We ComiConverse With Gene Luen Yang
October 6th, 2016 | by Kyle King
Gene Luen Yang, currently the writer of DC Comics’ New Super-Man, recently received the prestigious honor of being named a 2016 MacArthur Foundation Fellow. The so-called “genius grant” goes to distinguished individual recipients and fosters their creative endeavors by providing them with a $625,000 stipend paid out over five years. After the announcement, Yang was kind enough to spend a few minutes being interviewed by ComiConverse contributor T. Kyle King. Yang’s answers and insights appear below.
We ComiConverse With Gene Luen Yang:
ComiConverse: You’re a former high school teacher. What did you teach?
Gene Luen Yang: I taught high school computer studies. Also, a little bit of math, as well, and a little bit of art.
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ComiConverse: Obviously, you had a bit of good news lately, with the MacArthur Fellowship program, which, as their website says, recognizes exceptional creativity, promise for future advances, and potential for it to facilitate subsequent work. I know, initially, you were a little bit overwhelmed by this. Have you had time for it settle in?
Gene Luen Yang: It still feels overwhelming if I think about it too hard, to be honest, but I have had a chance to talk about it with my wife and with my family, and that’s helped me out.
ComiConverse: Have you decided generally what you’re going to do with this opportunity?
Gene Luen Yang: Well, we do have four kids, and college is pretty expensive these days, so I think a good chunk of the money is going to go towards that. I see myself as having three different roles: I’m a part of a family, so I’m a father and a husband and a son; and, then, my second role is, I’m a cartoonist; and my third role, even though I’m not in the classroom anymore, I’m still a teacher. Specifically, right now, I’m the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, which is a position from the Library of Congress, Children’s Book Council, and Every Child a Reader. So I’d like to put some money, at least, toward each of those three roles.
ComiConverse: Speaking of your being the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, you hold that position, I believe, for the rest of the year. Where are you traveling in relation to that, and do you plan to continue that beyond the end of your term due to this grant?
Gene Luen Yang: The term is two years long, so it started this past January. It will go until December of 2017, and there has been a decent amount of travel, so I had a good amount of travel in April and May, and then right now. I’m on a two-week book tour. The first event and, I believe, the last event on my tour are ambassador-related. So the first event I did was in Washington, D.C. It was the National Book Festival, and I also visited some local schools. The last event will be in L.A., where I’ll also be doing school visits.
ComiConverse: The other aspect about the MacArthur Fellowship is that they’re very clear in saying that this is not an award for prior achievement, it’s an investment in future potential. It’s commonly known as a “genius grant”. Do you feel any pressure from that to produce your magnum opus in the next five years?
Gene Luen Yang: (laughing) Of course! I think there’s definitely a pressure that comes with it. I do have some projects that I’m working on right now, and I don’t know if the grant necessarily changes the nature of those projects, but it definitely changes the timeline. First, I’ll be able to hire an intern. That’s something I really want to do, as both a way of helping me get my projects completed more quickly and as a way of helping an aspiring cartoonist enter into the field. As a teacher, right now, I’m promoting a graphic novel series that I’m working on with a friend of mine named Mike Holmes, and together we’re trying to teach the fundamentals of computer science to middle grade students through a comic book format. Now that I have the grant, I think I would like to use some of that money to push in that direction, as well.
ComiConverse: So do you see it more as an opportunity to concentrate more fully on what you’re already doing and work on your depth, or do you see it as more of an opportunity to branch out in new directions and expand your breadth?
Gene Luen Yang: I can’t imagine being able to take on any more than I’m doing right now, I’m just so busy. I don’t think I want to spread my focus out too much. I really want to concentrate on those three roles, being a part of a family, being a cartoonist, and being a teacher.
ComiConverse: You knew I would have to get around to it eventually; you wrote Superman, and are now working on New Super-Man. With Superman, you came at him from an interesting angle. You referred to him as “the ultimate immigrant”. He grew up in the United States, but he was also aware of his lineage to a different people in a different place who spoke a different language and called him by a different name. You were able to relate that to your experience. Now, of course, you’re writing New Super-Man, where you have a new character in a new setting. Do you feel like, as a writer, it’s easier for you to start with an established character with a some universal appeal and come at it from a more specific angle, or do you prefer to begin with a new, more specific character and sort of relate out to the audience at large?
Gene Luen Yang: I think both approaches have their benefits. The Clark Kent Superman is not the only established character that I’ve worked on; I’ve also done a continuation of a really popular series on Nickelodeon called Avatar: The Last Airbender, and I’ve been doing those comics for about five years. It’s been really, really different from working on Superman. I would say that, when you’re working on something that’s so established, what you’re trying to do is either uphold a storytelling tradition that’s already there or maybe push a storytelling tradition in new directions. With New Super-Man, we do reference the traditional Superman mythos, but, by and large, we’re creating characters out of whole cloth. There’s greater control when you do that. There’s a little bit more creative elbow room.
ComiConverse: When it comes to writing an existing character, is that the way you approach them, by finding a connecting thread as a way in, or do you do any of what, say, Brenden Fletcher and Cameron Stewart did with Batgirl of Burnside and do research and talk to the people you’re going to be writing about to be able to get a better handle on something that may be new to you?
Gene Luen Yang: Well, with Superman, I was actually part of a team. I was working pretty closely with the writers of the other Superman books. I had pretty regular meetings, both on the phone and in person, with Greg Pak, who was working on Action Comics with Aaron Kuder, and also Pete Tomasi, who was doing Superman/Wonder Woman, and it really felt like what we were doing wasn’t so much expressions of us as individuals, but expressions of us as a team. With Avatar: The Last Airbender, I definitely feel like I was able to emphasize the parts of the Avatar mythos that overlapped with my own concerns.
ComiConverse: In the comic book-making process, how closely are you working with your collaborators? When you’re writing it, are you writing a script and sending it off, and then your penciller is coming up with how he or she visualizes it, or are you working back and forth on the direction of how it’s going to look and what the words are going to be as a collaborative process?
Gene Luen Yang: It depends on the project. Some of the stuff, I’m drawing on my own; some of the stuff, I work with another artist. With the creator-owned stuff, even if I’m working with another artist, I still have that visual input. When I was working on the main Superman title, our schedules were incredibly tight, and the opportunity for giving feedback on the visuals just wasn’t there. With New Super-Man, I do have a slightly closer working relationship with Viktor, simply because we’re not running up against that really tight schedule that we had during the New 52 era.
ComiConverse: Is there anyone in comics that you haven’t yet had the opportunity to work with that you would like to work with?
Gene Luen Yang: Oh, absolutely! I really am an admirer of Jen Wang’s stuff. I mean, part of is, I just think it’s funny for Gene Yang and Jen Wang to work together. (laughs) Jen Wang is the illustrator of a graphic novel with Cory Doctorow called In Real Life. I think she has a really fluid line. She is a master of facial expressions. I would love to work with her. I mean, there are lots of folks. Aaron Kuder, who was drawing Action when Greg was writing Action, I would love to work with that guy, as well.
ComiConverse: Both in Superman and in New Super-Man, you’ve managed to work in some Eastern mythology that maybe isn’t as familiar to a lot of American readers as, say, the Greek or Roman myths. Do you think that lack of familiarity is a help or a hindrance? Is it better that you’re able to offer a fresh take on it to an audience that doesn’t have a preconception, or do you feel yourself having to educate the audience a little bit more?
Gene Luen Yang: I kind of see it as a help. I see it as an opportunity more than anything else. You know, I love the Greek myths. I love the Norse gods in the Marvel Universe. I love how tied in Wonder Woman’s own history is with the Greek myths, but, at the same time, the Greek gods are all over the place. I think it is becoming more and more difficult in American storytelling to say something new about the Greek gods. So it’s interesting from a storytelling standpoint to venture into the mythology of other cultures. It will serve a writer well. I was pretty happy that DC allowed me to move a little bit in that direction with the main Superman title and now even more with the new one.
ComiConverse: Do you agree with what Grant Morrison had to say in Supergods that, essentially, superheroes have become our modern mythology?
Gene Luen Yang: Yeah, I definitely think so. I’ve never met Grant Morrison, so I don’t know how he’d feel about this, but I would say they’re specifically American mythology. I think that actually makes a project like New Super-Man pretty tricky. Because he’s not an Asian-American, right? He’s not a Chinese-American; he’s a Chinese guy. There was actually an op-ed in The New York Times earlier this year where an Asian writer was arguing that Asian superheroes are oxymorons, because the entire concept of the superhero is so American that you can’t really divorce it from America. That op-ed got a lot of pushback, but, at the same time, I think it’s an interesting conversation, and I don’t think it’s an argument that I would necessarily dismiss simply out of hand.
ComiConverse: But you do obviously disagree with that position, or you wouldn’t be writing this hero, so what’s your response to that writer’s position?
Gene Luen Yang: Well, I don’t know. To be honest, I really don’t know. Originally, it was not my idea to do a Chinese superhero. DC Comics wanted to do it. Specifically, it was Jim Lee’s idea, and Geoff Johns, I believe, had a hand in it. When they first brought it to me, I was like, “No, I don’t want to do it.” Partially because of the cultural and political intricacies, the complexities that are involved in a project like this. One of the things that really scared me about this project is that Clark Kent Superman stands for truth, justice, and the American way. So what does that mean in the context of modern China, right? And I didn’t totally know how I was going to approach it. Then, ultimately, I had a meeting with Geoff, and another one with Jim. After that, I felt like I needed to do the project, even though I kind of felt scared about it. And that’s what we’re doing now, we’re kind of tackling this idea of whether or not a Chinese superhero would embody truth, justice, and the American way — specifically, I would say truth, justice, and democracy — in modern China. I don’t know. If you embrace a Western understanding of truth, a Western understanding of justice, and a Western conception of democracy, are you giving up something fundamentally Chinese about you? Is the character giving up something fundamentally Chinese? Does that make him not Chinese enough anymore? Is Chinese Super-Man an oxymoron? I don’t know, but that’s the question that we’re trying to explore a little bit, especially in this first arc.
ComiConverse: You’ve mentioned some of the intricacies and the complexities, and there a lot of nuances in there. For instance, the character of Laney Lan, who is somewhat more Westernized than some of the other characters, goes by her given name first and her family name second, the way we do in the United States. The other characters, of course, use the family name, followed by their given name. She hands her business card to Kenan, though, with both hands, which is a cultural norm in China that probably many people in the United States know nothing about. Are you working those sorts of nuances in, and do you worry that some of those types of nuances are being lost on a lot of readers?
Gene Luen Yang: I am working those in, and thank you for picking them up. Thank you for reading the book so carefully. That’s awesome! I try to work that stuff in, and, even if a reader misses it, there is a chance that his subconscious or her subconscious will pick up on it in some way, right? At least, that’s how I deal with theme. Even if the reader doesn’t pick up on the theme, maybe her subconscious will, and that’s kind of how I write. So, whether or not they explicitly understand some of the stuff that I’m going for, it doesn’t really matter to me, as long as I can get them to finish the book.
ComiConverse: That seems to sort of weave together everything that you’re doing. On the one hand, you’re writing a superhero comic that’s basically an adventure story, and, hopefully, people are going to pick up things that they didn’t know, and then, on the other hand, you’re using graphic novels to teach students who might otherwise find the subject dry and uninteresting, and now it’s something that’s engaging. I guess you view yourself as an educator and as a creator in all of these things, is that fair to say?
Gene Luen Yang: Yeah, I think so. I think so. I’m just trying to figure out how to use comics to communicate, I think, when it comes down to it, and sometimes I take on a teacher’s hat when I do that.
ComiConverse: You’ve mentioned a couple of established characters that you’ve had the opportunity to write. What established character have you not yet written that you’d like the opportunity to write?
Gene Luen Yang: I’ve always been attracted to the more obscure characters. I love Fourth World. I love Mr. Miracle, on the DC side. I also love Martian Manhunter. I think there’s a really interesting dynamic with him. In the Marvel Universe, my favourite character is really obscure. His name is Frog-Man. Do you know who he is? He’s, like, this chubby dude, he’s got these giant springs on his feet, his dad was a supervillain, and he kind of carries that guilt around with him. I would love to write Frog-Man. That would be amazing. That would be so fun!
We extend our thanks to Gene Yang for taking the time to ComiConverse with us, and we invite you to do the same in the comments below!
T. Kyle King is a Contributor to ComiConverse. Follow him on Twitter: @TKyleKing.