I had the pleasure of having a freewheeling conversation with the great Gene Luen Yang about his wonderful book The Shadow Hero, ethnicity, war and much more.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: Thanks for joining me, Gene. How are you?
Gene Luen Yang: Thank you for having me. Good, good.
Yang: It is.
CB: Much more traditional comics — with air quotes. You did something a little different this time.
Yang: Yeah, I wrote Shadow Hero in between the two books. Boxers & Saints is a two volume graphic novel about the Boxer Rebellion. And there are two volumes because I wanted to take a look at the Boxer Rebellion from both vantage points. So the good guys in one book are the bad guys in the other. It’s a really, really depressing time in history. So I had finished drawing the first book, I had finished writing the second book, and before I started I started drawing the second book, I decided to do a story that was a little bit more fun, just because I felt so depressed from being immersed in the Boxer Rebellion for years and years and years.
So that what the Shadow Hero is. I collaborated with a friend of mine named Sonny Liew. I did the writing and he did the art. He is an amazing cartoonist, by the way. He’s just stellar. But together we’re reviving this old superhero from the 1940s who is now in public domain.
CB: Which is just so funny. I’ve never heard of the Green Turtle.
Yang: Yeah, most people haven’t. He’s very, very obscure. He only lasted five issues.
CB: I like how you read into it that he may be Asian American.
Yang: Yeah, that didn’t originate from me. When I first discovered him, it was on the Internet. It was on this blog called Happy’s Golden Age Blogzine. On that blog, he actually features a whole bunch of these different obscure Golden Age characters. In the Green Turtle entry, he talked about how there is this rumor that he may be an Asian American. But we aren’t sure, we just aren’t sure.
CB: So Shadow Hero was written like a six-issue limited series all collected together, all twenty-two page issues.
Yang: Yeah, I’ve never really tried that before. Even though I grew up reading twenty-two page issues, I’ve never really sat down and tried to write in that format. So I wanted to give myself that challenge, even though it was kind of artificial. I knew I wanted to take it to First Second and they do mostly graphic novels.
CB: Yeah, it’s funny. We did a group review of the book, and one of my reviewers actually said, “It feels a little artificial. Why is it broken up like collective Marvel graphic novels? This isn’t what I expected from this type of comic.”
Yang: Yeah, it’s because it’s a superhero book. Most superhero comics, the way they come into the world is in a single issue. So we wanted that feel for this one.
CB: Right. So did you write it intentionally to have a beginning with a certain arc to the story and a cliffhanger at the end?
Yang: Yes, yes, we wanted that.
CB: Very old school about that kind of thing.
Yang: Yes, we wanted to be as old school as we could get. And even Sonny. Sonny’s just this amazing artist. He did a ton of visual research for the book. And he looked at all these old black and white photos from Chinatown, both in San Francisco and in New York. And the color palate he chose, the way he drew it also very old school.
CB: Yeah, it really is. And it really captures the tenor of the times. Was that intentional too, to kind of get a feel for the 1940s in America?
Yang: That was on our mind the whole way. We wanted it to be accessible enough for a modern audience to get from the beginning to end. But we also wanted to make sure we evoked the 1940s in everything we did.
CB: It really feels like it’s something that should have been around at that time.
Yang: Yeah, maybe.
CB: It just seems wrong where there is this racial gap in American comics history where everything seemed to be Anglo-American at the time, but you know that under the hood, there was all this interesting kind of racial current happening. It is refreshing to read this take on the era that shows the experience of a certain minority I guess of the time.
Yang: Well, thank you, thank you. You know, the Chinatowns back then were relatively new. They hadn’t been there for a century yet, but they were getting close. But they hadn’t been there for a century yet. And I think the Chinese living in those Chinatowns hadn’t yet learned to call themselves Chinese Americans. So the book, what we really wanted to explore, is what does it mean to become an American. And we wanted to use superheroes to do it, because superheroes are so American. Superheroes were created in American. They express American ideals. So as our main character becomes a superhero, we’re hoping within the subtext it’s him becoming an American.
CB: That’s an important part of the whole continuity of the books that you’ve written is this experience of being an American but being yourself at the same time.
Yang: Or America is a collection of subcultures. There isn’t really one American culture. We’re a collection of subcultures. And I think there is something interesting in that. There’s something interesting in the way these subcultures interact with one another. There’s something interesting in the way a subculture establishes itself as part of America.
CB: Really it’s a celebration of that subculture. Obviously all liberally designed to evoke that.
Yang: Yeah, I hope so. Another benefit of working with Sonny is that he brings his own unique perspective. He actually grew up in Singapore, but he came to the States to go to art school. He was educated at RISD. So he has sort of both an outsider and an insider’s perspective on what it means to be an American. And that definitely shows through in the book because of his involvement.
CB: It’s obviously important to you also.
Yang: Yeah, absolutely.
CB: Do you feel like you have that insider and outsider insight yourself?
Yang: Well, I think so. I think part of it, growing up I definitely had times when I really wanted to be part of the majority. But as an adult, after talking to all these different people about their experiences, I realized that most of us have had the outsider’s experience. It’s almost like that is kind of what binds us together you know?
CB: It’s taken me a lot of my life to kind of be proud of the crazy kind of mutt Jewishness that my family was. My grandfather on my mother’s side ran numbers for the Jewish gangsters in New York, in Brooklyn in the ’40s.
Yang: Wow, sounds like it was a comic event.
CB: If there were any stories left about him, there would be. I love the things that are exploring this fascinating subculture in a way doesn’t exist anymore too.
Yang: Yeah, it’s definitely different now. Cultures are living things; they are constantly changing. The culture from the 1940s Chinatown is just completely different now.
CB: I had a strange second or third generation thing also as a kid where, as child especially (I don’t know if you felt the same way) there is a lot of thing about we wanted to be assimilated. You were always secular Jews, as opposed to religious Jews. We really never made a point of talking about our Jewishness. I guess it’s a little easier for us.
Yang: Yeah, I think that is definitely true. I think most culture groups, we go through this period of time where we are trying to kick out everything that makes us different or separates us from the majority. And it takes a while to sort of turn that around.
CB: Do you think Boxers & Saints helped you appreciate some more of your heritage?
Yang: I think so. I didn’t really know anything about the Boxer Rebellion before I did that, so I am deeply grateful that that book gave me the opportunity to explore, in some depth at least, this incident. It was one of the first world incidents that involved both Eastern and Western cultures. So in a lot of ways it set the stage for what happened in the 1900s after that, for the two World Wars, and Vietnam, and all of that.
CB: It’s kind of the missing little link in everything else that happened afterwards. One of the things I liked about your new book is it really does take a 1940s attitude, too. Did you try to specifically write it like a 1940s book in some ways?
Yang: Well, you know, this is me reading into the artist through his art. But throughout those early “Green Turtle” comics, the cartoonist seems to express this deep desire to unite East and West. So the Green Turtle himself, he has this very classic Golden Age superhero costume, this very American superhero costume, but it incorporates Chinese elements within it. Then there’s some of the stories that start off with Chinese words that express things like, for instance, one of the stories starts with this Chinese phrase that says four oceans, one family, which is a Chinese phrase that expresses the commonality of humankind. So all the way through, at least what I picked up on reading it through my own lens, is the artist had this deep desire to reconcile these two different cultures, and he was expressing that within The Green Turtle comics.
CB: So in a way it’s a tribute to his vision. In a way it’s an expansion of his vision.
Yang: Exactly. I wanted to kind of stay true to that feeling I got from the original comics. I definitely didn’t seem him as one to run away from America. It really seemed like he wanted to find a way to combine these two things.
CB: Do you ever really kind, interesting idea that correlates, but how did you pull that out in creation of your book? Do you feel it was necessary to do that twenty-two page stories and that whole side of things to kind of bring you closer to that approach?
Yang: I think so. His stories were actually shorter than twenty-two pages.
CB: Yeah, they were eight pages.
Yang: Yeah, he was just a feature within an anthology. But I think adding those constraints in really helped me get into more of a superhero mindset. A lot of times if you feel creatively stuck, adding constraints can help you get out of that.
CB: There’s that old phrase constraints give you freedom.
Yang: Yes. I definitely think that true with creative work.
CB: That’s interesting. So given those constraints, how then did you approach creating this story? It does build. It’s definitely novelistic. It does grow and evolve under our eyes.
Yang: I outlined the whole book, which is sort of my habit now. Then within each twenty-two page chunk, I tried to make sure there was definitely a beginning, middle, and end. For the last issue I cheated. The last issue is longer. It’s thirty-two pages I believe.
CB: And there’s an element of like dirty screwball comedy in there.
Yang: Yeah, I think that was just part of trying to find some emotional relief from being in the Boxer Rebellion. I needed to throw in some humor just to get myself through it.
CB: It sounds like that book really affected you deeply.
Yang: It did. It was hard to be in it. I did a lot of research for Boxers & Saints. The camera had been invented recently, so there’s a decent number of photographic imagery that you can use as reference material. And a lot it is just brutal; it’s just horrible to look at. There are photos of beheadings, and torture scenes and all this crazy stuff. Boxers & Saints is by far my most violent book. I added the violence because I wanted to stay true to what I was seeing when I was researching the photos.
CB: You couldn’t have done the book without the violence.
Yang: Yeah, I don’t think so.
CB: It wouldn’t have worked on any level. It would be like doing a book on World War I without…
Yang: Without people killing each other, yes. I think it’s exactly right.
CB: But this is entirely different. Even the violence is very light. A little more impactful, but…
Yang: I tried to mitigate it by drawing a lot of it in a very cartoony style, but I couldn’t eliminate it completely. I didn’t feel like I had the right to do that.
CB: Because actually the martial arts piece of the book has impact. That was kind of refreshing in a way, to read a superhero-style book where you get punched and you get a black eye.
Yang: Well, that’s from The Spirit, right? Will Eisner did that.
CB: See now you’re hitting my sweet spot there. I love The Spirit. That’s my all-time favorite series. In fact hen I collect sketches, I get sketches of The Spirit.
Yang: Oh, cool.
CB: So were you influenced by Eisner then?
Yang: I think everybody’s influenced by Eisner whether you are aware or not. If you grew up in American comic book culture, I feel like you’re influenced by Eisner.
CB: I discovered him in my early teens, and it was like a revelation. It really was like those lightening bolt moments you feel every once in a while. There is that kind of cinematic Eisner-esque composition to a lot of the pages. How much freedom did Sonny have with…
Yang: That was all Sonny. He writes his own stuff, too. He has this book called Malinky Robot that’s amazing that he both wrote and drew. So he brings his own sense of story into the book. A lot of folks, not a lot, but there are some folks in comics who are pure illustrators who don’t necessarily have the chops to carry a story. But Sonny is really both. He is both a storyteller and an illustrator. So his stories are just beautiful. And the really unique compositions within the book are all him.
Yang: There is this one scene when the Turtle first breaks into the gangster hideout, and all these people are shooting at him. Sonny uses this wheel formation for the panel. That was all him.
CB: Love that page.
Yang: Yeah, that’s a great page. Really well done
CB: That’s just so clever. Was that hard for you as an artist? You’ve done…
Yang: No, I trust Sonny.
CB: Okay. Had you written the script for that then?
Yang: I did it in thumbnails. But Sonny had plenty of freedom to change it where my compositions were inadequate.
CB: So you weren’t doing that kind of, “Hey, change it this way, ” giving him a ton of notes as he was doing it.
Yang: I did give him notes. But at the same time I did really, really trusted him. He’s just a phenomenal storyteller.
CB: Were you happy with how it turned out?
Yang: Oh absolutely.
CB: You seem very excited. It almost seems like a relief if I am reading between the lines a little bit.
Yang: Sure, sure, it is. It took a long time to get done. Not because of Sonny. Just because of a bunch of life circumstances. It took a long time for us to get it done. I’m very grateful that it’s out.
CB: I know. I have a personal story about having a book finally in hand after all the time working on it. It’s such a relief, almost a relief more than the happiness of having it, you know?
CB: It feels like you did Boxers & Saints, and it was a real journey for you, a real kind of existential journey in a way if I’m not reading too much into it. And maybe like having a really a fantastic multi-course dinner and then just having a bit of chocolate cake for dessert.
Yang:Yes. Maybe that’s what it feels like. But also as a life-long superhero fan, I’ve always wanted to tell a superhero story. So maybe there is some of that pent up energy from back from I was ten that’s all come out now.
CB: So are we going to get more Green Turtle or are you doing to move on to something else?
Yang: We’ll see. I really love the character. I think there’s a lot of things we could explore through an Asian American superhero in the 1940s. It depends on Sonny. It depends on First Second. But I’d love to do more.
CB: How’s the reaction been to it so far?
Yang: So far it’s been really well received. It’s been great.
CB: I’m very curious how Asian American kids are going to perceive it.
Yang: Yeah, I’ve heard from some Asian American readers and they generally seem to really like it.
When I first found about the Green Turtle, there was just something very affirming about knowing that we were there. At the very beginning of superheroes, of this very American genre, Asian Americans were there. There was something affirming about that. And a lot of the book is driven by that feeling.
CB: It’s so kind of against the tide in some level, too. Because, I mean, there was the American concentration camps and such. They are Chinese Americans, but still wasn’t it a secondary status in America? The Coolies and all that as well.
Yang: Even the Chinese Americans themselves would not of called themselves as Chinese Americans. They generally referred to themselves as the Chinese. For a long time, they really wanted to be separate. And it took a long time for them to figure out what it meant to be a part of America.
CB: In a way it’s like the journey from (not to be racist, but this is my take on it) Asian Americans who built the railroads, for example, who created the Chinatowns and were living in that subculture and then sort of assimilated. So there’s a meta-story to Shadow Hero in that story itself that seems to have real resonance for you also.
Yang: I think so, I think so. I think that’s a constant tension for immigrants’ kids. What does it mean to be a part of this country while trying to retain something of your parents’ culture?
CB: Right. But we’re all immigrant kids on some level.
Yang: Yeah, we are.
CB: Even the ones that were born here.
Yang: That’s right.
CB: Anything else you want to mention? Well I should ask you what your next project’s going to be.
Yang: Well, I’m working on a graphic novel series for middle grade readers. I’m working with another cartoonist who’s absolutely amazing. It will be about coding. We haven’t made an official announcement.
CB: Coding software?
Yang: Coding software, yeah.
CB: Oh, you know I’m a project software manager.
Yang: Oh you are!
CB: Yeah, I worked for thirteen years at Microsoft. Now I work for a small start-up type company.
Yang: So it’s in that area.
CB: That’s great.
Yang: That’ll be what’s it’s about.
CB: That’s great. This is especially a gap in women who do software development.
Yang: Well our main character is a girl, a twelve-year old girl.
CB: I’m really happy to hear that because that’s great niche. So you obviously have this deep interest in software. You got those previous books that were kind of computer focused I guess.
Yang: Sure. This will be my first explicitly educational book though. We’re hoping that kids will at least learn program concepts.
CB: Okay. Really? Do you have a background in programming?
Yang: I majored in computer science.
CB: Okay. Can you still develop a website or something? What did you learn?
Yang: I don’t know. I’ve been at it for a long time. But when I was in school it was all C, it was all done in C.
CB: Oh, you learned the hardcore way.
Yang: Yeah, after a couple of years they switched over to I think C++ and then passed out pretty quickly. But I also taught computer science at the high school level for a long time. So it’s me taking what I used to do in the classroom and making a comic out of it.
CB: I didn’t realize that. Are you drawing fulltime or are you still teaching?
Yang: I am still at a school. I am no longer in a classroom, but I’m still at a school.
CB: Really! What do you do there?
Yang: Part-time. I manage a database.
CB: Oh wow. So you really are a true computer guy.
Yang: I guess so. Yeah, computers have been a big part of my life.
CB: So then is doing the creative work, do you find that really helps you balance your life?
Yang: It does. I like it. I like the balance in my life right now.
CB: Because that’s a lot why I like writing about comics and thinking about comics. My work is so A, B, C, very detail focused, very clear and scientific. It’s nice to really think abstractly.
Yang: Yeah,I agree, I agree. You go from the concrete to the more fuzzy.
CB: It’s very therapeutic, right?
Yang: It provides a great balance.
CB: That’s cool. I had no idea. So kids still interested in software these days?
Yang: Well, part of it is there’s this whole movement to… Well, when I was a kid at least, there were programming school at my elementary school.
CB: At the elementary school?
Yang: Uh huh.
Yang: Uh huh. Well, I grew up in Silicon Valley that might be why. But it was on the old Apple 2E. We would program in Basic or in Logo.
CB: I did the same.
Yang: And a lot of that has been taking out the classroom, partially because computers have gotten so complicated. So there is this movement now to re-infuse that back into the curriculum. I think kids growing up these days they know how to use computers. They know how it fits into their social lives. But they don’t necessarily know how to code. So that’s been lost.
CB: It’s not that much of a step these days, the way the language is working. You can get eighty percent of an app done just drag and drop. That other twenty-percent is incredibly difficult.
Yang: As a computer science teacher, I think that programming is actually oral. There is something about words becoming actions that’s at the heart of programming that you will lose with drag and drop. And I feel like that’s very important for kids to understand.
CB: That’s a really interesting thing. Words part of programming, like certain…
Yang: It’s like magic. Just like magic.
CB: What is magic?
Yang: Magic is words becoming actions, words manifesting themselves. So that’s a little bit of the basis of the book, too. Because you kind of want it to be like it’s Harry Potter, except it’s coding. I mean coding as magic that is what we want it to be like. Because it’s words becoming actions, that’s what coding is.
CB: Sure, and in that way you’re commanding something that happened with these very clear… Yeah, I love the parallel to Harry Potter. I would have never though of that. I am so struck for words.
Yang: Yeah, and you lose that with drag and drop. It becomes visual. And I think you lose a way of thinking about code.
CB: Yeah, the way I think about the developers I work with is they’re artisans. They’re not artists, but they’re creating something. They are like a bricklayer in a way. Something beautiful out of these very specific, clear guidelines, I guess. Something I could never quite do. I like being on the management level and organizing the projects. But I really think there is a kind of magic to that. I hadn’t thought of that. I love that – the new wizards.
Yang: Yes, they are the new wizards. Absolutely the new wizards,
CB: And if you can hook kids with that- this is your chance to be Harry Potter in your own special way- that’s incredible powerful.
Yang: That’s what we’re hoping for.
CB: Wow, good luck! I hope that does well. I can see how excited you are about that.
Yang: Yeah, I’m excited. I’m very excited about it. It’ll be fun.
CB: Yeah, must be thrilling to work on something that is so positive too.
Yang: Well, yeah, I hope so. I hope it turns out well.