Boom! Wham! Pow! The ComiQuad , having (mostly) escaped the clutches of criminal mastermind “Senior Year,” has triumphantly returned! This time, it brings with it a new superpower: local artist spotlights! The CQ’s fourth installment features Randall Trang, a
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Boston-based cartoonist and martial arts instructor.
All images accredited to Randall Trang (except one).
ComiQuad: On your website, you have “Randall Trang” defined in three different ways. The first definition is “Chinese-American comics creator.” So my first question is, why do you art?
Randall Trang: I started drawing when I was like, four. Just because I feel like my parents just wanted to shut me up a bit [laughs]. My family runs restaurants, and they’re often busy and working and I didn’t have a babysitter, I just went to the restaurant.
I would have to sit quietly and work on my homework, which I did, like a good little Asian student, and I also took to drawing. It was a fun thing that I could do at a table, and so I drew a whole lot. You know those waiter pads, the blank ones? I’d take books of those and draw all over them.
I would make little comics and little flip books and stuff.
Thankfully, the school that I went to, it was an inner-city school, but we had an art program. So I still managed to do it in skill and I kept up with it.
I honestly really love sitting down and just working and expressing myself on a piece of paper.
I started doing comics a lot more when I was in high school. By the time I was sixteen, I had my first “pro” work. I got paid like twenty bucks a page to do this comic for this writer.
I was like “Hey, that sounds like fun!” And twenty bucks a page, that’s a lot. So I decided to start doing it professionally. Before that, I hadn’t really considered it a profession? It was something that I did.
And my parents encouraged the art, but it was more like “This is a good hobby for you.”
But when I went off to college at Brown [University], I had to make a decision about what to do. I thought I was going to be an English teacher because I loved reading and I loved teaching. Eventually, the art worked its way into my curriculum because I couldn’t stay away from it.
It came to me while I was in college as a freshman, I woke up one night, and I guess I hadn’t drawn anything all day, which is not something that ever happens, so I woke up and could not get back to sleep until I drew something.
That was the moment where I was like “I guess I’m doing this.” My choice was made for me, I have to do this for a profession.
I still became a teacher, I’m a martial arts teacher, not an academic teacher, which I like a lot more.
What has been your journey since graduating from Brown?
Drawing as much as I did and the community of people that I met through working helped. I really got hooked up with writers through the Internet. It was part of this community on Brian K. Vaughan’s [famous comic book writer] message boards.
I went to my first Comic Con on a whim; I don’t remember what possessed me to go into San Diego Comic Con, but a lot of the people from forum were in California and they were going to be at San Diego, and I met them and that started the ball rolling for to me to realize that comics artists are really cool people.
I became really fast friends with a lot of them, and some of them are still some of my closest friends.
And the community around here, in Boston, cemented it for me. I started going to Comic Cons more after San Diego; Boston Comic Con a couple years ago, I met a lot of local artists: Ming Doyle, Joe Quinones, Maris Wicks, all those guys.
I started hanging out with them on a whim, and I was kinda starstruck. I was like, “Wow, I really don’t belong here.” But I really enjoy their company personally and they’re a huge part of me going into this professionally.
Whenever we hung out, I would also draw, and it became my social life too, not just my profession. I just fell in love with the people.
Do you find there are any recurring themes, ideas, or patterns in your work?
With Roller Girl and the Flying Sidekick, a lot of it is about martial arts because that’s the life that I lead. And I really believe in martial arts as a way of life.
The way I wrote and drew Roller Girl was as a teaching moment for me. I’m always thinking of ways that I can help people through teaching and martial arts. I really saw the comic as an extension of that.
So teaching, definitely, is a huge running theme in my work.
In my autobiographical web comic, a lot of it is centered around my family and heritage.
That’s a huge sticking point for me, both in writing and in enjoying other media. Watching movies, reading books, and stuff like that, it really calls out to me when there’s a family relationship.
Your second “Randall Trang” definition on your website is “Taekwondo instructor.” For how long did you know that you wanted to do martial arts instruction?
I grew up doing martial arts, and I always wanted to be a [Teenage Mutant] Ninja Turtle or a Power Ranger, that was my goal in life as a kid [laughs]. It was to be a cartoonist and a Power Ranger, and so I’m now kind of doing that in a very roundabout way.
I knew in high school that I wanted to go to college and teach, because teachers really helped me through a hard time in my life, and I felt like they were great mentors.
I wound up being a martial arts instructor because, in college, I really started to get into martial arts because of a teacher that I had, who is my master now.
He was really influential in helping me out through college and was the only reason I’m a functioning adult right now. After one semester of college, I decided that teaching is what I want to do, clearly, but maybe it’s not English, maybe it’s this.
Now I absolutely love my job. It’s the dream job.
You touched upon this earlier, but how would you say your work as a martial arts instructor informs your comics work?
If you’re worth your salt as a martial arts instructor, you become really aware of yourself and how you communicate with others. I really see my work with Roller Girl as a way for me to share my comics with the students that I teach. I really felt that there weren’t a lot of comics out there that I wanted to read, and not a lot of comics I could share with my students.
When I made [Roller Girl], I definitely had that in mind.
There are several different ways to communicate ideas and the theory of martial arts and why it’s beneficial. I thought comics would be a cool way of doing that and merging my two loves: comics and martial arts.
Roller Girl’s a teaching tool and it reaches people in a different way than me just standing in front of a classroom. It can reach to more people.
The people that usually come through and actually sign up for martial arts classes, they’re like “Oh yeah, it’s because I watched a lot of Kung Fu movies as a kid.” Or when they’re kids, it’s because of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or “I wanna be a ninja.” They always get attracted to it by other media.
I just wanted a comic to be able to do that too. If I could get one kid in through the door, and say “It got me to do martial arts” or “It got me to understand martial arts better,” that’d be great.
That really spoke to me and that’s what I wanted to make the book into. Roller Girl is coming into the martial arts world for the first time in the arc of the book. She is mimicking the reader and the reader’s being introduced to martial arts in this very peculiar way, seeing how she responds to it and how it changes her life and her perspective.
So the comic is something that you share with your students?
Yeah, it’s actually something that I can sell at the school. There’s no cursing, there’s actually no violence, the only things that they kick or punch are inanimate objects. And it’s still within the philosophy of the way that I teach.
My master, he read through it and liked it and encouraged me to sell it at the school, it wasn’t something that I wanted. But he read through it and said that I should sell it at the dojo.
With the kids that I teach, not a lot of them are comics readers, there are some, but they just saw the fact that their instructor wrote and drew it, thought it was really cool, and that’s how they get attached to it. Some of them “came out of the closet,” so to speak, as artists. They also draw cartoons. I actually have an artists’ wall at the school.
After they found out that I wrote and drew, the kids started drawing pictures for me. Of themselves doing martial arts or a Ninja Turtle or something and I would encourage them to bring it in and put it on the wall. It’s like a refrigerator type of thing.
Your website’s third definition of “Randall Trang” is as a “delicious chickpea dish.” Where does that come from?
[Laughs] That’s just a joke that I wrote when I was still in college. I don’t remember the origin of the joke, but I kinda just kept it.
Wait, now I remember it. I had recently discovered hummus [laughs]. I didn’t grow up eating hummus, I went to college and I discovered hummus.
Hummus was something that everyone except for me ate, apparently. And it doesn’t look appetizing. It’s like this beige paste. But then I ate it and was like “This is magical! What is this? Oh, it’s chickpea. What the hell is a chickpea?!”
That’s where that joke came from.
Interview has been edited for length.