SDCC: Gene Yang & Paul Pope in Conversation

On the last day of Comic-Con International in San Diego, in the last panel slot of the convention, First Second Books brought Gene Luen Yang and Paul Pope together to talk with an expectant crowd.

The idea of Pope and Yang in discussion might have sounded like the most unlikely, odd-couple of a team-up in comic book history, but as their panel sped by, the writers professionally and seamlessly traded the roles of interviewer and interviewee, discussing their books, expressing mutual respect for each other's work and probing their different origin stories. With two books for the young adult market coming out at the same time from First Second Books -- Pope's "Battling Boy" and Yang's "Boxers & Saints" -- as they began to speak, the decision to pair the two together began to make more and more sense.

Yang kicked off the conversation by asking Pope how he got started in comic books. "I lived with my grandparents when I was a kid in Ohio in a little town called Bowling Green," Pope responded. "It was the country, a bucolic setting. I was kind of a latchkey kid -- I was alone a lot -- and I was up rooting in the attic one day and I found my uncle's Silver Age comics books in a box that probably hadn't been opened for 20 years or whatever and got to read all that classic Silver Age stuff. I really loved it. "

"I remember that Steranko cover of the Captain America death monument or something, all the Hydra guys crawling up it," Pope continued. "My dad was a hockey player. He was living up in Canada and he brought back 'Bring on the Bad Guys'... all the origins of the Red Skull and Doctor Doom, I was like 5 years old at this point. That was great because I really got to have that Silver Age experience as a kid at that very impressionable early era. Then, within a couple of years, it was 'Heavy Metal' magazine. I first saw 'Heavy Metal' when I was 7. They stocked it at the gas stations at the edge of town where the truckers went, but because it's 'comics'... even though there was a barbarian princess on the cover, this was going to go on the spinner rack because it was a comic book."

"How did that affect your mind?!" Yang exclaimed, surprised that Pope had read "Heavy Metal" at such a young age.

"In the '70s, I remember watching 'The Godfather,' and 'Rollerball,' and 'The Exorcist,' just being aware of this stuff, and it's kind of like what was in the movies, kind of R-rated," Pope responded. "Looking back on it, my parents were pretty cool. Once a month or so, we'd visit my grandparents -- my other grandparents -- in Akron, Ohio, where there was an amazing book store that was stocking 'Tintin' and 'Asterix,' Carl Barks, all the Marvel and DC stuff, 'Heavy Metal' and whatever else... I was 14 or 15 and I think my parents realized that it was keeping me out of trouble to read.

"There was one month when I got a little too much adult material and I told my mom, 'People are getting their heads cut off, too much sex, rape, and stuff, and I'm kind of disturbed by this. Why is this happening? I don't understand, why is this person a victim?' We talked about it a bit, then she said, 'You know what? I'm going to take these and put them in this drawer, and when you want them back, just tell me.' I waited a year or two until I was 17 and said, 'Can I have them back?' That was a cool thing, because it wasn't embarrassing to get adult material or be confused."

Yang paused for a second in a bemused silence before saying, "So my parents were not like that!" drawing laughter from the audience as Pope noted, "Really! We're like Apollo and Dionysus."

"The way I got into comics, my parents were actually an active force against me getting into comics," Yang said. "I remember going to the book store with my mom when I was in fifth grade and I saw this issue of 'Marvel Two-in-One' with the Thing and Rom the Space Knight. I'm pretty sure I'd read comics before this, but for some reason, as soon as I saw that cover, I knew from the depths of who I was a human being that I needed to own this book. [My mom] took one look at the cover and said, 'No, absolutely not. These two characters look way too scary.' So that's how conservative my mom was: A monster made of rocks was too scary. Instead, she bought me a 'DC Comics Presents' which had a future Superman. He's a very good looking Clark Gable-like person, so my mom did not flip through this book before she bought it. I brought it home, and in this book the atomic bomb drops in 1986 (it was 1984 as I was reading it), it kills off most of the world's population, then these dudes decide to fight crime in this post apocalyptic world, so they dress up in medieval armor and ride around on giant mutant Dalmatians to fight crime. Superman teams up with these guys and they have these adventures and then the last three pages reveal that this is a dream, but that didn't stop it from -- well that book did something in my brain. It demonstrated how powerful comics could be."

"Pretty soon after that, I started collecting comics. My mom was satisfied with just buying me that one comic, she wouldn't buy me any more. But I had this friend who was really smart and a little bit evil. He showed me that I could get my mom to drop me off at the library... then we'd walk to the comic store and buy things, usually out of the quarter bin, because we could get more. Then we would bring them back to the library and we would check out these giant size books to hide them in. So that's how my comic book habit started."

Yang then transitioned from talking about how they got into comic books as fans, to how they got into them as creators.

"I was in philosophy for a while... I also loved art history and anthropology, doing studio arts (screen printing... a lot of traditional, classical, humanistic stuff), but my interest was really comic books," Pope said, describing his beginnings in art school where he'd assumed that he'd either end up as an academic or a painter. "I was doing these big oil paintings, but the subject matter -- one of the professors said, 'Your style wants to be like Francis Bacon, but your ideas are "Mad Max." You have to choose one or the other.' Where I went to school -- Ohio State -- there was a real split from craft. 'It doesn't matter if you know how to stretch canvas or mix colors, what really matters is the concept.' And it really became a farce, I'd bring in a toothbrush and have a big conceptual manifesto... I'd get an A on the project, and it was such bullshit!"

At the time, Pope also thought about becoming an illustrator, but the only opportunities available were for medical illustration, which he found too static. "Medical illustration, wasn't dynamic in the way that classical paintings like 'The Rape of the Sabines' or 'The Sacking of Troy' was. You get these very big stories depicted in one or two images... like with Hieronymus Bosch, which is basically a comic strip. I really wanted to get into craft, and looking at these guys doing 'Mutant Turtles' or 'Cerebus', I thought, 'There is a way you can do this, deliberately doing it... to have have a life where you have craft'. I want to draw well. I really loved pop art... The thing that is appealing about pop art to me is, you don't have to go to a gallery. You don't have to be part of any kind of academic system to understand what's going on. The art is brought to you, it's mass produced, it's inexpensive, it is literally popular. I saw comics as pop art. Not like Liechtenstein -- stealing something, putting it back into a painting and Curt Swan makes no money -- but more like getting something in the hands of people."

Pope released his first commercial comic book at age 17 when he printed a couple of comics for coffee shops. "[I] made 200, got consignments to coffee shops... Of course they didn't sell, but it was more the romance of it. Like publishing training wheels."

Yang said the first comic he made was while he was in fifth grade, remarking, "One of my favorite things about comics [is] how permeable the division is between a pro and an amateur. You can be a comic book reader one day, and the next day you can pick up a pencil and a piece of paper and you could become a pro... Ours were all about a hero called the 'Spade Hunter,' who was like Robin Hood, but instead of a bow and arrow, he had this 'discus of death' that he would throw at people's heads."

The audience giggled at this image, which prompted Pope to share, "My first one was 'Jim Hunter -- Space Pirate.' He had a blue T-shirt and a pack of cigarettes, and that was it. And I had a guy called the Whip, whose hand was a whip. That's the kind of stuff fifth graders think of."

"Are there themes that recur in your work, and how have they manifested?" Yang asked Pope.

"It's kind of an absurd interest, but awesome interest, to be into comic books and anime," Pope responded. "It's a place you can always go back to. It's stuff I was introduced to as a kid that still accesses a really deep place in my heart. It took 30 years for that inner 10- or 12-year old to get to a level of proficiency where you can make it make sense."

Pope reminisced about the moment when he took a Carl Barks "Donald Duck" comic book to his granddad and explained, "A machine didn't make this, a person made this. It's made for kids, but kids can't make this."

Prompted by Yang to tell the audience a little more about "Battling Boy," Pope said, "It's kind of a new Superman, in a way. I wanted to think about that 'Kavalier & Clay' thing. Chabon boiled it down to a recipe. Within one year, Batman and Superman are invented -- well, arguably Popeye is the first superhero, but that's another story... I spent a lot of time asking, 'What's the key, what's this all about, the diasporas of Europe and all these people who want to help their families, these immigrants. I was left with this hat full of ideas and thought, 'What's missing now?' I kept hearing about natural tragedies like the Haiti earthquake... I think it would be pretty amazing to update Peter Pan where the kid can get rid of Captain Hook."

Rather than a pure superhero comic book, "['Battling Boy'] is more of a comic of age thing. There's a lot of Kirby in it -- I love the Fourth World -- a lot of Moebius. My editor Mark Siegel asked, 'Can you really write a comic for kids? Why don't you write it and we'll see what we rate it.'" Yang asked if he had to hold back, Pope replied, "No. It's more like I chose that path. I closed the circuit to go down that path."

In describing his own First Second book, "Boxers & Saints," Yang said, "I got into comics through American superheroes, but I haven't done any superhero stuff. It is about the Boxer Rebellion. Part of what attracted me is that I feel like there's a lot of resonance between that particular historical incident and superheroes. [It] was this war that occurred on Chinese soil in 1900. Back then, the Chinese government was incredibly weak, so it couldn't defend it's own borders. What happened was that all the European countries came in and set up all of these concessions, these small communities all around the major Chinese cities that basically acted as colonies. A group of poor, illiterate Chinese teenagers living out on the poor farmlands felt really embarrassed by this foreign incursion on their homeland. So what they decided to do was kind of what we see at this con, here -- they turned to their pop culture for power!" Yang then described ancient traveling acting troupes who would perform excerpts from famous Chinese operas, drawing a correlation between these colorful, dramatically-staged, magical fight scenes with monsters and supernatural demons and our current superhero comics, TV shows and cartoons.

"They identified so deeply with these performers, that they wanted to be like them... So they came up with these rituals where they would call down gods from the sky and these gods would embody them and also provide them with superpowers. Armed with these superpowers, they would run through the countryside, fighting the European powers, and they almost won! They got all the way to the capital city of China. There was this huge showdown in the summer of 1900, and it lasted several weeks before they were finally put down.

"There's a lot of resonance between the modern conception of a superhero and the Boxer Rebellion. I really felt that as I was working on the story, that a lot of the storytelling methods would come out in my work."

Asked if his cultural identity as an Asian American played into his approach to dealing with the Boxer Rebellion, Yang responded, "Yes. the Boxer Rebellion is about this clash between East and West. The way I got interested in it in the first place was in the year 2000, when Pope John Paul canonized all these Chinese saints. When I looked into the lives of these canonized people, I found that a lot of them were martyred during the Boxer Rebellion... because they had embraced this Western faith and it was seen as a betrayal an affront to their Eastern culture. So I feel that the Boxer Rebellion expresses this tension which I feel within myself."

"I don't know if I look for ideas," Yang said when Pope wondered if he'd been researching this book as far back as when he was working on "American Born Chinese." "I just get these kind of mini obsessions. So the canonization introduced me to this incident which I found fascinating idea, and whenever I go through an obsession, after a while, story ideas come into my head."

Pope began to draw an analogy between the process of writing one book while researching another with air travel, which Yang extended by calling the book he was working on at that time, "American Born Chinese," his main luggage and the research for "Boxers & Saints" his carry on bag.

Continuing the metaphor, Pope said while he'd been working on his Batman comic for DC Comics, his "carry on" was the idea of comics for kids. "'Batman: Year 100' was about an old franchise character, an old icon, and there's only so much you can do with a brand. You can't change Kellogg's Corn Flakes."

Pope described the time when he was in deadline-making, warrior mode, regularly shaving his head around the time the film "Trainspotting" came out and how it made him feel like a Spartan. "I was reading every single DC and Vertigo comic, just like Ozymandias [with the multiple TV screens in "Watchmen"], to get the gestalt. And I noticed that the Dominican dude who was cutting my head had a lot of kids around. It was a neighborhood thing, with people playing dominoes... it was kind of fun place to hang out, but as a barber shop, they had no comic books." So Pope brought over boxes of comic books. The next week, the barber confronted him angrily, asking why he would give these adult books to children, forcing Pope to see that these comic books were no longer created for children. "It was heartbreaking, in a way. There just aren't enough comics for kids. There aren't enough good comics for kids. And I just carried that around for a while."

Asked by Yang if he had tried to do an all-ages book with a franchise character, Pope said he did test the waters, only to be knocked back. "Batman did pretty well, so I sat down with the head of DC Comics. I really wanted to do 'Kamandi [The Last Boy on Earth]', this Jack Kirby character. I had this great pitch... and he said 'You think this is gonna be for kids? Stop, stop. We don't publish comics for kids. We publish comics for 45-year olds. If you want to do comics for kids, you can do 'Scooby-Doo.' And I thought, 'I guess we just broke up.'"

Charting his own journey into the Young Adult demographic, Yang noted that, for him, it was less a conscious choice and more a matter, initially, of only selling to a small group of "sixteen people, and one them is your mom and the other fifteen are your friends, so you don't even think about it."

"I didn't really think about age demographics until I hooked up with First Second. Even though they are a comics imprint, they really sit between the book market and the comic book market. They do a third of their business in the book market, a third with comic shops and a third of their business with libraries. They told me, 'If you want to sell your book, you really have to be within an age demographic. You have to think about your audience... We're reading your stuff, and it's Young Adult.' So I fell into it, but I feel like it's a good place for me. People at that age are trying to figure things out and what they read really makes an impact."

Pope added to this, quoting a CS Lewis interview where he spoke about writing fantasy for young people. "If you're writing for young people, you don't really write for young people, you just write a simple story so it's very clear. That way it reaches a wide audience." Using the example of the "Lord of the Rings" character Aragorn, Pope illustrated how one's view of a character can change as you grow up. "He's cool, he's got a sword and he's mysterious. Then, as you get older, you start to see that this guy's got a concept of what it's like to be a king and restore kinghood. The story is so simple... when you get older, you can see more in to it. There's a key in this, because I don't want to do another story where Batman is psychologically messed up, Iron Man is a drunk... because that's not appropriate for little kids. That's what's going to get these books into the barber shop and not have the guy get mad at me."

An audience member who works at a comic book store asked what kind of "hook" Yang could give to convince him to stock a historical book like "Saints & Boxers."

Yang jovially answered, "It's the bloodiest, most violent thing I've ever done. Partially because the time period and the event itself was so bloody."

Another member of the audience asked Yang how he differentiates between working on his own properties versus his work on a series like "Avatar: The Last Airbender."

"With my own stuff, I really want to express my own vision, whereas with licensed properties, I'm trying to stay close to a voice which has already been established. For the Dark Horse book, I definitely get a lot of help from my editors. They basically try to help me stay as close to that established story telling voice as possible."

Going back to the metaphor of books as luggage and research for future projects as carry-on bags, an audience member asked what the author's current carry-on baggage was while they wrote their current works.

Pope was very clear that he is completely consumed by the world building involved with "Battling Boy," now and in the immediate future. "Any carry-on baggage I have is pretty much related to 'Battling Boy' because there's still a long way to go. There's a second 'Battling Boy' book, then we have another series after that."

"'Battling Boy'" is just the beginning of a universe," Yang elaborated for Pope. "There'll be another book, and spinoffs titles."

Pope compared it to a garden he's tending, and described it's potential. "This is mid-career for me. I'm 42 -- it's about time I have something that's like my 'Bone,' my 'Sin City' or my 'Hellboy'... Not keep doing Batman forever and watch the movies get made and not make any money off it."

"I did contact my editor when I saw the Batpod. 'This movie's making a billion dollars -- I think there might be a legitimate claim that this came out of one of my books. Can we explore this?' They sent back a picture of the Batman TV show with the batcycle with the little sidecar Robin in it, so... It's work-for-hire, what are you going to do? I mean, they sold Superman for $135."

Speaking for his own "carry-on bags," Yang said, "I have a superhero book coming out with Sunny Lu next year that's set in Chinatown in the 1940s, and then I'm also working on an explicitly educational book about computer programming."

From the audience, came a question about why Pope's book "The Death of Hagard West" is coming out as issue #101 when it is the first (and last) issue.

"Haggard West is sort of a twentieth century, old school model of superhero, you know? A super genius with a lot of money and a lot of cool technology, kind of like a Batman or Iron Man character. I get really annoyed when they keep killing off Captain America... and then two months later they bring him back. They're not going to change the formula. When a real hero dies, like when Christopher Reeves fell of his horse, that's serious, and I find it slightly offensive... So in this universe, when Haggard West dies, it has an effect on everyone. His daughter wants revenge, the city is in trouble, the gods know about it, the monsters know about it. It's my way to address that farce of killing the superhero when everybody knows they're not really dead. The idea of having the last issue -- #101 -- This is an alternate Earth... and on this planet there really were 100 comics [before it]. That was the idea."

Talking about the way Yang's brings faith into his comics, and audience member asked the cartoonist to talk about his parent's immigrant experience.

"My dad was born in Taiwan, my mom in mainland China. They came to States to do graduate school, met, fell in love, got married, had me. My comics are deeply influenced by their immigrant experience. They would tell me stories about their childhood, which felt like stories from another planet. So my experience of Chinese culture is not direct, it's an echo that's been filtered through the story telling voices.

"In terms of faith, I grew up in this Chinese American Catholic church. In college, I went through a period of doubt, just like a lot of young people do. At the end, I did embrace Catholicism as an adult and I do go to a Catholic church every Sunday. One of the things that I think is very important about my faith is the fact that it's a struggle, it's always been a struggle and it will always be a struggle. Within that struggle, I'm asked to examine things about myself and about the world, and I hope that my comics come out of that struggle."

Wondering about their work process, someone from the audience asked the authors what kind of music they listen to while they're working.

"I do work in silence sometimes,' Pope replied. "There's a real discipline in that. I listen to a lot of Beethoven while I work. I'm into heavy metal and space rock, but the level of concentration... that's kind of quiet contemplative music. When I'm penciling, I do tend to listen to Bauhaus or Motörhead, something loud. Or jazz. I'll listen to Alice Coltrane or John Coltrane."

Yang joked that all of his musical taste was formed in junior high, so, "I'm into Men Without Hats. It's stupid. If I'm writing, it has to be silent, but if I'm drawing... like when I'm drawing the 'Avatar' book, I'll listen to old episodes just to get the voices in my head. Or I'll listen to the 'Freakonomic's episodes or ebooks..."

Referencing Yang's early excitement over team-up books, an audience member asked who Pope would like to team "Battling Boy" with. Pope explained that he is already going to be teamed up with the daughter of the sacrificed hero. "Her challenge is to over come her anger and his is to over come his fear. I like this notion that they're not sure who they're meant to be. They're not cynical... They're really kids... They learn how to grow up a little bit as a result."

As a fan of Pope's earlier work asked him about "THB," and Pope took the opportunity to announce that First Second would soon be publishing it in five volumes. "My dad loves fantasy novels, so he gave me 'Sword of Shannara' when I was a kid and I couldn't get into it because I always liked science fiction," Pope said, explaining the intrinsic difference between the "Battling Boy" and "THB." "We talked about it one time, and he made a really interesting point. He said 'I think the stories of knights, Gandalf, all that [fantasy] thing is more about putting balance between good and evil, putting things back in order, whereas I think science fiction is a little bit more about the anxiety about where are we going and what is the world going to look like the future.' 'Battling Boy' is kind of a pure myth... they're complimentary, but 'THB' is a little more like 'Dune' or something like that. [It asks] social questions."

In an attempt to look a little deeper at this disparate pairing of authors presenting and appreciating each others' work, an audience member asked what unexpected things they each might be interested in.

Pope said that most of his friends and interests lay outside of comic books, "A lot of my friends are performers, musicians, actors, work in bars... I really enjoy talking to [people whose] disciplines are different, but there still is a level of commitment required."

Yang called himself "a pretty standard nerd. I love talking about programming and computers and comics... I think that also speaks to what First Second is. When you look at a First Second book, there is clearly an underlying aesthetic there, there are underlying values that are being expressed. All these people who approach storytelling differently are all under this one umbrella. It's real honor and a real privilege to be a part of this!"

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