UPDATE 9/22/2016: Mike Roe is prescient! Gene Luen Yang just won a $625,000 MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant because his "work for young adults demonstrates the potential of comics to broaden our understanding of diverse cultures and people." Here's the video from the foundation's website.
Gene Luen Yang is a graphic novelist making a big impact on kids. He was named the national ambassador for young people's literature by the Library of Congress and has gone from being a computer science teacher to a comic book writer. He also recently transitioned from longer-form graphic novels to monthly serialized comics.
His latest — DC Comics' "New Super-Man" — tells the story of the teenage Kenan Kong, who becomes China's Superman, a superhero with a mean streak. The story, with art by Victor Bogdanovic, combines western and eastern influences, mixing the story of Clark Kent with the ancient Chinese tale of the Monkey King.
Learning to write monthly comics
While Yang comes with major comic cred, it's been a bumpy road to learning the form of traditional superhero comics. His first major DC project was writing their main "Superman" book.
"I did a 10-issue run on regular 'Superman,' and I was just on a steep learning curve," Yang says. "It was really difficult to come from the world of graphic novels, where there was no page limit, to writing in these 22-page chunks."
Yang says DC stood behind him during the transition.
"I come from the world of young adult graphic novels, and what DC has allowed me to do with this new book is to kind of get back to a voice that feels a little bit more native to me."
Clark Kent: Super bully
"New Super-Man" protagonist Kenan Kong is less of a traditional superhero than his namesake, but Yang says the inspiration goes back to the very beginning of the character.
"If you look at early Clark Kent stories from the late 1930s, early 1940s, Superman started off as kind of a bully. He was kind of a jerk, he was kind of full of himself, and then eventually, as the decades go on, he develops into this moral compass that we all know today."
Yang says incorporating those early traits of Superman gives the story resonance — then Yang adds elements from the ancient Chinese story "Journey to the West."
"The Monkey King also has a similar story arc," Yang says. "He starts off as a bully and he has this process of enlightenment where he arrives at a more selfless character. So by doing this with Kenan Kong, we are referencing both an American story — the story of Clark Kent — and a very Chinese story."
The Asian-American pop culture moment
Asian-American stories have taken on more prominence lately, with TV series "Fresh Off The Boat" leading the way. Stories that come out of Asian-American culture fit well with the increasing diversity in society, Yang says.
"It's rare now that you go through your entire life just with people who look like you or live like you," he says. "You meet people at school, you meet people at work that are completely different from you."
One piece of culture that Yang brings to "New Super-Man" is deep Chinese symbolism, starting with a red uniform.
"A Chinese Superman has to be red, because red is the character with the most cultural currency, and the most cultural meaning for Chinese. It's the color of joy, it's the color of strength, it's the color of virtue," Yang says. "The other piece of symbolism on his costume is the octagon around his chest. Now the octagon is actually a reference to 'bagua,' which is a Taoist concept, and it's fundamental to a Chinese view of the universe. Taoist concepts will play a vital role in this character's journey."
Chinese versions of Batman's and Wonder Woman's uniforms in Yang's comic also incorporate strong color motifs. Yang says he hopes the symbolism will bring something to the story and play to a wider audience.
The next generation
As the national ambassador for young people's literature, Yang has been trying to engage kids with reading. Along with the rest of the comics in DC's "Rebirth" line, Yang offered his endorsements of these graphic novels to pull in young adult readers:
- Anything by Raina Telgemeier (best known for "Smile")
- "Meanwhile" by Jason Shiga, which Yang describes as a Choose Your Own Adventure graphic novel
- "Amulet" by Kazu Kibuishi
"All of these are on-ramps into not just storytelling, but into the habit of reading," Yang says.
If you want your on-ramp to be "New Super-Man," the first two issues are in stores now.
An alternate cover for DC Comics' "New Super-Man #1."
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.