Best known for ground-breaking graphic novel Secret Identities, Taiwanese American comic illustrator and graphic designer Jerry Ma has featured works at the New York Asian Film Festival, the Lunar New Year Festival at the Met, and in Linsanity the Movie to name a few.
Currently in the process of opening a Taiwanese restaurant in East Village, Jerry’s work has been instrumental for the Asian American community – TAP-NY sat with him to learn more.
Can you introduce yourself?
Hi, my name is Jerry Ma. I’m a New York based graphic designer/comic illustrator that’s trying to open a restaurant with a good friend. I’m best known for my work on the comic anthology Secret Identities, which is the Asian American Superhero graphic novel anthology. I’m one of the 4 founding creators of the book as well as one of the working artists on it. I also have a line of graphic illustrated tee shirts and have most recently successfully kickstarted a creator owned graphic novel Legend, which is the first project I’ve both written and drawn. I also run a art supply store with my brother.
How did you get into illustration / graphic design? Who/what are your influences?
Growing up our family didn’t have much money, so my brothers and I would pool our allowance together and get comic books. We started with PowerMan and Iron Fist and The X-Men. Then it grew into The Monkey King and Lau Fu Zi.
It was like entering a new world for me. All I could think about was creating my own world and telling my own stories.
I grew up wanting so badly to work at Marvel and DC Comics. But trying to be a professional comic artist is seriously like trying to be a NBA athlete. I had to make a living some way, so I became a graphic designer.
I started by designing kids socks…and it sucked. I quickly started jumping from company to company trying to find a good fit for myself and eventually ended up at GAP Kids, Champion and then finally Aeropostale where I was fortunate enough to be the lead graphic designer on their kids line of clothing.
While I was working at these companies, I was always working on comics when I would get back home. My first self published comic was called BURN. It’s a story about love at first sight and broken loyalty, and takes place in NY Chinatown…with an all-Asian cast.
After working on BURN, I quickly realized that I no longer was all that interested in drawing Iron Fist. As a matter of fact, Iron Fist was one of the main reasons why I ended up working on the stories that I have. It broke my heart as a child anytime Iron Fist would take off his mask and reveal that he was blonde and blue eyed. I always thought if he was an Chinese American that didn’t speak Chinese, and went to K’un L’un to find his culture, that it’d be a much stronger background for him.
Which leads me back to my work on Secret Identities. Secret Identities is a graphic novel anthology featuring original Asian American heroes created by Asian Americans.
So my influences are all over the place. I get influenced by work that I see, work that I don’t see and want to see, my friends and family and then of course, the most amazing city in the world, New York.
You’ve done a lot of really cool work, from projects with NYAFF to Angry Asian Man. What was your favorite project, and is there anyone you’d like to work with in the future?
Picking one project would be tough. I’ve been lucky enough to do some things that meant a lot to me. Like designing the film festival movie poster for Linsanity. Or this past Lunar New Year when I spent time drawing with children at The Met. I’ve had the chance to speak at universities and museums on Asian American awareness and even had the opportunity to travel to Hong Kong to paint live at a Kangol anniversary party. Shopping in Tokyo to bring back fashion inspiration to some of the companies I’ve worked for was always fun.
But the most memorable would have to be when I worked with one of my mentors, Walter Simonson, on a tee shirt together. Walter is one of the most iconic comic artists in the history of comics. He’s literally in the Hall of Fame. One day many moons ago, I emailed him a jpg of tee shirt I had done for GAP Kids. It was of a stegosaurus. Walter is a HUGE fan of dinosaurs…and even based his signature after one. But he thought that the graphic I did was so cool and couldn’t wait to get one for himself. When I told him it was for kids, he complained to me. So after listening to him complain for a while, I just told him,”Walt…just shut up and draw one. I’ll make it for you.”
And just like that, it was on. And I’ve been making my own tees with some really cool artists ever since.
As for who I’d like to work with in the future? Oddly enough, that’s actually just started for me. My mother (Shu Ei Ma) is a writer and has a pretty strong following in Taiwan. She has 7 novels published through Crown Magazine. And she used to be an editor for The World Journal here in New York. Because she’s an amazing mother, she’s sacrificed her own career to take care of her family (myself, my brothers and my nephews). Obviously we’re all grown up now, so she’s been slowly getting back into the writing game. And she’s started by writing some short stories that have been published in The World Journal. Luckily for me, my mom has some pull, so I’ve been assigned to illustrate her stories. Which has been an amazing experience for me. Our conversations have changed from, “what did you eat for dinner last night” and “when are you going to get married”, to “let’s talk about what you’re going to write next and what would you like to see me illustrate for it” instead. Honestly…this is cooler for me to work on than anything else you could throw at me.
How does your upbringing and heritage influence your work? How does Taiwan play a role in your life?
Growing up Asian American is a unique experience. Here in America I’m Asian. Anywhere in Asia, I’m American. When I was young, it was difficult. I never really felt like I fit in. Always wanted to be like someone else.
I never really saw people that looked like me on TV or in the movies. Well….I guess I still don’t see that even today. But that’s why I feel it necessary to tell new stories with people that have a similar background.
So my Taiwanese culture plays a major role in my work. Even as literal as drawing Taipei into my work just to try and share the beauty of our culture with other people. Taiwan is one of the most amazing places in the world. The people are polite, the food is delicious, the subway system is efficient and clean, and they are the originators of Din Tai Fung!!!
Do you have a piece (your own or someone else’s) that you feel most closely connected to?
Well for me, the answer to this question is rather simple. Secret Identities. It all started while I was in Artist Alley at a comic convention in Philadelphia. I was promoting my book BURN at the time. Now when you’re an artist in Artist Alley, you get approached by so many people each day. And everyone has a lot to say, sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes longwinded, sometimes short and sweet. This particular time though, there’s this Chinese guy looking at some of the tees I had made (which were all kung fu related), and then he flips through BURN. He strikes ups a conversation with me about the lack of Asian representation in comics and media in general. I tell him that’s half the reason why I’d created BURN. Then he asks me if I’d like to work on a book together that would feature Asian American characters created by Asian Americans. That he is working on this idea with Jeff Yang. The rest is obviously history, but that guy was Keith Chow. And that conversation changed my life forever.
What can we find you doing on a typical weekend?
Well I’m generally at my art supply store at least one day of the weekend. And during my days off, that’s when I get to work on my art. Recently on weekends I’ve been working with my partner/chef Richard Ho. We’re going to be opening a Taiwanese breakfast restaurant by day, and at night a beef noodle men will come into play. Besides that, I try to squeeze in sushi and whiskey when I can.