Hawai’i-born Cartoonist Deb Aoki Shares ‘Slices’ of Life

By Keith Kamisugi and Kyle Tatsumoto. Published in July 12, 2007, issue of Nichi Bei Times. Photo by Emily Payne.

Aside from athletes, there are very few student celebrities at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. But cartoonist Deb Aoki was one of them.

In her “Slice O’ Life” comic strip, Aoki depicted four female college students dealing with schoolwork, part-times jobs, partying and, of course, boys. Her strips ran three times a week in the campus newspaper, Ka Leo O Hawai’i, from 1988-89.

Aoki’s work eventually attracted off-campus attention and was published in several alternative newspapers in Honolulu before she was asked in the mid-’90s to draw for The Honolulu Advertiser, the state’s largest newspaper.

To the delight of UH alums, the artist earlier this year released a 164-page double-sided collection featuring her “Life” strips and the work of Jon J. Murakami – the other celebrity student cartoonist who drew “University of Diverse City” for the same campus paper.

“The ‘Slice O’ Life’ book is pretty much my early college stuff,” said Aoki. “Prior to that, my comic strips were mostly little doodles in the margins of letters I’d send home to my friends and family about how weird I thought the Mainland was.” (Aoki has lived in Seattle, Los Angeles, New York City and San Francisco. She recently moved to Emeryville.)

“I dabbled in drawing shojo manga and superhero comics when I was in high school, but mostly did it for friends to see and enjoy,” she said.

Aoki thanks her high school (“Roosevelt, brah!”) art teacher, Gertrude Iwaida, for encouraging the young doodler to continue seriously pursuing art.

“She introduced me to a world of professional Hawai’i artists and craftsmen while I was still a student,” remembers Aoki. “She showed me that art could be more than a hobby – it could be a viable way of life, and a way of seeing the world.

“Even after graduation, she continued to be a good friend and mentor, encouraging me to seek out opportunities beyond Hawai’i. Her love of life, her sense of humor, her generosity of spirit and creativity has always inspired me.”

Manga influenced Aoki at a very young age. “I remember seeing (children’s manga) around the house from early on. Sometimes when we went to Chinatown, we’d go to Hakubundo book shop and I’d pick up a copy of ‘Nakayoshi,’ a girls’ shojo magazine, or my relatives from Japan would send me copies of manga magazines because my grandma would mention that I was interested.

“I couldn’t read much Japanese, so I mostly enjoyed reading what little hiragana and katakana I knew, or asking grandma to translate harder phrases.”

Reflecting back on her younger days reading children’s manga, Aoki said it took her years to realize that being a cartoonist used to be a “boy’s world” in the U.S.

“It kind of pleases me to see that more and more girls are becoming cartoonists now thanks to the manga boom lately,” she said, but “I’m a little jealous of this generation of shojo manga readers because they get it already translated into English without having to go to Japanese school.”

Aoki this year also became the guide to About.com’s manga site (manga.about.com), one of 570 About.com sites dedicated to providing information and resources on various subjects. The website is owned by The New York Times Company.

As the site’s guide, Aoki shares with readers her expert advice on finding quality manga, news about the art form, and even tips on drawing manga.

She enjoys the work of Jiro Taniguchi (The Walking Man), Ai Yazawa (Nana), Kaoru Mori (Emma), Tite Kubo (Bleach), Erica Sakurazawa (Aromatic Bitters), Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira) and Akira Toriyama (Dragonball) and she just discovered Kiyohiko Azuma (Azumanga Daioh!, Yotsuba&!).

Aoki considers the Hernandez Brothers (Love & Rockets) as her biggest influence. “Their stories about life in LA and Mexico from a Hispanic-American point of view (with a punk rock twist) helped me see that it was legitimate to draw about my life, where I’m from, and not feel forced to tell stories that I don’t feel personally passionate about.”

Speaking of passion, we asked Aoki which of her strips seem to attract the most attention. “The SPAM strips get a lot of comments – go figure!”

“The other one that people mention is the Hawai’i nightlife strip, where I mention the Point After, the Wave, After Dark and Wal-Mart,” she said, referring to the fact that the 24-hour Wal-Mart in the suburb of Mililani became the place to be seen late at night after it opened almost ten years ago.

Aoki’s strip still runs in the Sunday newspaper in Hawai’i, and in addition to “Slice O’ Life,” she published “Bento Box,” a collection of her Advertiser work – but she makes a living as a content manager for eBay.com.

It’s one of her better jobs. “I once temped at an ad agency as a ‘executive assistant’ and essentially got paid not much to make copies and lunch reservations. Thank god for Internet gossip sites, otherwise I would have been bored to tears.”

Her current strips reflect a move away from the ensemble cast of characters and to semi-autobiographical topics.

But you probably won’t see Aoki’s older brother drawn anytime soon. “I don’t often feature him in my comic strip because I think he’d be kind of sensitive to being made fun of. My older sister has a pretty good sense of humor. My mom, dad and boyfriend are numb to it already.”

You can find Deb Aoki’s books on amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, besspress.com and also at Nikkei Traditions in San Jose. Learn more at debaoki.com and at myspace.com/debaoki. Keith Kamisugi and Kyle Tatsumoto are da Two Japanee Bruddahs. Read past columns at twojapaneebruddahs.com.

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