Over the past fall and winter quarters, students in Stanford’s Graphic Novel Project course have worked together to create a new graphic novel titled “American Heathen.” The novel is the end product of a lengthy creative process and tells the unusual life story of 19th-century Asian-American civil rights activist Wong Chin Foo.
According to Shimon Tanaka, lecturer in the Creative Writing Department and co-teacher of the course, the class chooses a non-fiction story each time the class is taught, with an eye towards highlighting social issues of which many people may be unaware. The students deliver pitches and then vote on which story should be chosen for the novel.
For this year’s class, Colin Kimzey’s ’17 pitch was chosen. However, Tanaka emphasized that although Kimzey presented the original idea, the entire class shares responsibility for the story.
“At the outset, we say to the students that there is no one student who has ownership over the story — that after we go through the selection process then it becomes everybody’s story and everybody has the same amount of authority over it,”Tanaka said.
Tanaka explained that the first step is to research the subject’s life. Because only one biography of Wong Chin Foo has been published, the group looked for articles and photo references to aid the research process.
According to Leah Kim ’16, another student in the class, Wong Chin Foo was a civil-rights activist at a time when racism was rampant against many groups, including Asian-Americans. However, unlike typical heroes, Foo has a problematic past as he was forced to escape from China after a failed coup d’état, leaving behind his wife and newborn baby.
“So he’s generally just a very flawed person, but I think because of that, he’s very relatable. Because… he really cares about his people — or people having the same rights as everybody else — and despite his flaws he constantly goes for that,” Kim said.
After the initial research, the group considered the artistic element of the novel by first envisioning how the characters looked from different angles and making thumbnails of various scenes.
After this was done, students brought the thumbnails to life in illustrations and digitally added elements, such as speech bubbles, to create the finished product.
Kim said that although students made initial decisions about how they wanted to contribute to the project, the course’s teachers encouraged students to try new things. According to Tanaka, every person drew at least one page of the story.
“The instructors were really vital in that they tried to make everybody involved or try everything, but respected our choices of trying to focus more on [our interests],”Kim said.
Those interested can pick up copies of “American Heathen” from the Creative Writing Department, located in Building 460 on the Main Quad, Margaret Jacks Hall.
Contact Skylar Cohen at skylarc ‘at’ stanford.edu.