WESTMINSTER, California (NV) – Maybe if their parents had their way, this group would have gathered at a medical convention. Or maybe a law symposium. Perhaps a seminar to exchange ideas about computer programming.
You know, some traditional fields for Vietnamese Americans.
This group, however, is charting its own path – one pencil stroke, one character, one color at a time – and making a go of it.
They aren’t doctors. Or lawyers. Or computer programmers. Rather, they have found success in the field of comics. And the last weekend in March, they gathered at WonderCon 2017 at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, Calif., and shared their art, as well as the stories of how they arrived at these careers with some of the 60,000 or so attendees.
Dustin Nguyen – the artist, not the actor and director of the same name – got his start about 25 years ago in San Diego, where he worked as an artist for Wild Storm Productions, a producer of comic books. Nguyen, now 41, is an Eisner Award-winning and New York Times best-selling comic book artist.
“I owe everything pretty much to Wild Storm,” Nguyen said. “I had no money and…I didn’t have a room. I slept on the couch at Wild Storm … I was living between the couch, the car and sometimes crashed at a friend’s place.”
But it was the break he needed, and Nguyen’s lengthy creative profile tells a picture of a prolific and talented artist. His notable work includes Wildcat v3.0, The Authority Revolution, Detective Comics, Batman: Streets of Gotham, Lil Gotham, Descender and more. His creative colleagues have included legendary comic artists such as Jim Lee, Ryan Benjamin, Carlos D’Anda and others.
The circle of comic artists is small, and the circle of Vietnamese American comic artists is even smaller. Out of more than 370 artists listed in the program for WonderCon Anaheim, there were just a handful of Vietnamese American artists. Who knows how the field will grow for Vietnamese Americans and whether there will be support for artists from those family members who often want their offspring to follow traditional career paths.
Just like the first generation of immigrants or refugees, this first generation of comic artists has had to figure things out for themselves. They all came to art differently.
Dustin Nguyen had the chance to work with inspiring arts. Peter Nguyen got his start through a talent-search competition. Leanne Huynh fell into the field and had the opportunity to work on video game production. Albert Nguyen quit a corporate job to pursue his dreams in comic art. Most have learned on the job and haven’t benefited from an art school education.
Peter Nguyen, 33, has become a successful penciler, both for DC Comics and Marvel. He also started with Wild Storm and had a drive to be better at his craft.
“I didn’t go to art school, and at the time, I always wanted to go to art school,” he said. “But looking back, I don’t think it was the right route either. I had to learn how to do things on my own and figure out how to make myself a better artist without a formal art training.”
“I’m not sure that art school was entirely necessary,” Albert Nguyen said while among the crowd at WonderCon Anaheim. “With so many talented artists sharing knowledge for free over YouTube videos and the internet, it’s possible to get a fantastic art education on your own, if you’re motivated. Nothing beats a good art community, though, and art school definitely makes that very easily possible. If you have the support, community, drive, and time though, save yourself some money.”
Huynh, one of the two female Vietnamese American comic artists listed on the WonderCon Anaheim program, stressed the important of early guidance and support.
“I wish I had started seriously considering a career in art sooner and gone to an art school,” she said. “All through high school and college, I was uncertain about what I wanted to do with my life and I feel that if I had known sooner, I’d be further along.”
The common thread between the four artists is their love of drawing and using comics as the medium for their expression.
“I can’t ever remember not drawing,” Albert Nguyen said, “but I feel like I really found my voice in the past few years. I like to take my interests — history and comics and Star Wars — and mix them all together, and I’ve had a lot of success and good feedback from my current work. Having great artists (as) friends, reading comics and discovering the extensive and supportive artists community on Instagram has been amazing.”
This group of Vietnamese Americans is persevering and succeeding, even if it wasn’t the first choice of their families.
“I honestly didn’t think it was a viable thing as a career,” Huynh said.
“They would have preferred if I was an actuary,” Albert Nguyen said.
Some families, however, are bursting with pride today.
“My parents didn’t know what was right for me,” Peter Nguyen said. “They supported me, but the art field is a new thing for them. However, once I figured out what I needed to figure out, they are now my biggest fans ever. You should see them at a convention.”
Note: Dan Huy Nguyen contributed to this report.