Greg Pak made a splash in the indie film scene with his feature, “Robot Stories”, which won over 30 awards and played in over 70 film festivals. More recently he’s been making a name for himself with comics geeks as the man behind “Planet Hulk”, the most interesting and innovative Hulk story in years, and “World War Hulk”, the recent massive Marvel Comics crossover event which followed the much publicized “Civil War”. Half-Korean, Pak’s work often deals with issues of Asian identity politcs. He cites authors Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut and auteurs Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyazaki as his influences. You can find out more about his work at www.pakbuzz.com.
Where did you grow up? Were you always interested in visual storytelling?
I grew up in Dallas, Texas, where my parents gave us kids blank paper and crayons rather than coloring books. Reading, writing, and drawing were highly encouraged activities in the house. Years later, I became a writer, cartoonist, and photographer for various high school and college publications.
Were you always a film and comics fan?
I loved comics and movies, but never let myself think seriously about the arts as a career. Instead, I studied political science as an undergrad and returned to Texas in 1990 to work for Ann Richards in her bid for Governor of Texas. A year later, I headed to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar to study history, and for the first time had the chance to get a taste of filmmaking with a student group. And I was hooked. From Oxford I went to NYU Grad Film, made a ton of short films, and eventually shot my first feature film, “Robot Stories.” And many moons later, here I am writing comics.
Did studying political science at Yale have an influence on the issues of race and empowerment that you explore in some of your work?
I’ve been interested in questions of race and justice ever since I was a seven-year-old kid hearing that “Chinese Japanese dirty knees” chant for the first time. I’m pretty sure that the need to understand and deal with racism is one of the things that pushed me towards both politics and storytelling. Both fields can provide ways to learn how human beings interact and to try to connect with people and change perceptions.
“Planet Hulk” can be seen as a political story in some ways. Was the storyline based on any specific historical era? Or is it just a genre mash-up of superheroes and gladiator movies?
I did a ton of research on ancient Rome before writing the series. But I also read about Genghis Khan and various other religious, political, and military leaders, both past and present. One of the most exciting things about “Planet Hulk” was that I was able to create an entire alien world, with its own history, ecology, zoology, sociology, mythology, politics, and religion. So pretty much everything I’ve ever learned ever had an influence on this story.
You’ve been really busy in the comic world, to the point where you’re now one of the “name” writers at the House of Marvel. Has film taken a backseat for now?
Right now I have a short film, “Happy Hamptons Holiday Camp for Troubled Couples,” on the festival circuit. I have a few possibilities kicking around in terms of feature films, but nothing I can talk about just yet.
In such a short period of time you’ve gone from writing mini-series, to heading up the next big Marvel crossover event after the colossal “Civil War.” When your agent first hooked you up with Marvel, did you think it was going to go this far?
I had no idea just what would happen. In fact, I worked for a year developing various projects with Marvel that fell apart for various reasons. None of which, Marvel assured me, had anything to do with the quality of my writing. I stuck with it because I was learning a ton, really enjoyed working with the Marvel editors, and genuinely loved the characters and genre. But there was never any guarantee that anything would actually see print. But eventually the “Warlock” miniseries came together, and then the “X-Men: Phoenix – Endsong” series hit big, and I started to realize this might actually work out.
Each step of the way, I’ve just tried to do my best with the projects I got my hands on, and eventually, I was lucky enough to get the Hulk, which was the character I’d most wanted to work with since my first day.
I’ve heard you express interest before in creating an Asian American superhero whose ethnicity was treated in a similar fashion to Daredevil’s Irish Catholic background, in that it’s fundamental to who the character is and plays a part…but doesn’t drive the narrative or concretely define the character. Why has there been no such character so far?
Actually, the X-Men’s Jubilee is exactly that kind of character, and all hail writer Larry Hama for doing so much with her. But in looking through the archives, I was hard pressed to find an Asian American male character with those kinds of characteristics. I think one of the reasons for this may be that back in the day, many of the prominent non-white superheroes may have been created to take advantage of the popularity of kung fu and blaxploitation movies. Hence the plethora of Asian martial arts characters and ghetto-based African American characters.
Now I totally love kung fu movies. But making every Asian American character a martial arts master is the rough equivalent of making every white character a cowboy. It’s time to branch out.
Is your creation, Amadeus Cho aka Mastermind Excello, this character?
But being supersmart has always been a part of the Asian model minority stereotype. Why did you decide to make Amadeus Cho’s power the ability to calculate and analyze data at a superhero level?
The perniciousness of the model minority myth comes from a combination of stereotypes. Smartness plus emotionless-ness plus subservience plus dorkiness plus inscrutability plus violin playing. By claiming smartness but turning every other aspect of the model minority myth on its head, the character of Amadeus Cho provides a great way to simultaneously remind us of those stereotypes and tear them apart.
Amadeus is a cocky, funny outlaw with authority issues and an illegal coyote pup sidekick. He’s so far from being subservient and emotionless and inscrutable that during “World War Hulk,” he’s one of the few heroes crazy enough to side with the Hulk when the green goliath comes back to Earth seeking vengeance.
It also occurred to me that in an increasingly anti-intellectual and non-reality-based world, there’s a real virtue in depicting smart heroes and heroines. Around the time I created Amadeus, I felt like writing a sharp, funny, smart character, and it would be the ultimate in irony if I let a fear of stereotypes force me into making my character a boring lunkhead.
It’s also worth noting that when you create a character who’s so smart and cocky, you have the chance for dramatic tension. Cocky characters tend to get their comeuppance eventually. It’s also true that most cocky characters are hiding some pain or fear. All of that provides for great, emotionally honest, humanizing storytelling, and I think that hint of vulnerability is one of the things that’s won Amadeus some of his fans in the comics world.
With your work, especially your film work, you’re great at using humour to explore serious issues, such as race. Can you talk about how you use humour? Does it make the pill a little easier to swallow when dealing with issues that people normally wouldn’t notice or care about?
The last thing the average person usually wants to see in popular entertainment is a didactic message movie about a political or social issue. Even if you totally agree with the message, getting hit with that little lecture within a movie can be an eye-roller. So humor becomes a great way to grapple with certain issues. My short film “Asian Pride Porn” is a pretty good example. Not too many people want to sit around listening to me decry the emasculation of the Asian male in American media. Even I can get tired of hearing me complain. But by sticking that message into a porn spoof, I’ve managed to not only amuse myself but sucker almost a million people to watch the short at AtomFilms.com.
What’s the balance between just telling a great story, and trying to convey a message? At the end of the day, what is most important to you?
At the end of the day, all that matters is the emotional story. The characters have to live and breathe and struggle and be totally emotionally true, or the story dies on the vine and any message not just falls flat, but comes across as manipulative and untrue. But the great thing is that if you’re true to the characters, if you genuinely trust the emotional story, some kind of human truth will show itself. The resulting message, whatever it may be, may not be precisely what you imagined at the beginning, but it will have the moral and ethical and emotional truth of real human experience, which is what makes storytelling so compelling to both readers and writers in the first place.
After World War Hulk wraps up, what can we expect from you in the comics world?
There’s the super secret follow up to “World War Hulk,” which I can’t yet talk about, and another amazing project that I’ve been working on for ages, which I also can’t yet discuss. But they’re both gonna mind-blowers. And I’d lay odds that we haven’t yet seen the last of Amadeus Cho…