Why you should care
Because being a genius and a comic book artist don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
It’s lunchtime at Jin’s middle school, where he’s sitting alone — until his classmates approach. “What the hell is that?” Timmy spits at Jin. “Dumplings,” Jin says. “Hmph,” Timmy responds before accusing Jin of eating dog and then walking away, laughing.
The scene spilled from the mind of graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang and onto the pages of his American Born Chinese, a finalist for the National Book Awards. Another one of his lauded works, Boxers and Saints, is a two-volume graphic novel that imagines the Boxer Rebellion in China, first from a Chinese perspective and then from a European one. Indeed, the 43-year-old has often felt pulled in opposite directions, whether it was between his Western upbringing and his parent’s Eastern cultural background, or between writing educational graphic novels versus entertaining ones.
But these opposing elements have helped his stories stand out. Yang has previously won the Michael L. Printz Award, a prestigious young-adult literature honor, plus three Eisner Awards for outstanding American comic books — and he was named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Just a couple of months ago, when the father of four was about to drive to his local Panera to polish off some work, he answered a call that welcomed him to the prestigious MacArthur “genius” club. Now, Yang’s busy writing comics for New Super-Man, Avatar: The Last Airbender and two of his own — a new basketball graphic novel plus a series of educational graphic novels that teach computer programming, with a side of narrative.
Yang’s “crazy work ethic” has driven his success, fellow comic book creator Thien Pham says. But, like most artists, Yang has his favorite creative kids: the educational ones, partly because there’s a growing market for young-adult graphic novels. Sales of the top 300 comics and trade paperbacks in North America topped $440 million in 2015, up from $267 million a decade earlier, according to industry data from Comichron. And a third of ESL teachers now use comics to help teach English, a recent survey from test-prep publisher Kaplan found. Yang’s also seeing a robust market abroad, in countries such as Japan and South Korea, as well as more competition in local school libraries — like the childhood memoir Smile by Raina Telgemeier, Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson and El Deafo by Cece Bell.
Teaching coding through a graphic novel may sound like a stretch. But it makes sense for this self-described “run-of-the-mill nerd” who was raised by two techie parents and grew up fascinated by computers while living in Silicon Valley. Since he was 2, drawing has come easily. In fifth grade, he and a friend even created a new superhero: Spade Hunter. Years later, however, they learned “it has really odd racial implications,” Yang says sheepishly, given how a spade could be used as code for a Black person and their hero threw a discus with a spade on it. Around this time, Yang received his first comic. It was far from his first choice. His mother, in a protective fit (too much violence!), chose a DC comic (Superman in a time of atomic war), even though he fancied himself more of a Marvel fan.
When Yang graduated from school, he programmed for Videosoft until he had a kind of awakening. Yang went on a silent retreat (for five days) before making a difficult decision to become a computer science teacher. At night and in the early morning, though, Yang wrote comics. It was during this time that he ran in a circle of Berkeley comic artists. One of his friends read an early draft of American Born Chinese. Back then it lacked color and the last chapter, and it was stapled rather than bound. The friend loved it and passed it along to Mark Siegel, the editor of graphic novel publisher First Second, who slapped it onto a pile of other submissions. Yang’s friend told Siegel that if they were to have dinner, then Siegel had better read the story — which he did, and he immediately asked if Yang could also join them. “Gene almost embodies the changeover into a new kind of publishing landscape,” Siegel says. “He was photocopying his minicomics and losing money. Then fast-forward 18 months and we’re in tuxes at the National Book Awards.”
Now that Yang’s a full-time writer — a decade or so later — his routine is to meditate for 15 minutes every morning, exercise for seven minutes and write three pages of garbage, based on The Artist’s Way. Only then does he sit down to write, for real. His Kryptonite? Indecisiveness, whether it’s choosing which shoes to wear or which project to throw himself into next.
American Born Chinese, published a decade ago now, hits on themes even more topical today in Hollywood. Its story about Asian-immigrant families and their children is a thread that has been pulled recently by Master of None, Aziz Ansari’s Netflix comedy, and Fresh Off the Boat, Eddy Huang’s ABC show, among others. Yang’s watched a couple of episodes of the latter with his children. They like the show, but mainly? They enjoy flipping through comic books — especially the year-and-a-half old.