Gene Luen Yang is the celebrated graphic novelist behind the recent Boxers & Saints and the award-winning American Born Chinese, and a remarkable force in the world of American comics. While thoroughly enthralled by the artistic traditions and lore of US superheroes, Yang is equally engaged by other artistic traditions such as Chinese opera, which is full of super-powered heroes and villains in primary-coloured costumes, and massive backstories with centuries of continuity behind them.
Although Yang laboured for years at making comics and losing money, he eventually struck adamantium with American Born Chinese. The 2006 graphic novel features a contemporary Chinese-American boy, an outrageously offensive fictionalised sitcom character named Chin-Kee, and the Monkey King from classical Chinese literature. The book is Yang’s fascinating fusion of three stories exploring alienation, racial self-hatred, and transformation of social consciousness and personal self-concept.
The graphic novel established Yang as one of the most important graphic novelists in the United States. It won the Eisner Award for Best Graphic Album, and became the first graphic novel to be nominated for a US National Book Award, and the first to win the American Library Association’s Printz Award. His 2013 two-volume Boxers & Saints explores the Chinese anti-colonial struggle that also pitted traditionalist Chinese against Chinese Christian converts, and by taking sides with neither, the book humanises both. It received a nomination for a US National Book Award and won the L.A. Times Book Prize.
In addition to having written and drawn many other works, Yang currently writes the sequel graphic novels to the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, where he ceded art-creation duties to the Japanese duo Gurihiru. He’s also taught high school computer science for almost twenty years and creative writing through Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults.
Gene Luen Yang spoke with me via Skype on December 10, 2014, from his home office in Oakland, California. In our conversation, Yang explains:
- What keeps him from migrating to an all-digital workflow in comics creation
- Why he regards his own art style as simple
- Why he doesn’t illustrate the Avatar: The Last Airbender graphic novels that he writes
- His surprising opinions of Marjane Satrapi’s award-winning Persepolis,
- How dramatic, personal comics demand an inverted Kirbyist style, and
- What links Roman Catholicism, computer science, and comic books.