Gene Luen Yang has been introducing young adult readers to the spectrum of Chinese culture throughout his history as an acclaimed comic writer and artist. His first graphic novel, American Born Chinese (2006), presents a touching trifecta of stories merging mythology and coming-of-age reflection. Published by First Second Books, the book was nominated for a National Book Award and won the Eisner Award for Best Graphic Album. More recently, Yang’s two-volume historical graphic novel, Boxers & Saints, explored both sides of China’s Boxer Rebellion and ended up on a plethora of best-of-the-year lists. The epic won the Los Angeles Times’ Book Prize for young adult literature and scored Yang his second National Book Award nomination.
Yang’s latest graphic novel, The Shadow Hero, reinvents a forgotten Golden Age superhero, the Green Turtle, with the author’s trademark humor and humanity intact. Paste chatted with Yang about his inspiration to channel a public-domain character, his brand new educational project and exploring the intricacies of the Tiger Mom.
Paste: Let’s start with the origin: what was the original inspiration for The Shadow Hero?
Yang: It started with Derek Kirk Kim, actually. Derek emailed me and pointed out a link that Tom Spurgeon had up on The Comics Reporter — a link to another blog. So I went from an email to a blog to a blog. The blog is called Pappy’s Golden Age Comics Blogzine. They put up features about Golden Age heroes from time to time, and the one Derek linked to was about the Green Turtle. On Pappy’s Blogzine, they described the rumor surrounding this character.
The Green Turtle was created in the 1940s by an artist named Chu Hing, who’s not famous at all — nobody’s ever heard of him — although he did do some work for Marvel. So Chu Hing creates this character, and the rumor is that Chu wanted him to be Chinese-American, but his publisher wouldn’t let him because they didn’t think a character like that would sell. So Chu’s reaction was that, in a really passive-aggressive way, he drew the character so you never see his face. There’s one exception where you do, but for the most part you never see the character’s face. The Green Turtle always has his back to you, and if he does turn around, something’s blocking his face. It looks weird: another character’s always standing there, or a piece of furniture.
I found the original artwork fascinating. Pappy had a couple of pages up, and I was able to download all five issues of Blazing Comics from the Digital Comics Museum. They’re definitely a product of their time, but I was fascinated that Chu Hing never got around to telling us his origin or his secret identity, and also about this shadow that he has. The Green Turtle has this turtle-shaped shadow that kind of sits there and sneers at the enemies or the readers, and it’s never explained. I thought about that for a long time, and because the comics are public domain, I thought I could write an origin for him.
Paste: With both this and your previous book, Boxers & Saints, you’re doing period fiction. Did you do a lot of research into the time period for The Shadow Hero?
Yang: I did do some. I read a couple of books about early Chinese-Americans, early Chinatown. I read up on the Tongs and Chinese gangs. But we set it in a fictional city, and part of the fun of doing a superhero comic was that we didn’t want the Chinatown in this city to feel like an actual Chinatown — we wanted it to feel like a superhero version of a Chinatown. The Tong that we made up is like a mahjong version of the Royal Flush Gang [from DC Comics]. All the bad-guy characters are named after mahjong pieces.
I think [artist] Sonny [Liew] has a more subtle sensibility than I do, because originally, I wanted them to all have these tattoos of mahjong pieces, and he was like, “No, we’re not doing that.” I think in the end he was right. Some of the characters have the mahjong tattoos, but most of them look more like people from that period, with period costumes.
Paste: Speaking of your collaboration with Sonny Liew, how did you get involved in working with him on this project?
Yang: Well, we’d worked together before this. We collaborated on a short story for an anthology called Secret Identities, edited by Jeff Yang and a whole bunch of other people. That was the first time I’d worked with him and it was super fun. I think he’s awesome — he’s an amazing talent who doesn’t get enough work in the United States. I was thrilled when I asked him to work with me on The Shadow Hero and he said yes. He’s perfect for the project. He’s able to blend funny with serious with action.
Paste: Do you feel he brings something to the book that’s different than if you were drawing it yourself?
Yang: Oh, absolutely. I don’t think I could pull off this book on my own. I don’t think I can draw in a superhero style like that. I can’t handle the action. And his character designs, and their faces, are so expressive. He can carry the story just from the expressions of his characters.
Paste: One of the things that interests me in this book, and in a lot of your books, is the theme of family relationships. The hero in this story has an unusually close relationship with his mother, for a superhero. I was wondering, how did you develop the Green Turtle as a character and build this family around him?
Yang: One thing I felt I didn’t explore very well in American Born Chinese was the relationship between the immigrant kid and the immigrant parents. It was something I really wanted to hit because it’s such an important part of the immigrant experience. The Shadow Hero let me do that.
I modeled his mom after these women I knew from the church I grew up in who were very kind-hearted and well-meaning, but also very opinionated. They always had a lot of ideas of how you should improve your life [laughs]. So she was kind of patterned after that. I finished the script before the whole Tiger Mom thing came out in the media. I remember reading the Tiger Mom article in The Wall Street Journal and feeling like, “We’ve got to get this book done because we’re missing a whole cultural conversation.” That’s kind of where the mom came from.
Also, we just thought it’d be funny. Superhero comics are male power fantasies, and we thought it’d be funny to have your mom around during your power fantasy.
Paste: I’m interested in something that comes up a lot in your work, going back at least to American Born Chinese — this idea of reclaiming Asian stereotypes. You took this old superhero comic with a bunch of Asian caricatures in it and turned it into a Chinese-American superhero. What interests you in taking these stereotypes and turning them into cultural symbols?
Yang: I think for the Tiger Mom thing, we really wanted Hank’s mom to start off as this very stereotypical character, and then we hope by the end of the story she becomes more complex. You see the motivations behind what she does, and she learns and grows. That’s part of the way I feel you can break out of stereotypes, by creating more a three-dimensional character out of a stereotype.
I don’t know what draws me to that. I think it’s just around our culture. Stereotypes are kind of a shortcut, but they get in the way of relationships. In order to have a relationship with somebody, you have to understand them as a three-dimensional person and get over whatever two-dimensional image you have of them.
Paste: What superheroes did you enjoy growing up?
Yang: As a kid? I was a Marvel kid. It was the ’80s, and we thought DC was stupid. Though I have to say there was an exception to that, and that was the Justice League. The Justice League was awesome, and the sitcom aspect of it was amusing, so I collected a lot of that. But early on, I started following creators instead of characters. I really liked some characters, like Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four. I didn’t really like the Hulk, but I started collecting Hulk because Peter David was writing it and I thought his Hulk was really interesting.
Paste: Who were your other favorite creators?
Yang: Well, back then you had to follow the Image guys, and Frank Miller and Alan Moore. I loved Don Rosa and Carl Barks (Uncle Scrooge). Kitchen Sink used to do those Spirit reprints, so I collected those.
Paste: Are there comics or superheroes your kids like now?
Yang: Yeah, my kids are DC fans, and it’s all because of the cartoons — the Bruce Timm cartoons. They’ve really changed my mind about DC. My daughter’s into Wonder Woman and my son likes the Justice League, so we get them the Justice League Adventures comics. They really like Zita the Spacegirl. There are a lot of really cool comics out for them now. There’s one called Cleopatra in Space that they really like. And Amulet.
Paste: So what are you working on now?
Yang: I have a middle-grade book I’m working on with another cartoonist. We’re far enough along that it’ll probably be out next year, or early the year after, but it hasn’t been announced yet. It’ll be targeted at fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders, and it’ll be my first explicitly educational comic. It’ll be about computer programming.
Paste: You taught high-school math, am I correct?
Yang: I taught some math, but mostly computer science.
Paste: So this is your wheelhouse. Is that a challenge?
Yang: It is! In fact, it’s really hard. I want it to have a narrative, too — I don’t want it to just be facts. It’s hard to simultaneously tell a story and give a lesson. It makes me admire the writers of PBS shows like Cyberchase and all that. It’s a hard thing to pull off.
Paste: How do you manage to remain so prolific? You have four kids on top of all these books. How do you stick to a schedule?
Yang: Well, I’m only part-time at the high school.
Paste: [Laughs] You’re only part-time at the high school, that explains it.
Yang: Every other day, I’m at home working and I try to focus all my down time on thinking about comics — like if I’m waiting in line, I’ll work on a comic. And I kind of look prolific now, but for a long time I didn’t put anything out because I was working on it all. I was working on The Shadow Hero and I was working on Boxers & Saints, so for a while I didn’t have anything out that was new.
I’m excited about The Shadow Hero. It’s been a long time since Sonny and I started on it, so it feels awesome to have it out.
Paste: How long were you working on it?
Yang: It’s been three or four years.
Paste: How much of that was your writing, and how much was his drawing?
Yang: I finished the script pretty early. To be honest, a lot of the delay was the contract. I wanted to release it as digital issues, and something funky happened that made it hard for us to get that contract through. Also, because [the Green Turtle] was public domain, I had to learn all about the legalities of using the character, and Sonny didn’t want to get started on the art until we had a contract. I’m glad we got through all that crazy stuff.