Sunday, June 28, 2009

The First-Ever Kiyama Award!

So, if you've been following the updates across the comics world (say, at Heidi McDonald's essential "The Beat" column), you know that the first-ever Asian American ComiCon is giving out its first-ever installment of an annual award, which organizers have dubbed the Kiyama Award—after Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama, a Japanese American artist and cartoonist who lived and worked in San Francisco in the late Twenties and early Thirties.

Now why should that matter? Well, in 1931, Kiyama published his breakthrough book The Four Immigrants. A poignant collection of cartoon stories about life as a Japanese student expatriate in early 20th century San Francisco, the book explores the issues these early immigrants faced in a world whose language, culture and traditions were new, strange and confusing.

What makes The Four Immigrants special—and what makes Kiyama a verifiable pioneer, if somewhat by accident—is that, despite being originally intended for newspaper serialization, Kiyama’s stories were never published in that form. Which means that the first time they saw print was in this single, bound-and-collected book. This publication format, along with the fact that the stories in Four Immigrants featured a group of semiautobiographical characters (based on Kiyama and his friends) who grew, evolved and contended with real historical issues and events, has led some to advocate that it be recognized as the first original graphic novel published in America (arriving a decade before Virginia Lee Burton’s Calico the Wonder Horse in 1941 and nearly two decades before Arnold Drake and Leslie Waller’s It Rhymes with Lust in 1950).

As Heidi notes, that's a controversial stance to take—but it's one that the book's translator, the always sagacious Fred Schodt, has defended persuasively in this essay. Fred notes that the characters in Four Immigrants have a definitive and rather sophisticated narrative; even though many strips in the book have the look and beats of gag comics, the characters are richer and more organic than those found in, say, "Nancy" or "Bazooka Joe." They encounter and react to real-life events; they grow and change; they have actual arcs–for instance, two of the four immigrants end up returning to Japan, frustrated by the restrictive government policies of the era.

Schodt notes: “[Four Immigrants] visual style resembles that of U.S. gag newspaper strips...but its content– a serious story of an autobiographical nature, using apparently ‘real’ characters, who mature and develop over time– is closer to a modern ‘graphic novel’ than it is to early comic strips or comic books.”

Works for me! Anyway, regardless of where you stand on this somewhat academic argument, Kiyama's status as a unique and pioneering graphic fictionalist is not in question; his role in bridging two worlds, and his use of sequential art to tell quintessentially Asian American stories—all of these underscore his worthiness to serve as the namesake for an award honoring later creators who've done the same.

For this inaugural year, we're delighted to present this award to Larry Hama, the masterful writer who created the G.I. Joe universe, edited and scribed dozens of other titles (including Nth Man, Wolverine, Generation X, and Batman), and has just completed work on the first issue in a much-anticipated limited series featuring another real American hero—Barack the Barbarian.

The award itself is in the process of being created: Benton Jew, artist for "Driving Steel" in Secret Identities, has done a wonderful sketch of Henry Kiyama (with his omnipresent pet parrot!) that we'll be engraving on a glass tablet in Larry's honor. We did want to reassure Larry that this is not meant to be a "lifetime achievement award": Something tells us that much of Larry's best work still lies ahead...and as always, we'll be looking forward to reading it!


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