Gene Luen Yang is an Asian-American cartoonist. He is a frequent lecturer on the subjects of graphic novels and comics, at comic book conventions and universities, schools, and libraries.
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Hey reddit, I’m Gene Yang, a graphic novelist and cartoonist, and my work aims to explore present-day and historical events through a contemporary Chinese American lens. I wrote most of my work while working as a high school computer science teacher, and that’s where I realized the value of comics as an instructional tool!
I’ve written American-Born Chinese (2006), which incorporates elements of American comics, Chinese folklore, and the Chinese immigrant experience to tell the story of an adolescent Jin Wang as he navigates his bicultural identity and tries to assimilate in America. In Boxers and Saints, which I wrote in 2011, I told a story of the peasant uprising against Western influences in China in 1900. Right now I’m working on a series of graphic novels, Secret Coders (2015), that uses mysteries to engage kids in computer science. And I’m of course working on DC Comics' New Super-Man series, which is about a young Chinese superhero named Kong Kenan.
When I was named a 2016 MacArthur Fellow a few weeks ago, the MacArthur Foundation said that I am "leading the way in bringing diverse characters to children’s and young adult literature and confirming comics’ place as an important creative and imaginative force within literature and art.”
I'll be on at 2:30 ET, but go ahead and AMA!
I'm on right now! AMA.
That's it for me today, I've gotta run and go grab lunch with my mom. But this was great, and I hope to be back on soon. Thanks everyone for your awesome questions!
Hi Gene. As an Chinese American growing up and seeing negative stereotypical portrayals of my culture in mainstream art and media, I'm so thankful to see how far we've come to have creatives like you bring quality content to the table.
My questions are: What do you think I, as a consumer, can do to promote diversity in the arts? and How do you feel about the new Dr. Strange movie and the casting choices that the studio made?
GLY: Thanks for being here!
I try to support diverse stories by buying, reading, watching, and recommending diverse stories. Asian Am recommendations:
Meanwhile by Jason Shiga
Same Difference by Derek Kirk Kim
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
Unidentified Suburban Object by Mike Jung
I'm disappointed with the casting choices for Dr. Strange. The fact the trailer is kind of awesome makes it all the more painful.
Hi Mr Yang, you taught me computer science back in the day at O'Dowd! Thanks for that. My question is, how have your experiences in the classroom informed your understanding of what needs to be done to engage kids in preparing them for future work opportunities?
GLY: All schools should be more like O'Dowd. :)
I think coding should be a part of every kid's school experience. Not that every kid should be a coder, but coding teaching very important thinking skills.
Thanks so much for being here!
If there was any comic that you could erase from existence, yours or someone else's, what comic would it be?
Gotta be honest -- there are plenty of stories that are not for me, but I wouldn't wish any of them out of existence.
Even problematic ones like Detective Comics #1.
The entire DC Universe began with a Yellow Peril stereotype, with an image that was meant to dehumanize an entire group of people for the sake of a sale.
Yet, the DC Universe has developed into a place that's all about hope and heroism. You can't erase DC #1 without effecting the history of the DCU.
All the stories we tell are a part of a longer on-going conversation about what it means to be human. I don't want to delete any part of that conversation, even the parts that make me sad and angry and confused.
Who are your book "mentors" when writing books geared for children?
GLY: The Hamline MFAC community.
What are some of your favourite books?
GLY: When I was a kid, I loved the Alvin Fernald books by Clifford Hicks.
Gene! Love your work on New Super-man!
Are you planning to make him and Superman meet sometime in the future?
Also, any plans on any other DC characters?
YES. Kong Kenan is a part of the DCU. As the series continues, he will interact with the Western half of the DCU more and more.
Thanks so much for reading the book!
If Marvel or DC gave you the choice of working on the book you want, Wich one would you choose?
Despite my initial reluctance, New Super-Man has been a dream writing environment. Plenty of creative elbow room in a universe that I love.
My fav Marvel character is Frog-Man. Would LOVE to do a Frog-Man book.
On the DC side, I would love to do a Wonder Twins book. Historical fiction, set in the late 1970s. The big reveal would be that the Wonder Twins aren't actually aliens -- they're Asian Americans who pretend to be aliens for the sake of acceptance.
Hello Gene! Thank you for stopping by and doing this AMA.
I recently met you for a moment at TCAF back in May where you signed my copy of American Born Chinese. I told you that I had used the book in my education courses to become a teacher, but I forgot to ask you if there were any plans to release a Teacher's Edition of the book that could entice more schools to pick up a class order of the book? I really enjoyed the story and art, but I was curious to see if there were any plans regarding this.
Secondly, congratulations on being named a MacArthur Fellow, but what does this now entail of you and how are you planning to meet these goals?
Lastly, love your New Superman book. My friend and I talk about it all the time.
GLY: Thanks so much for coming by!
There are teacher guides for American Born Chinese. Here's one from my publisher:
The MacArthur Fellowship is just MIND BLOWING. I'm still trying to wrap my head around it. My wife and I have four kids, so a good chunk of the money will go towards feeding and educating them. However, I do also want to using some of the money to further things along in my ambassadorship.
So glad you like the New Super-Man book! It's been a ton of fun to work on!
Why was Saints so much shorter than Boxers?
I wanted Boxers to be about heroism. Specifically, I wanted it to be like a Chinese epic war movie: long, colorful, full of blood, and really sad at the end. (This one is my fav: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Emperor_and_the_Assassin)
I wanted Saints to be about saintliness. Now, no matter what faith tradition you're talking about, saintliness is almost always connected with humility. I wanted Saints to be humble in every possible way in comparison to Boxers. I wanted it to be more humble in terms of color, scope of story, story length. I even asked my publisher to print it on cheaper paper, but they didn't let me do it. (Which was probably a good thing. :) )
Financially, has being an artist been difficult on you or your family?
I've been extremely, extremely lucky.
But it was a tricky negotiation. For seventeen years, I was both a high school teacher and a cartoonist. The balance between the two would go back and forth. I only quit my teaching gig about a year and a half ago, and that decision was full of fear.
Freelancing is hard. You're just not sure how much money you'll make in a given year. Paying for your own health insurance is a pain. All the paperwork involved is a pain.
But like I've said, I've been extremely, extremely lucky. I'm grateful for the chance to concentrate on my comics.
I read THE SHADOW HERO last week, it was the first thing of yours I've ever read. I really loved the thinking and reasoning in the way you adapted it. It was like doing a cover of a song that exceeds the original.
So if you had a magic-wand for copyrights, and could remake/transfigure any big movie or book series, what would it be?
GLY: Thank you! Shadow Hero was so much fun to work on, esp because I got to work with Sonny Liew. If you haven't checked out Sonny's latest The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, you REALLY NEED TO. Like REALLY.
I've mentioned this in another answer, but I would love to do Wonder Twins.
Logo is an interesting choice for teaching kids to program. Why not something more mainstream like Python?
GLY: Logo used to be mainstream! :)
I chose a forgotten language for story reasons. First, I wanted to draw the parallel between magic and coding. In magic, you say a few esoteric words from a forgotten language and something amazing happens. In coding, there's a similar dynamic.
Second, I'm a big fan of Seymour Papert, one of the creators of Logo. I'm going to have Papert make a small cameo in the series (in volume 5).
Do you think super hero comics teach kids that violence is a good way to solve problems, and that there's such a thing as objective good and evil? And if so, do you think that's a problem? Also, are you familiar with the breakfast cereal, Wild Loops?
Do superheroes teach that violence solves problems? Maybe some do. Superhero stories are so varied. You read Squirrel Girl? It's fabulous. One of my fav scenes is of Squirrel Girl and Galactus hanging out, talking and stuff.
I do believe in objective good and evil... but I don't think humans will ever have a perfect understanding of this. I don't know... I'm still working this out. Lately, I've been reading about the overlap between the Greek concept of logos and the Chinese concept of tao.
Never heard of Wild Loops. I am not very adventurous with my breakfast foods. Wild Loops might be too wild for me.
Okay what if you're guaranteed to have your head placed on his chest with no chance of super-armpit smell?
GLY: Fine. 10.
Hi Gene, I would like to know your what was your interpretation of Chin-Kee's purpose in American Born Chinese.
While I understand it is bad to whitewash your ethnic identity, I do not know understand how Chin-Kee solves that problem.
He embarrasses Jin by humiliating him in front of his peers by perpetuating obviously negative stereotypes. Social alienation is not an easy experience to deal with, and having a relative make that worse would be painful.
Is Chin-Kee suppose to force Jin to accept his ethnic heritage? Why should he be forced to accept it through such a negative way? Being humiliated and mocked by association into acceptance? This seems an odd way to force someone to accept their ethnic heritage.
I'm pretty sure it would have been better character development to accept your ethnic heritage through understanding what sacrifice and resilience it would take to live in America. Or you can be American without having to be White. Or that there are awesome things about Chinese culture that Jin wouldn't have realised.
Instead, the Monkey King embarrasses him into violence in order to accept his ethnic identity. He says he should have "realized how good it was to be a monkey", but he just showed Jin negative stereotypes. That's a really odd message to me.
GLY: First, thank you for reading the book!
Here's my thinking: The Monkey King represents Jin's cultural heritage. Chin-Kee represents a mockery of that heritage. When you don't accept your heritage, you turn it into a mockery -- that's why the Monkey King became Chin-Kee.
(Whether I pulled it off, of course, it for you to decide. You bring up some decent points.)
Gene! Hi! My wife Stephanie and I are students at Hamline and she worked with you last summer! It's wonderful to see you're doing so well!
My question is this: You often do your own art on your projects for First Second; how do you split your time between writing and drawing? What requires more effort or time for you generally?
GLY: Hey Zack!
Writing is more soul-wrenching, drawing is more time-consuming. I generally try to write in the morning and draw in the afternoon. Unless I have a deadline. Deadlines throw everything off.
Say hi to Stephanie!
If you could convert any of the stories you've worked on to television or film, which would you pick and why?
GLY: It'd be fun to work on a Secret Coders animated series?
But, really, I'm a comic book guy. The comic is the final product for me. It'd be a lot of fun to have a film/TV adaptation, but it would just be icing on the cake.
The book is the end goal.
Hi Gene, love your work on the Avatar comic series! I own The Promise, Search, and Rift hardcovers (Currently saving for Smoke and Shadow).
I was wondering if you knew if there was a finish line in mind for the comics series? And if possible, are you able to let us know any hints for the future? Possibly even after North and South?
GLY: Gotta keep reading the books. :)
And THANK YOU!
How does your background influence your writing on
Bonus question - Do you think we'll ever learn how Zuko got his dragon?
GLY: I have LOVED being a small poart of the Avatar world!
Getting to work with Mike DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko has been a dream come true.
I definitely draw on my own background when I write A:TLA. I also draw on research I've done for my other books. For instance, when I was writing The Search, I was at the tail end of Boxers & Saints. I'd done a lot of research on Chinese Opera masks, and some of that ended up informing The Mother of Faces.
On a scale from 1 to 10 (10 being highest), how much do you want to hug Superman?
Here's what's keeping me from 10: I'm worried my head would be positioned right where his armpit is. Love Supes, but I don't love him enough to put up with super-armpit-smell.
Is there a site where I can see some of your work?
What was the last thing you drew?
I drew a picture of Super-Grover for the Sesame Workshop! It was in celebration of the 45th anniversary of The Monster at the End of this Book!
Hi Gene! I discovered your work when I picked up American-Born Chinese and Boxers & Saints last summer. I simply adore them both, so I was super excited for your Superman run, which I liked a lot. Where did the idea for Clark joining an indie wrestling promotion come from? That's my favorite part of your run.
Also, I'm loving New Superman right now. The Chinese Freedom Fighters were an awesome addition, I wasn't expecting, and I love the new take on the classic DC team.
One last thing. I'm an aspiring English teacher, and American-Born Chinese and Boxers & Saints are two books I would consider teaching. Do you have any advice on how to best teach them?
GLY: (was just told I should put my initials before my answers. So here you go! )
The Oakland wrestling story line was the part of my Supes run that I was happiest with. It was inspired by this: http://www.birdswillfall.com/
Which is so, so Oakland. Superman is American myth. Thought it'd be fun to have him interact with other myths.
The next book that I'm writing and drawing is called Dragon Hoops. It's my first nonfiction book. I'm excited, but it's taking FOREVER.
Wait, you couldn't remember whether you were born in Fremont or Alameda? What's it say on your birth certificate? :-}
(Alameda-born and raised...)
Haha. I have a terrible, terrible memory. I haven't seen my birth certificate recently.
My parents were living in one city, I was born in the other. I'm pretty sure they were living in Fremont and I was born in Alameda. But I'm not positive.
My brain is just deficient in that way. I get right and left confused. I get names "Christine" and "Christina" confused. I'm sure someone knows more about why this happens. I should look into it.
Hey Gene! I loved Boxers & Saints so much and what you're doing with New Super Man is amazing. I write historical fiction myself and B&S was an inspiration in the way you portrayed the characters involved and made an empathetic representation of both sides. How much research did you have to do and what resources did you pull from to give such a believable portrayal?
GLY: Thank you!
I did about a year and a half of research. Went to the library every week and spent a few hours reading about turn of the century China.
The book that was the MOST helpful was Origins of the Boxer Uprising by Joseph Esherick (sp?)
Our reading community is very excited to take on the #ReadingWithoutWalls Challenge, your National Ambassador for Young People's Literature platform! How can we as readers, teachers, librarians, bloggers, parents, etc. best help you in this initiative?
GLY: That's soooo great!
Doing what you're doing is perfect! Check out the material that the Library of Congress, Children's Book Council, and Every Child A Reader put together for the program:
Printable posters, certificates, etc!
We'll be doing a big push at the beginning of next summer, so stay tuned!
Hey Gene! Congrats on the MacArthur award. I first learned about your work through Derek Kirk Kim. I really enjoyed your collaboration together and finished the book unsatiated - I wanted more stories! Any plans to collaborate with Derek, or any other artists, again?
GLY: Would LOVE to work with Derek again! He's really busy working in animation right now, though.
I'm currently collaborating with a few amazing artists: Studio Gurihiru on Avatar, Viktor Bogdanovic on New Super-man, and Mike Holmes on Secret Coders.
What was it like to receive the MacArthur "genius grant"?
GLY: It was shocking. SHOCKING.
Hey, thanks for doing this AMA, Mr. Yang! New Super-Man is easily in my top 3 Rebirth books right now and I'm absolutely loving Kenan Kong. That book is filled with so much heart and a pure sense of fun, which is accentuated by Bogdanovic's great art and design work. I want thank you both for you work on that title and all the effort you're putting in. I foresee Kenan becoming a big hit in time, wit ha lasting legacy in the DC canon, like Kamala has in recent memory for Marvel.
Now, that aside.
1) Who are your biggest writing influences inside comics? Also, who're some creators you'd love to co-write stuff with?
2) What are your favorite Superman works and runs/creators?
3) What's an overlooked element of the Superman franchise and character that you wish people paid more attention to?
4) Are there any other DC heroes, big or osbscure that you'd love to tackle in the future?
5) Can we expect more Big two work from you aside from New Super-man in the near future?
6) Can you shed some light on your scripting process, esp when it comes to big two books and what it's like working with the editors to make the best book possible?
7) What would be your advice to young creators looking to break in and hone their craft? Any advice? Scripting tips?
8) What's your favorite story, in any medium, that you wish more people read/knew about?
9) What was your favorite superhero title growing up?
Well, shit. I asked waaaay too many questions. Sorry in advance. ;_; Again, thanks for doing this AMA, Mr. Yang.
GLY: Thank you for reading New Super-Man!
In DC? Giffen and DeMatteis
Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?
That he's an immigrant
Mr. Miracle! And Martian Manhunter!
I hope so!
It's fun, but much more frantic than GNs
Create, create, create. Also, read Drawing Words and Writing Pictures by Jessica Abel and Matt Madden
Silence by Shusaku Endo
I LOVED the first arc of Giffen and DeMatteis' Dr. Fate run
Do you currently have any thing in the works that will center around an Asian/Asian American LGBT character?
Can you think of somewhere I could look for some positive representations of a gay/les/trans asian in comics or fiction?
GLY: I don't have any projects right now. I write from my life, with many of my characters inspired by my friends. My LGBT friends will make their way into my stories soon, I'm sure.
Check out the work of Malinda Lo, a fantastic writer. Also, Korra comics by Mike DiMartino are starting up soon.
Hi, Gene - I met you right after ABC was released; you were speaking at a Howard County Library function in Columbia MD.
I love Level Up and was wondering, how much familial pressure (parents and spousal) did you feel on the front end of your writing career? How would the story change, or continue, if you wrote it today in light of the fact that you now have a significant amount of literary recognition?
Also, why didn't you illustrate it yourself?
Thanks for reading Level Up! I did feel pressure from my dad specifically. I made a lot of choices early on that were against my dad's wishes.
I don't know if Level Up would change significantly if I were to do it again today. The issues are still the same.
I didn't illustrate myself because I was working on Boxers and Saints at the time. Also, I really wanted to work with my best frenemy Thien Pham.