FEATURED WRITER - Gene Luen Yang
By: Miguel Poonsawat
ene Luen Yang is an award winning Chinese-American writer and illustrator of graphic novels and comics. His works include the highly acclaimed American Born Chinese, the first graphic novel to be short listed for the National Book Award, as well as the epic and historically inspired Boxers and Saints, which was also shortlisted for the National Book Award.
For people who are sceptical about graphic novels being able to tell sophisticated or meaningful stories, Yang’s work will change your mind. His stories are epic yet deeply personal, fantastical yet relatable.
Gene Luen Yang took the time to talk to BW about comics, monkeys and negative Asian stereotypes.
B is for...book. What is your favourite childhood book?
Happy Birthday by Dr. Seuss. I have to admit, I was all about the presents when I was a kid and that book has the most awesome presents ever. But it also has these really profound lines about the gift of existence: “You might be a Wasn’t. A Wasn’t has no fun at all, no he doesn’t. A Wasn’t just isn’t. He just isn’t present.”
A is for… animal. If you could transform into one animal for one week, what would you be?
A monkey. Because monkeys are awesome.
N is for… necessary. If you were banished to a desert island and could only bring two items, what would they be?
A boat and an oar. (Is that cheating?)
A is for… authentic. How would you describe yourself in three words?
Not a monkey. :(
N is for… novelist. Which writer do you most admire?
A is for… appetite. What is your favourite banana themed food?
A banana boat with marshmallows and chocolate chips.
How did you get involved in writing and publishing comics?
I’ve loved comics since I was a kid. Shortly after graduating from college, I started self-publishing comics. I would draw a comic, take it to my local copy shop and run off copies, then hand-sell them at local conventions and to local stores. Eventually, I was able to connect with some publishers. I was in comics for about a decade before I stopped losing money at it.
Do you think that Asian characters (especially the males) in comics have been typecast in a way? They all seem to be super powered martial artists or mystics or worse yet, the sidekick.
I guess the big thing is that there aren’t enough. There are plenty of Asians and Asian Americans who work behind the scenes as artists and writers and editors. But there aren’t all that many characters, especially main characters. In superhero comics, there’s Shang-Chi, the Master of Kung-Fu; Jubilee on the X-Men; a couple of the G.I.Joes. DC Comics had a Korean American Atom for a while, but he got stabbed in the chest. Maybe that was for the best… I wasn’t sure how I felt about the most prominent Asian American male in the DC Universe being a guy who could shrink. I mean, talk about stereotypes.
Jeff Yang, Parry Shen, Keith Chow, and Jerry Ma addressed this dearth with their anthologies Secret Identities and Shattered, which feature Asian American superheroes written and drawn by Asian American creators. Sonny Liew and I did short stories for both volumes.
Sonny and I also have a graphic novel called The Shadow Hero coming out next year which tells the story of the very first Asian American hero.
Your best known work is perhaps American Born Chinese, a book that deals with three very different story lines. One of these narrative strands features Cousin Chin-Kee, the personification of every negative stereotype of the Chinese people. What was the reason for his inclusion in the book and how did it feel to write such a character?
You read Cousin Chin-Kee right. He’s the amalgamation of every negative Chinese, Asian, and Asian American stereotype I could think of. I wanted him to be like a punch in the reader’s gut. I wanted to leverage visual nature of comics to address stereotypes head on. Cousin Chin-Kee haunts Danny the way old, old stereotypes still haunt today’s Asian Americans.
It was cathartic to write and draw Cousin Chin-Kee, to be honest. After all, I got to take his head off at the very end.
American Born Chinese does deal with issues surrounding racial bullying. Were your own experiences similar to those experienced by Jing Wan?
Sure. Jin Wang’s story is fictional, but I pulled heavily from my own life. I think anyone who’s grown up as a minority has experienced something similar, regardless of what makes them a minority. Like many of us, I experienced the most virulent bullying during my junior high years. And I also did my most virulent bullying during those same years. Like Jin, I was both bullied and a bully. And like Jin, I had to both forgive and seek forgiveness.
Your Catholic faith is clearly an influence on your work and creeps into the Monkey King’s story in American Born Chinese. How comfortable were you infusing the Journey to the West with Christian undertones?
I’ve been a fan of the Monkey King since I was a kid. My mom used to tell me his stories at bedtime. After I began making comics, I knew I wanted to do some kind of adaptation of his story. When I looked into it, however, I discovered that the Monkey King is so popular in Asia, almost every working Asian cartoonist has done something with him. I mean, Osamu Tezuka, Japan’s God of Comics, did a Monkey King adaptation. What could I possibly add to the world by doing my own?
Eventually, I hit on the idea of using the Monkey King to tell a more personal story, to talk about my experiences as an Asian American. I knew my version would have to combine both Eastern and Western elements. Having the Monkey King and his friends play the role of the Magi from the East in the Nativity scene was a part of that.
Your latest work, Boxers and Saints, is a book in two parts telling two opposing perspectives of broadly the same events, both sides are sympathetic and neither side are necessarily ‘good’ nor ‘bad’. Did you struggle to keep the overall narrative impartial?
Boxers & Saints was born from my own ambivalence. I feel deeply sympathetic to both sides of the Boxer Rebellion. In a way, they were motivated by the same impulses. The Boxers wanted to preserve their traditional Chinese identity. The Chinese Christians wanted to preserve the identity they built from both Eastern culture and Western faith.
Saints, the second book, was much more difficult to write. The Boxers’ story lent itself to comic book narrative. They went on this long, epic journey, fighting battles along the way. The Chinese Christians, on the other hand, had a much quieter struggle. They mostly stayed in their villages and tried to defend themselves as best they could. They fought off doubt, as well as this notion that they weren’t Chinese enough. Finding a way to represent all that visually was difficult.
If you had the chance to write any of the great superheroes comics for a few issues, which would it be and why?
I wouldn’t mind writing the Wonder Twins. I’ve always had this theory that they’re secretly Asian. The whole alien thing was just a story they told.
You have done some writing for Dark Horse Comic’s Avatar: The Last Airbender comics. How does it feel when writing a cast of established characters rather than your own creations?
I’m a huge fan of the original Avatar: The Last Airbender series, so working on Dark Horse Comics’ graphic novel continuation has been an absolute honor. I’m part of a team that includes Mike DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko (the creators of the show) and Gurihiru (a Japanese art studio). It’s very different from working on my own stuff. When I’m writing and drawing my own graphic novels, I want my pages to cleave as closely as possible to a vision in my head. When I’m writing Aang and friends, I try to mimic what came before. I’m trying to capture the spirit of the original show.
Boxers and Saints is an epic story and a bit of an epic undertaking. It took 6 years to produce. Looking back, what advice would you give yourself when undertaking such a long project?
Create a habit of writing and drawing.
Set daily goals and make sure you meet them.
Surround yourself with people who will give you the moral support you need. BW