‘Just A Good Kid Trying Like Hell’ – Talking Mech Cadet Yu With Greg Pak

by Hannah Means Shannon

Writer, editor, and filmmaker Anne Nocenti once observed to me that the story of the comics industry itself often follows the pattern established in hero stories–defeated and seemingly down for the count, it then rises from the ashes, astonishing everyone and setting out on a new course of bold struggle. Her observation is sound, as anyone who’s followed comics long would recognize, but the parallel sometimes runs deeper when particular comics are “underdog” projects that rise suddenly above the competition due to their unique qualities.

In the case of Mech Cadet Yu, published by Boom! Studios, the parallel between the trajectory of the comic, and its own “underdog” subject matter is particularly heart-warming. Greg Pak and Takeshi Miyazawa set out to tell a heartfelt tale about a young person who has no advantages, existing within an elite system, through a twist of fate being given an opportunity to prove his worth. Stanford Yu, the son of a janitor who has passed away, and an immigrant mother, finds himself poised on the edge of realizing his own potential in very challenging ways. And there are giant, flying robots. Who doesn’t like giant, flying robots?

While Pak and Miyazawa are both well-known in comics, when taking on a creator-owned project with a very personal vision, a wide audience is never guaranteed. In this case, their tale of an underdog not only gained critical and popular praise, but attracted enough attention to transition into an ongoing series at Boom! Studios.

Based on the following for the series, Boom is also offering a special incentive to fans in support of local comic shops: a collected “Discover Now” trade edition of the first four issues of Mech Cadet Yu to be published as a retailer exclusive the same week that issue #5 of the series arrives–on January 3rd 2018. Both the fifth issue of the series, exclusively previewed below, and the “Discover Now” edition reach final orders today, December 11th, and the “Discover Now” edition will never be reprinted. The subsequent standard trade edition won’t be arriving until May, so now’s your chance to show your support and get early access to a trade edition.

Greg Pak joins us here on Comicon.com today to talk about the seeds of the story for Mech Cadet Yu, Stanford Yu’s appeal, and Pak’s thoughts on the series’ success so far.

Hannah Means-Shannon: How long did the ideas behind Mech Cadet Yu percolate for you and Takeshi Miyazawa? What finally crystalized this into a project you wanted to pursue together?

Greg Pak: I originally pitched the idea to Tak back in 2011 or so, I think. But it had been floating around in my head for many years before that. Back in 2001, I wrote and directed a movie called Robot Stories, which was an anthology movie made up of four stories about love, death, family and robots. Ever since then I’ve continued to have different ideas for more robot stories, and Mech Cadet Yu was one of them.

Tak was always the only artist I ever had in mind for the project. He does such a tremendous job of drawing regular people compellingly–especially kids. And he loves giant robots, maybe even more than I do. So, we eventually did a 10 page story called Los Robos that served as a kind of proof of concept for the series–that was published in the Shattered Asian American comics anthology in 2012. And then last year, Boom! Studios editor Cameron Chittock found me at a con and asked if I had anything that might be good for Boom, and here we are!

HMS: It’s something that’s easy to identify but hard to plan or describe, I’m sure, but what, for you, are the qualities of a “fun” comic that is both entertaining and conveys a sense of positivity?

GP: There are many different kinds of fun in comics. I mean, Punisher comics can be tons of fun, and “positivity” is not generally an attribute associated with them. But with Mech Cadet Yu, I’ve loved the chance to write a protagonist who’s young and innocent and genuinely pure of heart. He’s not a sucker or a Pollyanna–he’s just a good kid trying like hell to make his way through a complex and dangerous world. From the responses I’ve gotten from readers, I think that’s a huge part of the appeal of the book. The book and our hero Stanford wear their hearts on their sleeves, and in this day and age, I’m getting the impression that that feels pretty refreshing to a lot of people.

HMS: I think that as fun as giant robots are and can be in comics, animation, and film, they will fall a little flat if there’s not a bigger emotional component in some lead characters. In creating Stanford Yu, what main elements did you feel were core to his character? How did you develop those for the reader without getting too deeply into back story?

GP: Oh, the emotional story is always everything. We’ve all been to movies that are just spectacular in terms of action and visuals, but leave us totally cold and unmoved. Nothing’s more important than digging deep into your characters’ emotional lives and goals and conflicts. That’s the only reason we really care. In terms of Mech Cadet Yu, the most important details for us to establish were that Stanford’s an underdog–a janitor’s kid at an elite military academy. It’s also a subtle but important part of his story that his mother’s an immigrant and speaks to him in Cantonese, and his father died years ago, sickened by his work conditions, helping clean up in the wake of the first Sharg War.

This is a working-class immigrant family trying hard to make it in a world steeped in crisis and dominated by elites. We revealed those details mostly through showing rather than telling, bit by bit over the first few issues, doing our best to make it as organic and seamless as possible. The hope is that those elements help amp up the stakes for Stanford as he enters the Sky Corps Academy and provide depth to the conflicts he has with his fellow cadets–the General’s daughter, Park, in particular.

HMS: This plan to release the first trade of Mech Cadet Yu as a retailer exclusive is a pretty awesome way to support the retail comics market, which are at the heart of the industry. The bookstore market is growing for comics, which is great, but what makes this retailer focus special to you?

GP: I love it because comic shops remain the backbone of the industry and this is a way to thank them for their support of this underdog, indie book. Mech Cadet Yu was originally approved just as a four-issue miniseries. But readers went nuts for the book and comic book shops kept ordering, and Boom upgraded the book to an ongoing. I’m hugely appreciative of all the comic shops who have kept orders up on a book like this and I’m thrilled they’ll be getting an exclusive window to sell this first trade. (Thanks so much, y’all!)

HMS: With the news that Mech Cadet Yu would be extending into an ongoing series, were you surprised by this and then scrambling for ideas, or had you already compiled possible new directions for the series?

GP: Oh, we were ready for it! Way back when I first pitched the story to Tak, I sent him an outline for a ten-issue storyline. As we started talking about it with Boom, I worked up an outline for twelve issues. So, we’ve got plenty of story–fingers crossed sales will remain high enough for us to keep going! Speaking of which, please do feel free to call your local comic shop and pre-order issue #5 and the first trade paperback, both of which hit stores on January 3!

HMS: You mentioned in promo for Mech Cadet Yu what a good feeling it is to write a story with central Asian American characters in a genre that is beloved by Asian Americans but rarely portrays them as lead characters. Does the move to an ongoing series feel like validation of that choice and the impact this presentation might have on readers?

GP: I’d love to think so! For my entire career as a filmmaker and writer, I’ve always done whatever I need to do to tell the stories I’ve got to tell, regardless of what anyone says. And a bunch of my stories have had Asian American leads. So, I’ve made tons of films with Asian American leads and trusted the audience would come if the work was great and if I busted my hump to promote the heck out of it. I’ve taken that same attitude into comics and found tremendous partners (like everyone at Boom!) who have believed in the work and helped me get it out into the world.

And I’ll also say that right now is one of the best times I’ve ever seen to make work with diverse casts. Folks are hungry for it, and hundreds of amazing friends and colleagues have gone above and beyond spreading the word about this book. Thanks so much to everyone who’s buying and reading and hyping the book! You’ve made our dreams come true and hopefully helped make it possible for more books like this to thrive.

HMS: You and Takeshi Miyazawa have worked closely for some time. Has anything surprised you, though, about the way in which you’ve worked together on this project, or the ways in which he’s brought the story to life?

GP: I absolutely love working with Tak. He brings so much subtle emotion and character to every single image and he just gets the little dramatic and comic moments I’ve got in my head as I write. So, I’m never surprised by what he does–he’s amazing! But I’ve been consistently thrilled over the years to see him getting better and better with each project. In Mech Cadet Yu, he’s taking everything to a whole new level. For example, the massive action he’s drawing is just tremendous and something folks don’t necessary associate with him, but it’s all world class and just tremendous. And, of course, he’s nailing all the little emotional moments. Tak can show someone from behind with their shoulders slightly slumped and it just breaks my heart. He’s a master, and I’m so lucky to be able to work with him.

I’d also love to take the opportunity to plug colorist Triona Farrell, letterer Simon Bowland, and editors Cameron Chittock and Eric Harburn, who have put so much love and heart and skill into these books. We’d be nowhere without them. Please give ’em all the love and accolades and awards, fellow comics people looking at year-end lists and whatnot! 😉

Many thanks to Greg Pak for taking part in this interview and answering our questions so engagingly.

Mech Cadet Yu #5 and the Mech Cadet Yu “Discover Now” trade edition reach FOC today, December 11th, so let your retailer know that you would like to reserve copies of both.