Building Giant Robot -- the Creators, Eric Nakamura and Martin Wong
Eric Nakamura and Martin Wong, both graduates of UCLA, began Giant Robot in 1994 as a stapled, photocopied digest, with no budget, no staff, and big hopes. Nine years later, Giant Robot is a widely acclaimed magazine that has been accredited by prestigious publications as LA New Times and LA Weekly, to name a few.
Giant Robot Interview with Eric Nakamura and Martin Wong
April 3, 2003
Interviewed by Angie Kang
Text transcription by Angie Kang and Annisa Kau
Click here to watch RealVideo interview.
Eric Nakamura and Martin Wong, both graduates of UCLA, began Giant Robot in 1994 as a stapled, photocopied digest, with no budget, no staff, and big hopes. Nine years later, Giant Robot is a widely acclaimed magazine that has been accredited by prestigious publications as LA New Times and LA Weekly, to name a few. With an Asian pop culture focus, Eric and Martin have prided themselves on the fact that they recognized the talents of Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat, and Jet Li years before they became household names in mainstream America. Innovative content, diverse story topics, and superior editing have catapulted this magazine to its great success. Giant Robot can be found at Barnes & Nobles, Tower, Virgin, Borders, UCLA Ackerman Union, and other small boutiques.
Angie: How did your backgrounds influence the development of the magazine?
Eric: I think I just have a varied background from doing a lot of different things, like photography. I didn’t write much ?I was kind of bad at school. But at the same time, I always liked making things and I think that did a lot for us making a magazine, or making a store, and a lot of other things. Plus, I always liked thrift store shopping and going to swap meets. Every time I looked at things and brought things home, my mom would always be like, "Why are you bringing all this garbage and junk home?" And I would always think, "I don’t know." At the same time, that mentality of digging through things, always wanting to look through things, helped for the store because I’m always looking through things in retail, at other stores, in catalogs, etc. When I went to Japan, I looked at products there. So I think those kinds of things helped for the store.
Martin: I grew up in Orange County, near L.A. I would watch "Ultraman" and "Speedracer" when I was a kid, just like a lot of people. But eventually, you want to find out more about Asian culture, the politics behind it, and social events that lead up to where we are today. Especially back when I was a little kid, there weren’t that many Asian people around me and no one was writing, researching, or talking about Asian pop culture. It was all about bonsai, wooden shoes, and stuff like that. So to go and capture all of this newer stuff, cooler stuff, that is still culture, is kind of the natural result of being curious and into all this. It’s having a collector’s mentality and a curious mind.
Eric: I think I was always the Asian guy who was kicked to the curb ?the one that the other Asian people didn’t quite understand. So, I was always left out of everything and I think that kind of mentality comes into Giant Robot in a way. I don’t know if I have a chip on my shoulder all the time as a result, but I think that gave me a different viewpoint of everything. Maybe I always had a different viewpoint and that’s why I wasn’t invited to the Asian clubs or the Asian parties. I wasn’t invited to anything. I think that kind of a background helps me with Giant Robot.
Martin: I think that Giant Robot is not just all pro-Asian. Like, "Oh it’s Asian! We’re all into it!" It’s not like that at all. It’s more that there’s a lot of cool stuff out there and it’s not always the mainstream or popular thing that’s cool. So, you kind of seek out things that are a little bit different, whether it’s a new artist, like Nara, or a DVD that we have here. Then you write about them. There’s a selective process ?it’s not all Asian because a lot of Asian stuff is not good.
Angie: You have broken all Asian stereotypes and become largely successful as magazine entrepreneurs. Did you encounter any obstacles along the way?
Eric: There’s also a stereotype that Asian or Asian American magazines are no good. So hopefully we broke that stereotype too because there’s a long history of crummy Asian American magazines. People can’t believe that we have a good Asian American magazine. They think we’re from somewhere else, like Japan or outer-space. The only obstacle we faced was maybe in advertising and distribution, the back-end stuff that we really can’t control. I think, for a magazine, those are the things we had to overcome. We eventually overcame it all by making a good product.
Martin: I don’t think this obstacle is from being specifically an Asian American magazine. I think it’s just from being different, period. If we were making something about African Americans, we would face the same problems. Or even, a cool Caucasian culture magazine would have problems too because magazines are such a tough gig to crack.
Angie: What is the significance of the name, Giant Robot?
Martin: I think it’s something that’s general enough that anyone can think of their own giant robot in their head, but everyone’s will be totally different. It’s a really striking image.
Eric: If you think of a giant robot, some people will think "Transformers," a younger person may say "Gundam," another will say "Robotek," and I could go back a little further and say "Shogun Warriors."
Martin: There is something about giant robots that are Asian because American robots are like R2D2 or human-sized robots. But Japanese robots are big, the size of sky-scrapers.
Eric: So, our robots are big, powerful and independent thinking at times.
Martin: And they change ?they can adapt to new challenges.
Angie: What is the content of Giant Robot magazine like?
Martin: We don’t always have the same feature in every magazine. I think there are general themes like history, film, arts, or music. We don’t just write about the one thing we know, we’re always learning about other things. None of us knew anything about Thai Scrabble Champions two issues ago. You know, we’re always learning new stuff and it’s great. Hopefully the reader captures that energy too. We didn’t know who these artists were a year ago, but we find out about them and it is really exciting and really cool. Culture is alive and it is not just going into a pyramid and dusting off some crevice to find a scratch. It’s new and it’s going on still.
Eric: It changes, that is kind of the main thing. It keeps changing so we evolve too at the same time. As we uncover culture and become a part of it, we have to change as well. There is nothing common with our magazine in terms of each issue. Usually, it changes quite a lot.
Martin: I mean, toys are cool, but it would be kind of sad if we wrote about that in every issue. There’s nothing wrong with that, but for longevity, you may want to investigate other aspects of culture.
Angie: What is the magazine’s key to success?
Martin: Do something you like. That helps a lot, I think.
Eric: Stick with it, and don’t let people who do not believe in you dictate what you are going to do. You just kind of have to go with what you believe in.
Martin: I think you should take it seriously also. Although we have fun, we also set our own goals and we always raise them. Whether it is being a better magazine, having a store, or having two stores ?you know, we’re going to have time sheets now ?all growth isn’t bad.
Eric: I think it is just being willing to adapt to your needs. As you get bigger, you have to install different modules to make yourself better. So we do that as well. You might not be able to tell, but we do stuff like that.
Martin: I think surrounding yourself with good people who really believe in the project and get along is important. We’re just like everyone else. I think if you surround yourself with talented people who are really into it, you have a better chance over people who are just looking for themselves or just trying to advance themselves, get fame or fortune. It is really cool to be part of a really strong group, like a family.
Angie: What sets your magazine apart from other Asian American magazines?
Eric: We’re willing to keep doing it, no matter what. And I think we make a better product. We weed out the junk and put things we really like in it, whereas other magazines just have junk and they don’t put anything they really like in it.
Martin: Other Asian American magazines are for Asian American people only generally and I think our magazine is for everyone. At least half our readership is not Asian and that’s great. The main thing is that all of our readers are into it and are critical and are not just like, "I’m going to buy it to support Asian things." No, they want to buy something that is really good that maybe they can learn from and be inspired by.
Eric: The buzzword is crossover. That’s it, crossover. I guess somehow it crossed over, but it is one of those things where we don’t try. We just kind of do it and all of a sudden it just spread to other people. It’s like good music ?everyone likes good music. You shouldn’t only make music for Asian Americans, like the boy bands that do that. We don’t play that, we just kind of make what we want to make. It gets spread out wider that way.
Martin: Yea, I think the idea is not to make Asians feel smug about how cool they are. It is to make people be into Asian culture whether they are Asian or not. At the end of the day when you are done reading the magazine, you should feel like, wow there is a lot of really cool stuff out there and Giant Robot helped me find it. Maybe if you are Asian, you’ll be a little more proud of things afterwards. I hope so.
Angie: Does the magazine target a particular audience?
Eric: No way. I guess our target audience was just him and me. I was making it so he could read it and say it was cool and he was doing it so I could read it.
Martin: We both wrote articles that we thought the other person wouldn’t hate. Okay I am going to write something so good that Eric likes it.
Eric: We didn’t know what our audience was at all and I guess we didn’t really care to a big extent. It didn’t matter.
Martin: Yea, we didn’t have focus groups or think that there was a market that needed a magazine and that advertisers needed Giant Robot. We just write what we think is good. Luckily, a lot of people have picked up on it, I hope.
Angie: What inspired you to open a Giant Robot store?
Eric: Instead of just talking about it we decided to sell it. We were thinking that half of whatever we were writing about was obscure stuff that only we knew where to get. We were getting so many phones calls saying, "Where do I get that book that is on page 32?" Eventually, we were like, okay, let’s just buy ten copies and let’s let people buy it. It started that small. It was like a type of a thing where we were just like, yea, let’s just do that. Then all of a sudden, little by little, people were buying it.
Martin: Yea, after a while, you don’t want to keep directing people to Amazon, a comic book store or whatever. It’s like, well, we could sell this too.
Eric: Yea so we just started that. I think we started that in 1998 or sometime really early with e-commerce and we didn’t want to be left in the dust. To this day, we still do that. Then eventually we just opened a retail store once we realized, why not? It would be really cool. It is like a central place that people can come and check everything out in person. There is a sensory thing with Giant Robot, you can feel it. It is kind of a sensory experience in terms of paper and what not. It is a product, you’ve got to see it. So it makes me excited.
Martin: The store is cool.
Eric: I like seeing toys in person so I think that is one reason why Giant Robot is really fun to look at.
Martin: Yea but it’s like you walk in here and you want to buy everything every time you come because there is always new stuff. And the stuff that you liked is gone and it’s really surprising, kind of like the magazine. There are these things that you don’t expect to find, whether it is a toy from Singapore, a video from Hong Kong, or a shirt from Canada. It is just surprising and cool, neat stuff.
Angie: What can your readers gain from your magazine?
Martin: New scrabble words.
Eric: That we didn’t make any copy editing mistakes?
Martin: Hopefully they’ll learn something about the culture, and not only that, but realize that there are stories all around them and it is not always just the famous people.
Eric: How about they should subscribe, you know. They’ll go, "Ahh…I should subscribe to this." That would be kind of cool. I don’t know, I’m just kidding.
Martin: But really I think the topics that we cover are not the always the most popular movie, TV star, artist, or whatever. It is finding neat things and sometimes they are just regular people that have the most interesting stories. And culture isn’t just this war or that art movement but it is regular people everyday. I think we profile a lot of them too.
Angie: What advice can you give people interested in creating a publication?
Eric: Don’t be lazy. Don’t waste your time.
Martin: I mean if you are not really into it, don’t do it. Go find something else because you are not just going to be hanging out with famous people, making lots of money, and buying property all over the place. It is long hours in small rooms, but it is really rewarding when you see something come back from the printer. It is really cool.
Published: Friday, April 25, 2003