“New Frontiers: The Many Worlds of George Takei” opened on Sunday, March 12, at the Japanese American National Museum. (Read J.K. Yamamoto’s coverage and view Mario Reyes’ photos at http://tinyurl.com/l95qdkh)
Even if you are not a “trekkie,” it’s still worthwhile to view before it closes in August this exhibition of Takei’s memorabilia acquired over his lifetime. While some may take him for granted because of his ubiquity and career longevity, few living Japanese American or Asian American entertainers have achieved as much in so many areas as this actor who originally gained fame with the 1960s “Star Trek” TV series.
His versatility spans acting (movies, TV and stage), animation voice acting and voiceover, and with the musical “Allegiance,” helping to produce. (With that distinctive voice of his, I’m almost surprised Takei never released any so-bad-it’s-good solo music albums like his “Star Trek” castmates William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy!)
Add to that his political and social activism and outspokenness on a range of topics, it’s really no wonder that JANM chose Takei — over his initial reluctance — to the first subject in what it plans to be a multi-part series on Asian American media figures who have made their mark on American culture.
One of the creative choices JANM and “New Frontier” curator Jeff Yang made was to include about 15 large comic book-style illustrations to accompany the exhibition and the five areas or chapters of Takei’s life.
Those illustrations, which give a pop art/Roy Lichtenstein feel to the exhibit, are by Washington, D.C.-raised comic artist Jamie Noguchi, who lives in Rockville, Md. He says he may be best known for this web comic “Yellow Peril,” the URL for which is http://www.ypcomic.com/. He described it as “The Office” with minorities — and cursing.
“He was the perfect choice for this project,” said Yang, who said that they had worked together a few years ago when Yang was helping with the first and second editions of “Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology” and “Shattered: The Asian American Comics Anthology (Secret Identities).”
Noguchi, who said he contributed to the second “Secret Identities,” did note that on one level, he had something in common with Takei: Tule Lake, where Takei spent part of his childhood. (Takei and his family were sent there after first being sent to the WRA center at Rohwer, Ark.)
Noguchi said he had two uncles who were also incarcerated at Tule Lake. “They never really talked about it,” Noguchi said. “Me and my brother had heard about it, but we were never told stories about it growing up. Researching this stuff was kind of a heartbreaking task.”
Noguchi’s artwork also appears in a 24-page comic book titled “Excelsior: The Many Lives of George Takei” (written by Yang) to accompany the “New Frontiers” exhibition. (The comic was delayed and unavailable for the opening of the exhibition but will be available Friday, March 31, according to Yang.)
The comic will, according to JANM’s Leslie Unger, sell for $5.95; she recommends calling the museum’s gift shop first just to make sure they are in stock. That comic book’s story will also be included in the third installment of the “Secret Identities” anthology due to be published this summer.
One thing that drew Noguchi to cartooning was the lack of restrictions in visual storytelling found in that medium: no fundraising, no need to get a film crew together. “As a cartoonist, I can tell any story that I want to. I get to be the casting director, the special effects guy — all that stuff,” he said.
“I’m interested in storytelling in general. Superheroes are fun but I kind of like exploring the not so much ‘more realistic stories’ but not necessarily the superheroes punching each other,” said Noguchi, who is the son of Phil and Connie Noguchi. “My mom was born in Canton, China, but she was raised in San Francisco. I think I’m Yonsei on my dad’s side.”
According to Noguchi, the Takei-related illustrations turned out to be a bit of a challenge for him. “I usually draw in a more stylized way,” Noguchi said. “I don’t really draw ‘real people’ that often, so I kind of had to reteach myself how to draw faces and realistic proportions instead of the pseudo-anime/manga style I normally draw stuff in.”
Growing up, he said his younger brother, parents and he watched “Star Trek: The Next Generation” religiously on TV. “We were also big fans of the original series. We saw all the movies in the theater,” Noguchi said. “We collected the entire series on VHS.” So, Noguchi was aware of Takei years before ever getting tapped to channel him in cartoon form. “It was really great to see George on the show,” he said.
For the near future, Noguchi will keep focused on helping raise his 2-year-old daughter, Hazel, with his wife, Audrey. On the topic of kids, he said he is also working with a partner on a kids’ book. One of his other endeavors, meantime, almost sounds like it could become a TV show.
That project, of which he is a co-founder, is an art group called Super Art Fight, which does a live-action art competition that he describes as “Pictionary meets pro wrestling.”
Basically, two artists go on stage with the objective to “outdraw your opponent.” They work off the same canvas with a starting topic and can draw over each other’s art. Every five minutes they get a new topic from the random topic generator and the winner is picked by the live audience via an applause meter.
“We have two main locations. In Baltimore, the Ottobar, which is an indie rock bar, and in D.C., we play the Black Cat,” Noguchi said. “Those are our home bases. We also go to comic conventions all around. We’ve actually done three shows in L.A.” (Yes, there is a website; it is: superartfight.com/)
Back to the topic of new frontiers, Noguchi said this year he started teaching a not-for-credit cartooning class at Montgomery College, a local community college in the Maryland area. “This is the first time I’ve actually taught a class,” he said. “It’s fun, it’s interesting. I hope they [the students]got something out of it. The goal was to get them further along in the process of creating comics, because the best way to learn is to make them.”
That’s good advice for almost any endeavor one wants to pursue and one that Noguchi has himself been following. I won’t be surprised if his illustrations and comics become more popular in the years to come.
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2017 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.