Cartoonist Gene Luen Yang on education, diversity, and the power of visual storytelling

Gene Luen Yang is an award-winning graphic novelist and comic creator. He’s also a parent of two and a high school teacher to many. Yang’s American Born Chinese was the first graphic novel to be nominated for a National Book Award, the first to win the American Library Association’s Printz Award, and won an Eisner Award for Best Graphic Album. His comic strip Prime Baby was the last feature to be serialized in the New York Times Sunday Magazine and features two modern parents navigating the sibling rivalry between their eight-year-old son and baby daughter.

Yang has published many graphic novels, including the comics continuation of the popular Nickelodeon cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender. His next graphic novel Secret Coders releases in September through First Second. You can follow Gene on Twitter.

photography by Albert Law : www.porkbellystudio.com

Parent Co: What was your relationship with comic books as a kid, and which comics were your favorites?

Gene Yang:    I started collecting comics in the fifth grade. When I was a kid, most of what was available were super hero comics, so I was a Marvel guy. I really liked Spiderman, and Fantastic Four. I read a little bit of DC, but I mostly thought they were stupid because they had really goofy names. Like DC has a character called Aqua Lad, which I think is the stupidest thing in the world. Another one is called Cosmic Boy. I had a hard time reading DC stuff. I really love Marvel.

I was also really into Uncle Scrooge. People at the time thought I was weird. I was in high school, and I was buying Uncle Scrooge comics. There’s this one guy, his name is Carl Barks, and most of the Uncle Scrooge comics that are around were done by him. He was the one that invented Uncle Scrooge, and he also made him into this three-dimensional, sympathetic character that I found very compelling, even though I could not get my friends to see it that way. In comics, he’s considered a master. Even people who were not into duck comics understand that Carl Barks is this master cartoonist, master storyteller. He’s just amazing.

What advice do you have for kids and teenagers who are interested in breaking into the comic book industry?

I think it’s hard. It’s really hard. I think you have to have a level of persistence. What I tell people is that when you think about doing anything creative, you can’t just think about the product at the end. It’s sort of like the same way when Toyota designs a car, they don’t just design the car. They also design the factory that produces the car. In the same way, when you think about producing something like a comic book, you can’t just think about the comic book itself. You also have to think about the factory that produces the comic book.

In the case of the cartoonist, it’s your life. It’s a lifestyle that produces that comic book. You have to create the lifestyle where you are regularly writing and drawing. You have to keep that up for a significant amount of time before you’re going to be able to see any sort of success. I think it’s really rare for somebody to jump into a creative field and immediately make a splash. I think for most of us it takes years, and years, and years of persistence. For me, it took about ten years from the time I got serious about comics to when I started actually making money at it. When I talk to my cartoonist friends and my author friends, that seems like a fairly common number – ten years.

You’re a high school teacher as well. Where do you see comics and graphic novels playing a role in education? 

I’m super excited about this topic because for a long time I tried to keep my two jobs separate. I remember when I first started teaching, I would make sure on the first day of class I would tell all of my students I was involved in comics. I thought it would make me cool. But it totally didn’t. It was not impressive at all. When we would have to cover a hard topic, they all would all just start asking comic book questions. Very quickly I learned I had to keep these two worlds separate.

I’m excited now, because it seems like there’s this trend of bringing these two worlds back together.

[Tweet “Comics in general are a visual storytelling medium like film and animation. – @geneluenyang “]

Unlike any other visual storytelling medium out there, it’s one that asks us to read. Because of that, the rate of information transfer in a comic is in the hands of the reader.

If we were making an educational film, the rate of information transfer is in the hands of a producer of the film. But with comics, it’s the opposite. Because of that, I think it’s empowering for the reader. I think the reader can take in information as slowly or as quickly as she wants, as suits her. That’s a really powerful thing.

Do you ever use comics in your own classroom?

I have had some experience using comics in the classroom. I taught kids how to make comics in a computer art class that I taught for years. Several years ago I had to teach this Algebra II class. I was actually taking over somebody else’s class. One of my math department colleagues had to go on long-term leave, and my administration asked me to take over his class. But the problem was, I was also working as the school’s educational technologist. So every couple of weeks I would have to miss two or three days of class, which was just terrible. The students would have to have a sub for their sub. That’s really horrible.

To make up for that, I tried videotaping lectures, which didn’t go well because the topic was really, really boring. Then, as a second attempt, I would draw my lessons with comics. I’d do it really quickly. Every lesson would be maybe four to six pages long. I’d xerox them and ask my sub to hand those out. That was really eye opening because my students liked that so much that they actually asked me to do comic lessons, even when I could be there in class. I think it’s because of that control that they had over information transfer. It’s like a book. With a book, you read it. The rate at which you read is determined by the reader. The only thing that comics add on top of that is this whole visual component. It’s visual information where the rate of information transfer is in the hands of the reader.

You write the scripts for the Avatar comics as well. What is the process like to continue an existing popular cartoon series and then transfer it to print?

It was really nerve wracking at first. I guess it still kind of is. I’m a huge fan of that show. I think it’s amazingly well done. I knew I had a really intense fan base going in. I got to see how intense after I got involved. The longest and maybe the craziest fan emails I’ve ever gotten were for the Avatar books. Luckily, I’m not just on my own on those books. I am working with an amazing art team. They’re called Gurihiro Studios. They’re based in Japan. I also work really closely with Mike DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, the creators of the original show. They look over every one of my scripts, and they’re able to tell me when things feel a little bit off. I feel like it’s just easier for me because I’m part of this team.

In a speech you gave at the 2014 National Book Festival Gala, you talk about the need for diverse books with diverse characters, written by diverse authors. How does this need influence your work as a comic book creator?

That concern definitely drives my work. I remember when I was a kid, you would just not see Asian Americans. It was very rare to see Asian Americans, especially Asian American males in popular media. I remember when I was a kid, my brother and I would be watching TV and an Asian guy would come up on the screen, and we’d go, “Mom! Dad! Come down and see!” They’d run down and we’d go, “Yeah! Look in the background! Right there!” And they’d go, “Wow!” It was a family event whenever somebody Chinese showed up on the screen. Then, in comics, there was almost nobody. I think the one exception was GI Joe. GI Joe had a couple of Asian American male characters.

In fact, the very first Asian American ladies man that I ever saw, and actual sexual being, who was Asian American and male, was in GI Joe. He’s a character called Quick Kick. He’s a martial artist, which is sort of a stereotype, but he also had this blonde girlfriend that he would flirt with. He would say all these cheesy pick up lines. That was the first time I ever saw an Asian American male being sexual. I think that’s the only example I can think of from my childhood. Later I found out that the reason why it was like that was that the writer of those early GI Joe comics was a guy named Larry Hama, who’s a Japanese American writer. In comics, he’s kind of legendary too. I mean, at the time, he was one of the first or few Asian Americans working in comics.

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Illustrration by Katrina Schweithelm for Parent Co.

 

It’s definitely been something that’s driven my teaching too, which led me to your graphic novel American Born Chinese. I’m always trying to find more diverse texts that can connect with my different students.

That’s great. That’s awesome. My favorite high school assigned book was Black Boy by Richard Wright.

Oh yeah, that’s a great book!

I don’t think I could’ve articulated it at the time, but I think the reason I connected to that book was just because it was all about otherness, dealing with otherness, and dealing with feeling comfortable in your own skin.

You’ve been in the comic book industry for awhile. Where do you see comic book readership evolving in the next 10 to 15 years?

I think first, I see a lot of diversification in every sense of the word. There’s diversification of gender. When I was a kid, most of the people at my local comic book store were just teenage boys. There’s also diversification of the culture, of orientation. Anything you can think of. Within the comics themselves, there’s just diversification of genre as well. When I was a kid, superhero comics were the novel genre. Now, you can find anything. You can find memoir. You can find comedy. You can find romance. You can find sci-fi, anything.

Do you have any new projects launching in the near future?

My next project will be an educational comic. This is me finally taking these two worlds and putting them together. It’s called Secret Coders. I’m working with a cartoonist named Mike Holmes on it. The way we’re pitching it is we’re saying that it’s like Harry Potter. These seventh graders find this secret school, but the secret school instead of teaching magic will teach computer coding.

The problem with Harry Potter is you read about these kids learning to become wizards, but you can’t actually become a wizard. We’re hoping that with our book, as you read about these characters becoming coders that you can actually also become a coder by just following what they do in the story.

Secret Coders

That is really cool. I recently had a student write a poem about how she never got her acceptance letter to Hogwarts and how disappointed she was. I love the idea of inviting kids into a secret world where they can actually become a coder.

I think coding is like magic. In a lot of ways it’s very similar, right? Magic at its essence is words becoming action. That’s exactly what coding is too. You put in these words into a computer and they become actions.

Yes! That’s fantastic! When is that coming out?

This September from First Second Books.