INTERVIEW (Part 1) – Gene Luen Yang on Shang-Chi’s Asian-American Story and Rehabilitating Fu Manchu

The Master of Kung Fu is finally back and he’s ready to take his rightful place as one of the greatest superheroes in the Marvel Comics 616 Universe. Like every superstar, Shang-Chi has an amazing team around him to help him reach his potential. In this case, it’s the awesome Asian Shang-Chi creative team of Gene Luen Yang, Dike Ruan, Philip Tan and Jim Cheung. Previously, I broke down why this incredible team is the perfect fit to bring Shang-Chi back into the limelight. With the long awaited release of Shang-Chi #1 this week, I had the chance to speak with Gene Luen Yang, who is making his Marvel Comics debut with this title.

Yang is the ideal writer for Shang-Chi right now, with his authentic understanding of Asian-American dynamics, his genuine appreciation for U.S. and world history, and his ability to balance social commentary and whimsical comedy.

This is my second in-depth interview with Yang. Last year, we spoke at length about his professional history and most recent projects, which included Superman Smashes the Klan and Dragon Hoops. If you missed that interview, I strongly recommend checking out part 1 and part 2 to get a better understanding of Yang’s background.

Below, our conversation focused exclusively on Shang-Chi. Read on to find out more about what Yang’s creative process was like for this book, how he tackled the messy subject of Fu Manchu, and why he believes that Shang-Chi is decidedly an Asian-American character.

This interview has been edited for clarity. Some very mild spoilers below.

Shang-Chi #1 releases this Wednesday!

Shang-Chi #1 Dike Ruan Variant Cover
Shang-Chi #1 Dike Ruan Variant Cover

POC Culture: It’s your Marvel debut. So congratulations on the book! Let’s go to the origin, how did it come about it?

Gene Luen Yang: Darren Shan is the is the Editor on the book. He and I had had some conversations, a while ago, like over like maybe two or three times over the years about maybe doing something for Marvel and it just never worked out. I was always working on something else. And then this one it did. So he invited me to pitch, I sent to the pitch, he liked it, they liked it and they signed me up. So this was like late last year, I believe we were talking. But I feel like he and I were on the same page when it came to Shang-Chi. Both of us didn’t really have a lot of heart attachment to the character, but then both of us felt like…I mean, it was both a responsibility and an opportunity right? Shang-Chi is pretty much the most prominent Asian-American superhero we have right now, at least since the movie announcement, so we felt like we wanted to do it together.

Q: That’s great. And you’re right. I’s the perfect time for it and and very necessary for the character. I think the fans all knew a reboot was coming, because it’s necessary. So you have several fellow creatives. What an all star group. You have Jim [Cheung], Dike [Ruan] and Philip [Tan]. Could you talk about what that creative process was like between all of you and how did it come together?

GLY: Yeah, I mean I can’t really take a ton of credit for the makeup of the creative team because that really was Darren [Shan], the editor. He kind of gathered everybody together. He and Dike I believe worked on something else together, and he really liked him. And for good reason too I think. Dike, he’s he has a very clear style and he’s also able to balance emotion and action. He does facial expressions really, really well, and he also handles actually really, really well. And then Philip, Philip and I had kind of worked together before. So he’d done a bunch of the covers for New Super-Man, which I did for DC, a few years ago. He is Chinese living in the Philippines, but he’s much more connected to Chinese pop culture than I am. And Chinese history. He’s kind of like an amateur Chinese historian. So anytime for both New Super-Man and for Shang-Chi, if I had questions about that kind of stuff, I would ping him. It’s been great. And Jim, of course, everybody’s a fan of Jim, so to have him signed up to do the first cover and to redesign the costume, it’s been a ton of fun to work on.

Q: The new costume looks awesome. I think he looks really great.

GLY: Yeah! He did a great job. You know, we talked a lot about balancing Western, American superhero elements with traditional Chinese elements. And I think he figured that out perfectly.

Q: From a story perspective. I know you do a lot of research before writing your books. What kind of research did you do to flesh this story out? I assume you read a ton of Shang-Chi comics, but what what other sources did you study?

GLY: Yeah I did read the old Shang-Chi comics. Darren sent over a whole bunch digitally, and I read through a lot of the early stuff, and he also sent over some more recent stuff. There’s an Ed Brubaker run on Secret Avengers, where he shows up and he plays a pretty prominent role. But really, a lot of the story is rooted in his origin, not his origin in story, but how Shang-Chi came about as a character. So Marvel in the 1970s, when all of America was going through this Bruce Lee craze, they really tried to get the Bruce Lee license, but they weren’t able to do it. So they went after the next most prominent Chinese character in Western media, which was…Fu Manchu [laughing] and Shang-Chi really is like Bruce Lee as Fu Manchu’s son. So it’s a really…I mean, it’s a problematic origin! [laughing] It’s a really, really problematic origin! I did look at Fu Manchu. I mean, I’ve looked at Fu Manchu before for other projects as well because he is sort of the quintessential Yellow Peril villain. And he’s kind of born out of…I really think he’s born out of British guilt. You know, he was created by this guy named Sax Rohmer and I really think that…my interpretation of Fu Manchu is he functions like a ghost. You know, a lot of the ghost stories that we tell are rooted in guilt. It’s almost like the ghost represents a sin that we committed in the past and how that sin constantly haunts us. I think that’s what Fu Manchu is. He’s like this embodiment of a guilt that the British felt after the Opium Wars and after the Boxer Rebellion. After this whole bloody century of the 1800s. And he wants revenge. Like in story, he wants revenge. And the catharsis of his character is how the British are able to escape…maybe even some of the retribution that they might even deserve. That’s my interpretation. I think that’s why, that’s why he kind of became popular. So for Marvel to add this extra layer of Shang-Chi…in his origin story, he turns his back on his dad and he sides with the Westerners, so it’s almost like he’s protecting the West from this guilt. That’s an interpretation at least of his story. So I feel like all of that had to go into the story.

Q: I love it. And obviously you’ve written those books on the Boxer Rebellion (Boxers & Saints), too. So that’s obviously a history you know very well.

GLY: Yeah. I was very interested in it and I ended up doing a two volume graphic novel about the Boxer Rebellion which does play a part in this as well. Just because I think it’s a part of Fu Manchu. We can’t even call him Fu Manchu, Marvel doesn’t have that license anymore. In Brubaker’s [Secret Avengers] run, he got renamed to Zheng Zu. So we use that, and the way they explained that was that he uses lots of different aliases, like a super criminal uses lots of different aliases. So we’re still running with that. One of the things about the Marvel Universe is that it doesn’t have these hard resets the way the DC Universe did. The DC universe had a pretty hard reset with Crisis on Infinite Earths, and they did it again with New 52. But Marvel hasn’t really had that. So a lot of the stuff, even the kind of gross racist stuff from the early days of Shang-Chi, it’s still in play. So we just got to figure out a way to spin it.

Shang-Chi #1 Jim Cheung Concept Variant Cover
Shang-Chi #1 Jim Cheung Concept Variant Cover

Q: Right, absolutely. And I thought the Fu Manchu spin was genius. Just the name of Fu Manchu obviously elicits all kinds of kind of emotions. And so I thought, even that spin back then was good. So you’ve talked about how a lot of his origin is still in play. In the preview pages that Marvel shared, we see a Leiko Wu. How much of his existing supporting characters and existing canon will we see? For example, Shang-Chi’s mom is actually white!

GLY: Yeah! [Laughing] Yeah, we had a long discussion about that. Because in the movie, Simu Liu does not look like he’s half white! [Laughing]

Q: And I don’t think they want him to be!

GLY: Yeah. So I’ll just tell you right now, we decided to ignore that. We had a long discussion about it and ultimately we’re like, at least for these five issues, we’re not going to touch it. The dynamics are there. His dad is still…or was…I mean he’s dead. But his dad is still a super genius who is bent on taking over the western world, like a classic Yellow Peril villain. He still ran this organization. But we’re hoping that by the end of the five issues, we flesh out his motivations more, and we show how he became the way he is. And we’re hoping that by doing that, it will also shed some light on Shang-Chi himself.

Q: Interesting. So I was actually curious if you were going to try to sidestep Fu Manchu in general but it sounds like his character will still be a focus of the story.

GLY: Yeah, he’ll play a big part. Because he’s such a part of Shang-Chi. I just think you gotta deal with it. In the Marvel Universe, you got to deal with it because there’s no reset. You have to spin the old stuff to make it work.

Q: Right. Even for Leiko Wu, her last story is kind of wild! There’s resurrection, there’s supernatural, all that is still in play?

GLY: All of that stuff is in play, but we do want to make it new reader friendly. So we don’t really reference a ton of that stuff. We do really light references to. I know, Leiko’s recent stories are crazy! [Laughing]

Q: Crazy! [Laughing] It was a good story. But it’s a wild story. So you talked about the problematic history of the character, which it was 1973, so I get it. For you, I think there were two major challenges – not only do you need to modernize Shang-Chi as a whole, but you then need to resonate with the current modern audience, especially Asian-Americans. Did you have those goals in mind and how did you go about serving them?

GLY: Yeah, I agree with you. It was the 1970s so I do believe that things have to be judged against the time when they happened. There are of course problematic elements that were in those early stories and I’m sure the creator’s themselves would even admit it today. But some of the stuff was was really cool. I really appreciated…I thought they put in a lot of creativity in the way they handled action. It was varied from issue to issue. So in some issues they did these big, beautiful splashes, and in others they did these really small, narrow panels to show the speed of what was happening, and we tried to bring in some of that into our version as well.

But the big thing you’re talking about is speaking to a modern audience, especially an Asian-American audience. I think that Shang-Chi, from the beginning, his appeal was in his otherness. I felt like, at least in the way those early issues were written, it wasn’t like the reader was supposed to identify with Shang-Chi. The reader was supposed to look at Shang-Chi and be kind of in awe of his skill. And also be fascinated by the ways in which he was like a Chinaman. He was different from the reader. That was the appeal of the character. But in our version we want it so that the reader identifies with Shang-Chi. So we want to let the reader into Shang-Chi’s head and show the world through Shang-Chi’s eyes. I think that’s the big difference. By doing that, we’re hoping that Shang-Chi becomes more three dimensional. I feel like he’s just always been really flat.

Q: I love it. Only someone like you who would understand that. Would understand those nuances of exactly what you just explained. I think that him being someone we were meant to just look at and be the exotic Asian is totally right on. So I’m excited to see the different spin now.

Shang-Chi #1 Bernard Chang Variant Cover
Shang-Chi #1 Bernard Chang Variant Cover

Q: As we talked about before, I love Kenan Kong. When we spoke about him, you said it was a challenge writing a Chinese Superman, but you said you could have done a Chinese-American Superman. So here we are. You’re writing maybe THE Chinese-American superhero. How did your experience writing Kenan, and the Justice League of China help you form your story for this book?

GLY: Shang-Chi’s an interesting guy in that he was born in China, he was raised in China, and he comes over to the United States as a young adult and that’s where he kind of turns. It’s almost like he was a college. You know how a lot of us, when we go to college, we start critiquing our families, that’s kind of what he did. He comes to America, he starts critiquing his family, he decides to make a name for himself and sort of define himself apart from his family. In defining what China was, some of the stuff that I did with New Super-Man was helpful, but the China that Shang-Chi grew up in is really different from modern China. The way it was presented in those early comics, it wasn’t really China. It was like a western conception of China. It was a China that was rooted in the last dynasty, all the mannerisms and everything, it was all it was all exotic. It wasn’t even Communist China, it wasn’t even Maoist China. It was like a China that was pre-1900. So the way the way we’re spinning that is that Zheng Zhu, his Dad was born during the last dynasty, during the Qing dynasty, and he kind of runs this cult. It’s almost like a religious cult with him in the middle, and in the same way that there are certain religious cults in America that are kind of frozen in time, that don’t interact with the modern world, his cult doesn’t interact with modern China. So Shang-Chi is in between two cultures, but the two cultures he’s in between, isn’t really like modern Chinese culture and modern American culture. It’s like modern American culture and this cultish version of Chinese culture. Kenan Kong doesn’t really have that. Kenan Kong is just Chinese. But Shang-Chi is more Asian-American in that he has these dual identities that he has to mesh together.

Q: Got it. I like that. So you and Shang-Chi were born in the same year, just a few months apart…

GLY: I didn’t realize that! [Laughing] That’s crazy! He looks a lot better than me, though, way better.

Q: You both look great. Although Dike’s version does look pretty young!

GLY: Yeah he looks like he’s in his early 20s!

Q: You’ve said that you were embarrassed to read Shang-Chi even though you loved Marvel. I was kind of the same way and I get it why an Asian-American person would not be too keen on Shang-Chi. And I would actually say his popularity is largely among non-Asians. So what helped you get over that? Your first Shang-Chi book was in college. What helped you embrace Shang-Chi as a character?

GLY: A lot of it was just me figuring myself out as well. As I made peace with my cultural heritage in college. As I learned to take pride in the fact that I’m Asian-American, I started being interested in Asian-American characters and Asian-American stories. I remember when the Asian-American Batgirl came out, Cassandra Cain, that was a big deal. At that point, I was really interested in Asian-American stories, so I bought that up. I really liked it. But had that same book come out when I was in high school, I don’t think I would have picked it up at all. I think I would have avoided it the same way I avoided Shang-Chi. So I don’t think anything necessarily changed in the character, it was just more something had to change in me for me to be interested.

Q: That makes sense and it’s just part of the diaspora process that we all go through. Even when you were talking about how Shang-Chi in many ways protects the West, I feel like that’s what Asian-Americans are often like, at least in our youth. We side with Western culture when there’s a conflict with our parents or between our cultures, so it completely resonates.

Shang-Chi #1 Kim Jacinto Variant Cover
Shang-Chi #1 Kim Jacinto Variant Cover

Q: Shang-Chi as a character hasn’t really been able to kind of sustain a solo book for a while. I mean, he had this incredible run, hundred plus issues, 10 years, and I still kind of marvel, no pun intended, at how successful that initial run was. Since then it’s been kind of up and down. Do you have any thoughts on why it’s been a challenge for the character to sustain that kind of consistent success recently?

GLY: I think it’s getting harder and harder in general for comics to sustain long runs, even with really, really popular characters. Like how many runs has Thor had recently? It’s been a ton. For Shang-Chi specifically, my guess is that some of it is because he is that “other” and I think American superhero storytelling has become much more sophisticated where we demand more from our characters, and Shang-Chi as a character hasn’t been able to give that yet. We’ll see how it goes. The theory is that if you let the reader into the character’s soul. If you show them the character’s desires and his fears and even his flaws, that it’ll create some kind of attachment, like a relationship. So we’ll see. We’ll see how it goes.

Q: This is a five issue miniseries. In your own creative head, how much story do you have beyond this miniseries?

GLY: Well, we’ll see how things go. But we are definitely setting it up so that there are more stories to tell. The end will feel like an end, but it won’t be a definitive end. It’ll feel like an end with other avenues to explore.

Thanks as always to Gene Luen Yang for this time. In PART 2 of our in-depth discussion on Shang-Chi, Yang breaks down the inspiration for the Five Weapons Society and answers my burning question about whether there’s any synergy between this comic run and the Marvel Studios film Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings!

Be sure to pick up Shang-Chi #1 this week!