American Born Comics: An Interview with Gene Yang

Gene Yang has been doing intensely personal, if not strictly autobiographical, comics for years now—with his Gordon Yamamoto stories, his Loylola Chin stories, and especially American Born Chinese, all appearing in Modern Tales (and Gordeon Yamamoto and the King of the Geeks has been published as a graphic novel).

He was kind enough to grant us an interview and talk about the many aspects of his work.

1. Unlike a lot of webcomics authors, you're not afraid to put your philosophy, and thoughts about religion, into your work. Or mixing Eastern myths about the Monkey King with western legendry and religion. Is it hard, or easy, to write about something so personal in a mass media?

I don't know if I'm all that unique in putting my own thoughts on religion in my comics. Other comic book artists have done it- Craig Thompson in Blankets, Derek Kirk Kim in The Shaft, Chester Brown in The Playboy, and Jesse Hamm in a number of his works. I guess I'm unique in that I subscribe to a traditional, organized religion. I don't have any statistics to back this up, but it seems that the comics community is largely agnostic or atheist. Of the creators I just listed, only Jesse Hamm is religious in the traditional sense of the word.

As for dealing with personal subject matter in comics, I don't think it's hard at all. In fact, I think the medium demands it. Comics is the only visual storytelling medium that can be effectively created by a single person. In my opinion, that's its greatest strength. Reading a comic can be like reading someone's diary; every stroke, every letter, every spot of black can come from a single mind, a single soul. Film and animation can't even approach that kind of intimacy.

Getting personal is also the solution to a creative problem I had early on. I minored in Creative Writing in college. In my writing classes, I constantly struggled with the difficulty of writing about faith without getting preachy. I wrote a piece in the very first writing class I ever took that was just
destroyed by my professor. He said it felt like a sermon. Finally during my senior year, another of my professors, a Catholic turned Buddhist, gave me the key. She told me to bare my soul on the page, and not to worry about hitting the points of some preset agenda. If my faith really was a deep part of me, something woven into the fabric of my identity, it would come out without being forced out. And if it wasn't a deep part of me, then who am I to write about it?

2. What's your background? I know you're a computer science teacher in Oakland, and that you won the Xeric grant in 1997. What else can you tell us?

I've spent my whole life within an hour's radius of where I live now (Fremont, California). I was born in Fremont, grew up in the San Jose area, went to U.C. Berkeley for college, and lived in Oakland until last December, when my wife and I moved back to Fremont. That's about when my son was born. My father-in-law says I'm like one of those salmon that returns to its birthplace to spawn.

I started reading comics in the fifth grade, and drawing them shortly after. A friend named Jeremy Kuniyoshi got me into the habit. We used to create comics together. I'd pencil them and he'd ink. He's a doctor now and I'm still doing funnybooks.

After graduating college, I worked as a software developer for a couple of years. I went on this religious retreat with some friends, and decided I felt a calling towards comics. About a year later I went on another retreat and decided I felt a calling towards teaching too. I've been doing both ever since. Those two stupid retreats thinned my wallet considerably.

3. What artists do you admire, and have influenced you the most?

When I was a kid, I dreamed of being a Disney animator, so that classic Disney style has always had an influence on my art. That dream shattered when I took an animation class in college and realized I didn’t want to draw a character sixteen million times just to get him to cross the street. What I’m interested in is story, and comics is just a much better medium for me to pursue that. There’s no way an animated film could ever handle something truly epic and/or complex like Bone or Maus.

Those two artists – Jeff Smith and Art Spiegelman –had huge influences on me as well. Both are prime examples of how the art of a comic must serve the story. When I first stumbled across Maus I was maybe a freshman in high school. I couldn’t get myself to read it because the art was so “bad,” so I picked up the latest McFarlane Spider-man instead. It was only
later when I actually sat down and read both Maus volumes from cover to cover that I realized how effective Spiegelman’s art style is. The books look like something that might’ve been smuggled out of a concentration camp. The rough line work adds to the urgency of the story; it makes the action in the panels utterly engrossing.

I’ve always been drawn to artists whose styles are simpler, more "animation-looking" like Smith, Mike Parobeck, Osamu Tezuka, and Bruce Timm. Chester Brown, Seth, and Joe Matt are amazing comic book artists, too, though I’m not as familiar with their work.

Beyond that, I’m deeply influenced by my crew of artist friends. Derek Kirk Kim, Jesse Hamm, Lark Pien, Jason Shiga, and I met each other when we were all first starting off in comics. They’re among my closest friends in the comics community, and ridiculously talented to boot. I’m very lucky to be friends with them. I’m sure I’ve been influenced by them in more ways than I can count just from reading their work and getting critiqued by them.

4. What writers do you admire, and have influenced you the most?

The single comic book that most influenced my comics writing is Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. When I read that, it was like a bomb went off in my head. I ran downstairs to talk to my roommates about it, none of whom were really into comics. They thought I’d gone wacky. I started thinking in panels after that.

I’ve always been into stories with an "epic-ness" to them. Jeff Smith, Craig Thompson, Chester Brown, and Osamu Tezuka all excel at this. Miyazake, too… I wish he’d done more comics work. So do Carl Barks and Don Rosa. I love Uncle Scrooge. I almost peed my pants when I heard the Duck Tales cartoon was coming out. Even though it didn’t turn out to be nearly as good as Barks’ original comics, I’m still hoping they’ll collect it all on DVD.

In the prose world I enjoy C.S.Lewis, Richard Wright, Michael Chabon, and Shusaku Endo, among others.

5. Most of your stuff isn't strictly autobiographical, just American Born Chinese, and that for only one-third of it, but I get the feeling that all your writings draw a lot from within. That if it isn't literal autobiography, many times it's metaphorical autobiography. What's more satisfying to you—fiction with such metaphors, or strict autobiography?

Even the Jin story line in American Born Chinese isn't strictly autobiographical. Unlike Jin, I had white friends in grade school. I basically took the virulent, blatant racism I experienced in junior high and stretched it out a bit, so that Jin begins to experience it in the third grade. I heard "me go pee pee in your Coke" jokes in grade school, but they didn't yet have the meanness behind them that I depict in ABC.

You're right about my comics drawing from within. I've tried both writing from my head and writing from my heart, and I've found that writing from my heart works much better. I hate it when people say vague, ethereal crap like that without explaining what it means in practical terms, so I'm going to explain it now:

When I write from my head, I start with a point I'm trying to get across. I structure my characters and plot to fit around that point. Some characters are there to act as advocates of the point, others are there to argue against it. The events of the plot eventually prove the point to be true, and I wrap it up and call it a story. Usually, the story sucks.

When I write from my heart, I start with an image, a phrase, or a thought that catches me off-guard. Something that intrigues me, that I'll want to think about. I'll mull it over when I'm about to fall asleep at night, when I'm driving in the car, when I'm waiting for some software to install on a computer at school. Slowly, over days or weeks or months a story will build around it. At some point, it'll be bulky and awkward enough that my brain will have to step in and impose some sort of structure on it, but by then it's developed into something that can hold my attention, something that doesn't suck. Or at least not as much.

Now getting back to your question, stories written from the heart are inevitably autobiographical on some level. This is because of their genesis; the image, phrase or thought that initially catches me off-guard usually does so because it has something to do with me. Human beings are innately self-centered creatures. We love looking into the mirror.

I definitely prefer metaphorical fiction over strict autobiography. I'm not sure why. Sometimes I think it's because metaphors allow you a bit more freedom than reality does, and that freedom lets you make truth even truer. Other times I think it's because I'm too chicken to attempt strict autobiography.

6. Have you gotten many angry letters over Chink-kee, the Chinese stereotype in AMERICAN BORN CHINESE?

I don’t think any of the e-mails (they were all e-mails – who gets letters these days?) were angry. I did get a lot of confused e-mails. Most of them asked either “Why are you doing this?” or “Am I allowed to laugh?” I did get two or three that said it was the funniest thing they’d read in a long time. Those disturbed me.

7. You have a strong bent for instructional comics—from the "factoring" comic you did to retelling the myth of the Monkey King in AMERICAN BORN CHINESE. Since you're a teacher, do you feel a need to instruct as well as entertain?

I think really engaging entertainment, entertainment that grabs you by the entrails, instructs. It tells you something about the world or yourself that you didn’t know already, or at least weren’t consciously aware of. The factoring comic is the only comic I did where I tried to instruct first, and then entertain. With my other stuff, I try to entertain first. Everything else is just a side effect. Actually,entertain probably isn’t the right word- I try to engage.

8. Which of your comics is your favorite—and why? Which is your favorite character—and why?

My favorite comic of mine is – and hopefully always will be – the current one I’m working on. I’m just finishing up Chapter 7 of ABC, so it’s my favorite for now. Why? Because I have to be in love with it in order to get myself to work on it. Comics is demanding, backbreaking work, sort of like raising a kid. You have to look at your comic (and your kid–except for my kid, who really is the most awesome kid alive) through rose-tinted glasses just so you won’t be scared off by the blood, sweat, and tears involved.

9. What webcomics do you read and admire? What do you see for the future of webcomics?

I read Derek Kirk Kim’s stuff, of course. Anything that Drew Weing puts out I find simply astonishing. I really like James Kolchalka’s American Elf. Nobody really talks about it, but I loved Scott McCloud’s Online Zot at Comic Book Resources a few years back. I loved Chris Shadoian’s Streets Of Northampton too, but that’s been on hiatus forever.

I think the webcomics medium is going in a great direction. I’m very excited about all of the projects Joey Manley has in the works, including (and maybe especially) I’m also encouraged by the fact that an elite few are actually making a living at this. Scott Kurtz and the Penny Arcade folk come to mind. I bet Shaenon Garrity (whose strip is hilarious) is getting really close, too.

In the future I hope that webcomics will play the role that the big, disposable, phone-book-looking comics magazines play in the Japanese comics market. Webcomics will serve as a way of exposing the masses to a vast array of comics for little or no money. The good and/or popular ones will then be collected into physical graphic novels and sold through book and comic book stores.

10. What are your future plans? I know there's a lot more to go on AMERICAN BORN CHINESE. What else are you planning? Any more in the Gordon/Loyola series?

Gordon Yamamoto and the King of the Geeks graphic novel was published by Slave Labor Graphics under their Amaze Ink imprint this past May. They’re publishing the Loyola Chin and the San Peligran Order graphic novel this coming December. I did ten new pages of story for that, plus a sketchbook section.

I have two more chapters to finish for American Born Chinese. With a full-time teaching job and a family, I probably won’t be able to wrap everything up until the end of Summer 2005. I hope to publish the whole thing as a graphic novel when it’s done.

After that, I’m not sure. I do have another story set in the Gordon/Loyola world kicking around inside my head, but it isn’t formed enough to come out, and I’m not sure it ever will be. I have a couple other ideas that deal with the tension between the Asian and Christian cultures… I’ll just have to wait until I have some time to mull everything over and see what comes of it.

Al Schroeder is a Executive Editor for Comixpedia. More Details.

Xaviar Xerexes

Wandering webcomic ronin. Created Comixpedia (2002-2005) and ComixTalk (2006-2012; 2016-?). Made a lot of unfinished comics and novels.

One Comment

  1. > I’m also encouraged by the fact that an elite few are actually making a living at this.
    >Scott Kurtz and the Penny Arcade folk come to mind. I bet Shaenon Garrity (whose strip
    >is hilarious) is getting really close, too.


    That Gene, what a kidder.

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