Gene Yang began
drawing comic books in the fifth grade. In 1997, he received the Xeric
Grant, a prestigious comics industry grant, for Gordon Yamamoto and the
King of the Geeks, his first comics work as an adult. He has since
written and drawn a number of titles, including Duncan’s Kingdom (with
art by Derek Kirk Kim) and The Rosary Comic Book. He lives in the San
Francisco Bay Area with his lovely wife, Theresa, and son, Kolbe, and
teaches computer science at a Roman Catholic high school.
Gene Yang– Thank you.
Sandbox World- What was the first comic you read that had an impact on you and which is a Rosebud of sorts to you?
Gene Yang- I was in high school in the 80′s when Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen and Maus
came out. All three of those books expanded what I thought comics could
do,as they did for many other people. I also loved the old Kitchen Sink reprints of the Spirit and the UncleScrooge stories by Carl Barks and Don Rosa. In college I read Scott McCloud’s UnderstandingComics, which really convinced me on a theoretical level of the power of comics. When I read Jason Lutes’ Jar of Fools, I saw that power in action.
Sandbox World- Do you read Adrian Tomine? Has he an influence in your work or any other Asian artist?
He’s a brilliant storyteller who really knows how to punch you in the
stomach with his comics, but in a subtle way. Like a ninja. I deeply
respect his work. I don’t know if he’s had direct influence on my work,
though. Our styles, both art and writing, are just so different. I’ve
been heavily influenced by the Asian-American crew of comics creators
that I run with: Derek Kirk Kim, Jason Shiga, Lark Pien. Jesse Hamm, who
is not Asian at all but still awesome, is another personal friend who’s
really influenced my comics. As for Asian artists who I don’t know
personally, I’d have to say Osamu Tezuka. I am constantly blown away by what he can achieve through his comics.
Sandbox World– Would you consider the Monkey King as one of the first super-heroes?
I don’t know… it depends on how you define superhero. There are
definitely a lot of similarities between the Monkey King and the modern
American superhero. But every ancient culture had its heroes: Greece had
Hercules, Israel had Samson, and India had Hanuman, who many say is a
precursor to the Monkey King. I think it’s in our blood to create heroic
literature. Heroic literature is an expression of our ideals – it keeps
us going, gives us something to shoot for.
Gene Yang– I sketch with a blue pencil and
draw with whatever #2 pencil I can find. I ink most of the page with
either Winsor-Newton Series 7 #1 brush or a Japanese brush pen. I finish
up the inks with pigmas or sharpies or whatever is handy. I do all this
on vellum, which allows me to do my pencils on one side and inks on
another. Afterwards, I scan it into Photoshop and clean it up there. I
also do my lettering in Photoshop.
Sandbox World- Why do you think there are less kids reading comics and what will bring them back?
Gene Yang– Well, I don’t have the numbers
in front of me, but I think there are a lot of kids reading comics these
days. The graphic novel section of our local bookstore is constantly
filled with kids. They just aren’t reading the same kinds of comics as
we read when we were kids. Part of the problem, I think, is that the
story lines of American superhero comics have just gotten too
convoluted. It really is impossible for new readers to just jump in.
Manga really brought kids back to comics. Manga stories are often
ridiculously long, too, but there’s an ending at least. They seem more
manageable. Plus the fact that a single creator almost always sees the
story through from beginning to end gives manga stories a cohesiveness
that’s often missing from American comics.
Sandbox World- Which graphic novel has made the biggest dent in the industry?
Gene Yang– Oof. There are so many ways to
answer that question. In terms of raising the literary bar, of
convincing the world that comics is a serious medium worthy of
attention, it’d have to be Art Spiegelman’s Maus. I mean, it won a Pulitzer!
Sandbox World- Who would you like to meet in the comic industry, and who would you like to work with?
some point. We’re both very interested in comics as applied to
education. Many of the people I’ve long admired I’ve met already at
conventions and things. That’s one of the benefits of being a part of
the comics industry. There isn’t all that much that separates a fan from
a creator. As for who I’d like to work with… Comics is an intensely
personal medium. I have a hard time imagining working with someone I
didn’t know personally beforehand. The collaborations I’m interested in
are all with personal friends.
Sandbox World- How deep are your Christan believes
embedded in Asian mythos in your story? Is there a conflict between both
or a marriage between both?
Gene Yang– With the Monkey King portions
of my book, I replaced the Buddhist elements with Christian ones. I
wanted it to be an Asian-American expression of the story, so I wanted
to combine Eastern and Western mythologies (though as a Catholic I
believe that the Christian story is more than a mythology). I was
conflicted about it when I wrote and drew it, and in some ways I’m still
conflicted about it. I think that conflict mirrors the conflict I feel
about being both Asian and American. Whether it works well in the
context of my graphic novel is up to the reader to decide.
Sandbox World- How much of an influence did alienation play a role in your life?
minority. I have a friend who’s white who grew up in a predominantly
Asian-American community in Hawaii. The issues we struggled with are
very similar. We grew up wishing – or at least wondering – what it would
be like to be someone else.
Sandbox World– Why is there in your opinion a negative reaction for your nomination for your book by some in the Internet community?
Gene Yang– Well, I responded twice – first to Wired Magazine’s Tony Long and
then to the Wall Street Journal. Overall, I think it’s a good thing for
comics. At the very least, there’s a debate about the literary worth of
comics now. It’s no longer an assumption of the public that comics are
only for the semi-literate. There are educators and librarians on both
sides of the debate. And really, most of the educators and librarians
are with us.
Sandbox World- Is the manga craze big in your neck
of the woods? Seems like many non Asian contributions are appearing and
diluting the true manga. Are you a fan?
Gene Yang– Yes, manga is big. When I first
started teaching almost ten years ago, none of my students read manga.
Nowadays I see students swapping graphic novels all the time, and most
of the volumes they’re pulling out of their backpacks are manga. I think
it’s a good thing. I don’t know what the definition of “true manga” is.
When American artist Paul Pope was doing work for a large Japanese
publisher, was that considered manga? Does a creator have to be
ethnically Japanese in order to create “true manga”? It seems somewhat
arbitrary. I think globalization is changing comics. There’s a lot of
cross-pollination between the three major comics industries (American,
Japanese, European) now, and I think we’ll see more and more artists
influences heavily by all three. Sort of like Paul Pope. As for me, I
hated manga and anime when I was young. I was a big fan of Disney
animation, and anime in the 80′s just didn’t have the sophistication of
movement that classic Disney animation had, though clearly it was more
sophisticated in many other ways. I also couldn’t get into the
storylines. I’d get into these arguments with a manga-fan friend of mine
about the sizes of the eyes and such. In college, though, I discovered
Osamu Tezuka and Hayao Miyazaki, and that changed everything. I still
don’t read a lot of manga, but I love the works of specific artists,
like Tezuka and Miyazaki.
Sandbox World- What are your plans for your next project?
Gene Yang– I’m working on a graphic novel with Thien Pham,
a fellow Bay Area cartoonist who does a strip in the East Bay Express
called “I Like Eating.” Our graphic novel is called Three Angels, and
it’s about a video game addict who is asked by three angels to go to
medical school. We’re exploring the tension between passion and destiny.
It’ll be out from First Second Books in 2008.
Sandbox World- From left field, Mojo Jojo or Monkey Boy “Frank Cho”, who would Monkey King be friends with?
Gene Yang– Neither. He prefers the company of pigs, monks, and sand demons.