.
Our Cartoonists Across America and the World tour will end in 2010. At that time, I will start to work on a documentary film of this whole tour experience and a full-length book about what we did and what the world can do to increase literacy in their own countries. We have been fortunate to be able to speak to people all over the world in our tour, and I have a great deal of optimism about the future of books and art in so many other nations. One day, I think, we may see other countries influence our own people as well to pick up a book or a pen and put down their cell phone, iPod, laptop—of course, there are those who still insist to me that books are dead and that reading is boring.
I interviewed Ray Bradbury recently, and we talked about his book Fahrenheit 451, which told of a world where books were burned, and it reminded me that in 21st century America, they are just ignored. There is great work still to be done. Please reach me through our website,