This article by student journalists Rivka Wolin and Carmen Dyler-Glaser was originally published in the Altoona Collegiate Review.
Robin Ha, the author of this year’s Common Read selection Almost American Girl, came to campus on October 19. Almost American Girl is about Ha’s story of moving to America from South Korea and her experience finding herself in a strange new environment. As Common Read selections are geared toward first-year students, it is a fitting story of finding oneself in a new place.
Robin Ha started her journey to becoming an author by being a reader. Her mother took her to Manhwa-bangs, which are comic book rental stores much like a Blockbuster was for movies. In a Man-hwa-bang, you can eat, drink, and enjoy the books while in the store or rent them for a couple of days. Robin Ha highlighted her love in Almost American Girl partially for fantasy, romantic comedy, and science fiction comics. She detailed her favorite authors being Ilsook Shin, Mira Lee, and Kyungok Kang. After moving and settling in Alabama, her mom found a comic book class for her. That was where she created her first series titled Fantasia. This was heavily based on the comics she was reading at the time. She actually met her first friend in this class, and they bonded over a shared love of art and comics.
Ha went on to pursue art as a profession attending the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). After college, she went to New York, not quite sure what she wanted to do with her degree. She took on odd jobs in retail and fast food. At one point, she found an opportunity to be more creative in the textile industry. She began as a freelance print designer for women’s fashion and worked in that position for a year. She got tired of drawing so many flowers and did not feel like she had much freedom as she always had to satisfy the customer. She went on to work for Polo Raul Lauren drawing magazine designs and copies of designs to be sent to factories to be made. She worked on so many polos with all different types of strips. She quit Polo and started working on Comics full-time, her real passion.
As Ha started going to more comic book conventions, she was able to connect with people in the industry. She began to work with other comic artists at a place in Brooklyn and one of them allowed her to have the opportunity to work on one-shots with Fantastic Four and unpublished Dr. Strange issues. She enjoyed drawing them, but she didn’t feel connected to them. She later worked with a friend on short comics in a magazine called The Strumpet.
Later on, Robin Ha started turning to biographical comics after seeing the comic American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang.
Robin said, “I felt like there was a need to showcase Asian stories to fill the need for representation for characters that look like them.”
That is when she started on her memoir, originally called Why Oh Why Alabama. She got rejection letters from many publishers as they didn’t want to publish someone that was not published. Ha turned to cooking during this time, mostly Korean food. She often brought food to the comic studio for her friends to try, and they all asked how to make some foods. This inspired her to create an online comic series that she would update once a week called Banchan in Two Pages. This got a lot of people interested in her work. Ha eventually made Banchan in Two Pages into a magazine that would sell out at the comic conventions she attended.
After the success of Banchan in Two Pages, a publisher contacted her after discovering her Tumblr. One year later, she published the cooking book Cook Korean. It made the New York Times best-seller list at #4. Two and a half years later, she got the ability to publish Almost American Girl. Now, Ha is finally working on the comic of her dreams based on a nine-tailed fox character in Korean folklore scheduled to be published in 2024 by Balzer and Bray.
Robin Ha also wanted to remind young artists not to start with a big project. Start with something small, and if you have a block, don’t do anything creative. “Go out and do something fun if you are feeling blocked” Just remember to have fun and show off your work!