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INTERVIEW: Gene Yang Talks Diversity, Politics and New Super-Man

by  in Comic News Comment
INTERVIEW: Gene Yang Talks Diversity, Politics and New Super-Man

Given his schedule, it’s hard to get Gene Luen Yang to sit still for too long.

After all, the writer and artist is working on projects as varied as the “Secret Coders” series for young readers at First Second Books, “New Super-Man” at DC Comics and the “Avatar: The Last Airbender” graphic novels for Dark Horse Comics. But on top of that, he’s also in the midst of a two-year term as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, as chosen by the Library of Congress. And on top of that, he’s a recent recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, commonly known as the “Genius Grant.” (He’s also a father of four.)

So it makes sense that CBR caught up with Yang while standing up — in the hallway shortly after a signing at last month’s Emerald City Comicon in Seattle. Yang discussed the work he’s done in his Ambassador position and the “Reading Without Walls” program — which encourages readers to step outside their comfort zones — what the MacArthur Fellowship has meant to him, bringing the infamous Ching Lung into “New Super-Man,” his experience in monthly superhero comics and his “Fresh Off the Boat” Free Comic Book Day issue (available at participating stores on May 6), based on the ABC sitcom.

CBR: Gene, the last time we talked, it was soon after your Ambassador position was announced — what has the experience been like for you thus far?

Gene Luen Yang: Being ambassador has been amazing. In part because I do feel like I get some freedom to what I want to do. One of the best parts of it is, I get to talk to writers and other creative folks that I admire about the children’s books that most inspire them. I got to talk to Michael Chabon — I did a school visit at his kid’s school, and then we got to hang out in a teacher’s office afterwards, and I got to have a conversation with him. So that was definitely a highlight.

Another highlight was the National Book Festival, which is an amazing, amazing event in Washington D.C. every year. I met a lot of young readers, got to exchange book recommendations with them. That was a ton of fun, as well.

It’s been great. This year, First Second and the folks at Macmillan have really decided to get behind the Reading Without Walls program, so we’re doing this really big rollout for it. We’re trying to get schools, libraries and bookstores to adopt Reading Without Walls as their summer reading program.

You’ve still got a ton of comics projects, and I know you’re simply busy as a person — you have four kids, I don’t know how much teaching you’re still doing. How much of a time commitment is the ambassador job?

At minimum, I’m only required to do four events a year, so everything on top of that, we feel it out as we go. I do feel like in the past couple of months I have lost a little control of my schedule, but it’s because I’ve had so many awesome opportunities. The ambassadorship is only two years, so I want to make the most of it that I can. We have a few other small projects coming up.

People have just been so supportive. Diamond did a feature on it in their Previews magazine. Even here, at Emerald City Comicon, they have Reading Without Walls displays all over, where you can give reading recommendations. They let my co-collaborator on “Secret Coders,” Mike Holmes, and I do the cover for the program. All in support of the Reading Without Walls program. It’s great.

Knowing where we are now versus where we were a year ago, and lots of talk of federal arts funding being cut — I don’t know how or if that might affect the ambassador program in the future, but is there a concern from you that there may not be as much attention paid to something like this on a federal level going forward?

I have to say — one of the big themes of my writing life is fighting fear. I have to get over my fear just to sit down in front of my laptop to bang out a script. It seems like following political news exacerbates my fear. I have to actively choose not to look at stuff, and choose to avoid the Yahoo! homepage, just so I can hit my deadlines.

I come from comics. Specifically, I come from independent comics. American comics have always had the Comics Code Authority hanging over it, until pretty recently. So there’s always been this top-down adversity, especially for the kinds of stories people wanted to tell on the alternative side. I think maybe the creative community has to adopt that independent comics mentality now — take things into their own hands. That’s my feeling. Arts educators, artists and writers — we all kind of have to think like self-publishers now. We all have to be like Robert Crumb and push our stuff out into our neighborhood streets, and sell stuff out of baby bassinets. At least for the time being, I think.

I know what you mean in choosing not to look at stuff to get work done — there’s so much out there, and none of it very hopeful.

Obviously, I think national support for arts is super-important. I think art is connected to the world development of a community. But at the same time, I don’t think the existence of art depends on any sort of funding like that. It depends on us, as readers and artists.

Also since the last time we talked — you became the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship.

Yeah, that was crazy.

What that has meant to you so far? And what can you say about your plans in what you’re looking to do from that position? I imagine you’re living the high life off the grant money. [Laughs]

Yeah, I bought a Batmobile. [Laughs] It was a shock to hear that.

I’ve heard you found out while you were on the way to Panera Bread to write?

Yes. And then I just pulled back in my driveway, and I sat there for an hour. It was a shock.

I don’t know if there could be more of a dichotomy — going to use the wifi at Panera Bread, and finding out you’re the recipient of the “Genius Grant.”

It was a shock to the system.

One of the big things it does, as the parent of four kids, it makes me less worried about college. So a good chunk of that is going to putting our kids through college. Beyond that, we’re going to put some of that money towards the ambassadorship — we want to do a few things, I’m talking to the Library of Congress, Every Child Reader and the Children’s Book Council about what we might do there.

And I haven’t done this yet, but I want to hire an intern. I need to get to a certain point in my script before I’m ready do that, but I want to hire an intern to help me with a book I’m doing for First Second. Also, I want to do that to as a way of helping somebody break into the industry.

Sounds mutually beneficial.

That’s what I’m thinking.

"Secret Coders: Secrets & Sequences" cover

“Secret Coders: Secrets & Sequences” cover by Mike Holmes.

The third volume of “Secret Coders,” “Secrets & Sequences,” is now out . As someone who has been involved in education, how often do you hear from young readers who have done the coding lessons in the book?

I do hear from young readers. I get to do school visits for that book, and it does seem like for certain kids, there’s a lot of enthusiasm about the topic and the books themselves. It’s been great. I think the best piece of feedback I’ve gotten for those books is, in the first volume we teach kids how to read binary numbers, and a mom sent me a video of her first-grade daughter teaching her first-grade class how to read binary numbers using that same system that we use in the book. That was awesome.

What can readers expect from the third volume?

The third volume, you find out the big secret behind the bad guys — why the bad guys are so bad. There are also hints about what’s going to be happening in the next three volumes. In the next three volumes, we take things to literally a new dimension.

Also definitely want to ask about your work at DC Comics. “New Super-Man” has meant a lot to me as a reader — to see multiple Chinese superheroes at DC Comics is a major thing. How has that experience been for you? From an observer’s perspective, compared to your original “Superman” run it certainly seems like more of an opportunity to create something new at DC.

Working on the Clark Kent Superman was awesome, it was fun, I got to work with people I really admire. I got to work with Greg Pak, who was writing “Action Comics” at the time, and [Aaron] Kuder, and Pete Tomasi, who’s now on “Superman.” But at the same time, it was a shock to the system. Going from graphic novels with First Second, to a monthly schedule, to 22 pages, to working on a character that is basically a corporate icon, is a shock. It took me a long time to get used to that world.

I also think DC is more than just a company. At this point, it’s almost a keeper of a mythology. I do think that as a storytelling community, DC goes through these different eras. Pre-“Rebirth” and post-“Rebirth” have been night and day. There’s a different kind of energy in the DC Universe right now. Even though it wasn’t a hard reset, there’s a different kind of energy. It’s been a ton of fun to work in post-“Rebirth” DC. It’s been great.

You’ve also brought in Ching Lung, who was on the cover of the original “Detective Comics” #1 and is infamous for being a hurtful caricature. How did that come about? I’ve heard you talk about how it represents how far things have come since that point — was there resistance to the idea since it is such an infamous thing?

I don’t think there was resistance, but there was a lot of reluctance — on my part, too. It just came up in my head, and then I threw it out to the editors; “I don’t even know if this is a good idea.” And then we talked it through, and after talking it through for a while, we decided we would do it.

Part of it is, the whole point of “Rebirth” is to show, on some level, DC Comics has been telling one continuous story from the very beginning, from the late 1930s. Everything kind of matters. And if that’s true, then that means the ugly stuff matters, too. How we comic book nerds deal with the history of a universe like the DC Universe is the same as how we as Americans have to deal with American history. I think sometimes there’s a desire to excise our understanding of American history of all the nasty stuff, but it doesn’t do justice to who we are as a people. What we want to do with the history of the DC Universe is a model of how we as Americans should think of as American history.

I know that’s taking nerdiness to another level. [Laughs]

"New Super-Man" #11 cover

“New Super-Man” #11 cover by Billy Tan.

Which I love to do! And there has been progress made, at Marvel and DC, in terms of better representation — like Greg Pak’s “Totally Awesome Hulk” run. Having a Korean kid being the Hulk is meaningful — specifically, of any character, the Hulk.

You’re right. As opposed to the Atom! [Laughs]

But obviously, there’s still a ways to go, and some of this is cyclical — Bruce Banner will be the Hulk again eventually. Do you think there is lasting progress being made?

I think so. I think it’s a little bit inevitable. We as a nation are becoming more diverse, and it’s inevitable that our stories will reflect that.

I feel the tension, as a longtime comic book fan. A huge draw of superhero comics is nostalgia. We want to read about the characters we grew up with, and it just happens that most of the characters we grew up with are white.

Almost all of them! [Laughs] Like 90 percent, other than Black Panther…

… Black Lightning; that’s about it.

I do think there’s a way of managing that tension. Where you respect what happened in the past, but you still recognize that our world is different now. I really think that “Rebirth” does a great job of that.

That’s what it seems like — acknowledging that it’s OK to have multiple versions of characters. Marvel’s been doing some of that too. In a more general sense, now that you’ve had about two years of experience in monthly superhero comics, both the pacing and after years in independent comics, when I’d imagine it was mostly your sole vision calling the shots — is it something you want to stick with?

Yeah. I think writing a monthly comic has really made me grow as a writer, so I’m really thankful for that. It’s a totally different kind of pacing — there’s a real, actual pressure on you.

I don’t understand how my DC Comics colleagues are doing twice-a-month books. That blows my mind that they’re able to pull that off. But just having to keep that pace, I feel like forces me to grow as a writer. I’d like to do it as long as I can.

"Fresh Off the Boat" Free Comic Book Day cover

“Fresh Off the Boat” Free Comic Book Day cover by Jorge Corona.

Definitely also want to talk about the “Fresh Off the Boat” Free Comic Book Day comic you’re writing. It’s just the one issue, right?

It’s just the Free Comic Book Day book, it’s not a series or anything. It ties in with a specific episode. There’s an episode where comics are prominently featured, then this comes out. We’re hoping if your’e a fan of the show and you’ve watched that episode, you get that free comic, and it’ll enhance your enjoyment of the show. But we’re also hoping the comic itself will stand on its own.

That’s another new thing for you — to be writing a comic book based on a show that’s not genre-y in any way. What was it like delving into that?

It was fun! I got to talk to the folks who actually write the show, they gave me notes. I got a little peek at how they put together a TV show, and that was awesome. But it was also nutty. I was super-busy all the way through December, so they waited for me, but as a result of that waiting, it made it so we had to finish the whole thing in a very short amount of time. BOOM! Studios pulled off some magic to make that happen. I’m really impressed with that company now. I never had any experience with them, the fact they were able to pull it all together was awesome.

What a great thing that show has meant for Asian-Americans — just the visibility alone.

Yeah, the fact they were able to last for more than one season is a miracle.

Right, because people would still bring up “All-American Girl” only lasting one season.

I think there are multiple reasons why that show didn’t last, but unfortunately, because of the way Hollywood thinks, the fact that it didn’t last more than a season is the reason it took this long. Which is the same thing with female superhero movies, which I think is so stupid.

Last thing — you’re doing a lot of comics, but in all these projects we’ve talked about, you’re writing for another artist. Are you working on anything currently that you’re writing and drawing?

I am — it’s taking forever! I’m so behind on it. But I’m doing a book called “Dragon Hoops,” which is about a high school basketball team that I followed for a season. It’s my first non-fiction book. I’m excited about it, it’s just taking me forever.

“Secret Coders: Secrets & Sequences” is available now. “New Super-Man” #11 is scheduled for release on May 10.

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