Interview: Greg Pak
Totally Awesome Greg Pak is Creating Representation in the Comic Book Industry
by Alex Chester
I love Comic-Con. I grew up going to San Diego’s Comic-Con, and when I moved to NYC, I started working their Con.
Not only have I found some of my favorite comic books at Comic-Con, but I’ve also gotten to meet the people that created these superheroes - which, in my opinion, is pretty damn neat.
I try not to turn into a crazy fan-girl stalker, but alas I think I did with this dude. You see, it’s not often one gets to meet the creator of The Totally Awesome Hulk. What made this even more awesome was the fact I was just wandering the floor with some of my Hapa gang, and we literally ran into his booth by chance. Of course we all freaked the fuck out. Sorry, Greg Pak. I’m so glad we didn’t scare you off!
For those of you that don’t know much about the comic book world, Mr. Pak is a legend amongst the Asian-American nerd community. It’s SO rare to find representation in the comic book world, but Greg is making that happen, both on the page and behind it.
Mr. Pak talked to me for Hapa Mag!
I always start with this question, which is maybe hypocritical because if a non-Hapa person asks me this I tend to get annoyed. What makes you Hapa? Is it how you identify?
Greg Pak: Yeah, these are deceptively simple but very hard questions to answer, aren't they? I call myself Asian-American, Korean-American, and Hapa. I'm 100 percent all of those things, just like I'm also a Texan and a New Yorker and a writer and a bunch of other stuff. I'm Hapa specifically because I'm biracial, half-Korean and half-White.
What was it like for you growing up half-Asian?
GP: It was mostly great! I grew up in North Dallas in the 1970s and 1980s and had a pretty classic suburban American childhood, riding my bike to the comic shop, camping out with the Boy Scouts, playing D&D with my nerd friends, etcetera. As a kid, I think I identified pretty strongly as Asian rather than necessarily focussing on biracial identity partly because, at the time, I was more instantly recognizable as Asian.
I got my share of racist comments over the years, which were specifically anti-Asian rather than anti-biracial, but I was also aware of the specificity and rareness of being biracial -- and I kid you not, years later, I'm pretty sure that's where my interest in centaurs and half-elves in D&D came from.
How did you get into comic books? Did you grow up reading them?
GP: Yeah, I've been reading comics since I was six or seven years old. The earliest comics I ever read were probably the early Peanuts strips, reprinted in those old Fawcett paperbacks. My first superhero comic was that big Marvel Treasury Edition Spider-Man reprint book, which I adored. I was also drawing comics from a very young age. My mom was the kind of mom who gave her kids crayons and paper instead of coloring books, so I was always drawing as a kid. I drew cartoons for my high school and college papers and beyond. After studying political science as an undergrad at Yale, and history at Oxford, I circled back to my original passions and went to film school at NYU and then eventually moved sideways into writing comics.
Growing up I never saw any representation in comics that looked like me, however I did always think Neil Gaiman’s Death was Hapa. How did The Totally Awesome Hulk come about?
GP: Shortly after I started writing for Marvel, I got an invite to join a number of other new writers in creating new heroes based on old Marvel names. I picked the name "Mastermind Excello" and invented Amadeus Cho, a Korean-American super-genius teenager. The brilliant artist Takeshi Miyazawa co-created him, designing his look and drawing his first appearance.
Amadeus ended up playing key roles in the Incredible Hulk book during Planet Hulk and World War Hulk and later teamed up with Hercules in the Incredible Hercules book that I co-wrote with Fred Van Lente for 4 1/2 years.
Then a few years ago, I got a call from Marvel editor Mark Paniccia, who asked if I'd be interested in writing Amadeus as the Hulk. The editors had been talking about having someone else become the Hulk, and decided Amadeus made sense. I was thrilled to jump on board and have been writing him ever since. It's been a blast -- I love Amadeus and am thrilled to write him whenever I have the chance, and this has been a great chance to see him grow on a bigger platform than ever.
I’ve been going to both New York Comic-Con and San Diego Comic-Con for many years, and I have to say SDCC has become a nightmare. Do you think Comic-Con has ruined comics? Or has it made them more accessible to the general public?
GP: Well, big cons, like any big event, can be exhausting, but no, I don't think any con has ruined comics. On the contrary, I think the fact that there are now dozens if not hundreds of great Comic-Cons all around the country and world every year is fantastic for comics. Sure, some of these cons are really more Pop Culture-Cons than Comic-Cons, with a greater emphasis on film and television than actual comic books, but the overall impact of all of these cons is a greater awareness and interest in comics and dozens of places where comics creators can meet fans and sell books and work.
I know a pretty good number of comic creator colleagues absolutely depend on the income they make at cons as part of their business plan. Every time I do a con, I sell comics to someone who hasn't picked one up in years, so I think it's great cons are booming.
Do you have a favorite comic book character you’ve created or worked on?
GP: Amadeus Cho, Bruce Banner, and Stanford Yu. Stanford's the hero of my new series, Mech Cadet Yu, which tells the story of a janitor's kid who bonds with a giant robot and joins the elite Sky Corps Academy. My buddy Takeshi Miyazawa is drawing the book, and I absolutely love every minute of working on it. Stanford's exactly the kind of scrappy underdog hero I love to write, and I've been thrilled that enough people have bought and spread the word about the book for it's been upgraded from a four issue miniseries to an ongoing comic. The first collected trade just hit comic shops -- ask your local shop to grab you a copy!
I have to ask this… DC or Marvel?
GP: As a kid, I grew up mostly reading Marvel, but I have no bias towards one company or the other as an adult. I've had a fantastic time writing characters from both companies, and I've found that the experience of working for the two different companies has been pretty much the same -- it's all about doing our best to tell fun, compelling stories with these classic characters, and it's a blast.
You recently started a hashtag campaign on twitter #AsAmCreatorRollCall calling out all the Asian-American creators to share and support each other’s work, and you now have over 290,000 views! How do you propose to keep this ball rolling? Have you seen any changes in our community already?
GP: I was pretty blown away by the overwhelming response to the hashtag. I just felt like celebrating Asian-American creators -- everyone I know works so damn hard to tell amazing stories in a world where it can be incredibly difficult to get gatekeepers to give Asian-American stories a chance. So I figure the more we do to toot our own horns and talk up each other, the better off we all are.
Thousands of people shared the hashtag and hundreds of creators from all different fields shared their work. Even now, a month or so later, several folks a day are posting with the hashtag. I'll keep posting and retweeting other people's #AsAmCreatorRollCall tweets as long as folks keep posting them!
What do you have next on your plate?
GP: I'm writing Weapon H, a big, fun, bombastic book about an ex-soldier who's been turned into a Hulk-Wolverine hybrid. Cory Smith is drawing and it's ridiculous and fun and actually deeply emotional. That debuts in March.
I'm also writing the DUO book for Milestone Comics, which will be published by DC. That's a book about a Korean-American scientist whose wife's disembodied consciousness ends up inside his own brain. That'll debut some time in the spring.
And I'm working on a couple of secret things that will be revealed in the fullness of time. At least one of them involves a multiracial character, by the way! For the latest, as always, please feel free to subscribe to my email newsletter.
Any words of wisdom for the aspiring comic book writer/creator? Specifically someone that wants to create Asian-American and Mixed-Asian characters.
GP: In terms of practical comics making advice, I'd point you to Make Comics Like the Pros, a how-to book I co-wrote with my good buddy, and Incredible Hercules co-writer, Fred Van Lente.
And once again, please do subscribe to my newsletter -- I'm making it a habit to drop comic-writing tips there.
In terms of making work featuring Asian-American or Hapa characters, my biggest advice is that if that's the way you see those characters, just do it. There will always be people who will tell you that making your characters Asian-American will hurt your project and limit its audience. In some cases, there will be gatekeepers who will reject your project because it features Asian-American characters, but if we don't make those projects, who will?
I do think it's a good idea if you want to do work-for-hire writing to make yourself comfortable writing all kinds of characters from all different backgrounds. You shouldn't feel obligated to make every original character you create reflect your own ethnic background, but if you have that special project with that special character or characters you really want to be Asian-American or Hapa, I recommend doing everything you can to stick to that dream.
I've done signings at comic shops and conventions during which little Asian-American kids came up with big stacks of well-read Totally Awesome Hulk books for me to sign. One kid even brought a rolled up Totally Awesome Hulk poster with tape marks on the corners -- he'd clearly had this hanging up at home and brought it in to be signed. I look at those kids and listen to them chatter about comics and the character, and my heart grows a million sizes. These characters are important. They tell kids they belong. Keep on writing, friends. Keep on writing.
Thank you so much Greg for taking the time for this interview. Be sure to check out his website!
Alex Chester is the creator and producer of the theatre company WeSoHapa - a theatre based on diversity and inclusion. She is a New York City based columnist for On Stage Blog and contributing writer for ManhattanDigest.com and HuffPo. She also hosts a podcast with fellow writer Melissa Slaughter, We're Not All Ninjas. Follow her on Twitter/Instagram @AlexFChester if you like food and cats.