Interview by Max Delgado
For about five days, sometime in the late ‘90s, Gene Luen Yang was not allowed to talk.
He had entered the work world immediately after graduating from UC Berkeley and had already cobbled together two promising years as a computer programmer. He was a comic geek, a techy, and an aspiring writer. What he wasn’t, was the silent type. “It was like I was having withdrawal symptoms,” Yang shared with LBP recently. “Silence does not come naturally to me.”
The silence was a choreographed exercise, however, and one that Yang engaged in willingly. His church, a Chinese Catholic Community in the Bay Area, was offering a five-day silent retreat and Yang, who was poised squarely at the threshold of adulthood decided to go. While a difficult experience for the normally social Yang, each day offered a discrete release valve: “Every day I would meet with the retreat leader for about an hour. We'd talk over my life and those were the only words I spoke all day.”
Those conversations, padded by hours of intense silence, had a profound impact on Yang. During the course of the retreat he made the decision to quit his job in the tech industry and become a teacher. Yang ultimately found a job at Bishop O’Dowd, a Catholic high school nestled among the eucalyptus trees of the Oakland Hills. “I’ve taught high school computer science for well over a decade now,” Yang says. “Teaching is an immensely fulfilling profession.”
While the job satisfied him professionally, it did not directly nurture the comic-book-making habit he’d picked up as a kid -- nor did the daily obligations of employment entirely suppress it. Yang still wanted to make comics. But now he had less time to do it. His solution was just to work harder, and while most comic geeks have read Yang’s breakthrough work American Born Chinese, very few know that it, like most of the work to preceding it, was written around the margins of Yang’s academic work schedule -- early in the morning or late at night.
It’s safe to say that Yang’s most recent multi-volume graphic novel Boxers and Saints, which got named as a finalist for the National Book Award, is what finally pushed him into the mainstream - or at least gave booksellers across the country the impetus to pluck his books from the graphic novel section and lay them alongside other mainstream fiction. In it Yang explores themes common to many of his pieces: identity, family, faith, and the inherent promise (and tension) that emerges when different cultures attempt to occupy the same space.
Just recently, Yang chatted with LBP about his career, and memories associated with his comic book collection.
LBP: Tell me about the comics you read when you were growing up, specifically any titles that you felt passionate about.
I started collecting comics in the fifth grade. Back then, most of the comics available were superhero comics, so that's what I read. I was a Marvel guy because I thought DC was kind of silly, with their lads and lasses. The exception was their Justice League stuff. This was the J.M. DeMatteis and Keith Giffen run, where things were intentionally, brilliantly silly.
As I got older, I discovered comics outside the superhero genre. I loved Jeff Smith's Bone, Lynda Barry's One Hundred Demons, Art Spiegelman's Maus. Those books really demonstrated to me the storytelling potential of comics.
In the past you’ve spoken about your belief that superhero comics, with its focus on dual identities and characters who must negotiate different worlds is uniquely equipped to speak to readers familiar with the immigration experience. I’d love to hear what life experiences you’ve had that’s helped shape this belief.
I grew up between two cultures. I spoke one language at home, another at school. I had one name at home, another at school. I had to figure out two different sets of cultural expectations.
As an adult, I look back on my childhood and wonder if that's why I was so drawn to superhero comics. Almost all the big, mainstream superhero characters were created by the children of immigrants. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the Avengers and the Fantastic Four. Stan and Steve Ditko created Spider-man. Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel created Superman. Bill Finger and Bob Kane created Batman. Every last one of them had immigrant parents. They may not have been conscious of this, but I think the genre they established expresses something deep within their family histories. Each of their characters lives two different lives, has two different names, maintains two different personas. They have to figure out how to exist in a culture that doesn't completely understand them.
Speaking of your work, you’ve shared that when you first started making comics you were a discovery writer, but that as your career progressed you shifted towards outlining. Would you mind expanding on these two methods a bit?
Discovery writers make up stories as they go along. Their stories surprise them. When they're writing one chapter, they don't really know what's going to happen in the next chapter. I started my comics career as a discovery writer.
Outliners are the opposite. They outline their story first so they know all the major plot points before they start their first chapter. I'm now an outliner.
I switched from discovery writing to outlining because I kept writing myself into these corners. I find that outlining first helps me figure out what the themes of my story are. Often, my final story will deviate significantly from my outline, but having the outline gives me the confidence to move forward.
I should say, there are successful writers in both camps. A friend of mine, YA novelist Gary Schmidt, is a discovery writer. He's won the Newbery Honor and been nominated for the National Book Award. His stories a beautifully structured, despite the fact that he never knows what comes next while he's writing. I wish I could do what he does. I can't, so I outline.
We’ve already talked about the impact of the five-day a silent retreat had on you. How do you feel your faith has impacted the comics you produce?
Writing about faith is a tricky thing, especially since religion is such a contentious subject. In college, my writing professor told me that I should never write directly about my faith. I should live my faith and write my life. If my faith is important, if it informs my life, it'll organically emerge in my writing. I've tried to follow that advice ever since.
A common criticism of superhero comics is that it’s a medium built around the nucleus of predominantly white male characters (and one which often fails to represent the range of readers comics is hoping to attract). As a result, a lot of people of color who grew up reading comics didn’t have access to characters who reflected their backgrounds in authentic ways. How valid you think this criticism is?
There are a lot of white male superheroes. It's understandable. The genre was born in America when the country was very different. Most of the early stories were targeted at American boys, most of whom were white. It's like how Kung Fu flicks star mostly Chinese actors. It's the result of how the genre came about.
I think the current discussion about the diversification of superheroes stems from a recognition of just how iconic they are. Superheroes are deeply American. At their best, they express American ideals. America is a different place now, and we want our superheroes to reflect that in authentic ways. We want our superheroes to show us that anyone can be a part of America.
Watching the Big Two engage with diversity makes me hopeful at times, frustrated at others. It's because I love them. I grew up with Marvel and DC, so I have a deep, pre-logical attachment to their characters. I think there's a lot to celebrate in their current line-ups. I really like the new teenage Blue Beetle. I think the Black Panther, who has one of the coolest costumes in all of comics, has grown into an interesting, three-dimensional hero. But I'd like to see more. I particularly want to see original heroes of color, rather than heroes who take over an established name and legacy.
I know you had full-time job when you first started trying to break into the comics industry and yet you still found the time to write and draw. For those readers with similar aspirations (and similar jobs) what advice would you have?
Comics will eat your life. When I was working full-time, I would have to wake up early and go to sleep late to get my comics done. Making comics is a difficult way to make a living. You have to be disciplined. Early on, I met a group of Bay Area cartoonists: Derek Kirk Kim, Lark Pien, Jason Shiga, Jason Thompson, Jesse Hamm, Thien Pham, Ben Catmull, and a bunch of others. Once a week, we would get together to draw, critique each others' work, and talk shop. That was my training ground. When young artists ask me for advice, I tell them to find a community that will sustain them when things get tough.
DC Comics Presents Vol 6 #57: This was the first comic I remember buying. The atomic bomb drops in 1986! I remember staying up nights thinking about the bomb, about Superman, and about those giant mutated dogs the Atomic Knights rode. This comic blew my mind.
The Incredible Hulk #377: I hated the Hulk when I was a kid. A big, dumb green guy smashing stuff? Stupid. Peter David changed all that. He did an epic run on the Hulk in the '80s and '90s and made him into a complex, compelling character. #377 was a highlight of the run. Dale Keown's art was wonderful, and it had one of the most iconic covers ever.
Adolf by Osamu Tezuka: This isn't a single issue - it's a series. It's a World War II story about the struggle over (fictional) documents that prove Hitler's Jewish ancestry. This series showed me why its author is known as The God of Manga in Japan.