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Long Beach graphic novel pioneer to show at local gallery this weekend

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By Cory Bilicko
Managing Editor

Since you’re reading this right now, you’re not one of the one percent of Americans who is illiterate. The Worldfact Book prepared by the CIA in 2007 asserts that the U.S. literacy rate is 99 percent and that the overall world literacy rate is 82 percent. Ninety-nine percent of Americans being literate might not seem a troublesome statistic, but imagine it as several million people age 15 or older not being able to read or write.
In 1985, artist and publisher Phil Yeh interviewed Wally Amos, of Famous Amos cookies, for Yeh’s Long Beach magazine Uncle Jam, and Amos enlightened him on the literacy crisis then. “At the time, there were an estimated 27 million American adults who could not read and write. The majority of them were white and born in the USA,” said Yeh, who, after being inspired by Amos, decided to use art and humor to promote the issue of literacy.
“I announced that we would form this band of artists called Cartoonists Across America and hit the road for 15 years until the year 2000,” he said. For this tour, he would later be honored by the Los Angeles County Library Foundation, along with actor Edward James Olmos and Dr. Fred Cort, with the first Alfie Award for Literacy. “Wally flew in from Hawaii to present this award to me at Sony Studios. It was a big deal for us, and I announced then that we would continue to tour for another decade until the year 2010, since the problem had only grown worse since we started,” Yeh said. “What is even sadder: today, after we spent 23 years on the road promoting this issue, we have almost a hundred million Americans who do not read for pleasure. They are able to read; they just don’t!”
Yeh said it’s easy to point the finger for Americans’ lack of interest in reading, but his group decided a long time ago that blaming people was not the answer to this problem. “We had to try and use cartoons and humor to trick them into being smarter. After all, there are plenty of things out there convincing people to do stupid acts,” Yeh said.
In the last 23 years, Cartoonists Across America has managed to paint more than 1,700 colorful murals all over the world, bringing media attention to the issue of literacy and to the lack of art and music education in schools, which, he believes, is directly related to the rise in crime, gang activity and high-school dropout rates.
“I have always believed that kids of any age are attracted to visuals, as this love of all things on the Internet, on DVDs, movie screens, video and TV have more than proven the past century,” he said. “But before any of this was brought to us through electronics, people all over the world loved and enjoyed paintings and beautifully illustrated children’s books.” Yeh believes there is a real love in all people for the visual arts and that is why comics and graphic novels, if they have substance, can appeal to anyone as a learning tool. “The evidence is there, and the United States, which is far behind many other countries when it comes to appreciating and accepting the comic book art form, is only now finally starting to talk about graphic novels as mainstream entertainment for the masses,” he said.
Yeh’s 1977 graphic novel Even Cazco Gets the Blues is considered one of the very first of its kind, and was a product of the Long Beach publishing scene of the early ’70s from which the modern graphic novel emerged, helping to entomb the idea that comic books were only about superheroes and zany costumes. “The real story is on our Web site, which tells how my old friend Richard Kyle, who had a bookstore in downtown Long Beach for many years, coined the term ‘graphic novel’ in the 1960s and also published one of the very first graphic novels in 1976,” Yeh said, adding that Kyle’s role in the development of this art form was instrumental in inspiring Yeh’s own work in this field, within which Yeh has made a name for himself.
Yeh’s The Winged Tiger was the result of his world tour, when it became clear that language was an issue in promoting literacy. “So I spent a year writing and drawing a book without words to promote ‘reading,'” he said.
That book was named one of the 25 best graphic novels in print by Stephen Weiner, and his latest book, Dinosaurs Across America, was recently named one of the best 25 graphic novels for students today by School Library Journal.
Yeh will be signing some of these books at the opening of his show at Artistic Edge, 2105 E. 4th Street, on Saturday, May 31 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
For more information, call Artistic Edge Gallery at (562) 433-5169.

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Long Beach graphic novel pioneer to show at local gallery this weekend