This images if from the cover of The Eternal Smile, written by Gene Yuen Lang and illustrated by Derek Kirk Kim

Gene Yang: Comic Book Hero

By Lorsen Koo

Gene Luen Yang majored in computer science at University of California, Berkeley. After graduation, he was a software developer and then taught computer science for years. But he had an unusual side hustle: He wrote and drew comic books, which he sold to “friends, my mom, and a few strangers.” Today, Yang’s hobby is a full-blown career that has earned him multiple awards, while his humor-filled perspective on life makes him a popular speaker.

I recently sat down with Yang to discuss his experiences in the comic book industry.

Lorsen Koo: Can you tell me about your background?

Gene Yang: I’ve spent my life in a one-hour radius in the San Francisco Bay Area. My parents are immigrants—my mom was born in mainland China and my dad was born in Taiwan. They both came to America for master’s degrees.

When I was really young, I realized that you can tell stories in cartoons, and I wanted to be a Disney animator. In fifth grade, I started buying comic books and recognized that there are two ways to tell stories through drawings: You can either animate or draw on the page.

Before college, Dad sat me down and said, “You have to get a practical degree: medicine, pre-law, or something in engineering. As long as you do that, I will leave you alone as an adult.” I was going to double-major in computer science and art, but I decided to drop the art major after a figure-drawing class where a model took the same pose over three or four sessions. One of my classmates drew the model as a big green circle and an orange square, and he got an A. I said, “I’m out.” Later I realized that I wanted an illustration degree, not art, but I didn’t know that at the time.

After graduation, I worked for a few years as a software developer, and then I decided to teach computer science in high school.

Koo: Why did you switch?

Yang: I went on a five-day silent retreat and thought about life. After that, I looked at my semi-cubicle and said, "I think I need to do something else." I taught for 17 years, and I was also making comics pretty seriously.

My dad kept his promise. He didn’t say anything to me directly. But every six months I would get this little envelope from him; it wouldn’t have a letter, just newspaper clippings, like a want ad from Apple or Google. One time he sent me an article that compared teacher salaries to computer programmer salaries.

Koo: So you were doing comics while you were teaching. Did you have a support group?

Yang: The American comic book industry is changing now, but back when I was starting in the 1990s, there were superhero comics as always, but independent comics were becoming a more prominent force. Independent comics were the Wild West—you could do whatever you wanted, so I self-published my comics. I would write and draw a comic, take it to the local copy shop, run off copies, staple them by hand, and sell them. There were a couple stores in Berkeley that would give you shelf space and sell on consignment. I would also sell them at local comic book conventions.

At these local conventions, I met a group of Bay Area cartoonists and we’d get together once a week to draw and critique each other. That was my art school.

Koo: Let’s talk about one of your best-known graphic novels, American Born Chinese. It has many layers, but it’s basically the story of you trying to figure out your Asian identity while growing up in a predominantly white school.

Yang: Between kindergarten and first grade, we moved from San Jose to Saratoga, where there were so few Asian-American families that my mom went to the school office and asked for the addresses of all the other Chinese families in the neighborhood. There were two of them, and we visited those families the Saturday before the school year began. By the time I graduated from high school, Asians were still a minority but there were a decent number of us. When a community goes through a demographic shift like that, tensions arise.

I started American Born Chinese about five years before it was published [2006]. I would finish a chapter, take it to Kinkos, make copies, and sell them myself. To go from there to my first full-color graphic novel from a major publisher was nuts.

Koo: How did that happen?

Yang: In 2003, a couple of graphic novels had hit the New York Times best-seller list for the first time, so publishers began looking in the American independent comics world for the next best-seller.

A friend, Derek Kirk Kim, was winning awards in the comic book industry for his Same Difference, and a bunch of publishers asked for his next book. He introduced me to people at First Second Books. (He’s part of my network from the 1990s. No matter what you do in life, you have to build your network.)

I’d done a bunch of stories before that with Asian-American protagonists, but their cultural heritage never played an important part in the story. My own cultural heritage was something I really wrestled with when I was a kid, it’s a huge part of how I find my place in the world, and I was ready to do something about that.

The response to American Born Chinese changed my life. It paved the way for me to be a full-time cartoonist.

Koo: How did you get to work on New Super-Man?

Yang: For years, I was a part-time teacher and part-time cartoonist, which was an awesome balance. Then DC Comics offered me the chance to write Superman. As a life-long comic book nerd, I had to say yes—I would have had to turn in my nerd card if I didn’t say yes. I did 10 issues on the main Superman title, which was a lot of fun.

Image courtesy DC Entertainment

And then I started talking with DC Comics about what I might do next. They said, “What if we do a Chinese Superman?” I thought, “Man, that’s, like, the dumbest idea ever.” I was actually scared of it. They didn’t want a Chinese American. They wanted a Chinese, living in China, Superman. Superman is supposed to be about truth, justice, and the American way. If you set it in modern-day China, I thought there would be too many political landmines.

Then I got called into the Burbank DC office to meet with Jim Lee. I have all his X-Men comics at home. He said, “This Chinese Superman thing, this is my idea. I want an Asian member of the Superman family.” So I said, “I guess we’re doing this thing!”

Koo: Why a Chinese Superman now?

Yang: A lot of Western culture, especially American culture, gets to China and becomes its own thing. My theory is that Chinese young people are using American pop culture to express things that are difficult to express using the cultural tools and language immediately surrounding them.

We want to reflect that in the Chinese Superman—to take an American archetype and try to say something about the Chinese culture. Clark Kent might as well be Chinese. He has black hair, he’s kind of nerdy, he has this foreign name that’s hyphenated, Kal-El; he’s, like, half Chinese already.

There’s a lot about the traditional Superman that reflects the story of immigration. We took some pieces of that and put it into the Chinese Superman.

Koo: Can you talk about comics in the classroom?

Yang: A couple years ago, I got the opportunity to give a TedX talk on why we should use comic books in American education. Historically, comics have been marginalized in America. I think that should change. I think some materials are better communicated in comics.

Click above to watch Yang's TedX Talk.

Koo: You actually write for an educational series called the Secret Coders.

Yang: Yes, with my friend Mike Holmes. It’s stories about kids who find a secret school underneath their school. It’s kind of like Harry Potter, except it’s coders instead of wizards.

Koo: What are you working on now?

Yang: I have two big projects. One is for a DC Comics middle-school imprint, DC Zoom. It’s a graphic novel called Superman Smashes the Klan and is inspired by a radio show that was never made into a comic. In the story, a Chinese-American family moves into Metropolis, which brings out the Klan, and Superman has to defend them.

The second project is Dragon Hoops, a graphic novel I’m writing and drawing. It’s my first non-fiction graphic novel, and it's about following the high-school basketball team at the school where I use to teach.

Koo: Is your process of creating Dragon Hoops different than your process in the early days?

Yang: In the very beginning, I drew on Bristol Board because Stan Lee told me to in “How to draw comics the Marvel way.” Then I started experimenting, and nowadays I draw on vellum if I’m not working digitally.

From the beginning, I used Photoshop. This is not to kiss up, I really would draw on paper, scan it in, and do clean-up in Photoshop. And then I would use PageMaker for the layout. It was the mid- to late ‘90s.

Dragon Hoops is the first graphic novel I’m doing completely digitally. There’s no paper involved at all. I use Photoshop for panel boards and initial sketches, and do my final artwork in Clip Studio Paint Pro.

Click to watch a few seconds of Dragon Hoops in progress. 

Koo: OK, I have a few rapid-fire questions for you. What’s your Kryptonite?

Yang: Deadlines.

Koo: Who’s your favorite female superhero character?

Yang: Ms. Marvel. She’s the first Muslim-American superhero to get her own title.

Koo: Favorite boba drink flavor?

Yang: Green tea. Nothing else.

For more about Gene Yang, visit his website and Instagram.