Gene Luen Yang is an Eisner Award-winning writer and artist, responsible for such acclaimed works as “American Born Chinese,” “Boxers & Saints” and Dark Horse’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender” comic books. In June, he succeeded superstar writer Geoff Johns on DC Comics’ “Superman,” joining continuing artist and living legend John Romita, Jr. on the monthly title.
Joseph Phillip Illidge is a public speaker on the subjects of race, comics and the corporate politics of diversity. He is a former DC Comics editor who worked in the Batman office and currently writes THE MISSION for CBR, a weekly column spotlighting diversity in comic books, graphic novels and popular entertainment.
At Comic-Con International in San Diego, the two sat down on the CBR Yacht for an in-depth discussion about various issues surround diversity in the comic book industry, including the importance of Batgirl Cassandra Cain, Illidge’s time with Milestone Media, Superman’s role as an immigrant character, Yang’s upcoming “Secret Coders” graphic novel, and much more.
At last year’s National Book Festival, Eisner Award-winning writer Yang gave a speech before the Library of Congress about diversity. He stressed that writers don’t have to — and shouldn’t have to — only write within their own experience. “That speech actually came out of an experience I had that previous summer. I teach as part of Hamlin University’s MFA for Creative Writing… It’s an online program, so most of the time I’m teaching, I’m teaching over the internet. But every summer I’ll fly out there for about 11 days and I’ll meet with the other faculty and all of the students. Last summer, I went out there for the residency and the focus of the residency was on diversity. We had this brilliant professor named Sarah Dalen come out and talk about the issues.
The point was: when you write outside of your culture, you have to be hesitant. You don’t want to go in and just rely on the stereotypes in your head. You have to be hesitant. You have to be a little more humble. The way my students took it was, ‘It’s really hard to write outside of your experience, so just don’t even do it.’ I think they were speaking out of fear more than anything else. So, I was given this amazing opportunity to talk at the National Book Festival and I knew I was talking to a group of writers, so I wanted to talk about that because it was on my mind.”
However, Yang admitted that he, too, sometimes suffers from the fear that comes with writing characters outside his own experience — but that’s where a good editor comes into play. “I want somebody to be kind of, like, my safety net. I kind of think that maybe that ought to be the editor. So, at least my first pass, I could have these terrible things out of my subconscious and I want my editor to call me on it and point me in the right direction.”
Illidge spoke toward the creation of Cassandra Cain, an Asian character and one-time Batgirl. There was initially some hesitation from “the higher ups” — since, to them, Batgirl was a Caucasian redhead named Barbara Gordon. However, as history shows, Cassandra’s Batgirl became a beloved character in her own right. However, Vertigo editors Cliff Chiang and Jennifer Lee pointed out to Illidge at the time, “there’s something that’s off about the characterization of Batgirl,” and asked if he’d be interested in talking about it.
“That led to a storyline that gave her a greater scope of language,” explained Illidge. “Unintentionally, she still reflected a silent Asian stereotype. It was unintentional, but it just reminded you that even with the best intentions, you have to be open to other to then be responsible with characters. That was a situation where it did come up but we tried to act responsibly and course correct.”
And, as Yang pointed out, that course correction actually gave her a greater depth of character. “Having multiple voices giving you feedback made Cassandra Cain way better,” he said. “I remember, I was years away from working at DC and was just a fan, and I remember, when she popped up in those pages it really meant something to me.”
Shifting gears to Yang’s current work on “Superman,” the writer discussed touching on the Man of Steel’s roots as an immigrant and how his own personal voice informs his story. “When you work on a character that you didn’t create — the first experience I had of that was working the “Avatar: The Last Airbender” books — when you work on these licensed properties, what you’re looking for are those overlaps between your concerns as a writer, your voice as a writer, and who that character is or what their role is. For Superman, the fact that he’s a prototypical immigrant is definitely a connection point for me.”
Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were both the children of immigrant and Yang said he feels that they embedded their own personal story and life history into the character. And while as a young fan he said he wasn’t conscious of that, it was what drew him to the character and the genre the character created.
“There’s always this dual identity,” Yang said. “Superman basically code switches. That’s what he’s doing. For me, I had one language at home, one set of expectations at home; another language at school, another set of expectations at school. I had one name at home; another at school. I had to navigate between the two. I imagine Siegel and Shuster were exactly the same way as the children of Jewish immigrants growing up in New York. And that’s what Superman does.”
For someone who lives in two separate cultures, Yang said one of the things that causes them angst is seeing to two worlds come together — an idea that directly informs the “Truth” storyline running in both “Action Comics” and “Superman” that sees the Man of Steel’s secret identity exposed to the world.
Illidge then spoke toward his time with Milestone Comics and how some of the criticisms came from people claiming the Milestone characters were just black versions of established character. Illidge dismissed this and said those people were clearly not reading the books. “Once you read Icon, you know that Icon is not about alien in the red suit with the green cape. It’s about Raquel Ervin, who is the 17-year-old aspiring writer and how she used her imagination to literally change reality. She is the one that created Icon. When you read Hardware, you know that Hardware is not a black Iron Man because Tony Stark doesn’t have a glass ceiling that her crashes against. He’s white, he’s handsome, he’s rich. Hardware was really the narrative of the black man and the corporate ceiling and the righteousness of anger that comes from that and about growing up and getting over that.”
Real-world issues also bled into the stories and the staff would often discuss these issues. For example, Illidge mentioned that were Milestone offices structured the same way now as then, the tragic events in Ferguson, MO, and in South Carolina would be talked about.
Discussing his upcoming graphic novel “Secret Coders,” an explicitly educational comic, Yang said that he’s trying to teach kids how to code by way of story — and dropped some knowledge about the beginnings of programming. “These junior high kids find this secret school but the secret school instead of teaching magic, teaches coding. So, as our protagonists become coders, we’re hoping our readers will as well,” Yang explained. “I think that this is something most people don’t realize but programming started off as a woman’s profession. All of the major figures in early programming were women. It’s almost forgotten. You think of the nerdy dude with the Joe Cola sitting in front of his computer but back then — it wasn’t for good reasons — it was because back then people thought hardware was the important stuff and software was not. So, all the people that worked on hardware were men and all the people that worked on software were women. So, the people who created the foundational elements of coding at this point were all women. So, I felt like I had to make my protagonist a woman.”
As such the series’ main protagonist, Hopper, was named after Grace Hopper. Meanwhile, her best friend Eni was named after another famous individual: author of WIRED magazine’s essay “Here’s Why You Should Learn to Code” Chris Bosh. Yes, that Chris Bosh.
“Chris Bosh is straight up this math and computer nerd. He was majoring in something computer-related in college and he was part of the math club in high school and had he not been as good at basketball as he is, he probably would have become a coder or something computer related. So, my character Eni is basically Chris Bosh, but the Chris Bosh who made the other decision.”
Closing off the interview, Illidge asked about three narratives he feels Yang engages in as a writer: the superhero, the educational and the cultural.
“I actually think there’s a lot of overlap. I think the superhero narrative and the cultural narrative — I really think the superhero came out of a bi-cultural experience. All the conventions of what a superhero is comes out of a bi-cultural experience. And then superheroes are also about trying to improve the world. You try to use what makes you unique — what you pulled out of your own culture, what you pulled out of your own experience — to try and make the world better. Which is really what education is about at his heart. Trying to improve the world. It all ties together.”
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