It’s after midnight, and in front of the Vault of Midnight a young man tends a small island of a hot dog stand with a gas grill, cold storage boxes, and a large umbrella. It is a cold late autumn night in Ann Arbor. The wind scoops and mounds locust leaves around his feet. With a smiling face, dark skin, and frizzy hair that jets atop a buttoned-up dark gray ankle-length coat, he bops and dips to the velvet funk techno sounds Bluetoothed to a nearby speaker, his hands in the coat’s pockets.
A few hours ago, Main St. was full of places to eat, but at this hour his cart is the only one still open. He fires up the grill for another victim of late-night munchies. He amiably chats with others waiting as they ask questions about his job, nods at passersby with a mouth-closed grin that goes from ear to ear. And when he has a moment, when the line for food has disappeared into the noise of the streets for now, he takes out a sketch pad, pencil and smudge brush, balances the pad on his knees or on the cart and begins to draw …
Tyler Soo Hoo, twenty-two, has been tending the Cold Steel Grill for the last two years. His shifts are late, later, and latest. He begins at 11 p.m. and often doesn’t wrap up serving dogs, chili, macaroni and cheese, and nachos to ambulatory, if not a little under-the-alcoholic-weather, customers until 3 a.m. Soo Hoo says he’s never seen anyone else work an outdoor cart and create art in their spare moments; he thinks it’s looked down upon because one should concentrate on one’s job. “However,” he adds with a little annoyance, in other jobs “apparently you can be on your cell phone a lot and not annoy your boss.”
The Huron High grad works the cart throughout the year: in the freezing cold of winter and the broiling heat and storms of summer. Through it all, he jumps constantly from food to art and back, using every spare moment to further his graphic novel. “I have a problem if I do nothing for too long,” he says. “It’s not like a busybody thing, but I like to be active, and I can’t un-train myself to just be a worker. My mind’s constantly going, and if I don’t get the art down on paper I might lose it.”
Soo Hoo’s comic is called Serenity and Decadence and is in the style of an East-meets-West anime with the story propelled by both dialogue and action. Some scenes are purposely left open to the reader’s interpretation. It’s about “how we’re evolved in a way, and in another we’re not,” says Soo Hoo. It also espouses the idea that every man can have superpowers.
“It’s based on a guy who can save the day, and he can stop people who have extraordinary powers, but if he stops them, he’ll look bad. He does his best to stay out of situations, but he gets pulled in anyway. It’s the story of my life.”
Soo Hoo’s cart customers sometimes notice his sketches. “Sixty percent say, ‘That’s nice,’ but they really don’t take the time to look at it,” he says. “I’ve been told by two people that they find my art repulsive, but I ignore that and keep creating. My philosophy is that we’re all going to die sometime, and if you don’t immerse yourself in art you’re going to miss one more story.”
Soo Hoo is self-taught. “I think art school’s just a joke. I did a single day and realized it’s not for me. I just said no. What I was being taught was what I’d already been doing. I thought, ‘This isn’t worth the student debt.'”
The graphic novel’s main character shares the artist’s last name, which Soo Hoo finds both ironic and full of potential, because “literally no one with my name has ever done anything in America. So it gives me freedom to create a character with unlimited potentials.”
For now, the juggling of food cart and graphic novel five nights a week is an oddly good fit for Soo Hoo’s creative temperament. “I find it pretty demanding when I’m creating panels with little dialogue–more so than when I’m waiting on twenty people. Their hot dogs will eventually get done–but following through on my comic takes real dedication.”