"Grandma! Lookit me!
Grandma! Look! I drew some funnies and a long road for flies to walk up the wall!"
I was about six years old. I remember that day well. It was a fat blue crayon. I had spent a whole afternoon scribbling on the entry hall wall, up the staircase wall and onto the second floor sitting room wall.
In those days, the discipline of choice for Chinese families was the bamboo cane feather duster. That too, I remember painfully well.
So it is with much affection that I open and dedicate my graphic novel, Escape to Gold Mountain, to Granny with her words: "David! Stop drawing on the walls! When you grow up, you had better still not be drawing cartoons!"
As a student, I spent much of my time daydreaming. My report card reflected my classroom efforts. It would send my folks into great distress.
Auntie Lynn had a large box of comics in her room. Every day I'd pick up a few of her comics and I'd read them. It kept me out of trouble. My favorites were The Adventures of Donald Duck / Uncle Scrooge by Disney's Carl Barks and Sugar & Spike by Sheldon Mayer. Auntie also had a large collection of older reader comics, including the Classics Illustrated series. Initially, I avoided these more mature comics until I had tired of re-reading my favorites over and over.
One day I picked up the Classics Illustrated Uncle Tom's Cabin. From it, I learned about slavery, human suffering and racism. It left an indelible impression on me. Pretty heavy stuff for a grade school kid. I will always remember the drawing of the cruel man whipping Uncle Tom.
Auntie Lynn told me that the comic book was based on real history. She said, "Slavery did occur in America, and it happened a long time ago."
In the 1960s, both America and Canada experienced much social change. Family members and neighbors would challenge authorities on urban renewal plans - marching in the streets, saving this and saving that. I drew pictures of these activities. I drew people marching and later, with my imagination running, I would draw street battles. All of it was on the evening news, and there's something about boys and battles.
Classics Illustrated soon became my favorite comic book series. It explained history and human relations without my knowing it.
Human relations? Yes. Human relations and psychology. The interaction between characters and the moral make up of them. Seeing the good in some and the evil in others. The bad Beagle Boys from the Uncle Scrooge comics weren't evil like Simon Legree, the cruel and greedy slave owner in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Good and evil are concepts understood by most young people, but what about people with colorful personalities or psychological challenges?
Classics Illustrated presented Don Quixote, a comic about a character with a colorful personality. It was a difficult comic for me. I had to re-read it three or four times to understand the story and what the message was. But the image of a skinny guy in armor atop an old horse with a robust man as a sidekick, fighting a windmill, was intriguing. But I eventually understood the story, and I loved it.
I learned about chivalry, storytelling and the power of imagination. Now all those weird (and colorful) old friends of Grandpa's did not seem all that scary. The elders all had stories. Lots of stories: stories from when they were young, stories of struggles and stories with moral teachings.
I soon found myself absorbing other classics such as David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities and Marco Polo. Through these comic books, I learned of industrial revolution England, revolutionary France and ancient China. I learned about history and faraway places -something that my social studies teacher would have been proud of.
A decade passed. I took my love of drawing and creating things into the world of architecture. I love architecture but I never lost my love for comics or storytelling. Architecture is like that. A successful building design has a great story to tell - whether it's the process that led to its physical manifestation or the rich narrative experienced by a user of the space.
Another decade passed and I was blessed with two sons. I would read to them every night and we would take turns creating new endings to stories we were reading. Our local library was open with late hours on Thursdays, so those evenings soon became our special family time. My wife and I would take our youngsters to the local library and we'd haul home some wonderful books. I discovered a new genre, the graphic novel, on one of our library evenings. The first book was Fagin the Jew by Will Eisner, which told the life story of Fagin from Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist from the character's point of view.
These comics, from Eisner and the Classics Illustrated series, inspired me to write and draw Escape to Gold Mountain: A Graphic History of the Chinese in North America. It's a collection of stories shared by elders along my journey of life. Now it's my turn to share these stories with you.
(This post first appeared on The Nerdy Book Club.)
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