As a child growing up in Malaysia, Shing Yin Khor had two very different ideas of what “America” meant. The first looked a lot like Hollywood, full of beautiful people, sunlight, and freeways. The second looked much more like The Grapes of Wrath—a nightmare landscape filled with impoverished people, broken-down cars, barren landscapes, and broken dreams. Those contrasting ideas have stuck with Khor ever since and help explain their fascination with Route 66. In the spring of 2016, 10 years after moving to LA and 4 years after becoming an American citizen, Khor embarked on a road trip along Highway 66 in a 2010 Honda Fit, accompanied only by their trusty road-trip adventure dog Bug.
Khor’s graphic memoir The American Dream?: A Journey on Route 66 Discovering Dinosaur Statues, Muffler Men, and the Perfect Breakfast Burrito allows readers to ride shotgun for a deeply personal and playful pilgrimage of roadside attractions, abandoned towns, diners, and motels. Like the very best road trips, the book relishes in unusual sites and roadside kitsch, with detours providing arcane trivia and profound observations alike.
Khor took some time to discuss the book with Forces of Geek.
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FOG!: Your book, The American Dream?, chronicles your journey on Route 66. What was the genesis of this project?
Shing Yin Khor: I’ve just always wanted to drive Route 66. My editor, Daniel Harmon, actually solicited pitches from me, and when I proposed I do this dream road trip of mine, that was the book that he wanted!
So, I set out on the trip knowing that it was going to have to eventually be a book. I’ve always been interested in the elements of the American mythos, and especially the American West. I’ve got an accompanying obsession with the Paul Bunyan mythos and I am currently really into learning about the Pony Express. Route 66 seems like one of those central elements of the American myth, except instead of just its fascinating history, it also exists very much in the present.
You were born and raised in Malaysia. How old were you when you moved to the United States. What was your take on “The American Dream”?
I moved to the United States at age 16, after living for the past 6 years in the Philippines. I think my conception of the American Dream before I moved to America was a very traditional view – the idea that anyone could make something of themselves in America. Of course, that is not true. The system is rigged against people of color, against the poor, against queer and transgender people.
Now, what the American Dream means to me has morphed into something more community based. It’s not just about making something of myself – it’s about uplifting my friends, my family and my community as well.
When setting out on this journey, did you always intend on it being a graphic novel? Did you write/illustrate it on your trip, or did you wait until you got home to work on it?
Yes, it was always going to be a graphic novel. I did some sketching and note-taking on my trip, but it’s actually quite hard to work while traveling every day, so the majority of the work was done when I got home. I sketched and drew a little bit on the trip, and some of those pages made it into the final book.
I took a lot of photographs for later reference, and much of the book is an amalgam of memory and photo reference. In desperation(for instance, I often had to drive and couldn’t photograph certain things, or couldn’t take pictures in low light), I sometimes had to reconstruct scenes using Google Maps! Ultimately, a lot of my drawings are more concerned with capturing the feeling of driving down Route 66, although I tried to be accurate as much as I could.
One of the book’s best aspects is the watercolor. Was this always the intended approach to coloring the book?
Yes, I do the majority of my work in watercolor, and for a memoir, it seemed right to use the mediums that I am most familiar with. It’s my voice, after all!
What are the five must see locations on Route 66?
Everyone has a different opinion on this! I’m going to intentionally pick ones that are not in major cities. And I am partial to big goofy statues and outsider art.
- Petrified Forest National Park, the only national park that Route 66 runs through.
- The dinosaur statues of Holbrook, AZ.
- The Blue Whale of Catoosa, in Oklahoma.
- The Muffler Man Statues in Illinois (they’re spread throughout Route 66)
- Cadillac Ranch, outside of Amarillo, Texas.
What are you currently geeking out over?
I’ve been intentionally carving out time in my life to read more. I just finished This is How You Lose The Time War, which is this ridiculously good and poetic epistolary time travel love story by Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar. I used to hate time travel stories, but I also just devoured the first part of Alison Wilgus’ Chronin, and loved it, so maybe I really am into time travel now.
As a matter of craft, I keep on reading ten pages of Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me and then screaming because Rosemary Valero O’Connell is just so good at art, and of course Mariko Tamaki is also genius!
I don’t read a lot of Big Two comics, but I’ve been really excited about Greg Pak’s War of The Realms: New Agents of Atlas, especially the introduction of Wave.
I can’t stop listening to Lizzo. Her Tiny Desk Concert is spectacular.
The American Dream? A Journey on Route 66 Discovering Dinosaur Statues,
Muffler Men, and the Perfect Breakfast Burrito is now available
in comic book shops, bookstores and e-retailers.