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Graphic novelist turns to education to tell the stories of farmers in central Wisconsin

WAUSAU, Wisconsin (WSAW) – Ginseng isn’t just a root, not for the people of central Wisconsin, at least. It’s a story of the people and places where she grew up, binding individuals brought up with her in an eternal knot, like Craig Thompson.

“I worked up to 40 hours a week when I was 10 and was paid a dollar an hour, which in my young brain translates to one comic book per hour.”

He currently lives in Portland, Oregon, but grew up on the east side of Marathon, about 10 minutes from Wausau. He said that while he enjoyed some of the grueling work of pulling weeds and harvesting roots in front of his brother, they both dreamed that one day they would come out of blue collar work, a day to tell stories through comics.

Thompson is now a graphic novelist often drawing inspiration from his upbringing in Wisconsin. He typically writes 600-page graphic novels, but said there was a point in his career when his job in some way didn’t fill the physical labor of a ginseng farm. With Writers’ Block and a desire to create a work of non-fiction, he sought inspiration from his roots. After spending time living in Los Angeles and seeing “Hollywoodians writing about Hollywood people” all the time, he believed there was an opportunity to tell stories of people elsewhere in the country. His mind kept turning to ginseng and all the stories that come with it.

“The pleasure of this project is not that it all comes from my head, you know, it comes from interactions, conversations and interviews. “

In 2019, he started those interviews by chatting with the people he worked for around Marathon decades earlier. He learned that there were not many small farmers left.

“They had all given up growing ginseng around the same time in the early 2000s because the industry had collapsed.”

“It takes four to five years to mature. You have to plan ahead, you have to get the job done, and it’s a tough crop to grow. There are probably less than 150 of us growing it now, ”said Will Hsu, president of Hsu’s Ginseng.

Hsu accepted Thompson’s offer to participate in his “Ginseng Roots” project.

“Favorite part of my story is probably our family history. “

Hsu’s parents, Paul and Sharron Hsu immigrated from Taiwan in 1969. A few years later, Paul Hsu’s mother in Taiwan fell ill; he sent her some ginseng and they believe the root is responsible for his recovery. This led them to attempt to grow ginseng.

Will Hsu grew up doing all the farm chores, such as weeding, spraying pesticides and fertilizers, and harvesting roots. He eventually quit to pursue higher education and began a separate career. At least a decade later, his father was diagnosed with cancer, so he returned to the farm and his father recovered quickly.

Hsu’s ginseng has since grown into one of the best-known brands in the world. As part of the series, he also explained Wisconsin’s central role in a global market, especially Chinese, and the dynamics of global trade.

“You can’t find it anywhere else. So, this is something special about ginseng and something special about being from Wausau, Wis. “

One of the smaller farms still around is a farm known as Vang Ginseng. Chua Vang, the owner and operator, now calls him Abraham Ginseng in honor of his late father, Abraham Ga Yi Vang.

“I grew up doing that, you know. That’s all I know, since I was 8 years old.

Her father was a child soldier, 15, in the Secret War in Laos during the Vietnam War. Vang details his father’s legacy and his partnership with the CIA and his Hmong people during the war in the book. He and his pregnant wife were able to cross the Mekong River to a refugee camp. The two and their new baby, a daughter, were sponsored to come to the United States as refugees and resettled in Tennessee.

The couple had other children there, including Chua Vang, but most of their extended family have been relocated to central Wisconsin. They eventually moved to the area after finding out that ginseng could be grown there.

“’85, I tried, you know you’ve grown an acre at a time and here we are,” Chua Vang said with a laugh.

He said his father’s experience during the war led him to be brought up with great discipline and dedication. So even though the job was tough, and he made her miss his Saturday morning cartoons, he said it shaped his character.

“When my dad approached me and asked me if I wanted to take over or not,” he said it was one of his favorite sections. “I think that part is one of the parts that I love about it and the way Craig drew it, he’s a great artist.”

Chua Vang and Will Hsu said the comic book series medium tells the stories in a unique way that most other methods cannot capture, and reflects many of the lessons of ginseng.

“It teaches you the patience of ginseng,” Hsu explained. “You know, you’ve read a comic and now you have to wait months for the next installment. Well, if you are planting ginseng seeds, you have to wait years before you harvest anything.

It’s kind of like a book, which Thompson says can take years to write and could be a complete failure, but that’s the risk.

“It must be a labor of love because of the kind of inconsistencies and ups and downs, high risk, you know,” Thompson concluded.

There will be a total of 12 comics that Thompson said he would eventually pull together into one great graphic novel. Thompson said he wanted production of the series to be as local as possible, using a publisher in Minnesota and a printer in Eau Claire. The first nine in the series are now available at specialty comic book stores and online through Publisher, Uncivilized, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other retail stores.

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Margarita W. Wilson

The author Margarita W. Wilson