Interview with Gene Yang: The Man Behind the Genius

By: Katie Quan.

Gene Luen Yang is an award- winning cartoonist. Best known for work like American Born Chinese, The Eternal Smile, Avatar: The Last Airbender comics, and New Super-Man. Yang was selected as a MacArthur Fellow and served as a National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. He is currently on the board of directors for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. His newest graphic novel, Superman Smashes the Klan, is smashing expectations and our understanding of Clark Kent’s story.

Katie: Let’s start with a check-in. We are currently in unprecedented times. How’s everything been for you during COVID? 

Gene: In some ways, my family’s been really lucky – we’ve all been healthy. My wife and four kids (ages 8-16) are now all at home; it’s not big, but it’s definitely not small. I can work from home, which has been a blessing, but it’s still not easy. The divide between family and work is no longer there. It’s been harder to concentrate on work when you can be with family. There’s been some good things about quarantine though! We’ve been watching silly TV shows as a family – that’s not something we used to do. I don’t have to commute anymore. We save a lot of time from not being in the car. We’ve been very, very fortunate with how things have panned out.

Katie: I know that you were a teacher before your cartooning career. As a teacher myself, I’m curious to know what you were like as a high school teacher!

Gene: I taught as a high school teacher for seventeen years before becoming a full-time cartoonist only five years ago. In the beginning, I had a really hard time with classroom management and then I slowly got meaner as the years went on. I was a computer science teacher, so I had a lot of the nerdy kids or even kids who didn’t necessarily seem nerdy but were actually interested in nerdy things. I had a lot of fun as a high school teacher. I taught a computer art class with a colleague from the art department and did a unit on comics. I also used comics in an Algebra II class that I taught. I would make these lectures in comic format whenever I couldn’t be there and the substitute would just pass them around.

Katie: Fast forward a few years, you now have over fifteen (15) graphic novels under your belt. With the release of Superman Smashes the Klan, Superman or Clark Kent has historically been seen as this all-American hero. When did you realize that Superman’s story was actually an immigrant story as well? 

Gene: Before him, the superhero genre wasn’t really a genre. There’s some argument about that but that’s the line that I take. Superman is the first superhero when he debuted in 1938. He established a lot of the conventions that we now associate with the superhero genre. All the comic book superheroes that came after him (Spiderman, Batman, Hulk, etc.) borrowed elements of his story.

When I was a kid, I was not a big superhero or Superman fan. I thought all the other superheroes were cooler, but as I got older, it just became clear to me that Superman’s story is just rooted in the immigrant experience. As the child of immigrants, this idea of having to navigate two cultures, like having parents speak to you in another language while being someone else at work, all just felt really familiar to me.

I think it’s rooted in the experience of Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, the creators of Superman. They, too, are the children of Jewish immigrants from Europe. American Jews are way more accepted now than they were in ‘30s. In 1930, it was really rough – especially in Cleveland where Siegel and Schuster grew up. It was not uncommon to see these signs on businesses that said Help Wanted, Jews Not Apply. I think in a lot of ways, Superman just draws on all of them. There’s a lot of overlap between different immigrant experiences in America, regardless of point of origin.

Image from Superman Smashes the Klan,courtesy of DC Comics.

Katie: The story centers around a Chinese American family, but the original story came out in 1946. Seeing as the Chinese Exclusion Act was really enforced from 1882 to 1943, why do you think 1946 was a good time to introduce a Chinese American family? What sort of impact did it have?

Gene: I was curious about that. Superman Smashes the Klan is an adaptation of this old storyline from the Superman radio show when it debuted in 1946. It was right after WWII ended. I first read about it in a book, Freakonomics. It’s a bestseller nonfiction where a reporter and an economist look at all these different aspects of American life and look at it through the lens of economics. They devoted an entire chapter to this one storyline called Klan of the Fire Cross. In his radio show, Superman takes on the DC universe version of the Ku Klux Klan and the storyline had a real-world effect. It was this massive PR blow against the real-life Ku Klux Klan after Superman fought them on the radio. Nobody wanted to join the Klan anymore and their membership just took this huge hit. At the center of the story is a Chinese American family.

When I first read about that, I was surprised in a really happy way. I’ve been reading superhero comics and Superman comics since I was a kid. I just don’t remember seeing that many Chinese characters and to find out there was this Chinese American family who dates back to 1946 just seemed really extraordinary. I was also curious to see why they chose to make that family Chinese American. If you’re going to choose the Klan as the villain, from what I knew about history, Chinese Americans didn’t seem like an obvious choice. It seemed that you would choose a Black family or maybe even a Jewish family.

But when I looked into it, there was a lot of stuff that was left out of my high school history class. The Klan got started the same year that the Civil War ended and began as an anti-Black group. It was primarily a bunch of Southern white supremacists who were freaked out that these newly freed African Americans would be asking for equal rights and equal treatment – ultimately asking to be treated like human beings. Within three years, the newspapers all over America started writing about the Klan. White supremacists on the West Coast read these articles and felt inspired so they began to plan. Back in the 1800s, there weren’t a lot of African Americans, so their primary targets were Chinese immigrants at the end of the Civil War.

Chinese immigrants were not allowed citizenship. White supremacists were freaked out if African Americans were given equal rights in the South, Chinese immigrants would start asking for the same things in the West. The Klan adopted the same costume, the same methods like burning churches and lynching. All that stuff happened on the West Coast. I didn’t know any of that.

The bigger reason though is that right at the beginning of World War II, there was this huge divergence in the way African Americans and Chinese Americans were treated. Up until WWII, Chinese Americans were seen as genetically prone to crime. There was a stereotype that if you wanted to buy drugs or get mugged, you’d go to Chinatown to do it. We weren’t the “model minority.” Then, Pearl Harbor happens and the story around Chinese Americans completely flips. We go from being genetically criminal to being these loyal hardworking potential American citizens because America needed China’s help in the empire. Our story shifts overnight – and the same goes African Americans. However, Chinese Americans were able to take advantage of the GI bill and move into previously white suburbs. Due to divisive policies, African Americans weren’t able to do so. I have a friend whose parents were children when that happened at the end of WWII. They were one of those Chinese that moved into a white neighborhood and as adults, they found out that this neighbor of theirs, who had been friendly to them their entire lives, actually had started a petition before they moved in to keep the Chinese out. They were able to make that move – it wasn’t an easy one though.

At the core of Superman’s character is this belief in the goodness of human beings. That’s why he doesn’t fall into the dark paths that some of his fellow superheroes fall into. I think of him as always on the side of the underdog. He’s like this weird character who is the most powerful being on the planet, but at the same time, he really identifies with the outsider and with people who don’t have power. There’s a great issue of comics by Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder where he actually joins a protest, carrying this giant chain, and using it to protect the protesters. I think it’s very much in his character.

Gene Yang’s two-volume companion graphic novel Boxers and Saints was released in 2013.

Katie: You’ve now worked with two Supermen, Kenan Kong and iconic Clark Kent. There are so many superheroes that are probably clamoring for your attention- who would you like to write about next?

Gene: I just started working for Marvel very recently and so I’m working on a Shang-Chi comic for them. It isn’t out, but the first issue should be set for September. When I was collecting comics as a kid, he was the one that I wanted to stay away from as much as possible. I didn’t want to be the Chinese kid reading the book about the Chinese superhero. When we were in high school, they were not as culturally sensitive or accurate. At its core, it was very sincere, but it was obviously much harder to do homework before the internet. By large, I’ve been having a blast working on him. It’s been almost an all Asian creative team and we’ve been able to infuse him with a certain amount of humanity.

I’ve always liked Nightcrawler on the Marvel side… and Jubilee, of course. Jubilee is a Chinese American X-Men and she feels like somebody I would have gone to high school with, you know. She just felt like if she were real, we would be friends and hanging out.

Katie: You’ve worked on Avatar: The Last Airbender comic series. What tribe do you resonate with and would you be a bender or not? 

Gene: [Laughs] I resonate most with the Earth kingdom. I don’t know, I would hope to be a bender! Who would say they wouldn’t want to be a bender? [Laughs] I hope I would be a bender! I do think Bai Sing Say is specifically very Chinese, more influenced from the turn of the century. The Kyoshi warriors pulls from mainly Japanese culture. My wife would say that I’m stubborn.

Katie: What advice would you give to aspiring storytellers? 

Gene: You just have to set aside time and practice. Every day would be best, but even every week – just write. It’s just about holding that commitment. I think that’s the biggest piece of advice I would give to anyone.

Katie: Your work advocates for others all the time. How can artists be better allies for other communities? 

Gene: This is something that I’ve definitely struggled with. I think in very obvious ways, advocacy comes in promoting other people’s stories. If you’ve read a book or watched a movie about someone who’s not like you and it’s touched you in some way, make sure that word gets out about it. Also, write characters that are not like yourself. I am definitely not against that, but when you do write outside of your own experiences, you have to have a level of humility and willingness to do homework so you can get things right. Maybe even have a beta reader on your side who’s part of that community. Telling stories from a humble place and learning new perspectives is important.

Katie: Again, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with East Wind Ezine – it’s been fun learning more about your journey, Superman’s origins, and advocacy. We look forward to seeing more of your work!

Interviewer’s Bio:

Born and raised in San Francisco, Katie Quan (she/her) is a third generation Chinese American. She is the creator of GenerAsian, an illustration-based web series. Her work has been exhibited in Overachievers Magazine, SF Zinefest, Kearny Street Workshop, Asian American Women’s Artist Association, and Chinese Historical Society of America. Her newest creative platform, This Asian American Life  aims to give voice and cultural identity to emerging artists.

Katie studied at Ithaca College in Writing and Culture & Communications and San Francisco State University in Asian American Studies (MA). She currently teaches at City College of San Francisco and San Francisco State University.

See her recent East Wind ezine review of Superman Smashes the KlanGene Yang’s Superman Smashes Expectations…Again

Cover image: Katie Quan’s rendition of the Zoomversation between Gene and Katie.

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