It's easy to take the term "graphic novelist" the wrong way. Even if you're mind's not in the gutter, you might picture X supernaturally-gifted hero and Y beautiful/quick-witted damsel roof-hopping between the word balloons.
But Whirlwind Wonderland (Sparkplug Comic Books/Tugboat Press), the newest book from graphic novelist Rina Ayuyang, contains neither superhero nor smoldering sex god. (Though there is a Brad Pitt ballroom scene.) Instead, the collection of illustrated short stories reflects Ayuyang's childhood love of comics like Doonesbury and Nancy -- simple, friendly stories of everyday people.
"I like to write slice-of-life tales about ordinary moments that inspire me," says Ayuyang. "I wanted to write about a normal person as a superhero."
Ayuyang returns to Pittsburgh this Wed., May 5, for a reading at Downtown's Toonseum.
Ayuyang's superheroes are herself, her family, friends, bus people, childhood playmates and the occasional celebrity (like Angela Lansbury and the aforementioned Pitt), all drawn in Ayuyang's simple, sketchy cartooning style. Her stories are creative accounts of family get-togethers, daydreams on the daily commute, and recollections of growing up here, in Glenshaw.
Ayuyang is the only Pittsburgh-born daughter of two Filipino immigrants, who made career moves to the Pittsburgh area in the '70s. Parts of Whirlwind recall how Ayuyang negotiates her Filipino heritage with her Pittsburgh citizenship.
"I totally embrace [my background] now that I know it's not just something that makes me different, but that it's a part of me," says Ayuyang. Her first Whirlwind vignette recalls resentment towards her parents' Filipino decor. In a later story, she narrates her heart-warming relationship with her father.
And throughout, this Bay Area transplant gives props to her hometown. She illustrates how her Steelers pride rubs off on her non-sporty boyfriend. One story features younger Ayuyang donning a giant Steeler helmet.
Ayuyang assures that, even in California, Pittsburgh pride is strong. As she writes and co-hosts her podcast, The Comic Claptrap, she's found hints of our town on the West Coast: "There are really so many Pittsburgh bars in the bay area. I feel like it's a sister city."
At her May 5 Toonseum reading, Ayuyang hopes to encounter Pittsburgh's developing graphic-arts community. This native still counts herself among the Pittsburgh comics Super Friends.
"The whole cartoon thing happened right after I left. Lame! But I totally think I'm part of it," says Ayuyang. "From a distance."
Whirlwind Wonderland is available on www.rinaayuyang.com
Rina Ayuyang reads from Whirlwind Wonderland at 6 p.m Wed., May 5. The Toonseum, 945 Liberty Ave, Downtown. Free (donations welcome). 412-232-0199 or www.toonseum.org.