Q&A: Cartoonist Gene Yang

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Gene Yang, who has been writing and drawing comics since the mid-1990s, is best known for the 2006 graphic novel American Born Chinese, about a first-generation Chinese-American teenager and his difficulty coming to terms with junior high school. American Born Chinese won an Eisner Award for Best Graphic Novel and was nominated for a National Book Award. Yang also teaches computer science in Oakland, Calif., where he uses comics in the classroom. He’ll be making two public appearances in Knoxville next week—to discuss the value of comics as an educational tool and to lead a workshop for kids on writing and drawing comics.

You write comics for kids and teenagers, who really aren’t the target audience of the comics industry anymore.
Yeah, it seems that way, at least if you look at mainstream comics. I don’t know if that term really applies anymore, but when I was growing up—I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s—the mainstream comics always referred to superhero comics. Anything outside of that, even if it was in a mainstream genre like action/adventure or romance, which would be considered the mainstream genres of film, they would be considered alternative. So outside of Marvel and DC everything was considered alternative. I think Marvel and DC, their core books have become really adult. Kind of shockingly adult to me, actually. Now that I’m a parent, for better or worse, I’ve gotten a little more sensitive to violence. Some of those Batman books are pretty violent now, pretty intense. I dont know if they still do, but Marvel had this Max line, and they put their superviolent stuff in the Max line, but for DC, their core Batman books now features ome intense violence. I haven’t seen numbers recently, but I think your average comic-book reader is in their 30s now, right? At least for monthly superhero comics, that’s true. In the ’80s, the average was in the teens.

But I don’t think kids have stopped reading comics by any means. I just think that they’re more used to encountering comics in different forms. I think teenagers, high-school and college students, a lot of the comics they read are online. They follow webcomics. For the younger set, it seems like they read a lot of graphic novels at the library—a lot of manga, and a lot of stuff like Raina Telgemeier’s Smile, those sorts of things. In a sense, I think it’s really cool—there’s much more diversity of genre now than there used to be in American comics. I love superheroes. I grew up reading superheroes. At the same time, I really like going into a quality comic-book store and seeing comics of all genres being displayed prominently.

As a teacher, what is it about comics that you find particularly useful? What are the things they do that other media can’t do?
At the school where I teach, I normally teach computer science. But this one year, one of our math teachers had to go on long-term leave and asked me to sub his algebra II class. The problem was, during this period when I was supposed to sub his class, every three weeks or so I had to be out of the class because I was also the school education technologist, which meant I would have to work with other teachers to incorporate technology into their curricula. So these students would have to have a sub for their sub. It was terrible experience for them, a terrible situation.

I didn’t want there to be any break in instruction, so at first I started recording my lectures and asked my sub to play it for them. They absolutely hated it. They thought it was the most horrible thing in the world. They would come up to me and say, “Man, Mr. Yang, we thought you were boring in person, but on video you’re just unbearable.” ... So almost as a last-ditch effort, I drew my lectures as comics. ... It was like a 180 from those video lectures. I was surprised—the video has sound, it has movement, it was on a screen, and we all know kids love screens. I thought they would take to that much better. But they really, really preferred the comic. Some of them even told me they preferred the comic to my actual in-person lectures. When I talked to them further about it, a couple of things came up. Number one is that the comic is visual, it’s completely visual, and they’re used to taking in information visually. And the second thing they pointed to was that, unike the video, they could read the comic at their own pace. If they really needed to read something over again, they could. With the video, it would just play and they would have to ask the sub to rewind it, and everybody’s too emabarrassed to do that, right?

Do you ever run into resistance from parents, or from fellow educators, to your use of comics in the classroom?
It’s definitely less and less. I do talks at library conferences, and librarians for teens are all on board right now. It’s ironic, because in the 1940s and ’50s some of the biggest opponents of comics were librarians, and now they’re among the biggest fans. Even if a librarian doesn’t see reading comics as on par with literature, they still see a way in which comics can be a bridge into pure prose. They’ve found that your average comic-book reader reads something like six times as many books over the course of a year as your non-comic-book reader. And if you include comics in a library collection, the circulation for the entire collection goes up, not just the comics. So there’s been a lot of tangible proof of comics being that bridge. The resistance comes a little after that. Almost everybody sees comics as a bridge. There are some folks that are still not on board with comics as something to be studied in and of themselves, or something that’s worthwhile in and of themselves. That’s fine. I think it’ll come.

You’ve said that American Born Chinese isn’t autobiographical. But is there any part of Jin’s emotional experience that mirrors your own adolescence?
Sure, absolutely. It’s fiction, but I did pull a lot from my own life story to write that book. And especially from the emotions I went through when I was going through school—my own feelings toward my parents and my parents’ culture and my own cultural heritage and how that made me different from what I thought of as mainstream American culture. A lot of that emotional core is still there.

Specifically, the most explicit racism I experiecned in my life was in junior high. There was this group of boys at my junior high that we used to call the stoners. They would wear these black heavy-metal T-shirts and ripped jeans, and there were rumors about them doing bad things in the back parking lot after school. I hung out with a small group of Asian-American boys at that time, and whenever my group of friends and these stoners would pass each other in the hall, they would always yell something racially insensitive at us. A lot of things that I heard in that hallway in junior high, I put into that book. The things that Jin hears from his more insensitive classmates are the things I heard when I was in junior high. I also think that the reaction Jin has is similar to my own reaction. What happened for me was I started feeling ashamed of these differences that were being pointed out in the hallway. I ended up taking it out on people I thought were more different, the more recent Asian immigrant kids.

Your drawing style is very clean and poppy. Who are some of your influences?
I’m a huge Uncle Scrooge fan. I like Carl Barks and I like Don Rosa. I love Jeff Smith and [Osamu] Tezuka. That’s a guy I discovered in college and I fell in love with his stuff. There’s a guy named Jay Stephens, who doesn’t really do comics anymore. He’s got the same kind of thing, a really clean style, at least in terms of visuals. And Bruce Timm, from the Batman animated series. He’s only done a few Batman comics, but I’m really into his stuff, too.

I guess there’s a sort of animation style to your work.
I grew up wanting to be a Disney animator. I changed my mind when I was in college, or late high school. I got into comics more. But growing up I really tried to draw in a Disney way because I really wanted to get hired by them.

The Monkey King storyline in American Born Chinese is really fun, but also emotionally resonant. Tell me about why you picked that story.
I grew up with the Monkey King story. My mom used to tell me about him at bedtime. He was always one of my childhood favorites. I think there’s something especially appealing about the Monkey King for young boys. First, because he’s a monkey, and boys love monkeys. And second, he’s got this nasty temper and really knows his kung fu. He’s this magical, violent monkey—that’s just got a lot of appeal.

After I started doing comics as an adult, because I had such a deep affection for this character, I knew I wanted to do something with him in comics. I was going to do a straight adaptation, but as I researched it, I realized that, in Asia, the Monkey King is so popular that almost every working cartoonist has done something with him. Tezuka has done an adaptation of Journey to the West, which is the original Monkey King story. So I looked at all these different Monkey King comics produced by all these Asian cartooonists and I felt really intimidated. I felt like I wouldn’t really be adding anything by doing my own adaptation of Journey to the West. In the end, I struck on this idea of using a piece of the Monkey King story to talk about the Asian American experience. In American Born Chinese I have him not wearing shoes in the beginning, and later I have him wearing shoes, to talk about the discomfort that immigrant kids sometimes feel growing up in a culture that isn’t their own, that doesn’t match their parents’ culture.

What can you tell me about your upcoming graphic novel, Boxers and Saints?
This is definitely the most complex comic I have ever worked on. It’s abut the Boxer Rebellion, which is a war that occurred on Chinese soil in 1900. Back then, the Chinese government was really weak. They just really weren’t able to defend their borders, so the Europeans and the Japanese came in and established these mini-colonies around the country.

A lot of the poor teenagers in the farmlands of China felt really embarrassed by the fact that these foreigners were able to do this, because China back then had this conception of herself as the center of the universe, the Middle Kingdom. So they actually looked to the pop culture of their day for inspiration. ...They had these traveling bands of actors performing Chinese opera. Chinese opera was sort of like comic books—they told stories about heroes and heroines dressed in bright colors fighting with magical powers and magical weapons. So these kids watched these shows, these operas, and they came up with this ritual. They believed that when they did this mystical ritual, they would get possessed by these gods, the heroes and heroines of opera, and get superpowers. And with these superpowers they ran though the countryside killing the foreign soldiers, the foreign missionaries, the foreign merchants, and also Chinese Christians, Chinese people who embraced the foreign faith. Ultimately, the European reinforcements came just in time to suppress them. I first became really interested in the Boxer Rebellion in the year 2000. I grew up in a Chinese Catholic church, and in the year 2000, Pope John Paul actually canonized Chinese saints for the very first time. This was the very first time that Chinese people were recognized by this Western church in this way.My home church was really excited about it. There were these celebrations and stuff. But when I looked into the lives of these people they were canonizing, I found a lot of them were killed by the Boxers. They were martyrs. And I felt really conflicted about it. I couldn’t decide who I sided with more, whether it was the Boxers or their victims. In the end, I decided to tell two different stories. Actually, it’s kind of like the same story from two different vantage points. In the first volume, the Boxers are the heroes and in the second they’re the villains. Their victims are the heroes.

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