Skip to main content


March 18, 2014

Comic Advice for Comic Students: Thien Pham and Joe Field


Thien Pham, author of Sumo and illustrator for the critically acclaimed Level Up, was one of the guest speakers at the fourth annual O’Keefe Prize for Graphic Literature held by Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California, on Thursday, March 13.

Pham began by telling students that he believes comics are “an amazing art form” and he is only half-joking when he says librarians have tried to convince him that prose novels are just as good as graphic ones. “Comics are the way to go,” he says. “Prose writers are just lazy. Graphic novels are prose with art.”

Pham doesn’t kid himself. He knows what a room full of would-be comic book creators really want to hear and that’s how to get started. First, he reminded these newbies that they are lucky. “I hate you guys,” he jokes. “We grew up when comics were not respected. Take a comic book class in college? Are you kidding?” Today’s college students are growing up in a time “when comic publishing is a real possibility.” When Pham grew up the possibility of being a comic book creator was like “saying you wanted to be a professional basketball player.” But today the growing book market is all about graphic novels. 

When Pham started, he drew comics because he loved it: “There was no hope that we would make money. The only way to become a comic book artist was to haul a portfolio to a con with 4,000 other hopefuls and maybe you’d get a gig paying $20 per page.”

Pham decided early on to self-publish his works. When he was in fourth grade he drew Space Dogs and then convinced his mother to photo copy pages at work. He would then take them to school and sell copies for 25 cents each. “Twenty-five years later, I’m still doing the same thing.” 

As an adult, Pham’s 8 ½ by 11-inch folded chapter books became mini comics that circulated through the community that made zines for bands. Pham sold them at conventions and “lost tons of money,” he says with a laugh.

The “we” he often refers to is his core community made up of Pham, Gene Luen Yang (Boxers and Saints), Derek Kirk Kim (Same Difference and Other Stories), and Pham’s wife, Lark Pien (Long Tail Kitty). “We all grew up together,” Pham says. It wasn’t until the New York publishing community took note of graphic novels, specifically Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese, that the publishing door burst open to comics. “Then everyone got a deal—and friends pull each other up. That’s what you have to do. Now all my friends are published.” He still doesn’t make a bunch of money, but that’s not why he started drawing comics.

Pham’s first published work, Sumo, took him four years to create. He published it first as a chapter book, taking it to the Alternative Press Expoin San Francisco, where he secured a table for $200. Somebody from First Second Books picked up Sumo and then contacted him, saying, “We’d like to publish your book.”

“Yes,” Pham replied.

“Don’t you want to know how much we pay, editorial…”

“Yes,” Pham again replied. 

Did Pham get an agent? “No,” he says. “I probably gave up all my rights, but I didn’t care.” 

Pham received an advance from First Second – half up front, half when Sumo published—and was ecstatic. He explained to this audience of graphic novel hopefuls that an advance is based on how much the publisher thinks you’ll sell. After selling the stipulated amount of copies, he received “One dollar for every copy sold.” How long does it take for a book to go from contract to bookstore shelves? “Two long years.”

You can tell Thien Pham loves what he does. “It’s weird, but when I make a comic I’m sending something out to people,” he says. “When you read Sumo I am sending you a letter. I’m not very smooshy, but when I die I think about how I will have this thing out there—forever.”

Pham “loves actual comic books” and has shelves and shelves of them. “Now you guys love the internet, and iPads and download this and that, but I love the permanence of books,” he says, mugging for the audience.

He left these hopefuls with the following advice: “Start a Tumblr site and also table at a con.” When new comic creators ask Pham how readers will find their work, he responds, “If you’re good, people will find you. It’s a great time for comics.”

Next up to the podium was Joe Field, an Eisner Spirit Award winner and creator of Free Comic Book Day. He got right to the point, also recommending that students create “a free blog online and produce a page a day, or a page per week. The more pages you do the better you get at creating comics.”

Field is an expert on the comics industry’s past and present and gave students a peek at the trade. “The comics market in the United States is now a mature market,” he began. “When the medium took off in the 1940s, it did incredibly well and spread across the world. In the 1950s, the U.S. Senate started to go after comics, saying they were for juvenile delinquents. This led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority, which stunted the medium’s growth in America. After World War II, Asia and Europe were rebuilding entire cultures from the ground up—they didn’t worry about whether comics were good or bad for the audience, but it wasn’t until the 1970s before things relaxed in the U.S.”

Field recently attended a ComicsPro retailers’ conference and reports that comics and graphic novels are in the midst of a “vibrant market,” with popular titles for kids and adults across a broad spectrum of genres. It’s a great time to be a comic book creator or graphic novelist.

As the founder of Free Comic Book Day, Field is often called the Johnny Appleseed of Comics. “In 2013, FCBD was celebrated in 2,000 stores in over 60 countries and was attended by more than 1.2 million people…and it all started right in Diablo Valley College’s backyard at Flying Colors Comics.” FCBD No. 13 will take place on Saturday, May 3, 2014.

Field reminds students “not to worry about money at first. What are the stories you are trying to tell? Work on the quality of your art.” He commented that the work coming out of the O’Keefe Prize has really improved over its first four years and this year’s collection “has progressed to a very high quality of storytelling and art.”

As college students looking toward careers, Field commented, “There are jobs in comics. Some pay better than others, but comics are universal.” He recommended Macmillan’s First Second imprint (Thien Pham’s publisher), which will soon be printing Gene Luen Yang’s The Shadow Hero, as one of the best publishers in the graphic novel business.

Field wished the O’Keefe winners, “Congratulations for sitting down and putting pictures with words. Comics are the nexus of visual entertainment, from video games and television to movies and advertising—they all start with story boarded panels and those are all comics.”

This year the O’Keefe Prize was awarded to nineteen students—a crowded field, but when one looks at the quality and quantity of this year’s entries it’s easy to understand. The Grand Prize winner, Tasha Pleasant, illustrates an artist’s journey whose protagonist often wonders, “Why can’t this be real?” First Grand Prize winner runner up Habib Placencia Adissi presents an homage to coffee, “Brown Water,” that offers a historical as well as a social commentary on this drink that binds us together. 

To see all the award winners, go to the James O’Keefe Prize for Graphic Literature website at: