DRAW­ING ON DI­VER­SITY

Writer and car­toon­ist Gene Luen Yang ex­plains to Dave Itzkoff what led him to cre­ate a Chi­nese Su­per-Man

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile -

What got you into col­lect­ing — and then cre­at­ing — comics?

The first comic book I ever read was DC Comics Presents No 57, and it had Su­per­man and the Atomic Knights in it. Pretty soon af­ter, I started mak­ing my own comics. Nowa­days any kid can make any­thing — movies or mu­sic — but back then, it seemed like there was such a low bar of en­try into this way of telling sto­ries. Were you a DC Comics kid or a Marvel kid? Def­i­nitely Marvel. Even though my first comic was Su­per­man, I thought the DC uni­verse was kind of stupid. I re­mem­ber learn­ing that there was a char­ac­ter named Aqualad, and I was like, ugh, that is not for me.

WE NEED NEW CHAR­AC­TERS CRE­AT­ING NEW LEGA­CIES

Did your par­ents con­sider your in­ter­est in comic books re­spectable? No. My friends and I would get our par­ents to drop us off at the lo­cal li­brary, wait un­til they drove away, then sneak out of the li­brary and walk to our comic-book store.

Did you feel a sense of con­nec­tion to those char­ac­ters, even though a ma­jor­ity were white?

There was a lot of over­lap between my ex­pe­ri­ences grow­ing up and the su­per­hero genre — the genre was es­tab­lished by chil­dren of Jewish im­mi­grants, grow­ing up in New York and Cleve­land. A lot of su­per­hero sto­ries are about be­ing out­siders. Su­per­man is lit­er­ally an alien and an im­mi­grant. And a lot of the su­per­hero genre is about ne­go­ti­at­ing between two iden­ti­ties, which re­ally mir­rored my own life. I used one name at home, an­other one at school, had one lan­guage at home, an­other one at school. Some­thing about those char­ac­ters still res­onated. Your graphic novel Amer­i­can Born Chi­nese was a fi­nal­ist for the Na­tional Book Award for Young Peo­ple’s Lit­er­a­ture. Did that achieve­ment per­suade your fam­ily to take your comics ca­reer se­ri­ously? My dad stopped send­ing me want ads.

You are now the au­thor of New Su­per-Man, a series about a Chi­nese teenager who be­comes a cos­tumed hero. These days there’s in­evitably a back­lash from a sub­set of the fan base whenever a fa­mil­iar char­ac­ter gets re­made with a dif­fer­ent gen­der, race or eth­nic­ity. What do you make of these re­ac­tions?

In a sense, I un­der­stand it. So much of the monthly su­per­hero mar­ket is driven by nos­tal­gia. But at the same time, we live in a world that’s very dif­fer­ent than the one we grew up in. The larger read­er­ship wants our sto­ries to re­flect what Amer­ica is today. If we care about di­ver­sity and rep­re­sen­ta­tion, then the ap­proach we need is twopronged: we need new char­ac­ters es­tab­lish­ing new lega­cies, and we also need char­ac­ters that use a pre-ex­ist­ing legacy to at­tract eye­balls. Ul­ti­mately, what you do is never go­ing to please 100 per cent of the au­di­ence. I do think if you tell a great story, maybe you’ll get some of them to switch over. Where did that idea come from? It was not my idea; DC pitched it to me, and I re­ally didn’t want to do it. Mostly I was re­ally scared be­cause of the cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal land­mines that I felt were in­her­ent in that idea. My fa­ther is from Tai­wan, my mother is from main­land China, and as an adult, I’ve had to learn that the China that I grew up hear­ing about is very dif­fer­ent from what mod­ern China is today. Su­per­man is sup­posed to be about truth, jus­tice and the Amer­i­can way — what does that even mean in mod­ern China? It felt like there were so many con­tra­dic­tions and so many potential haz­ards. But you just have to run di­rectly at what you’re scared of, es­pe­cially as a writer.

You were re­cently named a fel­low of the John D. and Cather­ine T. MacArthur Foun­da­tion — some­times known as a ge­nius grant — which comes with an award of $US625,000 over five years. Sorry to be gauche, but what do you do with the money?

Par­tially, it’ll go to sup­port­ing young peo­ple’s lit­er­a­ture. My wife and I have four kids, so a good chunk of it is go­ing to go in a col­lege fund. If I didn’t have kids, I’d buy a Bat­mo­bile or some­thing.

Gene Luen Yang and, left, an ex­am­ple of his re­cent cre­ation for DC Comics

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