Right out of the gate, let me say that Ignatz and Eisner Award-nominated Rina Ayuyang’s comics have me thinking a lot about movement and comics.
Comics as movement: within the panel and between panels and page flips.
Movement in content: all those physical and psychological emplotments.
Movement within and across identities exquisitely shaped by creators like Rina: ethnocultural, ancestral, geographic, and imaginative.
Rina’s extraordinarily kinetic word-drawn stories of her Filipina American identity and experience vitally add to the work of other like-visioning creators such as Lynda Barry (One Hundred Demons, especially), Trinidad Escobar (Crushed), and Malaka Gharib (I Was Their American Dream). As with these creators, Rina uses word-drawn narrative shaping devices to blaze new biomythographix stories that tease out the nuance of intersectional Filipina Americanness; biomythographix is my comics re-spin on Audre Lorde’s neologism to identify new storytelling forms that weave together history, biography, myth.
Indeed, Rina adds forcefully to creators from around the globe who seek to texture the spectrum of good-to-bad experiences of forced migration within and across geopolitically bounded spaces. I think readily here of Alberto Ledesma, Marjorie Satrapi, J.P. Stassen, Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama, Shaun Tan, Mohamed Arejdal and Cedric Liano, Lila Quintero Weaver, José Alaniz, Breena Nuñez, Thi Bui, Robin Ha, Augusta Mora, Dami Lee, and Nnedi Okora.
From Rina’s first book Whirlwind Wonderland to her zines as well as award-winning short story comics like “Beginning’s End” and her longer form Blame this on the Boogie, she shows how comics can and do draw their life-force from multispatial and multitemporal planetary physical, cultural, and creative border crossings, routings, and rootings. Rina reminds us that the sine qua non of comics is its movement — of bodies, minds, and imaginations.
To my great fortune, Rina recently gifted her time and expertise to share her insights into her process in the creating of Blame this on the Boogie.
You can learn more about Rina Ayuyang here.
Frederick Luis Aldama: So, Rina, tell me: Why comics?
Rina Ayuyang: I loved comics as a kid. I read comic strips in the Sunday newspaper funnies section and those paperbacks of collected Peanuts comic strips. I loved the humor, the timing, characters — the creating of these bubble worlds.
Later on, it was the independent, alt comics scene that really got me excited: John Porcellino and Adrian Tomine, Chester Brown, and Lynda Barry. They showed me that comics could be more than about superheroes; they could for adults and tell life-stories that were truthful and universal.
FLA: When did you begin to tell stories through drawing?
RA: Since I was a kid, I’ve always loved drawing. And, I’ve always been passionate about creating stories as a way to connect with people—no matter where they come from. I knew that I always wanted to write stories through comics. In high school, I created a fictionalized autobio comic strip. I was in charge of a late night talk show. And, later on in life I started creating mini-comics like Namby Pamby. Influenced by John Porcellino’s King Cat mini-comics that focus on his own life and his experiences in Chicago, I, too, wanted to tell stories about my own life.
FLA: To decide to go into this professionally requires a lot of courage.
RA: Yes it does require courage. However, it’s also important to remember that comics can be a really inclusive, supportive community — unlike other professions where there’s often power struggles and a competitive atmosphere. I’ve always felt like the comics creators have been very welcoming, willing to share what they know about making and distributing comics. In other professions, I’ve never seen this same level of welcome inclusivity that I have in the comics community.
FLA: Today, your experience with comics is vast. You publish and self-publish zines, comics, and a graphic autobiography, Blame this on the Boogie, with Drawn & Quarterly. Your work’s appeared in exhibitions across the country. You’ve been recognized with big industry awards. And, with your podcast you help promote other comics.
RA: Everything about comics excites me, including especially what other cartoonists are doing. So, using the podcast or helping publish other creators comes naturally. The pandemic has made it easier for me to talk to people who would normally be out on book tour. It’s been a great way for them to talk about their work so that more people know more about it. This, sharing then publishing their work (micro imprints and online) has helped promote community, sharing and showcasing work with each other. Creating these inclusive spaces for comics creators of color is especially important.
FLA: Let’s talk about how you begin your autobiographical Blame This On The Boogie. From idea to finished panel and page, what’s your process?
RA: I wanted pay homage to the era of the Technicolor musical, so I chose to use a cinematic take. By this I mean, the first page begins from a very abstract place, coming from the cosmos. With each turn of the page, the scene telescopes in, moving closer and closer from the sky to city (where everything looks the same) to a row of houses, to the house I grew up in.
FLA: To create this telescoping technique, you use one image for each of the first ten pages.
RA: In addition to this cinematic effect and homage to film, I wanted to create this huge, expansive moment. That we are these small little things within this vast universe. I also have this thing about giving a full page to a panel. Maybe it comes from the painter in me.
FLA: Do you sketch and script before you set down your final color penciling?
RA: With these opening pages, I went right at it with colored pencils; it was kind of going back to my painting days and just getting, going right in there on a blank canvas. Think of Raymond Pettibon’s animated and gestural brush strokes and vibrant colors in his California surfing drawings. That said, when it comes to really tricky, intricate scenes (with different characters, for instance), I do script and create quick thumbnails.
FLA: Great comic book storytelling invites readers to take pause and to think deeply about things that we’ve become habituated to in life. Ten pages in and the shapes and color palette you use ask readers to take pause: your childhood neighborhood in Pittsburgh.
RA: Paying attention to color was important. A lot of it came from my what I remember of the neighborhood; how things looked in my mind. The green of the grass; the grays and reds of the roofs; the red, purple and pink of the brick. I liked the boldness of this.
FLA: You use the landscape — the streets in particular — to divide the page up into panels, giving the eye the divisions needed to create rhythm and balance.
RA: It’s really important to me to figure out how to set up a scene, creating patterns and maps for the reader to follow. And, the shape of the house itself is important. The house always felt very asymmetric to me; it never felt quite right. So, I drew it with slanted, imperfect lines.
FLA: Jumping deeper into the story when you’re a young girl in Catholic school there’s so much now happening on the page.
RA: In general, I love to pack everything into a page. This was my first grade. We had transferred from public to private school. The scene takes place within a beautiful, huge chapel inside the school. At the top where the altar is, there is the painted eye of God that looks down on you.
For me, this is key to Catholicism: the omniscience of God looking down at you all the time, reminding us to behave and follow the commandments. I thought I’d find more connection and more of a nurturing community. That’s not quite what happened.
FLA: While there’s a lot going on here, you are careful to create discrete time-space units. We don’t have the traditional grid here. However, the page layout does guide our eye and meaning making as we move down the page and across different units of time-space.
RA: That’s what I like about the panel-less structure. It comes off as spontaneous. Like it just came out of a sketchbook. But everything is very much planned out. I want the reader not only to move from right to left as they travel down the page. I also want them to have an immersive experience; like the way I dove into children’s book illustrations as a child. I want it to be more than just reading the story. I want it to be where you look and discover in all the drawing’s details.
FLA: Turning to this two-page spread, there’s so much movement, joy—freedom—in the way you visually shape the story of yourself here.
RA: I wanted to express my newfound freedom. I would get lost in Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musicals, dancing and not caring about being bullied or being different. My younger self could be truthful to herself through dance. I wanted to bring that energy to these pages. I start with a realistic version of me: in my jeans and my green sweater. Then it turns from a whirling dervish movement and energy into a dream like state, with the pink and the mauve and the yellow. Then I return to reality: my younger self not liking school and not liking myself.
FLA: As we travel deeper into the story there’s the moment when your siblings have moved out and you declare to your parents that you want to be an artist. The layout here gives your panels more space to, say, breathe. You also include pop culture references.
RA: Right. I wanted the space between the panels to convey this time when I was pretty much by myself. With the Paula Abdul cartoon cat I wanted to convey how pop culture was to escape from things. Finally, as you reach the bottom of the page there’s the punch-line: “I’m going to be an artist.” As the quintessential cynic, my dad responds: “Well, at least it’s not a degree in toilet.” I draw my mom’s chinelas [slippers] as she’s doing a flop take out of the final panel.
FLA: There’s the absence of color around the first 4 panels. Then, you bring color into this final panel.
RA: Right. In that final panel, I convey how I’m less playful and more serious. It’s a sobering moment. The feeling of freedom from the musicals I watched from my childhood has left me. I’m entering adulthood. I’m talking about my career choice—to be an artist—and the vibrant red comes back. The more passionate, emotional part of me comes back.
FLA: In this final page that makes up our discussion, you include an incredibly self-reflexive moment?
RA: I’m waking up early to try to get my work done before anything else would distract me. This was hard to draw, especially getting the darkness right. I wanted to use layers of color instead of just pitch-black to show how dark it was, without it looking too flat. This was around the time my son was a baby too. I knew that any time I had to myself was precious and had to be focused on drawing, even if it was in the dark. It would make me happy knowing that I did something creative before my day even started.
FLA: Rina, the image of you drawing shows you to be a lefty?
RA: Yeah. I’m a lefty. But just for drawing. I’m a righty with everything else. It’s like Jaime Hernandez. It’s the one thing I have in common with a legend.
FLA: What are you working on now?
RA: I’m working a story that’s totally different from the autobio. It’s fiction. It’s a Filipino noir that focuses on the Filipino immigration experience in the San Francisco Bay Area during the 1930s; it involves a lot of research into Filipino and Filipino American history as well as studying old photographs. It’s a new challenge. It’s a new adventure. I’m so excited to tell more of our story.
FLA: I can’t wait. Rina Ayuyang, thank you so much!
RA: Thank you so much too.
Want to watch this discussion on video? Check it out below: