The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

Q & A with Gene Luen Yang


I wouldn’t be surprised if you were feeling a little disillusioned with comics right now — frictionless superhero movies that deliver ever-diminishing emotional returns; ham-fisted editorial decisions; disputes over rights, compensation and artwork; violence; stupidity; institutional misogyny and racism; and generic blandness will do that.

Beyond the multiplexes and controversies, however, it is actually a quite an exciting time to be reading comics.

There are signs — Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples‘ space opera Saga, Hawkeye by Matt Fraction, David Aja and Javier Pulido, and Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo‘s horror-driven Batman spring to mind — that genre comics may still have some life in them.

Classic series and newspaper strips are being properly curated and are more available than before. Under-appreciated artists are being rediscovered.

Alternative cartoonists such as Peter Bagge, Alison Bechdel, Chester Brown, Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, Rutu Modan, and Chris Ware are producing some of the best work of their careers. The art of Daniel Clowes and Art Spiegelman is being recognised with gallery exhibitions.

And sitting somewhere between in the alt. auteurs and the superheroes, cartoonists like Emily Carroll, Becky Cloonan, Tom Gauld, Faith Erin Hicks, Hope Larson, Bryan Lee O’Malley, Luke Pearson, Noelle Stevenson — artists who have absorbed a diverse range of influences — are carving out niches for themselves, often combining and subverting genres and styles to produce uniquely personal visions.

It’s in this last, loose group of cartoonists1 — the one between the experimental and the mainstream — that I’d put artist and writer Gene Luen Yang.

Best known for his work on the Avatar: The Last Airbender graphic novels, and the critically acclaimed American Born Chinese, Gene’s most recent work is Boxers & Saints, an ambitious two-volume historical graphical novel telling parallel stories of two young on the opposite sides of the Boxer Rebellion. Already shortlisted for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and listed amongst Publishers Weekly‘s best books of the year — it is a remarkably mature, compassionate, and accomplished work that is at times funny, at times tragic, but always very human.

I recently met Gene while he was in Toronto to promote Boxers & Saints. I was impressed by his thoughts on being a cartoonist and on the medium itself, and we spent a good couple of hours talking books, comics, and movies. We have since corresponded by email for this Q & A.

American Born Chinese and Boxers & Saints are distributed in Canada by my employer Raincoast Books, and parts of this interview have appeared previously on the Raincoast blog.

When did you first become interested in comics?

I began reading, collecting, and making comics in the fifth grade.

Do you remember the first comic you bought?

The first comic I wanted to buy was a Marvel Two-in-One starring the Thing and ROM the Spaceknight.  My mom didn’t let me get it because she thought the Thing and ROM were too scary-looking.  She bought me an issue of DC Comics Presents instead, with Superman and the Atomic Knights.  That book ended up being way scarier.  It was about the atomic bomb.

What comics did you read growing up?

I read mostly American superhero comics.  I was pretty much a Marvel guy.  As I got older, I started getting into alternative comics.  I loved Jeff Smith’s Bone and Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo.

Did you always want to be a cartoonist?

I always wanted to tell stories using drawings.  When I was really young, I wanted to be an animator.  At some point, though, I realized that comics give you more control over your story, so I became more interested in making comics.

Was there a specific moment you realised there were more than superheroes?

I don’t think there was a specific moment.  I just gradually realized there all these other genres in comics.  I went to college in Berkeley, and there were two comics shops that really opened my eyes: Comic Relief and Comics & Comix.  Both had incredibly diverse selections of comics.  Unfortunately, neither is around any more.

How did you get your start in comics?

I started by self-publishing in 1997.  My first book was Gordon Yamamoto and the King of the Geeks #1, published with help from Peter Laird’s Xeric Foundation.

Was American Born Chinese a break from your self-published work, or was it a natural progression from one to the other? 

American Born Chinese started as a self-published mini-comic.  I would draw a chapter, photocopy it, and try to sell it through local stores or at comics conventions.  The American Born Chinese graphic novel is a collected edition of my mini-comics.

You still have a ‘day job’ that isn’t cartooning. Does this give you more freedom to work on personal projects and take creative risks, or does it feel like a limitation?

It’s both, I think.  I’m thankful to have a steady pay-check, but juggling both can sometimes be exhausting.

You often weave mythology and mysticism into your stories. Do you think the comics are particularly well suited to magical realism?

I think so.  Maybe because of the visual nature of the medium?  Also, because comics stories are drawn, there’s an automatic suspension of disbelief for the reader. It’s not quite as hard to earn it.

When did you become interested in Boxer Rebellion?

I first became interested in the Boxer Rebellion in 2000, when the Roman Catholic Church canonized a group of Chinese Catholic saints. I grew up in a Chinese Catholic community and my home church did a series of events to celebrate the canonizations. When I looked into the lives of the new saints, I discovered that many of them were martyred during the Boxer Rebellion.

Was it always going to be two volumes?

The more I read about the Boxer Rebellion, the more fascinated I became.  Issues of identity and power and belief played important roles in the historical incident. I just felt very ambivalent in my research. I couldn’t decide who the good guys were. The two-volume nature of the project is an expression of that ambivalence. The good guys in one are the bad guys in the other.

Was one book harder to write than the other?

Saints is the shorter of the two books, but it was definitely the harder to write.  The Boxers lent themselves to narrative. They went on this epic journey from the farmlands of China to the capital city, fighting along the way. The Boxers’ Chinese Christian victims, on the other hand, had a much quieter story. They basically stayed in their villages, held onto their faith as best they could, and died. Theirs was an internal struggle, much more difficult to portray.

Boxers & Saints are subtly different visually. Did you work closely with colourist Lark Pien on the palettes for each book?

Lark Pien is amazing.  She does plenty of books on her own.  She’s known for a kids’ comic she did with Chronicle Books called Long Tail Kitty.  Lark is a good friend, so she agreed to color the books for me.  We did discuss the themes that would be expressed through the palettes. I wanted Boxers to be a comics equivalent of a Chinese war epic.  That’s why it’s long and colorful and full of blood. Saints is much more introspective. I wanted it to be humbler and more intimate than Boxers. That’s why it’s shorter, with a more limited color palette. Lark and I drew inspiration from American independent comics for that one. But for the actual colors themselves, that was all her.

Your next is book, The Shadow Hero, is a collaboration with artist Sonny Liew. How did this project come about and when will it be in stores?

The Shadow Hero is a revival of an obscure Golden Age superhero called the Green Turtle. The Green Turtle was created by Chu Hing, one of the first Asian Americans working in American comics. Rumor has it that Chu Hing wanted the Green Turtle to be a Chinese American but his publishers didn’t think it would sell.  Chu Hing reacted in this very unusual way. In those original Green Turtle comics, we almost never see the hero’s face. His almost always has his back facing the reader. The rumor is, Chu Hing did this so he could imagine his hero as he originally intended, as a Chinese American. I found the Green Turtle to be so strange that I wanted to write a story about him. I’m working with Sonny Liew, a comics wunderkind from Singapore. I’m doing the writing, he’s doing the art. First Second Books will release it in the summer of 2014.

You’ve previously worked on books with Derek Kirk Kim and Thien Pham. What does collaborating with other cartoonists bring to your work?

I’ve been lucky enough to work with some amazing cartoonists.  With collaborations, you lose a measure of control, but hopefully you gain something from the combination of approaches.  For example, Sonny Liew brings a balance between the dramatic and the comedic to The Shadow Hero.  He expresses the characters and situations so perfectly.  There’s no way I could have done that book on my own.

Where do you look for inspiration, and who are some of your cartooning heroes?

I love comics. I read a lot of comics.  I could give you a list of cartoonists I admire as long as my arm:  Osamu Tezuka, Jason Lutes, Jeff Smith, Adrian Tomine, Lynda Barry, Jay Stephens, Derek Kirk Kim, Jason Shiga, Lark Pien, Thien Pham, Art Spiegelman, Mark Siegel, Peter David, Greg Pak, Hellen Jo, Martin Cendreda, John Pham, Jack Kirby, Bruce Timm, C.C. Beck, Don Rosa, Carl Barks

Who else do you think is doing interesting work right now?

I recently met a young cartoonist by the name of R. Kikuo Johnson.  He did a young readers’ graphic novel called The Shark King for Toon Books.  Absolutely beautiful stuff.

Are you reading comics digitally?

Yes.  I buy most of my superhero comics through Comixology now.

What do you think the future holds from print comics?

Print comics have a long future.  The physical design of the books will matter more and more, but I expect them to be around for a long, long time.

Thanks, Gene!

  1. These are, admittedly, all very arbitrary, untidy and personal lists and categorizations — nobody who’s interesting fits exactly.

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