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, everyone! I'm Gene Luen Yang, the creator of the award-winning graphic novel American Born Chinese! I also write New Super-Man (about the Chinese Superman) for DC Comics. AMA!
Hey Gene, I'm a big fan of New Super-Man! I've been shilling it over at r/dccomics. It's great to hear that it avoided cancellation! Was it always your intention to build a Justice League of China?
Thanks for shilling, man! I deeply appreciate the shilling!
The idea for a Justice League of China came out pretty early on. I was doing research, and I realized that so much of modern Chinese pop culture is modelled after American pop culture. For instance, these guys are kind of like the One Direction of China:
China has a rep for being a copycat, and to be honest I think some of it is deserved, but not always.
Sometimes the Chinese use American art, American music, American symbolism to express something very Chinese.
That's what we wanted the Justice League of China to be. On the surface, they would appear to be "cheap Chinese copies", but underneath they would express something new. (Hopefully.)
Hi Gene! Big fan of your work. How do you feel about the evolution of how Asian American individuals of communities have been portrayed in comics, and what do you think about your role in it? Thank you!
Hey filletofishking! Have to tell you -- huge fan of that sandwich. Thank you for being king of it. Overall, I think things are getting better in terms of Asian Am representation. When I was a kid there were a few Asian heroes in American superhero comics. There was Sunfire on the X-Men and that Japanese dude with the bare legs on Super Friends... I don't really remember any Asian American characters.
Jubilee might've been the first one I actually read in an actual American comic book. She was kind of a revelation for me. Now that I'm 44, it's creepy for me to say I have a crush on her, but I swear the crush started when she used to be just a year or two older than me.
My fav Asian Am character right now is probably Amadeus Cho? It's between him and Kamala Khan. Greg Pak and G. Willow Wilson are the best. Willow (I can call her that bc we were on the same panel together one, just sayin') proves that you can write an authentic character who does not perfectly overlap your own identity. Just gotta do your homework.
Hey Gene! Thanks for doing this AMA. I read American Born Chinese I read it for school, and as a white American, I felt more connected to the characters than any other book about a different race. What do you think are some barriers for audiences connecting to a character from a different culture, and how do you think authors can get around this?
Thank you for being here! Here's what I'll say. I think it might be true that there are barriers for audiences to connect with a character of a different culture, but dude, kids in minority communities have been doing it for DECADES. Black and Asian and Latinx kids have imagined themselves as Peter Parker since he first debuted. I fully believe kids in the majority culture have as much imagination to do the same.
That said, there is this weird dynamic in writing where often (but not always) when you get super-specific, your story somehow becomes universal.
My example of this: In high school, Richard Wright's Black Boy was the only assigned book that I finished before the due date. In that book, he gave super-specific details about the superstitions that he and his friends had, about his "terrible" thoughts as he sat in church, about how conscious he was of the smell of him and his community. All super-specific. All super-relatable to me, even though as a suburban Asian Am kid I had virtually nothing in common with the author.
Is there stuff that you thought as a kid was awesome but when you showed your kids they were like "meh"...?
Dude. ALL. THE. TIME.
It makes me so mad. My wife and I have four kids and sometimes they have such bad taste, especially when it comes to stuff from the 80's. How do you not think Transformers G1 is the DEFINITIVE Transformers???
Does your narrative ever visit China? How do you balance the spirit of a character like Superman with the realities of an organization like the CCP?
Yeah. That's been a tough issue to work through. My dad was born in Taiwan and my mom in mainland China. My mom's family left just as the CCP was getting established, so I grew up with some very strong opinions about politics in China.
As an adult, I've realized that my parents' perspectives aren't the only perspectives. I've also realized that modern China is not the same as the China that my mom's side left. But still.
In New Super-Man, it was hard, right? I've never actually lived in China. I want to be respectful. But at the same time, that Superman S stands for certain things, even when it's on the chest of someone besides Clark Kent.
A central theme of the first eighteen issues of New Super-Man is balance. How will Kenan balance power with vulnerability, human with metahuman, East with West, safety with freedom? I'm trying to take the same approach with the issues you raise, too.
I love you, man.
REAL OPTIMUS PRIME WEARS RED
Hello, Thanks again for doing this! I've liked Kenan's story a lot so far, and your & Sonny Liew's Green Turtle revival!
You're involved in using comics in teaching and teaching the medium as well. I was wondering if there are any resources for Comics educators & researchers you would like to mention, and any advice you can give to Comic Shops & Libraries (I work at both) to help get books in classrooms and just generally publicized?
Thanks for following along with New Super-Man! Issue #18, which just came out last week, was supposed to be the last one, but bc of folks like you it's gonna keep going!
Super-excited about a North Korean character we're about to intro in Issue #20.
As for educator and research resources:
I'm sure there are more. Anyone else want to chime in on this?
Read more comics! :)
That's kind of a joke, but kind of not. Comics are awesome.
New Super-Man is incredible. I was skeptical when the title was first announced ("So it's just a Chinese kid with Superman's powers...?") but I finally gave it a read after hype from friends and this book has been consistently great. I love the character interactions and personality clashes, which is one of the things I enjoyed most about Avatar/Korra and wish there was more of on the "main" Justice League title. Combined with the unique take on Superman's power set and the growth of Kenan as a character and a hero, NSM has been the Rebirth title I never knew I needed.
As for a question: If you were put in full control of the "Suicide Squad" title, who would your Squad consist of?
Haha. Suicide Squad is not really in my wheelhouse. BUT if I were in charge? Here's my roster:
Deadshot, Harley and Ivy, Static Shock, both Blue Beetles (framed for a crime they didn't commit!), Cassandra Cain Batgirl, red Hulk for muscle (we would find a way to bring him through the Marvel-DC wormhole), Captain Boomerang (Sokka from ATLA, not the DC Comics guy).
I just wanted to say that I've been a big fan since I read American Born Chinese way back in 5th grade. It's still one of my favorite comic books of all time, and you've been my favorite comics creator ever since. I love a lot of your other comics as well, particularly Boxers and Saints and the Avatar comics. I keep on missing you at cons and talks somehow, but I'm very excited to be able to contact you through this AMA!
I really appreciate all the work you've done in terms of comics and education. That's a subject I'm very interested as someone who's looking to become a teacher one day (and who would love to teach a class on comics to highschoolers, if I can convince someone to let me!). I think they have a really special ability to reach people, given that visual mediums are much more accessible, and that they have great teaching potential.
So, following that train of thought...I know you were a teacher at Bishop O'dowd when you started making comics, and I was wondering: how did you balance those two careers? Was it challenging to find time to work on your books? And did you ever bring up comics in your classroom, or did that stay separate (computer science doesn't seem super relevent, but who knows!)?
Also, sidenote: there's a comics studies program at University of Oregon, I'm sure everyone there would be ecstatic if you stopped by sometime! We have lots of cool classes and even a student-run comics magazine. It's a real fun time!
Thanks for being here, flyin_narwal! And thank you for reading American Born Chinese. The fact that you read it in FIFTH GRADE makes me feel old, but that's offset by the happiness of having you as a reader.
Let me tell you, teaching is an AMAZING profession. I was a high school teacher for 17 years and I still miss having my own classroom. You will love it.
Balancing two careers can be tricky, but I think it's more and more common now. You can be a teacher and a cartoonist, a coder and a musician, a doctor and a blogger. I read somewhere that businesses that start as side hustles have a statistically higher chance of succeeding? I wish I remembered where.
In any case, for me, cartooning and teaching offered a perfect balance. Cartooning is very introverted and teaching is very extroverted, so there was a balance to the energies, you know?
In the beginning, I would cartoon at night, sometimes in the mornings, always on weekends and during the summer. It took some discipline, but I hung out with a bunch of other cartoonists who would keep me on track.
Eventually I went part time at my teaching gig and I was able to spend every other working day at home making comics. It was a great set up.
Interesting. Are you getting a Chinese print? Do American comics get much traction out there?
As far as I know, there's no official Chinese translation of New Super-Man. We do hear from readers in China, though...
I don't know much about you (sorry!) but I was born in China, left when I was 3, lived in Europe for awhile, and arrived in Canada when I was 10.
I've been struggling with my identity cause I know Chinese but can't read and write it. I don't really feel like I'm part of the Chinese-Canadian community.
Have you ever had these feelings and what do you think of them?
I'll check out New Super-Man! I've heard about him and he sounds interesting!
Hey! You sound a lot like me. I also can speak Chinese but I can't really read or write. I know what it's like to be caught in between. That's actually the emotional basis of my book American Born Chinese.
Here's something that helped me as a Chinese American: I realized that America is not a monolith. There is no one "American" culture, and that was by design. From the beginning we have been a culture of subcultures, a society of smaller societies. Right now, we are in the middle of defining the Asian American subculture, and that's pretty awesome.
I'm SURE something similar is happening in Canada.
As an Asian fan, I must say I absolutely love Chinese Superman. It's such a great series with nice plots and character development, and filled with Chinese culture. It was also heavily nostalgic seeing Chinese Wonder Woman's true identity, since I watched the Madame White Snake series when I was a child. I suppose you're going with the Tsui Hark Green Snake movie interpretation for her? In which she's bisexual and falls in love with Xu Xian instead of just White Snake? (She's pretty much a lesbian in traditional tellings, or even a transsexual woman if you watch the opera versions)
Now for the actual questions. Let me be a little greedy.
Thank you! I've read a few White Snake summaries, plus I watched the Jet Li movie. Honestly, a bit of my writing was driving by my Wonderbat ship. (Bc of the Bruce Timm JL cartoon.)
The story of the monkey martial artist was really prominent. Pretty much explains my experience with racism, sexism, etc. What was the writing process behind the making of that story? Did you go through a lot of drafts?
Hey jaewonblue! Good to meet you! My writing process kind of goes like this: I start with an outline where I lay out all thie big things that are going to happen in the story. For a 200 page graphic novel, this will be like a 4-6 page document. Then I write a script. Then I do thumbnail sketches of each page -- thumbnails are small, rough sketches of where all the panels are and the staging (where characters and props are) within each panel. Sometimes the script and the thumbs are the same document, but not always. Then I do pencils, inks, and letters. Each of those stages is essentially a draft, as I make changes all the way through.
Comics will eat your life, man. But they're also fun to make.
Will there ever be another episode of MAAGBC?
(Middle-Aged Asian Guy Book Club)
Ha ha. Here's the first and only episode of MAAGBC:
I don't know, dude. It was fun, but Thien also spits when he eats and talks at the same time, so it was also gross.
We do want to do it again, though.
Hahah thanks! Now I have a reading list :)
Wait. You haven't read Totally Awesome Hulk or Ms. Marvel yet? YOu gotta read those books! They're great!
Thank you for your response, it's very comforting to hear that those careers can be balanced!
There are many, many cartoonists who are also teachers. Thien Pham, James Sturm, Jessica Abel, Matt Madden... I could give you a list as long as my arm. Totally doable.
I still teach through Hamline University:
what are the best signings you remember? what can event organizers do to make signings go more smoothly and generally be awesome?
I did this signing over the summer at St. Kate's in Minnesota. It was super awesome! Folks came out, I gave a talk, during the signing I met a bunch of great people.
Signings can be hit or miss. Authors talk about this ALL THE TIME. Sometimes they're great, sometimes you're just hanging out with your mom and the friend she brought.
I'm not sure what the secret sauce is...
Does he go to China and ever interact with Chinese culture from an Asian-American perspective? Don't answer if it will spoil anything.
The book is actually set in China. Kenan Kong is a 17 year old kid growing up in Shanghai. We brought him to America (well, DC Universe America -- he went to Metropolis), but most of the stories are set in China.
In Issue #20, out next February, we'll be moving the action closer to the border between China and North Korea.
do you think group signings are generally more enjoyable than solo?
I think either kind can be done well...
Are we ever going to get an aqua-man of China?
I know there is a lot more that can be done for better representation for AM but do you think there is anything that's being done right but maybe not getting enough credit?
Thank you for NSM. It's been great so far and I really like the new emblem Kenan has.
Thanks for being here!
The title of the new storyline starting in Issue #20 (out in Feb, as I said in an early post) is "Seas of Change"... so something's coming. :)
I love Aquaman. Dorkiness is in a circular loop with coolness, and he's one of those characters who is so dorky that he's become cool.
Glad you like New Super-Man's new chest emblem! We're excited about it. :)
Hi Mr. Yang! I've been loving New Super-Man since #1 came out, it's one of my favorite books that's currently going.
The biggest question I have (since everyone already asked the good stuff) is:
Betty or Veronica?
Ha ha. Veronica, but only bc she has black hair like my wife. (I love you, honey!)
Additionally, what is your best tip to improve illustration skills by hand?
Practice, practice, practice. Also, use reference photos.
Any chance we'll see the JLC team up with the Teen Titans or Titans? I think that'd be interesting to read. Also my friend is begging for an Aquaman of China haha
I don't know I'm supposed to say this, but we were trying to put together a Teen Titans-ish storyline for NSM, but it didn't work out. (Emphasis on "ish")
Tell your friend to keep reading!
Love your work on new super-man. I know youre really into encouraging kids to read and stuff, but any plans to write stories for older audiences?
Additionally, do you have any writting advice for a weird asian guy whose never been to america but is trying to get into the american comics business?
Thank you! Right now, all my work is either YA or middle grade. I might write for adults someday, but no immediate plans.
Business advice: I began as a self-publisher. Most of my cartoonist friends began in self-publishing. It's hard route, but quite a few of us came out of that world. (Kazu Kibuishi, Raina Telgemeier, Ben Hatke, Jason Shiga...)
Hi Mr. Yang! Thanks a lot for doing this, I'm a huge fan of your work on the ATLA comics and New Super-Man. I absolutely adore the way you write all the members of the Justice League of China. In particular, the way Kenan, Baixi, and Deilan embody the ideas of their counterparts while still being wonderful, lovable characters in their own right. My question is, are there any stories that primarily influenced your interpretations of who these characters are and what they mean to you? Thanks again!
Edit: Another question if thats not too much, but Dan Abnett introduced a character called "Warhead" relatively recently in his awesome Aquaman run. Is it possible he might show up sometime in Kenan's neck of the woods?
The dynamic between Kenan and Baixi is loosely modeled after the Monkey King and Pigsy. Kenan is a jerk like early Monkey King, but Baixi is much more competent than Pigsy.
Thank you for reading!
Hey Gene! Me and a couple of big New Super-Man fans have asked Grant Morrison this question and were wondering where you land on the topic.
Cats or dogs?
Thanks for doing the ama!
Cats. Bc you have to earn their love.
Hey, Gene! Love your work, huge fan. How did you approach creating the chinese Wonder Woman, Deilan? What was your thought process and approach to creating the character, her backstory and how did you want to reflect elements of the original WW or her story/idea in her?
Thanks a lot for this doing this! I hope you keep up the great comics work. New Super-man means a lot to so many of us. It's a joy every month.
Deilan is one of my fav characters to write. I knew from the beginning I wanted to tie her into Chinese myth the way Diana is tied into Greek myth. The Legend of Lady White Snake seemed like a natural choice.
My fav scene to write was Baixi and Deilan's kiss that restores her to her human form. Everybody knows the tale of the princess kissing the frog and turning him into a prince. We wanted to do a gender flip. Why can't a chubby Asian dude's kiss be just as magical as a princess's?
In my original script, Deilan was supposed to be in her full snake form during the kiss, but there were concerns so it was changed.
Is there any DC projects you would like to do next?
How will the feel of New Super-man n the justice league of china be different to the New Super-man? Also really enjoyed New Super-man.
We're immediately introing a (possible) new team member!
Hey Gene! Big fan of New Super-Man! My question is if you could cast anybody as Kenan in a live action adaptation, who would you cast?