INTERVIEW (Part 2) – Gene Luen Yang Talks Simu Liu as Shang-Chi, the Origins of The Five Weapons Society and More!

Shang-Chi Week at POCCulture.com continues! Yesterday I published:

Below is part 2 of my interview with Yang. I had to ask Yang about whether there’s any connection between his story and what Marvel Studios is doing with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which is currently filming in Australia. While I didn’t expect him to give away any secrets, I felt like his answer was genuine and there really doesn’t seem to be any connection beyond Yang’s affinity for Shang-Chi star Simu Liu. That or Yang has an incredible poker face.

Beyond that, we talked about the social importance of Shang-Chi, whether Marvel views Shang-Chi as Asian or Asian-American, and so much more!

Shang-Chi #1 releases Wednesday and I truly believe this series will be the definitive Shang-Chi story!

Shang-Chi #1 Inhyuk Lee Variant Cover
Shang-Chi #1 Inhyuk Lee Variant Cover

Q: The Shang-Chi movie is coming out sometime next year. How much, if any, synergy is there? The script was written by David Callaham before but it’s all somewhat of a larger Marvel family. Are you aware of whatever they’re doing, and is there any input on their side about your story or character?

GLY: I would say this, this could be just because I’m a comics guy, and I’m really, really biased towards comics. But I do think that the comics have to be the leader. I don’t think the comics should be following the movies. I think it should be the other way around. It should be, if you want to find out what might be in a movie five years from now, you should read the comic today. And I think because comics are made by a much smaller creative team, because they come out on a much more frequent basis than movies or even television shows, I think they are more nimble and they can explore more area, they can explore more territory. So that’s what I’m hoping for the Shang-Chi book. In terms of the synergy, I did think a lot about Simu Liu. I’m a fan of Kim’s Convenience. So I did think about him some as I was writing it. I did think about his personality and how that would sort of map onto the older Shang-Chi stories, but there’s no real direct connection between the movie and the comic.

Q: This might be a difficult question. You’re socially aware. You understand what’s happening. You’ve said that the timing of this Shang-Chi book is important because of what we’re going through with COVID-19 and the ugliness that Asian and Asian-Americans have faced. How does the current state events impact your view of Shang-Chi as a character and your work overall?

GLY: Yeah, I think I’m an anxious person. I think that my default is to be really anxious and with with the current situation, even before the current situation really, it seemed like the tensions between America and China have of mounting for a while. I just don’t think there’s any debate that the next century really is going to be defined by the relationship between China and America. And I do think that the the two countries and even to some extent, the two cultures, are becoming more and more intertwined, where the success of one…really it’s not an either/or relationship anymore. It’s much more complex than that, and the success or failure of one, will affect the other. So I think Shang-Chi, because he sits in the middle of these two cultures, characters like him are incredibly important. Because used correctly, I think they can strengthen that relationship and all the right ways. I don’t know if people really understand how interconnected the two countries are, so when anti-Chinese or anti-China stuff comes up here in America, it makes me worried. It makes me worried about the future. It makes me worried about how people imagine things are going to go in the future.

Q: Agreed. And as we know, there’s such a distinction between Asian and Asian-Americans. If you’re not sensitive to that, a lot of people don’t really understand that difference.

So Shang-Chi is Asian-American, and do you think Marvel views the character as as Chinese-American? There’s there’s a lot of talk lately since Mulan just came out…

GLY: Yeah, I haven’t seen it.

Q: Well, there’s a lot of talk about the challenge for U.S. companies trying to appeal to the Chinese market. So with Shang-Chi, I know you view him as a Chinese-American. Do you think Marvel, wants this book to be a Chinese American story?

GLY: My understanding is that they see him as a Chinese-American character as well. I think that’s why they chose Simu, who is, I mean he’s not an American, he’s Canadian.

Q: He’s a Western Asian!

GLY: Yeah, as opposed to a big Chinese star they could have probably gotten somebody from Hong Kong. But I think the reason why they chose Simu is because they want him to be firmly grounded in the North American continent. So that’s my hope. I mean it is a really complex relationship. There’s a reason why my family came to America and part of it was in response to the government of China at the time, and things are definitely much more nuanced now than they were back then, but all of that is…there’s a level of complexity that needs to be dealt with, not just in our stories, but in general, between that relationship between China and America.

Simu Liu as Shang-Chi Fan Art by Hriday Raktim
Simu Liu as Shang-Chi Fan Art by Hriday Raktim

Q: Absolutely. And it’ll be interesting to see, like you said, how it plays out in the next year. On a lighter note, so going back to kind of the story that we’ve been teased so far, Dike is drawing the present day story of Shang-Chi, and Philip is dealing with ancient China. When you were developing the story, why was important for you to have these two different eras and, like you said, reflecting two different cultures?

GLY: A lot of it was just because I think the way Shang-Chi is structured, he is rooted deeply in the past through his father. And in order to bring out the nuances of that, we had to bring the reader directly into the past. I didn’t want it to just be characters talking about what happened. I wanted to actually show the reader what happened. And one of the things that we wanted to bring out is that his dad just wasn’t always a bad guy. His dad turned bad at some point for a variety of different reasons. So to go to the very beginning of right around the time that his dad founded this organization that he ran for centuries, we could show what his dad was like at the beginning.

Q: So we’re gonna get to see Anakin Skywalker Fu Manchu! [Laughing]

GLY: A little bit! [Laughing] Yeah, that’s right.

Q: What I loved about the Justice League of China is you didn’t just have Superman. You didn’t just have Kenan Kong. You had the Chinese Batman, the Chinese Wonder Woman, and I love what we’ve seen here, the Five Weapons Society. Because I feel like part of having a multi-dimensional character like you’ve talked about is having supporting characters. You need more than just that singular person. And especially, just one singular Asian to be the only Asian in the room. So what was the inspiration for the Five Weapons Society and what can we expect to see from this super cool new group that you’ve put together?

GLY: Yeah, the Five Weapons Society is really based on, you know, the westerners, we have four elements. And then in the east, we have five. It’s the five elements earth, water, fire, metal and wood. So we correlated weapons with each of the elements. So wood is a staff…and they’re all traditional Chinese weapons. And then for water, it’s throwing daggers, for metal it’s blades, for for earth it’s hammers, like war hammers, which were big in ancient China. Then for fire it’s the hand, it’s just your empty hand in combat. So the way that the organization is structured is, there are these five different houses, and within each house they specialize in one kind of weapon. Shang-Chi himself comes out of the House of the Deadly Hand. And that’s also a little bit of a reference his old series, it was called the Deadly Hands of Shang-Chi. So that’s what he’s best at. He can use weapons and he’s awesome at weapons, but what he’s really best at is fighting with an empty hand. So the story really revolves around the champions of each of these houses, which were his siblings, kind of figuring out what should happen with this organization now that their dad is dead.

Q: And so are they heroes?

GLY: [Laughing] Well the organization at this point is really corrupt. So whether or not they’re heroes, that’s part of what the story is going to be about. Whether Shang-Chi should trust them or not.

Five Weapons Society Sketch by Dike Ruan
Five Weapons Society Sketch by Dike Ruan

Q: I love it. I can’t wait to see that play out. On a personal level, do you have a martial arts background at all?

GLY: I did Judo for a little bit. I actually did Karate for a little bit. You know, everybody did Karate after The Karate Kid came out. And then I did Judo for, like, maybe two years in junior high. But I was not very good at it. I kept, like, as soon as I started getting choked out a lot, I stopped. [Laughing]

Q: I’ll always have love for martial arts. And we’ve talked about three dimensional characters. It’s always important for characters of color, but for a martial artist, you have to have more than just what you see in terms of his abilities. So I’m definitely happy to to see that. When, he starts that story when he meets Leiko, he’s in San Francisco?

GLY: Yeah, he’s just go to town.

Q: So this story takes place in the West Coast? Because he’s been in New York. That’s kind of been his thing.

GLY: Yeah, since the very beginning, like he landed in America in New York. Yeah. And we actually had as long debate about whether we should start our story in San Francisco Chinatown, or New York Chinatown. Darren, the Editor, he’s in New York and I’m in San Francisc, but to be honest I don’t think either of us was cheering for the other and ultimately we landed on San Francisco, because I think there’s…there’s history in both Chinatowns for sure, but I do feel like I’m probably more familiar with the history behind San Francisco Chinatown. So even though that didn’t even play out in the story, I wanted it there.

Q: I love it. I just think there’s an authenticity to the Asian-American experience that’s based in San Francisco. New York, of course, has a lot of that. Between your story, Always Be My Maybe, Warrior from Justin Lin and Bruce Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, they’re so different, but yet they’re centered around San Francisco Chinatown, which I think says a lot about the culture in the Bay Area.

What I loved about this from a business and marketing standpoint, like you said, there’s so much uncertain and it’s so hard for all books nowadays. But there is a cinematic trailer, it must have been so cool to see your work presented like that…

GLY: Yeah. It was. They did a great job.

Q: Also there are like 8 million variant covers…

GLY: I know [laughing]…that’s so true!

Q: So how does that feel from a creative perspective to see the company back your work with that level of marketing?

GLY: Yeah, it’s been really awesome to see, you know, it’s been great. I mean, I think comics has has really taken a hit. During COVID a lot of shops are not doing great. DC Comics went through this really painful set of layoffs and even at Marvel there were furloughs. Thankfully, that’s over, but there were some furloughs for a little while, so Shang-Chi actually got delayed. Originally, the first issue was supposed to come out in June or July, I believe, and it got delayed several months. So for them to get back on track in this way, and to put this much muscle behind the book. It’s great. I feel awesome personally, but I also do hope it means that the industry itself and the company itself is getting better.

Q: Yeah, definitely. And so did the pandemic impact anything creatively, or was it purely on a business, distribution type level?

GLY: It didn’t really affect the book creatively. We were worried. We were worried that the creative team wouldn’t be able to stay together, but ultimately Marvel handled it really well and we were up and running again.

Q: That’s great. How far out are you? Are you done with all five books?

GLY: I’m done with four. I Just turned in an outline for the fifth one. So we’ll see how it goes.

Shang-Chi #1 Ron Lim Variant Cover
Shang-Chi #1 Ron Lim Variant Cover

Q: From when you pitched this story last year to where you are now, is there anything that surprised you about how the story or characters developed?

GLY: It is pretty different. I think that’s true for all of my projects. Every project when you first conceive of it to when it actually ends up on paper, it almost always looks really, really different. For this one, I think family became more and more of a prominent theme. It’s become the theme in the book, and I think it was an important element, but it wasn’t the important element in my original pitch.

Q: I love that. When you’re debating story points, is this just you and Darren? Who’s involved in these creative brainstorming meetings?

GLY: It’s mostly me and Darren. Especially for the visual elements we’ll definitely bring in Dike, Philip and Jim, but that kind of stuff, for like the relationship stuff, it’s mostly just me and Darren talking.

Q: What’s next? Is there anything else that you can talk about that you’re working on?

GLY: I have some stuff in the proposal stages, nothing is fleshed out enough for me to be able to talk about yet though. Everything in the world and in comics specifically, it’s just really nebulous right now. So hopefully things will get better for all of us.

Q: It means so much that you’re writing this book. To hear you say it’s a Chinese-American, Asian-American story and that Marvel views the character as Asian-American, because we are big group and I think we’re finally recognizing our collective powers and impact and it’s nice to know we’re recognized.

GLY: I agree. Could not agree more. Thank you so much for your support.

A huge thank you to Gene Luen Yang for his generosity with his time and his incredibly well thought out responses!