“My workspace is one of the middle rooms of a Brooklyn railroad apartment that I live in with my wife. I’ve been working exclusively from home since 2006, but regularly toy with venturing into a shared studio space… more for my wife’s sanity than my own.”
Gia-Bao Tran (AKA: GB) no longer smokes or has hair, but is still living the good life as a cartoonist/illustrator in Brooklyn. His parents constantly remind him that if this “art thingy” doesn’t work out, as the only family member born in the U.S. he can legally be President instead.
FROM YOUR DESKS: How do you work?
GIA-BAO TRAN: In shifts. The morning shift usually involves brainstorming, sketching, and business administration—things that are more nebulous and elastic and take advantage of the rambling nature of my morning mind. After I’ve expunged the distracting ideas and responsibilities, the afternoon shift switches to a more focused mode where I’m just doing one specific thing that is more familiar and automatic like inking a comic page or illustration, designing a graphic, etc. My evening shift applies the confidence I’ve accumulated during the afternoon shift to the work I consider more foreign, like writing or coloring. This daily rhythm has built-in breaks that allows me to look at stuff with fresh eyes, never getting burnt out with what I’m doing, and always looking forward to what’s right around the corner.
GBT: I’m the youngest of four kids and the only born in the US so I was the most detached from my parents’ experiences. It wasn’t until my first trip to Vietnam in 2001 that whispers and rumors of my parents’ past lives wove in and out of conversation and, for the first time, an interest in their journey began to bubble up inside me. But that illuminating trip occurred when I had just moved from Arizona to Brooklyn so the project got put on the back burner as I tried to find my own footing in the strange new world of New York City. It wasn’t until 2006 that I was able to return to the material and start seriously thinking what to do with it.
I think every child will someday want to better understand who they are and how they got there…
In 2007 I returned to Vietnam for one single purpose: to interview as many family and friends as possible and record their stories. The floodgates to my parents’ sacrifices and triumphs burst open and upon returning to Brooklyn, I immediately began work on what would become VIETNAMERICA.
FYD: How long did it take to write?
GBT: Compared to its long gestation period, the actual writing and illustration was quick: about three and a half years chained to my drawing table and computer.
FYD: Was it difficult to tell your story and did it help to be a bit cynical?
GBT: I’m guessing by cynical, you mean how I portrayed myself in the book from childhood to adulthood? I remember my wife’s reaction after reading the draft was, “You make yourself out to be a lot more of a jerk then you actually are.” I think we all went through a phase where we couldn’t care less about where our parents came from, and that was me being honest with myself. The road to uncovering my family’s painful history had it’s challenges, and as a surrogate for the reader, I wanted to give my character some resistance to the journey in hopes of being more authentic…to have a sort of emotional truth.
FYD: To what extent should we visit our roots?
GBT: I think every child will someday want to better understand who they are and how they got there, and hopefully that child will start asking questions and want to listen before it’s too late. It’s been incredibly rewarding to have readers contact me to say how much the story resonated with them. Not just from other Vietnamese refugees, immigrants, conflict survivors, history buffs, etc. but anybody who has a stake in their own family history. Like the Confucius quote that opens and ends the book says, “A man without history is a tree without roots.”
The floodgates to my parents’ sacrifices and triumphs burst open…
GBT: It’s definitely strange. I think for the most part, making comics is an extremely solitary process so to see the end product on a shelf where any stranger can flip through and hopefully buy a copy is so counter to the prevailing mindset that led up to that moment. It’s weird, but a great kinda weird.
FYD: Take us through a comic festival. You must feel like a roadie.
GBT: Exactly like a roadie; just replace the awesome sex and drugs with sitting behind a table by yourself all day with pieces of your soul spread out for passing strangers to critique and judge. Seriously, though, I just exhibited at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival and it was a blast! It’s set in a beautiful, vaulted ceiling modern library and attracts a huge diversity of attendees. It’s amazingly organized; I just showed up 15 minutes before the doors opened to setup, and then got to spend the rest of the day introducing people to my work and catching up with “con” buddies—fellow exhibitors from all over that you only get to see at these events. I’ve been exhibiting at everything from the senses-shattering pop culture mecca of San Diego Comiccon to the laid back cartoonist-centric Small Press Expo for almost a decade now, and the chance to thank someone in person for spending their hard-earned money on something I made is still an awesome feeling.
FYD: Is there still an art of picking up a comic at the local store?
GBT: Absolutely! No surprise that I fall in the camp of those who enjoy the tactile experience of picking up a book, thumbing through it, and being immediately grabbed by it. That’s one of the highlights of comic festivals and cons: walking from table to table and looking at everyone’s work, whether it be meticulously handmade one-of-kind books or stories years in the making where the act of buying it completes the journey for the artist’s hard work.
FYD: What comic shops do you frequent at home?
GBT: Cosmic Comics, Bergen Street Comics, and Forbidden Planet, carry all sorts of comics.
FYD: Nobody mentions the comic book industry when it comes to Kindles. I will always pick up books.
GBT: It seems that with the digital platform, getting information to as many people as quickly as possible is a huge part of its inherent value. But a great story can—and should—be so much more than just information, and its presentation should inform the experience. A lot of the climatic moments in VIETNAMERICA are dependent on the reader seeing both facing pages simultaneously. Whether it’s an incredibly detailed, over rendered splash of refugees frantically waiting to board a plane, or a tiny panel of a prisoner surrounded by a sea of empty black, I tried to tell the story in ways that wouldn’t have the same emotional impact if it was an e-book.
I fall in the camp of those who enjoy the tactile experience of picking up a book, thumbing through it, and being immediately grabbed by it.
Comics are at their best when they take advantage of the medium’s unique narrative, structural, and formal potential to create an experience that can’t be duplicated by the art forms they pull from: film and literature. When comparing the physical to the digital version, it can kinda be like comparing apples to oranges. I strive to make comics whose reader experience would be as different from a digital version as it would be if you were watching a movie or reading a prose book.