One Thing Leads to Another: An Interview with Gene Luen Yang

Check out previous interviews in the One Thing Leads to Another series here.

I remember sitting in the audience at the 2007 Michael L. Printz Award ceremony at the ALA Annual Conference in Washington D.C. and waiting a little more impatiently, and with a little more anticipation than normal, for the program to start.  There were a couple of reasons for this, sure, but in large part it was because I couldn’t wait to hear what Gene Luen Yang had to say.  I’d just read American Born Chinese, the first ever graphic novel to be awarded the Printz, and, like the committee, was blown away by the combination of social commentary, Chinese mythology, and American pop culture.  Plus, as an ardent fan of comics and graphic novels, I was really thrilled to see his work recognized.

His speech was so worth waiting for.  Not only did it educate and entertain, it also surprised me (“Two years ago, I photocopied and stapled individual chapters of American Born Chinese to sell by the dozen at comic book conventions, usually to personal friends or my mom. Today, I’m standing here in front of you.” Seriously?!) and offered one of my favorite library-related warnings: “You librarians are all that stand in the way of the entire world turning into one big, no-holds-barred MySpace discussion board.”  I highly recommend you read the entire speech.

Since then I’ve snapped up each new work, and I know I’m not alone.  Boxers and Saints?  I mean, wow.  Just so freaking good.  And now we have The Shadow Hero, which is so cool in every direction and way possible.  If you haven’t yet, go read them.  Probably now.

Thank you so much, Gene, for taking the time to talk to me and for your good humor and thoughtfulness.  I’ve been waiting a little more impatiently, and with a little more anticipation than normal, for this interview.


Always Something There to Remind Me

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPlease describe your teenage self.

I was a standard-issue nerd.  I had asthma.  My nose was always stuffed up.  I read comic books and programmed computers.  I couldn’t catch a ball to save my life.

What did you want to be when you grew up?  Why?

When I was really little, I wanted to be a Disney animator.  I loved stories and I loved drawing.  Animation seemed like a natural way to bring them together.

After I began collecting comics in the fifth grade, I felt torn.  Did I want to become an animator or a comic book creator?  I eventually drifted towards comics.  I wasn’t old enough to know that the animation industry offered things like regular paychecks and health insurance, but I could still sense my parents’ disappointment.  They weren’t all that thrilled about my dream of becoming an animator, but when I told them I wanted to be a cartoonist?  Man.  I might as well have kicked my old man in the stomach.

What were your high school years like?

Overall, I was pretty happy in high school.  Sure, I had my share of sleepless nights.  I got stressed out about grades and romance and finding my place in the world.  I experienced the crushing oppression of the high school social hierarchy.  I suffered bouts of crippling self-doubt.

But when I think back to those years, I remember the fun.  I remember hanging out with my friends, playing mahjong late into the night.  I remember being really proud of this t-shirt design I did for school.  And I remember making the pilgrimage to our local comic book store every Friday to check out that week’s releases.

Mr. Matsuoka, who taught me computer science, had a huge influence on me.  He was a great teacher, but he was also my first Asian American male teacher—really, my first Asian American male role model.  He had a dignity about him that made you trust him.  He spoke with authority.  I remember feeling really comfortable in his class, like I belonged, but not knowing why.  I had an easier time speaking up and asking questions in his classroom than anywhere else on campus. 

What were some of your passions during that time?

I did sports, but because I couldn’t catch a ball to save my life, I was limited to sports that didn’t involve balls.  I ran cross country and did high jump.  I was terrible at both.

Most of my reading outside class was comics.  Peter David was on a tear in The Incredible Hulk.  Neil Gaiman was weaving modern mythology in The Sandman.  Kitchen Sink was reintroducing the public to the brilliance of Will Eisner’s The Spirit.  And in the Disney Duck comics, Don Rosa proved month after month that you can indeed create art with corporate-owned characters.

We read a lot of great books for class, but the one that sticks out was Richard Wright’s Black Boy in tenth grade English.    I felt the truth beneath Wright’s words, and it was a scary sort of truth.  I feel the same way about many modern autobio comics: Chester Brown’s I Never Liked You, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, David Small’s Stitches.  They’re works that require a lot of courage.  I’m not brave enough to do something like that yet.

I ended high school on a Richard Wright kick and did my senior paper on The Native Son.

Would you be willing to share a difficult teen experience or challenge that you feel shaped the adult you became?

At the end of my senior year, my first girlfriend and I broke up.  It was rough, much rougher than I’d expected.  We tried to remain friends because we went to the same college, but it ended up drawing things out for me.  Sometimes you need a clean break.  It doesn’t mean the other person isn’t important to you.  It just means that it’s time to move on.

I learned a lot from that experience about relationships, my own weaknesses, and how my family history shapes who I am.  I learned that everyone goes through rejection.  Rejection doesn’t define you.  It’s just a part of life.  That understanding came into play later, when I started looking for a publisher.

I’ve been happily married for almost a decade and a half now.  I really believe my wife and I have a successful relationship in part because of what we learned from our past romantic relationships.  Every time something ends, it’s an opportunity for growth.

What about a positive experience or accomplishment that had an impact on your adult self?

I already told you that I was a horrible cross-country runner. I regularly came in last at meets.  When I was a senior, I never once outran any of the freshmen.

Even so, I stuck it out.  I enjoyed hanging out with my teammates, which helped a lot.  But through cross-country I learned how to persist even it feels like I’m really bad at something.

I’d always considered myself good at drawing, but after entering the comic book industry and meeting many, many amazing cartoonists, I’ve come to realize that I’m an average illustrator at best.  Because of cross country, I knew how to persist even when it felt like I was behind.  I knew how to keep going.

What advice, if any, would you give your teen self?  Would your teen self have listened?

Don’t freak out so much.  The vast majority of emergencies are not real emergencies.

My teenage self would have ignored that advice.  I know because I am still freaking out too much as an adult.

Do you have any regrets about your teen years?  Anything left undone or anything that might have been better left undone? 

I wish I’d explored the world when it would’ve been easy to do so.  I’ve lived my entire life in the San Francisco Bay Area.  It’s a beautiful place, but I have nothing to compare it to.

What, if anything, do you miss most about that time?

I had a general feeling of hope back then, like all of life was laid out before me waiting to be explored.  I miss that.

Now that I’m in my forties, certain opportunities are no longer available.  I’m still hopeful, but it’s a smaller, more defined sort of hope.  Even so, I have to say that I’ve been pretty happy with my forties so far.

Every Day I Write the Book

shadow heroCan we talk about superheroes?  “I’ve loved superheroes all my life,” you’ve said, and your most current book, The Shadow Hero, is a classic superhero origin story.  You’ve talked about superheroes, the immigrant experience, and juggling dual identities in the past, as well as the place of superheroes in American culture.  “Superheroes are about America. They were invented in America and they are most popular in America,” you wrote in a column for  Could you talk a little about why and how superheroes are particularly American?  What do you think makes a good superhero, from the creator and fan perspective?  Do you have favorites or least favorites? 

There’s something goofy and young and modern about putting on a brightly-colored costume and fighting for justice.  And in the family of nations, America is definitely the goofy, young, modern kid.  The superhero genre is an Americanized version of Old World heroic storytelling traditions.  Superman, Spider-man, and Captain America are our Hercules, our Coyote, our Guan Yu.  They combine today’s technology (yes, Spandex is a technology) with old, old human ideals.

What makes a great superhero?  Same thing that makes anything great: Creativity.  When talented creators play with the conventions of the genre, the results are usually pretty spectacular.  Take a look at Mark Waid’s Irredeemable or the current She-Hulk series.

I love Spider-man and Batman, but I’ve always been especially drawn to the weirder, more obscure heroes.  Mr. Miracle is a part of the DC Universe’s Fourth World.  When he was a baby, his father traded him to a hellish prison planet as part of a peace agreement.  He eventually escaped by training himself into the universe’s greatest escape artist.  Such pathos!

eternal smilelevel upamerican born chineseSpeaking of identities, you told NPR that your friend “author Marsha Qualey says that an equation lies at the heart of all YA: Power + Belonging = Identity” and that your stories could definitely be described that way.  “My characters long for power and belonging because they’re figuring out their place in the world, their identities,” you’ve said.  The process of constructing an identity and the “natural tension between the individual and the community” are thematic elements that run through much of your work, and I’m wondering if you could describe how the intersection of power and community and identity has played out in your own life and how that translates to the stories you’re drawn to tell?

We all go through this, but it plays out in an especially intense way for immigrants’ kids.  We all want to distance ourselves from our parents, but when your parents are immigrants, you end up distancing yourself from an entire culture.  But that culture is in you, it’s a part of who you are, it speaks to your subconscious and effects your decisions.  You can’t get away from it, no matter how hard you try.

I went through a time when I felt incredibly embarrassed whenever my parents would speak to me in Chinese in public.  I couldn’t stand it.  I didn’t know where that feeling came from, but it was more than just the usual embarrassment teenagers have of their families.  I was trying to get away from what made me different from the culture that surrounded me.  I was rejecting a community that I’d never experienced firsthand, but that still had a claim on me.

Story is about tension, right?  About conflict.  Since I’ve felt the tension between me as an individual and my community so deeply, it often comes out in my stories.

airbender 2airbender 1airbender 3 On a slightly different note, I love the defense of pop culture on your website.  “Pop culture isn’t frivolous,” you write, “it’s empowering. It gives meaning. It is, as G.K. Chesterton described the penny dreadfuls of his day, ‘the actual centre of a million flaming imaginations.’ When people feel powerless, they look for power in the stories that surround them.”  It’s clear that you’re a fan of pop culture in general, and it would be great if you’d share some of your current passions with us.  More than that, though, would you be willing to share some of the pop culture touchstones that have been really important to you through the years and talk about what made those particular stories or experiences resonate?

Right now, my wife and I are making our way through Downton Abbey.  I generally hate stories about stuffy rich people, but that show is so well written.  There are bits of dialog that make me jump out of my seat.  The writers juxtapose the world upstairs with the servants’ world downstairs to brilliant effect.

I’m also a fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra.  I have to watch them for my job because I’m writing the Airbender comics, but let’s be real: I would follow them anyway because they’re just that good.  They blend Eastern and Western elements in such engaging ways.  They explore Western coming-of-age milestones in a decidedly Eastern landscape.

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles black-and-white comic came out when I was in sixth grade.  It set off an explosion of creativity.  Suddenly, my local comic shop was inundated with small press black-and-white books.  A lot of it was bad, sure, but a lot of it was really good.  For instance, Stan Sakai’s long-running comic book Usagi Yojimbo got its start in that era.

The Turtles pushed the boundaries of American comics, both as a storytelling medium and as a business.  Years later when I was just starting off, my first comic book was published with a grant from the Xeric Foundation, an organization created by one of the creators of the Ninja Turtles.

saints boxersFinally, you’ve described writing as “satisfying suffering” as the most painful part of making a comic for you, though it’s also “in the end, the most satisfying.”  In another interview you talk about the process of determining how best to convey story or information—whether through words or pictures: “Whenever I’m doing a comic, always in the back of my mind I’m thinking…why is it a comic? Why does it have to be told in panels? Why can’t this be prose?”  Could you talk a little about how you decide which elements of a story to write and which to draw?  Has there ever been a particular scene or sequence where figuring out the art was as difficult as “figuring out the story?”  Given that you’ve “played with the idea of doing something more hybrid,” as well, what are the odds of an illustrated novel—or even a straight up novel–written by Gene Yang?  What are you working on next?

Words and images convey emotion differently.  Words can be more subtle, while images can be more visceral.  For instance, in American Born Chinese, I wanted to attack stereotypes through image because I wanted you to feel it in your gut.  I wanted that discomfort to be visceral, to be a feeling that bypassed your brain.  I don’t think those passages would’ve been as effective in prose.

I’ve experimented with hybrid storytelling.  I haven’t yet done anything I’m satisfied with.  It was suffering, but not the satisfying kind.  Maybe someday.

Right now, I’m working on a graphic novel series aimed at middle schoolers.  I’m collaborating with an amazing cartoonist named Mike Holmes, who’s most well-known for his work on the Bravest Warriors comic.  We haven’t officially announced it yet, but it’ll be about the magic of computer programming.  Coders are awesome and deserve their own comic.

Just Can’t Get Enough

Question from Stephanie KuehnHi, Gene. Congratulations on all of your success and on the release of The Shadow Hero. I grew up in the Bay Area and still live here with my family, and I believe the same is true of you, too. As a woman of color, I’ve always been aware of certain kinds of racism and prejudice, even in such a diverse, progressive place and a place that I dearly love. I wonder if you could speak to how the culture of the Bay Area—the good, the bad, the weird—has influenced your work.

You’re right about the Bay Area – it is good, bad, and weird.  Many of my stories are about the intersection of Eastern and Western culture, and the Bay Area definitely embodies that.  This area has gone through incredible cultural changes during my life time.  In elementary school, I was one of just a handful of Asian American students. By high school, we were a sizable minority.  Nowadays, that same high school is mostly Asian American.  Transitions always bring tension, of course, both externally and internally.  I try to capture some of that in my work.

Gene has contributed a question for the next author in the series, James Dashner. Watch for an interview with him coming soon!

Gene Luen Yang began publishing comic books under the name Humble Comics in 1996. In 1997, he received the Xeric Grant for Gordon Yamamoto and the King of the Geeks. Since then he’s written and drawn a number of stories in comics.  American Born Chinese, released by First Second Books in 2006, became the first graphic novel to be nominated for a National Book Award and the first to win the American Library Association’s Printz Award. It also won an Eisner Award for Best Graphic Album – New. The Eternal Smile, a collaborative project with Derek Kirk Kim in 2009, won an Eisner as well. Dark Horse Comics is currently publishing a comics continuation of Nickelodeon’s popular Avatar: The Last Airbender, with art by Gurihiru and story by Mike DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko, and Gene.  In September of 2013, First Second Books released two-volume graphic novel project Boxers & Saints (winner of the 2014 LA Times Book Prize for Young Adult Literature and a National Book Award finalist) and in July 2014 they released The Shadow Hero, written by Gene and illustrated by Sonny Liew

Yang also teaches at Hamline University as part of their MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

You can find Gene at his website and blog, or follow him on Twitter.


–Julie Bartel, currently re-reading Changer by Jane Lindskold

One thought on “One Thing Leads to Another: An Interview with Gene Luen Yang”

  1. What a wonderful, honest interview. I’ve seen some of Gene’s graphic novels around my local bookstore and been curious to read them. Now I’m convinced that I’ll have to do that very soon.

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