|Gene Luen Yang|
Yang at 2014 National Book Festival
|Native name||Traditional: æ¥Šè¬¹å€«,
|Born||August 9, 1973|
|Alma mater||University of California, Berkeley|
|Notable awards||MacArthur Fellow|
When I work on my own stuff – and I think this is true for anybody – but when you work on something that you just completely own, you are trying to stay as true to your own storytelling voice as you can.
For 'American Born Chinese,' my first graphic novel with First Second Books, I did mostly 'memory' research. It's fiction, but I pulled heavily from my own childhood.
I grew up in a religious community, and like everyone, I went through a period of doubt and later made a conscious choice to embrace the faith of my childhood.
I think a lot of the things in my life that I become most passionate about, and most excited about, are all from comics.
When you work on a pre-existing character, when you end up getting invited to be part of a legacy character like Superman, I don't feel like it would be true to the character if all I did was go in looking to express my own voice.
I minored in creative writing in college, and I've played with the idea of doing something more hybrid, but comics are my first love.
Every superhero has this superhero identity and a civilian identity. A lot of their lives are about code switching.
The thing about research is that there's no end. You constantly have this fear that an expert who knows more than you will call you out on some detail in your book.
I took a Logo programming class in fifth grade. Logo is a language specifically designed for the classroom environment. It was basically doodling through words.
It's a big deal to reveal your friend's deepest truth, your friend's deepest secret. And for all of us, when we do these big things, there's a complexity of motivation that comes behind that decision.
I love the interplay between words and pictures. I love the fact that in comics, your pictures are acting like words, presenting themselves to be read.
Nobody really knows for sure how the Boxer Rebellion started. It began among the poor, and the history of the poor is rarely written down.
Religion and culture are two important ways in which we as humans find our identity. That's certainly true for me.
In academia in general, there's this push toward using comics as an educational tool.
The premise of 'Secret Coders' is reminiscent of 'Harry Potter.' An intrepid band of tweens stumbles upon a secret school, only instead of teaching magic, the school teaches coding.
There's something about the intimacy of comics that gives you a false bravado; you don't always consider the consequences.
I talk about religion because it's one of the ways human beings find power and belonging. Religion is more than just that – I think faith traditions give us ways to talk about experiences of the numinous, too – but power and belonging are a big part of it.
'Avatar: The Last Airbender' is, to my mind, the greatest American animated series ever produced. The characters lived and breathed.
'The Green Turtle' wasn't all that popular. He lasted only five issues of Blazing Comics before disappearing into obscurity.
In my research, I learned that the Boxers' kung fu wasn't all that formalized. The vast majority of them didn't belong to some age-old martial arts tradition. They were basically poor, starving teenagers doing the best they could to figure out how to fight, relying more on their mystical beliefs than formal training.
Superman was created in the late 1930s, and humankind's idea of what the future would be was very different.
When I got the job with 'Superman,' it felt like somebody threw me into the ocean. I was just trying to figure it out, to figure out how to tread water. Lucky for me, I'm part of a great team.
I was really worried that sitting at home by myself in front of a computer was going to make me crazy.
I started 'American Born Chinese' as a mini-comic. I would write and draw a chapter, photocopy a hundred or so copies at the corner photocopy store, and then try to sell them on consignment through local comics shops. If I could sell maybe half a dozen, I'd be doing okay.
I majored in Computer Science at U.C. Berkeley and worked as a software developer for a couple of years. Then I taught high school computer science for over a decade and a half in Oakland, California.
I think, pretty much like everyone around my age, I grew up playing those classic video games. I wouldn't say I was addicted to them, but I definitely liked them.
When I was growing up, I did go to the arcade. We had a neighborhood arcade, and my friends and I would go fairly regularly.
I wanted to make an explicitly educational comic that taught readers the concepts I covered in my introductory programming class. That's what 'Secret Coders' is. It's both a fun story about a group of tweens who discover a secret coding school, and an explanation of some foundational ideas in computer science.
'Avatar: The Last Airbender' creators Mike DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko have, along with their team, painstakingly planned out the Avatarverse.
In 2000, Pope John Paul II canonized 120 saints of China, 87 of whom were ethnically Chinese. My home church was incredibly excited because this was the first time the Roman Catholic Church acknowledged Chinese citizens in this way.
Immigrant parents dream that their children will find a place in their new home, and they willingly suffer hardships in service to that dream. That was certainly true of my parents.
We have to allow ourselves the freedom to make mistakes, including cultural mistakes, in our first drafts. I believe it's okay to get cultural details wrong in your first draft. It's okay if stereotypes emerge. It just means that your experience is limited, that you're human.
Any superhero, regardless of how different they are from Superman, recalls Superman in some way. They're either pushing against Superman or reflecting Superman; there's something about them that comes from Superman.
Eventually, I just couldn't imagine myself being in a cubicle for my entire career.
I was a huge fan of the Bruce Timm animated series and, of course, the live action 'Lois & Clark' series. I watched that when I was in college.
In traditional Asian arts, the word and the picture always sit next to each other. I have an aunt, a Chinese brush painter, who told me that when you do a Chinese brush painting, you have to pair the image up with some poetry.
Many Japanese families moved to Taiwan during the occupation. Then, when the war ended, they were forced to move back. And at the macro level, the Taiwanese had every reason to cheer when the Japanese left. The Japanese military could often be incredibly brutal. The Taiwanese lived as second-class citizens on their own land.
I grew up with an Apple 2E – I had a deep, emotional attachment to that machine – and I loved doodling.
My first job was as a programmer. So I feel like I'm familiar with the information technology sector and the information technology culture.
When I looked into the lives of the Chinese saints, I discovered that many of them had died during the Boxer Rebellion, a war that occurred on Chinese soil in the year 1900.
Superman is such an old character. He's an old character with this huge legacy behind him. And one of the awesome things about the fact that he's been around for these decades is that he's gone through these different phases.
'Shadow Hero' was my first superhero story. I don't know why it took so long.
When you work with somebody else, you automatically get a mixed voice. You hope it will benefit the story. But you don't know what the result will be.
Dwayne McDuffie was one of my favorite writers. When I was growing up, he was one of the few African Americans working in American comics.
I grew up on monthly comics. My closet is full of monthly comics. I've always wanted to do a monthly comic, and while I've had a couple of offers, the timing has never worked out. Most superhero comics come into the world as monthly series, so we wanted the same for 'The Shadow Hero.'
I have a fairly limited drawing style. I'm not like my friend Derek Kirk Kim, who can pretty much change his style at will. My drawing style can handle some of my stories, but not all of them.
My experience of Chinese culture is indirect, through echoes. When I approach the cashier at my local Chinese supermarket, they switch to English before I've even said a word. They somehow know that I'm not quite Chinese enough.
I noticed that when my daughter was born, my son really, really liked her. But then as she started getting older, and as she started crawling around our house and touching different things that were his, sibling rivalry issues started appearing.
My experiences growing up in both a Chinese American household and the Catholic Church define much of who I am.
It's just nerve-wracking in general to write 'Superman,' right? I'm a life-long superhero fan, and he is the character that kicked off the entire genre.
'The Green Turtle' was created in the 1940s by a cartoonist named Chu Hing, one of the first Asian Americans to work in the American comic book industry.
The project that I did between 'Boxer & Saints' was 'The Shadow Hero,' which is illustrated by Sonny Liew, an artist who lives in Singapore.
I'm a cartoonist. I write and draw comic books and graphic novels. I'm also a coder.
Going from idea to production is a huge hurdle. It took me a while to overcome it. It's basically all about self discipline, right?
During the Cultural Revolution, the communists came in, and what they wanted to do was eradicate all sense of traditional Chinese culture.
In my classroom, I would start my lessons with a quick review of an old topic. Then, I would introduce a new topic. Finally, I would give my students a problem to solve on their own, one that would reinforce what I'd just taught.
Creativity requires input, and that's what research is. You're gathering material with which to build.
Dichotomies are an inherent part of comics, aren't they? Comics are both pictures and words. They blend time and space. Many feature characters with dual identities like Bruce Wayne/Batman. Cartoonists also tend to live dichotomous lives because many of us have day jobs.
I would hope that maybe math teachers could use 'Prime Baby' as a way of establishing an emotional connection between students and numbers.
This is a profession for me, but I started off as a self-publisher working on my own schedule and my own stuff before moving on to graphic novels with First Second Books, where there was definitely a schedule, but it was very different from monthly comics.
With my own comics, I try hard to get the vision in my head onto paper, to have one match the other as closely as possible. With the 'Airbender' comics, I'm working with someone else's vision, an already-established vision. I want to stay true to what's come before.
There's bleeding between age groups in terms of reading material, and there's bleeding between media. So there are books that are clearly comics and books that are prose, and then there are these books that are kind of in-between.
I never worked a job that required research. I'm not really good at it, to be honest.
I general don't color my stuff – I'm pretty horrible with color. Usually, I'll get one of my cartoonist friends to help me out.
A lot of Asians and Asian-Americans have liver problems. If you basically ask anybody who is Asian, they or one of their relatives will have some sort of a liver issue, and the liver actually falls into the jurisdiction of the gastroenterologist.
Writing, for me, is very inspiration-dependent. And inspiration can be a jerk.
Comics are such a powerful educational tool. Simply put, there are certain kinds of information that are best communicated through sequential visuals.
I think every time you work with another collaborator, there's an adjustment process where you figure out the other person's strengths, and that has definitely happened for me.
If I'm writing about a modern-day suburb, there's going to be details of the home and furniture, and if I'm writing about a historical period, those details, those pieces of the world are going to be there as well, but they'll be simplified, because I'm cartooning it.
I think the 'Boxers' book was easier for me to envision as a comic, because they were on this epic journey. These teenagers basically gathered into this army and marched to the capital city where they had a showdown with the Europeans and Japanese. On the 'Saints' side, it was a lot trickier.
Both my mother and my father grew up in Asia, in a time of political instability. They'd earned college degrees before setting foot in the States but had to work menial jobs early on in order to make ends meet.
When I first started making comics, I was living with a bunch of guys, old college friends. We had this deal. At the end of each day, they would ask me how far I'd gotten on my comic. And if I hadn't made my goals, they were supposed to make me feel really bad about myself. They happily obliged.
I was a superhero fan in the '90s, so I'm definitely familiar with John Romita, Jr. In fact, when I was in high school, I would go to local conventions and line up and get his signature.
My brain subconsciously limits itself to panel compositions that my hand can actually draw.
Figuring out a way to balance the Boxer story with the Chinese Christians was difficult.
The rumor is Chu Hing really wanted the 'Green Turtle' to be Chinese American, but the publisher didn't think that would sell. If you read those books, the hero almost always has his back facing the camera so you can't see his face. When he turns around, his face is obscured.
I kind of just write what I like to write. I'm thankful that readers of different ages seem to connect to my stories. I don't consciously think about age demographics when I'm working on my comics.
Writing for myself and writing for another artist are two very different experiences. When I handle both the story and the art, I have full control. I can endlessly tweak every word and every line.
'Boxers' was more time consuming simply because it was longer, but 'Saints' was definitely harder. I think it's just hard to talk about faith in general.
To be able to write 'Superman,' to be able to work with the legendary artist who is John Romita Jr., I signed on as soon as I could.
Superman has been around for so long; he's been around for, what, eight decades now? And he goes through these different eras where different aspects of who he is get emphasized.
The Boxer Rebellion is a war that was fought on Chinese soil in the year 1900. The Europeans, the Japanese and their Chinese Christian allies were on one side. On the other were poor, starving, illiterate Chinese teenagers whom the Europeans referred to as the Boxers.
As I was researching, I was struck by how similar the Boxers were to Joan of Arc. Joan was basically a French Boxer. She was a poor teenager who wanted to do something about the foreign aggressors invading her homeland.
In the early '90s, I was finishing up my adolescence. I visited my local comic-book store on a weekly basis, and one week I found a book on the stands called 'Xombi,' published by Milestone Media.
For 'Boxers & Saints,' I started by reading a couple of articles on the Internet, then writing a really rough outline, then getting more hardcore into the research. I went to a university library once a week for a year, year and a half.
At any comic book convention in America, you'll find aspiring cartoonists with dozens of complex plot ideas and armloads of character sketches. Only a small percentage ever move from those ideas and sketches to a finished book.
I finished 'American Born Chinese' in 2005, so after that, I started actively researching the Boxer Rebellion.
For 'Boxers and Saints', the tension between Eastern and Western ways of thinking was very personal for me, and I needed to control every aspect.
I got these big coffee table books about Chinese opera from the local library, and I loved looking through them. I loved studying the intricate costumes and figuring out how to 'cartoonify' them.
I love hearing people who are smarter than me talk about my comics. It makes me feel smarter.
I've tried to write from my own understanding of identity in all my comics, whether it's about superheroes or historical conflicts or monkey gods.
Like all of us, I don't think Facebook is 100% evil, but there are aspects of it that move towards evilness. It's true of all the major Silicon Valley companies, that there are aspects to all of them that move towards evilness, but I don't believe they're 100% evil.
Superheroes were created in America, they're most popular in America, and at their best, they embody American ideals.
When 'American Born Chinese' started getting a lot of attention, I freaked out a little bit because I realized that up until then I had just been doing comics by following my gut. I didn't really know much about plot structure or anything; I kind of just followed my gut.
We're afraid of writing characters different from ourselves because we're afraid of getting it wrong. We're afraid of what the Internet might say.
Ch'in Shih-huang is the first emperor of China. He united seven separate kingdoms into a single nation. He built the Great Wall and was buried with the terra-cotta soldiers. The Chinese have mixed feelings about him. They're proud of the nation he created, but he was a maniacal tyrant.