Who Is Gene Luen Yang? A Celebration Of AAPI Heritage Month
May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month so Comic Years is highlighting some of our favorite actors, actresses, writers, and illustrators from the AAPI community. We’ve already written a DC Festival of Heroes review for their anthology celebrating Asian superheroes, and in this blog post, we’re taking a closer look at one of the contributors to the anthology and asking: who is Gene Luen Yang?
Yang was born August 9, 1973 in northern California, where he grew up loving art and dreaming of being an animator for Disney. In fifth grade, his mom bought him his first comic book (issue 57 of the Superman series DC Comics Presents), and after that, he was hooked. He ended up majoring in computer science with a minor in creative writing at UC Berkeley. After graduating, he worked as a computer engineer for two years, but still felt drawn to comics, so he began to self-publish his own comics under the imprint Humble Comics. He eventually ended up getting some of his work published by major publishers, such as First Second Books (an imprint of Macmillan Publishers), Marvel Comics, Dark Horse Comics, and HarperTeen.
What Is Gene Luen Yang Known For?
Image via American Born Chinese
Even though Yang had quite a few published works under his belt in the early 2000s, he really made a name for himself in the graphic novel/comic world with the publication of American Born Chinese in 2006. The novel has three different plots featuring three protagonists: Jin Wang, a Chinese American boy trying to find his place in a new school; the Monkey King (the same one from the popular Chinese fable); and Chin-Kee, the ultimate negative Chinese stereotype who’s ruining his cousin, Danny’s, life. While these three stories may not seem related, they ultimately end up coming together in an unexpected plot twist. American Born Chinese went on to win numerous accolades including the Michael L. Printz Award from the American Library Association, the Eisner Award for best new graphic album, an NPR Holiday Pick, and TIME’s “Top 10 Comics of the Year.” It was also the first graphic novel to be a finalist for the National Book Award, Young People’s Literature.
He later went on to write another award-winning graphic novel dual set, Boxers and Saints, which looked at the Boxer Rebellion that took place in 1899 in China. He also teamed up with Nickelodeon to write The Avatar: The Last Airbender comics that are an official continuation of the original Nickelodeon animated television series (we FINALLY learn about Zuko’s mom!). Yang continues to work with DC and Marvel on several very exciting projects: for DC, he created the New Super-man (a Chinese Superman) and wrote Superman Smashes the Klan (a loose adaptation of a famous 1946 story-arc from The Adventures of Superman radio series, in which an Asian-American family is threatened by the Ku Klux Klan. He also has The Monkey Prince, which was first seen in DC’s Festival of Heroes. For Marvel he created a miniseries that looked at the Shang-Chi mythos, which will drop new issues May 19.
On Diversity In Comics And Graphic Novels
Image via Warner Bros. Entertainment
Yang has always (and continues to) talk about the need for more diversity and representation in comics. In 2014 he gave a powerful speech about the topic to the National Book Festival gala, saying:
“We in the book community are in the middle of a sustained conversation about diversity. We talk about our need for diverse books with diverse characters written by diverse writers. I wholeheartedly agree. But I have noticed an undercurrent of fear in many of our discussions. We’re afraid of writing characters different from ourselves because we’re afraid of getting it wrong. We’re afraid of what the Internet might say. This fear can be a good thing if it drives us to do our homework, to be meticulous in our cultural research. But this fear crosses the line when we become so intimidated that we quietly make choices against stepping out of our own identities. After all, our job as writers is to step out of ourselves, and to encourage our readers to do the same.”
And Yang is right. Being scared of getting representation wrong is a legitimate fear of many writers and editors, but if you’re not willing to make mistakes and learn from them, then you’re not helping the issue. He continues to lecture on the subject of diversity in graphic novels and comics at bookstores, conventions, schools, and libraries.
What are you favorite Gene Luen Yang works? Let us know in the comments below!
Featured image via Hamline University
Keilin Huang is a freelance writer that likes the Oxford comma, reading from her neverending pile of books from the library, and Reeses peanut butter cups. She thanks her Dad for introducing her to his Superman comics and probably majored in Journalism because of Lois Lane.