Freestyle: ‘Brave’ local artists fight slavery

Oct. 5, 2012 | 0 Comments


What if the United States, “Home of the Brave,” was mired in poverty and the related ills of illiteracy and hunger?

What if the culture tolerated blatant exploitation of the most defenseless among us, our children?

A page from 'Home of the Brave.' (Courtesy photo)

A page from 'Home of the Brave.' (Courtesy image)

And what if a startlingly smart girl in this country was raised in illiteracy and sold into slavery, pushing her far away from her striking potential?

That’s the scenario fledgling graphic novelist Spencer Toyama imagined, inspired by his desire to take a stand against the very real problems of human exploitation and human trafficking.

Great idea for a graphic novel. What makes it even better is that, with Toyama’s storytelling and art by Jon Lewis, it looks to be beautifully done.

Running with comic book traditions, Toyama said he wanted to tell the story of a character who is as brilliant and potentially powerful as, say, Tony Stark (Iron Man!) — but who is born dirt-poor, female and vulnerable.

Lewis combines two types of imagery in the book, alternating between bold graphics that describe the extent of the poverty and exploitation in the book’s fictionalized America and a “grungy,” evocative illustrative style for the storytelling.

Find out more over at the creative pair’s Kickstarter page, where you can see the guys describe their project themselves. You can also link to a free 34-page online e-book preview of the full graphic novel here.

Toyama and Lewis are looking to raise $12,000 to print and ship copies of their 135-page hardcover graphic novel, “Home of the Brave.” In the process, they are also working to raise awareness of and fight back against human trafficking, joining forces with the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery (PASS) to advocate for Hawaii legislation that would give teenage survivors of human trafficking — which often takes the form of sexual abuse and forced prostitution — safe harbor without arrest. Get information about the campaign here.

To see pages from the book project in real life, and meet the creators, drop by the bookseller/coffeehouse/art haven R&D, 691 Auahi St. in Kakaako, or incubator The Greenhouse Innovation Hub, 685 Auahi St., at 7:15 p.m. Saturday. Cheesecake by Otto Cake will be served.

TOYAMA AND LEWIS both work at The Greenhouse Innovation Hub, Toyama as operations director and Lewis as creative director. And Toyama credits The Greenhouse with nurturing the duo’s plan to create “Home of the Brave,” with mentors at the ready to give advice on fundraising and promoting the effort.

Looks like that worked. The Kickstarter campaign launched on Thursday, and by midnight, the project had raised more than $5,000 toward the $12,000 goal.

Spencer Toyama, left, and Jon Lewis are the creators of 'Home of the Brave.' (Courtesy photo)

Spencer Toyama, left, and Jon Lewis are the creators of 'Home of the Brave.' (Courtesy photo)

I spoke to Toyama earlier on Thursday, when Kickstarter was already bringing in supporters, and he sounded a little shell-shocked by the big response and enthusiasm.

“I’m a little overwhelmed,” he admitted.

Toyama, 30, has deep roots in Hawaii. He’s a Mililani grad; his grandmother, “kind of famous” in the Islands, as Toyama allowed, is Hawaii historian and author Barbara Kawakami, whose extensive collection of issei plantation-era clothing formed the basis for the Japanese American National Museum’s “Textured Lives” exhibit, shown here at Bishop Museum.

Toyama also has reach in the community via his own efforts: He’s served as Jack Johnson pal Paula Fuga’s manager and was v.p. at a solar company before coming to The Greenhouse.

Lewis, 23, is from Cleveland, a college dropout and a unmistakably talented illustrator and graphic artist. He met Toyama while working on a Showdown in Chinatown film with Toyama’s then-housemate. Toyama had wall-to-wall comic books at the house when Lewis walked in, and it was immediately clear they shared that enthusiasm.

Illustrator Jon Lewis and writer Spencer Toyama took information about human trafficking and global poverty worldwide and adapted it to depict an imagined America plagued by slavery. (Courtesy photo)

“We didn’t plan on collaborating,” Toyama said. Toyama had already started on the graphic novel, and was planning on illustrating it himself.

But a couple of weeks after Toyama described the teen girl, Aria, who is the hero of his story, Lewis texted him an illustration of Aria. And Toyama thought to himself, “Maybe I shouldn’t be illustrating this!”

Lewis has thrown himself into the project, and the illustrations kick butt.

The book could help to inform readers inside and outside of Hawaii about the experiences of youth forced into servitude.

Toyama said he was informed by his work with Kathryn Xian, director of PASS, as he volunteered with PASS to present GirlFest. He also cites “Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy,” a book by Kevin Baker, as a spur to act.

The problem of human trafficking is becoming more widely known. President Obama has publicly acknowledged trafficking as a problem, and on Sept. 25 he announced several federal initiatives to combat what he labeled “modern slavery.” On Oct. 1-2, PBS screened “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,” a documentary that chronicles the struggles of exploited women.

And now, Toyama and Lewis are doing their part.

As the duo proclaim on their Kickstarter page: “Pop-culture can make a difference.”
Elizabeth Kieszkowski is editor of TGIF, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s weekly arts and entertainment section. Reach her via email at or follow her on Twitter.

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