With me on the blog today is the awe-inspiring Gene Luen Yang. I’m betting you’ve heard of him. Not only does he teach at Hamline University (the MFA program) in his spare seconds, he has either written or written and illustrated some of the graphic novels you’ve seen on the New York Times bestseller lists, namely American Born Chinese (written and illustrated by Gene), Level Up (art by Thien Pham), The Eternal Smile, Avatar: The Last Airbender—The Promise trilogy (art by Gurihiru) and Avatar: The Last Airbender—The Search trilogy (art by Gurihiru), and many others. And yes, the image at the right is one of his.
Gene is represented by Judith Hansen. He’s here today to talk about the latest graphic novels he wrote and illustrated: Boxers & Saints, published by First Second Books. I’m giving away two boxed sets! More on that later. But first, let’s talk to Gene!
El Space: Welcome, Gene! Wish I could offer you a beverage, but we’re separated by cyberspace. Please share four quick facts about yourself.
Gene: 1. I write and draw comic books and graphic novels.
2. I taught high school computer science for years and years.
3. I’ve spent my entire life within this one-hour radius in the San Francisco Bay Area.
4. My Chinese name means “cautious.” When I was first born, my parents gave me a Chinese name that meant “splendid.” When I started walking, I kept bumping my head on stuff, so they changed it to “cautious.”
El Space: Oh man, that’s awesome! What inspired you to produce Boxers & Saints? How long was the process from conception to completion?
Gene: Boxers & Saints is a two-volume graphic novel all about the Boxer Rebellion. I first became interested in the Boxer Rebellion in the year 2000, when Pope John Paul II canonized a group of Chinese Catholic saints. I grew up in a Chinese Catholic community. My home church was really excited about the Vatican’s announcement. This was the first time the Roman Catholic Church had ever recognized Chinese citizens in this way. When I looked into the lives of the newly canonized saints, I discovered that many of them were martyred during the Boxer Rebellion, a war on Chinese soil in 1900. And, in fact, they were killed because they were seen as traitors to Chinese culture. The more I read about the Boxer Rebellion, the more fascinated I became. I feel that this war from over a hundred years ago embodies this struggle between East and West that many Asian Americans have felt from time to time in our lives.
The entire project took me six years from beginning to end.
El Space: What do you hope readers will take away after reading Boxers & Saints?
Gene: Boxers & Saints is based on history, but it’s historical fiction. The two main characters are fictional, and the story takes a turn towards magical realism pretty early on. I hope that Boxers & Saints will inspire readers to look into the actual historical event. Although the Boxer Rebellion doesn’t get much attention in American classrooms, it’s still a big deal in China. It’s part of a time period that the Chinese refer to as their Century of Humiliation. It still very much affects China’s policies toward the West. As China grows economically, the relationship between China and the West will change. I hope American readers will learn more about events like the Boxer Rebellion to better understand how to move forward.
El Space: You’re a National Book Award finalist for Boxers & Saints. Congratulations! And you won the Michael L. Printz award for American Born Chinese, which also was a National Book Award finalist—the first graphic novel to win that recognition. You’ve also won Eisners for American Born Chinese and The Eternal Smile, a collaboration with Derek Kirk Kim. How have the awards been a game changer for you?
Gene: Thank you! The awards have made my life nutty —nutty in an amazing, amazing way. It’s an honor. It’s every storyteller’s dream to be recognized by prestigious organizations like the National Book Foundation, the American Library Association, and the Eisner Awards. Practically speaking, the awards brought enough attention to my book that I was able to go part-time at my day job, giving me more time to work on comics.
El Space: You’ve written several books for the Avatar series as well. How did that come about? What draws you to a project where you’re strictly the writer versus those for which you are writer and illustrator?
Gene: I was a huge fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender before I was ever connected to the franchise. It is, in my opinion, the best American animated series ever. A few years after the original show ended, Nickelodeon decided to continue the adventures of Aang and his friends in the graphic novel format. They asked Dark Horse Comics to produce them, and a Dark Horse editor asked me to write them. I jumped at the chance.
The experience has been wonderful. I’ve gotten to work closely with Mike DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, the creators of the original series. I’ve learned so much about storytelling from them. I only handle the writing. The art is done by this tremendous Japanese art studio called Gurihiru.
The Avatar books have been a collaboration in every sense of the word. I’m part of a team, and I’m working with characters who were born in someone else’s head. It’s very different from working on my own stuff. My primary goal is to stay faithful to the source material, rather than stay faithful to my own vision.
El Space: Graphic novels have an increased presence in the marketplace. Yet some naysayers pigeonhole them as “comic books for kids.” Obviously, they’ve never read Watchmen. How would you address this viewpoint?
Gene: Well, comic books are for kids, but they’re not just for kids. There are three major comic book cultures in the world—one based in Japan, another in France, and one here in America. In Japan and France, comics are read by both genders and every age demographic. Every genre is represented. In America, for a variety of historical reasons, the general public has commonly associated comics with superheroes and adolescence.
With the support of progressive librarians, academics, and other members of the literary community, we are finally breaking out of that. To anyone who still thinks comics are just for kids, I wouldn’t say a word. I would simply hand them Art Spiegelman’s Maus or Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis or Lynda Barry’s One Hundred Demons. The work speaks for itself.
El Space: What are you working on now?
Gene: My next graphic novel is a collaboration with a fabulously talented Singaporean artist named Sonny Liew. Sonny writes and draws his own stuff. Image Comics recently put out his graphic novel Malinky Robot. For our project, though, he’s handling the art and I’m handling the writing.
It’s a graphic novel called The Shadow Hero. We’re telling the story of the first Asian American superhero, a character from the 1940′s called The Green Turtle, created by a Chinese American cartoonist named Chu Hing. I’m really excited about it. It’ll be out from First Second Books in 2014.
Thank you for being my guest, Gene! I’m looking forward to The Shadow Hero!
Thanks to all who stopped by. You can find Gene at his website, Facebook, and Twitter. I’m excited to offer two boxed sets of Boxers & Saints. Just comment below to be entered in the drawing. The winners will be announced next Tuesday, December 10.
Gene graphic image from Gene’s website. Book covers from his website and Goodreads.