Gene Luen Yang: ‘Our world is colorful, so our books should be too.’

By Maryann Yin Comment

Gene Luen YangWhen we last spoke with graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang, his advice for writers is to “give up TV.” Since then, he has been hard at work on a collaborative project with artist Sonny Liew reviving the story of an Asian American superhero called The Green Turtle. First Second, an imprint of the Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group, released the print edition of The Shadow Hero earlier this week. We spoke with Yang (pictured, via) to learn his insights on diversity, collaboration, and mapping out a career in publishing. Here are the highlights…

Q: How did you land your first official book deal?
A: My very first book deal was for a two-issue comic book miniseries called Duncan’s Kingdom. It was written by me and drawn by the amazingly talented Derek Kirk Kim. It was published by Image Comics in the late 90’s. The story is now a part of The Eternal Smile, published by First Second Books.

A friend of ours named Jimmie Robinson was already published by Image. Jimmie has done several comics through the years, including Bomb Queen, Evil & Malice, and Five Weapons. He sent our submission directly to his editor. Throughout my cartooning career, friends have played key roles.

Q: How did you and Sonny come to collaborate together to revive The Green Turtle?
A: Sonny Liew and I first collaborated on a short story for an Asian American superhero anthology called Secret Identities. The book’s editors introduced us to each other, and together we did a riff on the Green Hornet and Kato. I enjoyed working with him so much that once The Shadow Hero got underway, I asked if we could work together again. He graciously agreed. Sonny is perfect for The Shadow Hero. His art style effortless blends the dramatic with the comedic, exactly what the story needs.

Q: Can you describe your research process for this project?
A: The main character of The Shadow Hero is a superhero called The Green Turtle. He is not our character. The Green Turtle was created in the 1940s by a Chinese American cartoonist named Chu Hing. Rumor is, Chu wanted his character to be a Chinese American but his publishers wouldn’t let him do it. He reacted very passive-aggressively. If you look at the original Green Turtle comics, the main character almost always has his back to the reader. Supposedly, Chu did this so that he, and his reader, could imagine the hero as he intended, as a Chinese American.

I began my research by reading Chu’s Green Turtle stories. They were the lead feature in a short-lived series called Blazing Comics. Like so many obscure superheroes from the 1940s, the Green Turtle is now in public domain. You can legally download scans of all the original comics from websites like The Digital Comics Museum.

Once our story began taking shape, I read a lot about early American Chinatowns. Even though our characters live in a fictional Chinatown, I wanted it to feel real. Sonny, too, did a lot of visual research on the Chinatowns in both New York and San Francisco.

Q: In some ways, this feels like an “adaptation” project. Can you discuss your thought process on what elements from the original Blazing Comics stories you kept and when you decided to use a creative license?
A: The original Green Turtle was only around for five issues of Blazing Comics. He wasn’t very popular. His adventures ended before we ever discover his secret identity or his secret origin.

That’s what The Shadow Hero is. Sonny and I construct a secret identity and secret origin for him. We had to make up a lot of it, since Chu never tells us anything about his hero’s past. We took the time period and the costume from Blazing Comics.

There’s a side character named Wun Too who shows up in our graphic novel. Everything else, though, from the Green Turtle’s secret identity to his supporting cast, we had to create.

Q: In the past, you have published books where you collaborated with an illustrator. You have also worked on books where you serve as both writer and artist (e.g. Boxers & Saints). Can you talk about the differences in the creation process?
A: When I write and draw my own comics, I have more control. Every panel can be composed exactly how I want it. Collaborations always blend two storytelling voices. The end product is often very different from what I had in mind when I was working on the script, but usually it’s better.

I’ve been very lucky. So far, I’ve only collaborated with creators who I deeply trust and admire. Sonny, as I’ve said, is the perfect artist for The Shadow Hero. Simply put, I could not have pulled off this book with my own art style.

Q: In your opinion, what’s the best way to self-edit?
A: I rely pretty heavily on feedback from my friends. I have a group of “beta readers” that I send my scripts out to. They give me great notes. I’m not sure how I would edit if it were just me. The voices in your head can trick you into thinking your stuff is much better – or much worse – than it actually is.

Q: How do you tackle writer’s block/artist’s block?
A: I take walks. I drink caffeinated beverages. But mostly, I write. I write horrible, amateurish, grammatically incorrect, barely comprehensible sentences. If I write enough of them, the decent sentences start coming out.

Q: What are your thoughts on the #WeNeedDiverseBooks social media campaign?
A: I agree – we need diverse books. We need to make them, buy them, read them, review them, talk about them. Our world is colorful, so our books should be too.

Q: Do you have any particular ideas about the need for more books that star Asian-American characters?
A: As an Asian American, I’m deeply thankful for books that star Asian American characters. Somebody much wiser than me once said that stories have to be both windows and mirrors – windows into the experiences of others, and mirrors that reflect our own experiences. I believe that. These days, there are many great Asian American creators telling stories with Asian American protagonists. In YA prose, David Yoo comes to mind. His books are hilarious. In comics, I would recommend Derek Kirk Kim’s Same Difference, Jason Shiga’s Meanwhile, and Belle Yang’s Forget Sorrow.

Q: Any predictions about the future of graphic novels?
A: Graphic novels have become an accepted part of the American literary landscape. They’re on the shelves of libraries, classrooms, and even newsrooms. Also, we’re seeing more and more books that blend formats. Brian Selznick’s Invention of Hugo Cabret, Kate DiCamillo’s Flora & Ulysses, Cecil Castellucci and Nate Powell’s The Year of the Beasts, the Wimpy Kid books – they all do this. I predict that we’ll see more in the coming years. We live in a multimedia world now. We’re used to seeing the visual and the textual side by side. It’s how modern humans communicate.

Q: You are both an educator and a writer/artist. What is your advice for people who may find themselves in a similar position of having to hold down a day job and who wish to work on their art?
A: Day jobs are common among authors and cartoonists. Books are a very, very difficult way to make money. If you want to make lots of money, go work at a bank. Stay away from writing and drawing.

If you want to make books, though, get a day job that you like, one that will leave you with enough energy to work on your own stuff. And get good at time management. Time management is key. Cut out as much TV as you can. Set a regular schedule for yourself. Wake up early and go to sleep late. Get your book done.

Q: What’s next for you?
A: Two more Avatar: The Last Airbender graphic novels will be published this year. I’m part of the writing team on these. The art is done by Gurihiru, a wonderful art studio based in Japan.

I’m also working on a middle grade graphic novel series about computer programming. This is still in the early stages—I don’t even have a title to give you yet.