Artist-in-Residence Jerry Ma: A Comic Book Odyssey
In Journey to the West, a 16th-century Chinese novel, a monk named Tang Sanzang is tasked with bringing back sacred Buddhist texts from Central Asia and India. To protect him are three companions: Zhu Bajie or Pigsy, Sha Wujing or Sandy, and, most famously, Sun Wukong or the Monkey King.
In our newest exhibition, A CHINATOWN ODYSSEY, graphic novel artist Jerry Ma reinterprets this classic Chinese tale. Instead of China, the quartet journeys through 1980s Manhattan Chinatown. Instead of monk’s robes, they wear hoodies and jeans. Instead of demons and other uncanny spirits, they encounter dim sum cart ladies, fish vendors, and some very angry arcade owners.
We had the chance to speak to Jerry about his exhibition, experiences with Comic Con, and love for a Chinatown gone by.
Where are you from? Where did you grow up?
I was born in New York, in Washington Heights. My family is from Taiwan — well, my father is actually from northern China. He had to flee because of the Communist Revolution. He met my mother in Taiwan, and in 1969 they came to the U.S. together. First in Los Angeles, then New York.
Have you always been interested in art and drawing?
Yeah, I’m part of that rare percentage of people who has always known exactly what I want to do. My mom said that when I was in diapers, I’d draw on the walls with Sharpie markers. Drawing and art were the only things I was good at. I wasn’t ever very good in school. I was always daydreaming and drawing.
What drew you to comics and graphic novels rather than another art form?
Growing up, our family didn't have too much. We weren't poor, but we weren't exactly living in the lap of luxury. So every week my brothers and I would pool our allowance, which was $1 a week each. A dollar wouldn't buy you too much in general, but if we pooled our money together, we could get a pretty good haul of comics.
Reading comics took me to another place. I love the comic medium. Being able to tell a story through illustrations will always be the coolest thing to me.
Did you study drawing and art in college?
I did but getting there was kind of difficult. Like I said I was a bad student. I didn’t even bother applying to colleges. But I had this great high school art teacher named Joan Ditieri who basically made sure I went to college. My parents didn’t want me to go to art school, but my teacher came to my house three times to try and convince them. She made sure I did volunteer service to make up for my less-than-stellar grades. I visited senior citizen homes and drew caricatures. My teacher helped to get three newspapers to write stories on me. Finally, my parents were convinced to let me go to SVA [School of Visual Arts].
What did you do after you graduated?
I worked at Morgan Stanley for four years. I was on their in-house creative team, creating internal documents. It was pretty boring, but it paid well!
Eventually I quit to make and self-publish my own comic, which was called BURN. It was a Chinatown-inspired gangster/love story, and my brothers were the writers. I tried that for a little while and when that didn’t pan out, I got a job as a graphic designer for a children’s sock company. My friend got me the interview. I didn’t know the software at the time so an hour before my interview, my friend taught me how to use it. When I got the job, I went in an hour early each day to teach myself. I eventually became the art director for graphic design.
I know you exhibit quite a lot at Comic Cons all over the world. What has that experience been like?
My Comic Con journey has been interesting to say the least. Like I said, I quit my job at Morgan Stanley around 2001 and self-published BURN. As an aspiring comic illustrator, the second you get your first book done, it only seems natural to reward yourself by showing it to the world. Back then there wasn’t any Instagram or much social media. So instead you’d go to a comic convention. It was the fastest way to spread your brand and gain a following. Before that, I’d literally go store to store with my younger brother carrying a duffel bag full of comics. It was tough as most stores didn’t want to sell indie comics, since there really wasn’t much of a demand for them.
That’s where comic conventions came in. At a convention, there wasn’t any middle man to deal with. We could sell the books to whomever would be interested. So I went to soooo many conventions with my brother Jim and friend Ken Knudtsen (who also had his first comic published). We went everywhere — from San Diego to Chicago to Boston, to these tiny shows in the middle-of-nowhere New Jersey.
Fun! But I imagine it’s not free?
Far from it. At the conventions, we had to pay for our space, which could get pretty expensive, especially after you factor in travel and lodging. So the only way I could have a chance at breaking even was by selling something for more than $3. That’s how I got involved in making T-shirts. I went from setting up with one small table in Artist Alley to getting large booth space on the main exhibitor floor. All thanks to the following my T-shirts had gained.
While it was great the T-shirts had taken on a life of their own, it was still ultimately not what i wanted to do. So a couple years ago I decided to get back into comics, and I Kickstarted my book LEGEND. It came at the perfect time as I was really burning out on going to conventions. I don’t think people realize how exhausting it is to set up at these things. For me in particular, with all the tees, it’s basically setting up a pop-up shop each time as well as trying to find friends to help out for those weeks.
DId you end up taking a break from conventions?
Actually no. With LEGEND, I realized that I had to start going to more of them. I had to reintroduce myself to everyone in a weird way. To remind everyone that I was an illustrator and not just a designer.
I understand you go to Comic Cons all over the world. How did that come about?
One of my good friends, Bernard Chang, who is a well-known comic artist, is always going to conventions all over the world, and he asked me if I wanted to join him at one in Taipei. My family is from Taipei. I was getting pretty burnt out with having nobody care about me here in the States so I figured, Why not? Why not see if I’ll get the same lackluster response in Taipei as I was getting here in America?
It was the best decision of my life. Not only was it my first time going back to Taipei in six or seven years, but they seemed to genuinely care and appreciate what I was trying to do. It was the first time in my life that I actually sold all of the books I had brought with me … and that was on the first day there!
Tokyo Comic Con had always been on my bucket list of things to do. After the amazing experience in Taipei, once again I figured why not? So I hopped on a plane and went to Tokyo. And again, I couldn’t believe how much people actually took the time to get to know me and learn about what I was trying to do. It was so inspiring for me. So needless to say I plan on attending comic shows in Taipei and Tokyo for the next few years.
Can you tell me a bit about the Asian American superheroes anthology SECRET IDENTITIES? How did that come about?
I was at a comic convention in Philadelphia in Artist Alley. Now, as a no-name aspiring artist, people are always coming up to me and telling me all about their game-changing ideas that I would be the perfect fit for — as long as I was willing to do months of work for free. But this one time in Philadelphia, this guy named Keith Chow came up to me and started talking to me about the lack of Asian representation in comics, especially considering so many creators are Asian American. I totally agreed with him.
Then he told me how he had this crazy idea to make a graphic novel featuring original Asian American heroes created by Asian American creators. Not only that, [journalist, podcaster, and dad to Hudson] Jeff Yang was on board too. I grew up a big fan of Jeff’s every since A Magazine. So I took this "game-changing" idea seriously. We exchanged info, then we all hopped on a call. After that, we reached out to [actor] Parry Shen to be a part of it as well, and the rest is history.
Now let’s talk about your exhibition, A Chinatown Odyssey. What inspired it?
It’s a love letter to the Chinatown of the 1980s. Now it’s so different. Back then it wasn’t just hotels and bars. And I’ve always loved the Monkey King. I love the Stephen Chow movies from the ‘90s, A Chinese Odyssey, Parts 1 and 2. I wanted to pluck the Monkey King out of a fantasy world and place him in ‘80s Chinatown, back when it was a little dirtier, a little cooler.
What makes Pearl River Mart a good fit?
When you think of Chinatown, you think of Pearl River. I’ve had offers to do art shows before, but I don’t want to do it just for my ego. Having a show here at Pearl River is a lot more meaningful.
Do you have any favorite memories from Pearl River?
Pearl River was always cool, especially to me as an artist. I always came here for inspiration, whether for my home or my exhibition spaces. I came here for things like cool paper to draw on, things that you can only get in Asia or Pearl River.
What do you hope to accomplish with your exhibition? What do you hope the viewer will get out of it?
Part of it was that I wanted to challenge myself and draw things that were very hard, very detail oriented, in order to capture the beauty I see in Chinatown. I’d also like people to talk about and remember the old Chinatown. To experience some kind of emotion and nostalgia. Like with the chicken from the Chinatown Arcade. I always felt bad for that chicken. The Monkey King usually does bad stuff, but I had him do one good thing: he saves that chicken.
A CHINATOWN ODYSSEY will be on view in our TriBeca gallery from Jan. 18 through March 8. Join us for the opening reception on Jan. 18 from 5 to 7 p.m. Free and open to the public.