When They Called Us Enemy was released this summer, it was quickly named one of the best graphic novels of the year by those who read it. George Takei, the actor and activist, has received much of the attention, and for good reason. This is his story, about how he and his family – and more than 100,000 other Japanese-Americans were interned by the American government. In recent years the actor, known best as Star Trek’s Sulu, has become best known as an activist for LGBTQ rights, but recently he has spent a great deal of time and energy to educating people about what happened in those years, both to help American citizens more fully understand our own history, but also to ensure that it never happens again.
Takei made the book with Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott and Harmony Becker. Scott may not be known to comics readers, but he’s been working in the comics industry for years and it’s how I first got to know him years ago. They Called Us Enemy is his first graphic novel, and I reached out to Scott to talk about how he ended up here, working with Takei and what he wants to do next.
Alex Dueben: How did you come to comics?
Steven Scott: I have been a fan of superheroes for as long as I can remember. It began with the Super Powers toy line of DC superheroes, as well as my love of Batman from watching reruns of the Adam West TV show growing up. That paved the way to Batman ’89 and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and eventually the Fox Kids shows Batman the Animated Series and X-Men, which were truly my gateway to comics. I began collecting comics in the early 90s, mostly Marvel in those days. We didn’t really have a comic shop close by, so I used to order them out of a catalogue from a distributor called Dave’s Comics, and it was always a thrill when I’d receive a package in the mail addressed to me filled with comics. That was around the time I started fantasizing about moving to New York City one day and writing and drawing comics for Marvel, and I used to make up these ridiculous heroes and villains and see if I could do it myself. So far the closest I’ve come to living that dream was when I scored an internship in Marvel’s editorial offices – almost exactly 10 years ago – and that’s when my career in comics began to take shape.
We’ve known each other for years because you’ve been working in comics. Were you always interested in writing, or was that a more recent interest of yours?
I have always wanted to have a career where I could be creative and use my imagination. I was an avid reader from an early age and devoured books, especially stories about aliens and the supernatural. I noticed a lot of the books I was checking out from the library were categorized as “science fiction” which sounded really cool to me. Those are the kinds of stories I gravitated towards and aspired to write myself. I loved the sci-fi stories of authors like Bruce Coville and the side-splitting short stories by Paul Jennings, as well as the relatable characters of Judy Blume’s work and the endless imagination of Roald Dahl. Those authors and more inspired me to write stories of my own, and at one point I imagined maybe I would grow up to be a novelist like them. It was around that time that the creative writing assignments I was given in school were getting me a lot of positive attention and encouragement from my teachers, which gave me a great deal of confidence in my storytelling abilities. For one assignment I even began writing a prequel to The Hobbit, which was my first stab at writing fan fiction, not that I knew what fanfic was back then, but I very much enjoyed writing it. I still enjoy writing prose stories, but the teamwork involved in creating a comic book (unless you’re one of those ridiculously talented creators who does it all) is one of the major reasons why creating stories in this medium is so attractive to me. Collaborating with other creative folks is a deeply satisfying experience and keeps me motivated. Before I broke into comics, I was working on film sets and staying up all night writing screenplays and TV specs, but then I discovered Y: The Last Man, and that was a turning point for me. After that I wrote and self-published my first comic and that set me down the path I’m now on.
How did you get involved with They Called Us Enemy?
I had worked with George and Brad Takei – George’s husband/manager – a few years prior on another comic which I handled the publicity on and formed a great working relationship with them. Later on, I joined the team at IDW Publishing, who were publishing the widely acclaimed March series of graphic novels, under their Top Shelf imprint, which recounted the Civil Rights movement as told through the lens of Congressman John Lewis. March was wrapping up and the question posed internally by my future co-author Justin Eisinger was, “What would be the next socially conscious topic that we should turn our attention towards that would have as great of an impact and would help future generations of Americans learn from our past mistakes?” I was taken by his drive to put more stories like that into the world which could have a positive affect on society and wanted to hear his ideas. When I approached him about it he immediately brought up George’s TED Talk where he talks about his earliest childhood memories of being forcefully evacuated from their Los Angeles home by the U.S. government and made to live behind barbwire fences in American concentration camps for years due to an executive order signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He expressed to me that he wanted to tell that story in full as a graphic novel and so I offered to get in touch and see if they might be interested. They were open to the idea and so we mailed them the March trilogy box set and proposed that George’s story deserved the same treatment. It wasn’t long after that they got on board and then we were off and running.
Could you talk a little about the process of making the book, the research involved and how the four of you collaborated?
In addition to his other accomplishments, George is an activist for human rights and has spoken on the internment of Japanese Americans numerous times over the years, so we built the story around his speeches, interviews on the subject, as well as his autobiography, To The Stars, which goes into even greater detail on this tragic event. This laid the ground work for what would become They Called Us Enemy, telling the story of the internment from his perspective, and George was an amazing collaborator, spending hours on the phone with Justin and I, answering questions we had about certain events, recalling other details of that experience which didn’t make it into his speeches that we were able to work into the script. He has very vivid memories of that time and we strived to give readers the most accurate depiction of what it was really like going through that experience, especially for such a young boy who didn’t fully grasp what was happening until later in life.
In addition to following the Takei family throughout these events, we wanted to illustrate what was happening in the highest office at that time that led to these events as well as the general public’s mistreatment of Japanese American in the wake of Pearl Harbor. This required a lot of research, both reading up on WWII history, watching documentaries, as well as listening to old radio broadcasts from that time to get a sense of what the country’s overall feelings towards persons of Japanese descent were during this tense time. In order to comprehend why and how something like this could happen in the United States, we needed to dig deep and explore that sordid part of our past that we don’t particularly like to talk about, but is necessary to understanding those hard truths.
Speaking for myself, I had never written anything like this before, as I’d always thought of myself as a writer of fiction, so to shift gears and write something that was purely non-fiction was going out of my comfort zone a bit, but I also like to challenge myself as a writer. Sometimes writing can be a blast and the most fun I’ve ever had sitting in font of a computer and hammering out a story I’ve been dying to tell, but the process of writing They Called Us Enemy was particularly draining and by far the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write. I hear from readers that reading it can be like that too where they have to put it down because of how emotional a journey it is, and so I take that as we hit the right notes in order to put you in this family’s shoes and elicit that response. And a lot of that is due to Harmony Becker’s incredible illustrations which perfectly captured the tone in every instance, whether it was George’s sense of adventure from taking a train ride to the camp, or on the flip side, showcasing the horrors of the reality of the situation through his parents’ eyes.
We got incredibly lucky with Harmony who took the words we put down and turned them into beautiful, lively renderings, making us feel for the family even more than words could achieve on their own. Once she joined the team, everything fell quickly into place and our conference calls became more frequent as George would provide notes on the art, serving not only as our co-author but as history consultant to make sure we got all the details of the internment correct, having lived it himself. These calls also led to the book growing in size as we were uncovering new details to include all the time. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention our editor Leigh Walton, our honorary fifth Beatle, and the member of our team who fact-checked everything, elevating the final product with his skillful oversight, and helped get us over the finish line to hit our deadlines.
This is such a personal book but it’s also an intensely political one. And it’s become a more urgent one in recent years. How did that aspect of the story and that urgency play in terms of the script and the conversations around the book?
You’re absolutely right, Alex, this story is incredibly personal and deeply felt by everyone involved. It has been George’s life’s mission to bring more awareness to these events in order to learn from our mistakes of the past and not repeat them. We felt strongly it was a story worth telling in the form of a graphic memoir, and that although the internment of Japanese Americans has been explored previously in other mediums such as novels and on Broadway in Allegiance, it has never been told in quite this fashion. It’s one thing to learn about the internment from a history book, but putting a recognizable, beloved face to these events makes it feel that much more real and frightening. We wanted to give readers a fly-on-the-wall experience so that the human element was not overlooked, which is easy to do when you’re just reading the facts on paper. That’s where Harmony’s art came into play which captured every raw emotion.
You mention politics and it’s interesting because when this book was originally conceived, it was right on the cusp of the 2016 election. Many fans of George’s who turned up for book signings, many of whom were educators and librarians who came out in massive support, commented to us over and over again on how unfortunately timely the subject of concentration camps in the U.S. was upon the release of They Called Us Enemy, and this was not lost on us during the making of it. We were adding scenes right up to the print deadline to reflect just how relevant the historical events presented in the book had become to today, with the goal being to illustrate those parallels between what is happening in the country now and how history is in fact repeating itself, but in George’s words, it’s far worse this time around because at least his family was kept intact during their imprisonment.
I’m curious, but after so many years working in publicity, you could get another job doing comics PR. Are you actively avoiding do that? Are you thinking in terms of, your relationship to comics is writing as opposed to doing other things?
Yes, that’s an excellent way of putting it – I am actively avoiding it. The amount of offers I receive to do freelance PR currently outweighs the offers I’m getting to write. Which makes total sense as I am very good at doing publicity and it’s what I’ve been doing primarily in comics for the past decade so I’m always flattered when a creator wants to hire me specifically to help launch their comic. However, I just wrapped up my last freelance PR job recently and have made the decision that I owe it to myself to pass on those jobs to another PR pro friend of mine so that I can remain focused on my writing.
I am fully aware that if anyone knows me for anything in this industry, that I’m viewed as a comic book publicist first, who is gradually making the transition into writing comics, but I never saw myself that way. I’ve been writing most of my life, prior to breaking into comics, and just happened to fall into PR, which it turned out I had a knack for, but it was never the goal. Early on I even thought I might like to try landing a job in editorial because it seemed like the next best thing to writing comics, but if that’s not what you started out as, it’s hard for people to see you as anything else but the role you’re already playing. Typecasting isn’t just for actors, I’ve discovered, and it’s real easy to get pigeon-holed, especially if you’re good at something.
Not that I’m not grateful for the experiences I’ve had and the working relationships and friendships I’ve formed as a result of being in that position, and I wouldn’t change anything because it’s led me to this point, however I now want to remain focused on what matters most to me and that is writing. Thankfully, because I do have PR know-how, when the time comes to promote my next project, I can put on my PR hat and use what I’ve learned to build a publicity plan around it and give myself the best chance at success because I’m not interested in putting the fate of my comic into the hands of someone else who isn’t as invested in the project as I am. While I don’t ever see myself taking on another full-time position in comics PR, I will gladly channel those skills I’ve acquired inwardly.
So what’s next for you? What are you thinking about?
I have more exciting projects in the pipeline, however none of them have yet to be officially announced so I can’t go into much detail except to say that I’m still working with IDW. We recently announced a Spanish language edition of They Called Us Enemy, so I’m thrilled about my writing being translated into a foreign language for the first time. I can’t wait to read it in Spanish and maybe use it to help me to learn the language better. That is slated for release in June 2020.
Lately I have been dabbling in lettering, as I have a great respect for letterers and their craft, and I have heard from other writers who letter themselves that it makes them a better comics writer, so I would like to try my hand at lettering myself on some personal projects.
Speaking of which, helping to tell George’s story got me very interested in checking out other graphic memoirs and so I have been reading a lot of great works over the past year like Spinning, Lighter Than My Shadow and the graphic novels of Raina Telgemeier, which in turn have inspired me to look at my own past and see if there’s any stories from my childhood worth sharing. I haven’t really spoken about this publicly, but I spent all of summer 2018 writing pages and pages about my time growing up as American kid abroad in Australia for a few years and how that shaped my whole worldview on what it means to be an American and how other people view us in other parts of the world. I am grateful for that experience, but it wasn’t always fun feeling like you are representing an entire nation to your classmates, or equally, being judged based on your birth country’s actions, and kids have no filter at that age, so that seemed like a good starting point for a story that I can pass on to my own kids one day. I plan on having more details to share on this labor of love next year, but you heard it here first.
As far as what I’m thinking about – all the reading I need to get caught up on and finding the time to do it.
I don’t want to end by asking, where do you see yourself in five years, but I am curious, where would you like to be, what do you see yourself doing? How do things look from Canada right now?
This is a tricky question because nothing about my career path has gone the way I envisioned it would. If you had asked me this question five years ago, I could never have imagined that at this stage in my career I would have a writing credit on a New York Times best-selling graphic novel. That just never would have occurred to me, and therefore was never a goal of mine, as it didn’t seem remotely possible to me. As far as where I’d like to be, I would like to be more established as a writer and have a creator-owned series or three under my belt by then. Whatever the case, I’ll be writing something as that will always be a part of my life, whether it’s for myself or more work-for-hire jobs.
As far as Canadian living goes, not to get too political, but from where I’m sitting, it’s a good time to be based in Canada. I don’t get to travel much outside of a handful of conventions per year, so I’m hoping in five years from now I’ll have had time to explore more of this country. Right now I feel very much at home, even if it is a lot colder here than California, my adopted home state (sorry, Ohio). I’m coming up on nearly two years being back in Vancouver, which is one of the greatest cities in the world, and I’m hoping to finally plant roots for once in my life!