By Ti-Hua Chang
Gene Luen Yang is an Asian American writer of best selling graphic novels and comics. His work ranges from Asian Identity to writing computer code.
A former computer science teacher, he writes full-time for DC comics. Yang is currently working on a Chinese Superman for DC comics for the American market.
In 2016, the Library of congress named him National Ambassador for Young Peoples Literature.
Freelance reporter Ti-Hua Chang interviewed Gene by telephone. Below are some verbatim excerpts from their conversation.
Ti-Hua Chang ( THC) : Why do you think graphic novels are special?…What makes them the best form of communication for you?
Gene Luen Yang ( GLY): I definitely don’t think it’s the best form of communication. I think it’s one form. And I think there are certain kinds of information that are best communicated through the graphic novel format. The easiest example I can give you is those instructions that come with LEGO sets. Imagine doing that in prose. It would be crazy if you had to do that in prose. And even as a video it would actually be difficult, because the person who is building the Legos has to go at their own pace. Whereas if you go with a video, you will be going at the pace of the person doing the video. It’s really important that those instructions be done in basically comic book format, as a series of sequential still images.
THC: So how does that apply to American Born Chinese ( One of Yang’s graphic books) ?
GKY: I wanted to talk about stereotypes and …. the most visceral way of talking about stereotypes is to actually show them on a page and show a stereotype interacting with another character. I felt If I had done that in prose it would not have been as emotionally effective. I actually have been talking to folks about adapting American Born Chinese to film. At best, that may happen in the future. But the danger of film in the modern age is it sometimes may get cut up and YOUTUBE-ized. That would be my fear of using film. That those chunks of the film would get cut up and put on You Tube without the context of the rest of the story.
THC: In terms of your identification as an Asian American, is that only part of your identity as a writer?
GLY: I think there’s a debate , especially among writers of color, as to how we describe ourselves. Am I an Asian American writer or am I a writer who happens to be Asian American? Ultimately I don’t know if I have a useful answer to that. When I’m writing my main focus is to try to tell a good story. I am trying to tell a story that’s compelling enough to get the reader to stick with me from the first page to the last. In order to do that I will draw on my ethnic heritage and I will draw on my other experiences. But I think when I’m writing, I try not to be conscious of labels like that.
THC: Do you think this is a breakthrough period for Asian Americans in comics?
GLY: …We as a nation are getting more and more diverse and Asian Americans are certainly a part of that. Within the two superhero universes both Marvel and DC, we are starting to see prominent Asian and Asian Americans characters come out. Right now , I’m working for DC, I’m writing a series for them called New Superman. It’s about an Asian Superman. A kid in Shanghai who gets some of Clark Kent’s powers and becomes the Superman of China. Just the fact that project exists is kind of a big deal. It’s not something I could have imagined when I was in high school… the push for diversity within the superhero space is about readers wanting to see that anybody can be a hero regardless of your identity, regardless of your background.
THC: How old were you when you started drawing?
GLY: I started drawing before I can remember. My mom tells me I was two-years-old when I started drawing. I made my first comic book before I was in fifth grade.
THC: Your parents pushed you to take computer science, as I recall, or wanted you to take something more practical. Can you tell me what your thought process was that convinced you you had to live your dream and if you have any advice for young people?
GLY: I think my views on this have changed…It’s hard to make money through art. And health insurance is important, monthly salaries are important. A monthly paycheck gives you a sense of being settled. Whereas the way freelancers generally get paid is just kind of rough…Now as an adult I think the key is to find a balance. I have friends who pursued their childhood dreams at the expense of everything else and some of them do end up happy, but it’s not 100%. There are also those who pursued their dreams, and even if they achieved them, they are not all that happy…It seems we have to find a balance between pursuing our dreams and the practical concerns of a parent. My Dad was right: health insurance is important and having a steady income is important as well.
THC: How do you write?
GLY: I try to do four hours before lunch and four hours after lunch. … I try to use as much of my four hours in the morning to write if I can. I find out of the entire creative process of the writing to the drawing; the writing is the most taxing, the most soul wrenching. So I try to do that in the morning when I have the most energy… I get up at 6. I read the gospel, do a meditation. I’ll do a 7 minute exercise routine off my phone; work with my wife to get the kids ready for school. Kids leave, it’s around 7:45 and … the first thing I do is three pages of free writing…hand written… I try to write in the morning and draw in the afternoon.
THC: What do you see in the future?
GLY: I’m working on a big project right now that will take me a while to finish on basketball. It follows a high school basketball team all season. It will be my first non-fiction book…. In general I am really interested in that intersection between education and comic books — Educational graphic novels. How graphic novels can be used to teach.
After the interview, Yang began to talk about the big changes in American comic books.
GLY: There are three major comic book cultures in the world, Europe, Asia and America. In France and Japan they have been dealing with serious subjects in serious ways in their comics for decades. Whereas for us it’s a very recent phenomenon. The reason for that dates back to the 1950’s. In the 1950’s a book came out in America called Seduction of the Innocent that basically linked juvenile delinquency with comics. The senate actually held hearings about it…the hearings ended inconclusively, but they damaged the reputation of comics with American educators; it cut American comics off at the knees. From that point on, comics only had superheroes and funny animals, no serious topics at all.
THC: When did that change?
GLY: Mid 1990’s. A couple of important works came out. One of them was Maus by Art Spielgelman. It was the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer prize.
Gene Luen Yang will discuss Secret Coders graphic books at the Thalia theater in NYC September 25, 1PM
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