Gene Luen Yang is one of the most important voices in comics and young literature today. Yang has written important independent comics like American Born Chinese, he played in the Avatar: The Last Airbender universe with several comics following the animated series, he was a writer on the main Superman title, and he also created and wrote the ground-breaking story of Kenan Kong, the Super-Man of China. In 2016, Yang was named the Library of Congress’ National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, and also named to the MacArthur Fellows Program, otherwise known as the “MacArthur Genius Grant.” 2016 was a pretty good year for him.
This week DC Comics is releasing another important book by Gene Luen Yang, Superman Smashes the Klan, which is a book inspired by the 1946 radio serial storyline “Clan of the Fiery Cross”. In the original radio story, Superman steps in to help an Asian-American family deal with a group of racists. You can find a summary of the story here, and listen to the audio here (Note: I have not fully listened to the audio and cannot verify the content or quality).
It’s almost a throw away in the original story that it featured an Asian-American family, and Yang takes that unique element and revisits the tale, putting the family more in the forefront. I had the opportunity to speak with Yang about a broad range of topics, including his love of story-telling, his contributions to increasing diversity in comics and why a book like Superman Smashes the Klan is so relevant today.
On a personal note, I’ve long been a huge admirer of Yang’s and it was a bit of a bucket list item to get a chance to speak with him. People often say you shouldn’t meet your heroes because they’ll disappoint you. Either they won’t be as kind as you would have hoped, or they won’t live up to your gargantuan expectations. I’m so happy to say that neither was the case with Yang. In taking the time to speak with me, he was incredibly gracious and friendly. Further, it really struck me how amazingly insightful he is. His ability to go from cracking a casual nerd joke to making brilliant social commentary about superheroes was awe-inspiring.
Below is part 1 of our conversation where we discuss his path to writing comics, why it’s so important to him that comics are accessible to young readers, and his upcoming book Dragon Hoops, which is based on his personal experience with the high school basketball team where he worked. In part 2, we delve more into superheroes, including Superman. The interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
Be sure to pick up Superman Smashes the Klan this Wednesday!
POC Culture: Let’s start with your love of comics. I read that you fell in love with comics after picking up DC Comics Presents #57 – Superman and the Atomic Knights at a local store?
Gene Luen Yang: When I was in early elementary school I actually wanted to be a Disney animator. Watching Disney cartoons was the first time I realized that you could tell stories by drawing. Most of us start drawing when we’re very young, like 2 years old, and some of us don’t stop. So I was one of the kids that didn’t stop. I was always interested in drawing, and always interested in stories, and Disney seemed like the melding of the two.
When I was in 5th grade I got that Superman comic you mentioned and that’s when I began my comic book collection in earnest. After that I kind of liked both. There were times when I would’ve said I wanted to be an animator and times when I would’ve said I wanted to be a comic book artist. But eventually, after I got into college, I realized that comics was really what I wanted. I took this animation class in college, a summer program at a junior college that was 6 weeks long, and in those 6 weeks I think I did 3 minutes of animation. I realized that animation is so labor intensive that it’s almost impossible for a single person to see a project through from beginning to end by themselves. I wanted that kind of control and it seemed like comics was the way to get it.
Q: Would you say that you still share equal passion for art and story-telling?
GLY: I’m definitely more interested in stories. For me, art is a vehicle for story. That’s how I’m most interested in art. Some of that is just skill level. There are cartoonists and there are cartoonists who are also illustrators. I’m definitely in that first category. I can do cartooning okay but I cannot illustrate. I have a friend named Derek Kirk Kim and he is definitely a cartoonist who is also an illustrator. LeUyen Pham, she does both graphic novels and children’s books…there are lots of folks that are like that but I’m not one of them.
Q: I listened to your TED Talk and I know it’s a big value of yours that comics and graphic novels are accessible in libraries and classrooms. We’re in the golden age of comic acceptance in mainstream culture. Have you seen more of that acceptance and usage by teachers?
GLY: Oh absolutely. Especially when you compare things to how they were when I was a kid. When I was a kid there was no way you would be able to find a comic or graphic novel in a school library. Most people didn’t even know what a graphic novel was. That term really got popularized in the early 2000s. So to go from there to here is unbelievable. And I think one of the biggest benefits for comic book readers and fans is that there is much more diversity in every sense of the word. Back when I was a kid, superheroes were the dominant genre in American comics. Maybe you had some funny animals and there were like these indie comics that you could find in maybe 1 out of every 20 shops. But most people, when they thought of comics, they thought of superheroes. But now, when you look at comics that people are reading, especially young people, superheroes are just a fraction. There’s memoir, there’s science fiction, there’s historical fiction, there’s really…everything. So all of that has gone hand-in-hand. The acceptance by American academia has driven the literary aspirations of the medium, which in turn has driven this diversity – diversity of genre, diversity of representation, diversity in every way you can think of the word diversity,
Q: It seems to be such a passion of yours to reach out to young readers. At San Diego Comic-Con, one of your appearances was at the local library, and obviously you were the Library of Congress’ National Ambassador of Young People’s Literature. Where does that passion come from to want to work with kids?
GLY: Well I was a high school teacher for 17 years so it was my job to hang out with teenagers specifically. And it was a lot of fun. I left when DC Comics offered me the chance to write Superman. As a lifelong comic book fan, that wasn’t an opportunity that I could turn down. But even with the Superman job waiting for me, it was really hard for me to leave my teaching job. I really liked being a part of a school community. I guess I got a lot out of being a student when I was a kid, but I feel like I got as much or more out of being a teacher within a school community.
Q: You worked at Bishop O’Dowd High School (in Oakland, CA). That leads us to your upcoming book, Dragon Hoops. I’ve read about how this project came about and it sounds like it’s made for a movie. What was the most memorable part of that incredible journey?
GLY: The whole thing was just crazy. I was not a basketball fan growing up. I sucked at basketball. Whenever I thought about basketball I just thought about humiliation every time I stepped on the court. It was an opportunity for pain, for jammed fingers or a ball to the head, or doing something embarrassing! So I hated basketball as a kid. Then I began the book in 2014. Before that, basketball had been sneaking into my life. First, my son joined his school basketball team, he was in 4th or 5th grade at the time, so I started going to his games. Then, Jeremy Lin went on his “Linsanity” run, and as an Asian-American that was just mind blowing. Even still, Jeremy Lin is mind-blowing to me. Then I started reading books about basketball., these YA books that were winning awards, I found them really intriguing and interesting. Then this thing happens at school. Everybody at school is talking about the varsity men’s team at the beginning of the 2014-2015 season. So I just sort of followed the bread crumbs. I became friends with the coach, Lou Richie. We had been teaching on the same campus for over a decade at that point but we had barely talked to one another because he was in another department and I didn’t have a ton of interface with him.
We became friends and it was this crazy story. I felt like it was a story fractal. That season was a story fractal. There’s the story of this team going after the California state championship. But even within the team, each individual player, each individual coach, had stories. And then basketball itself, as I began researching the sport and learning about its history, I found tons of stories sprinkled throughout since its inception. When I proposed this book I told the publisher that it would be around 200 pages, but it ended up being about 450 because I kept finding these little stories.
Q: I feel like there’s a bit of a jocks vs. geeks theme. Do you feel like currently in high school, that’s still as prevalent with comics being so accepted?
GLY: It seems like it’s really changed. I just think it’s way more complex than it used to be. First, a lot of things that used to be relegated to geek culture have become mainstream. Superheroes are the most prominent example of that. When I was a kid, only the geeky kids would wear superhero shirts. Even then, you’d feel a little bit of shame. If you had a Todd McFarlane Spider-man shirt, and I had one of these, there was a part of you that would feel embarrassed when you got to certain parts of campus. But now every kid wears superhero shirts. I can’t say this is true nationwide, but it seems to me in certain campuses, that line has really blurred. Lou Richie for example, is actually both a jock and a nerd. He walks like a jock but he reads like a nerd! He studies statistics like a nerd. He’s kind of both. I see that everywhere. Basketball is a game of numbers and math. The coach is trying to figure out where players should be on the court and it’s based on numbers and analysis.
My son is a high school junior now and sometimes I’ll make these snide remarks because he’s totally a geek and I’ll rib him about that a little bit. He’ll respond “Dad! It’s not like high school in a 80s movie!” and I think that’s true!
Q: There are so many personal connections for you in this story. One of the players on that basketball team, Ivan Rabb, then goes to your alma mater, Cal Berkeley. Covering that team, how did it change you?
GLY: It has absolutely changed me. When I was going through the season with the team, I began to realize that I think one of the reasons why people watched sports is because they want to feel the courage of the players on the court. When you see a player overcoming adversity on the court in real-time, when you see them make a really embarrassing mistake like an air-ball, and then they recover by doing something amazing a few plays later, I think there’s something about that that we’re trying to get. It’s almost like we want to ingest their courage through our eye-balls. We want to know that if this dude on the court can do something amazing, I can do something similar in my life.
At the time, I was struggling with risk. I’m a naturally very risk averse person, and I was struggling with some opportunities, including the Superman one, that were appearing in my life and I was just very reluctant to take it. Then seeing these 15, 16, 17 year old kids on the court, because it was a nationally ranked team they played some of their games on ESPN, and they would just go out there and sometimes they’d make mistakes but they would have to get their heads back in the game, mentally recover from that and keep performing. So to watch them do that was inspiring. It inspired me to take risky steps in my own life.
Q: Youth sports on ESPN are so prevalent now, you almost forget that these are 16-17 year old kids. It’s amazing to see what they can overcome and handle under pressure. I’m not surprised that sports appeals to you as a storyteller. It’s almost the last medium where you can’t be spoiled. You can’t know what happens.
GLY: As a storyteller that’s kind of freaky too. Usually when I do books I want to know what the ending is before I start. But with this project is I couldn’t. I had no idea how it was going to end and I just had to trust that it was going to make for an okay book.
Q: And what an amazing way it ended! I recall that one of your friends said “I can’t believe this happened to you!” I’m definitely looking forward to this book.
GLY: [Laughing] Yeah! One of my cartoonist friends said that!
In part 2, Gene Luen Yang talks about Superman Smashes the Klan and its relevance to society today.
Ron is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of POC Culture. He is a big believer in the power and impact of pop culture and the importance of representation in media.