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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Interview with Gene Luen Yang

Shadow Hero coverThe Shad­ow Hero
writ­ten by Gene Luen Yang
illus­trat­ed by Son­ny Liew
First Sec­ond, 2014

What qual­i­fies a comics char­ac­ter as a super­hero?

You’ve asked a ques­tion that lies at the very heart of geek­dom.  I don’t know if there’s a sol­id answer.  Most super­heroes have super­hu­man abil­i­ties, but not all.  Most super­heroes wear col­or­ful cos­tumes, but not all.  Most super­heroes have goofy alias­es, but not all.

Maybe a char­ac­ter just has to make her­self into a sym­bol of some­thing big­ger, some­thing more.

The Shad­ow Hero is an ori­gin story—you and artist Son­ny Liew cre­at­ed a back sto­ry for a char­ac­ter and series that had a brief, four-issue life back in the 1940s. You knew your end point: The Green Tur­tle would end up help­ing the Allies’ war effort dur­ing WWII, and because you want­ed to make the super­hero Asian, you had a start point. With those two points pinned on a board, what was the next step in writ­ing the sto­ry?

Lots and lots of think­ing.  I debat­ed how old the pro­tag­o­nist should be, where he should come from, who should be in his sup­port­ing cast.  Hav­ing pre­de­ter­mined begin­ning and end points actu­al­ly made things eas­i­er.  Often, I’m frozen by inde­ci­sion.  Those “pinned” points nar­rowed my options, at least a lit­tle bit.

I knew I want­ed the char­ac­ter to be of Chi­nese descent but raised in the West, like me.  I researched the his­to­ry of the Chi­na­towns in San Fran­cis­co and New York, and found some good sto­ry fod­der.

The pro­tag­o­nist, Hank, is con­tent to work at his father’s side in the fam­i­ly store when he’s thrust into extra­or­di­nary events.  He’s not born with his super­pow­er and he nev­er dreamed of being a super­hero. Why did you choose to work with this dra­mat­ic path?

Often, immi­grants’ kids are born into dreams.  We’re born into a set of expec­ta­tions.  I want­ed that to be a pri­ma­ry ten­sion of the book: Hank’s mom wants one thing for him, Hank him­self wants anoth­er.

Super­heroes are deeply Amer­i­can.  They were invent­ed in Amer­i­ca, they’re most pop­u­lar in Amer­i­ca, and at their best super­heroes express Amer­i­ca at its best.  Hank’s mom sees “super­hero­ing” as a way of becom­ing Amer­i­can, a way to final­ly be accept­ed by her family’s new coun­try.  Hank could care less, at least in the begin­ning.  He just wants to be com­fort­able.

Shadow Hero illustration

You’ve stat­ed in inter­views that The Shad­ow Hero is about the immi­grant experience—about being the child of immi­grants, espe­cial­ly.  Could you dis­cuss this for our read­ers, many of whom teach and oth­er­wise work with chil­dren of immi­grants?

Almost every major super­hero was cre­at­ed by chil­dren of Jew­ish immi­grants: Super­man, Bat­man, Spi­der-Man, the Hulk, Cap­tain Amer­i­ca, Iron Man, the X-Men.  Con­scious­ly or not, they embed­ded their life expe­ri­ence into their cre­ations.

Immi­grants’ kids often grow up with one name at home and anoth­er at school, one set of expec­ta­tions at home and anoth­er at school.  We nego­ti­ate between two iden­ti­ties.  That’s a con­ven­tion in the super­hero genre.  Super­man isn’t just Super­man, he’s also Clark Kent.  Bat­man is also Bruce Wayne.  Spi­der-man is also Peter Park­er.

I some­times won­der if that’s why I loved super­heroes so much as a kid.  I saw myself in them.

Chinese in America coverPlease say a bit more about the research involved in writ­ing about pre-WWII Chi­na­town and oth­er set­tings or ele­ments.

 I read about ear­ly Chi­nese com­mu­ni­ties in San Fran­cis­co, New York, and Hawaii.  Iris Chang’s The Chi­nese in Amer­i­ca was par­tic­u­lar­ly help­ful.

Have you ever made your own super­hero cos­tume?

I haven’t, but my friends have on my behalf.  For my bach­e­lor par­ty, they dressed me up as a char­ac­ter they called Wein­er Man –cape, under­wear on the out­side, an absurd and slight­ly inap­pro­pri­ate chest insignia.

My friends are mean.

You are also a vet­er­an high school teacher. Your grad­u­ate-school work focused on the val­ue of comics as an edu­ca­tion­al tool, and you’ve list­ed on your blog some comics that are a per­fect fit for a  S.T.E.M. cur­ricu­lum. On anoth­er site, Comics in Edu­ca­tion, you list pro­fes­sion­al resources to help teach­ers learn to inte­grate comics into the class­room. If you were to tell an uncon­vinced teacher the sin­gle­most rea­son to include graph­ic nov­els with­in the cur­ricu­lum, and not just as inde­pen­dent read­ing, what would that be?

Sim­ply put, cer­tain types of infor­ma­tion are bet­ter com­mu­ni­cat­ed through pic­tures.  I love words.  I read words for fun and I read words for work.  Words are incred­i­bly, incred­i­bly impor­tant to me and I nev­er want them to go away.  But words can’t do every­thing.  Can you imag­ine putting togeth­er a Lego set by fol­low­ing words-only instruc­tions?  So many con­cepts can be bet­ter explained with pic­tures: osmo­sis, the bina­ry num­ber sys­tem, fac­tor­ing.

I don’t see comics as a replace­ment for prose—I see comics as anoth­er tool in the tool­box.  Teach­ing is such a dif­fi­cult pro­fes­sion.  Shouldn’t teach­ers have access to as many dif­fer­ent tools as pos­si­ble?

Secret Coders coverYour forth­com­ing Secret Coders, Book 1 (illus­trat­ed by Mike Holmes) will be pub­lished this fall by First Sec­ond Books. Could you briefly tell us about this book and the series it launch­es?

I’m very, very excit­ed about Secret Coders.  This is my first explic­it­ly edu­ca­tion­al graph­ic nov­el series.  It’s also my youngest – it’s mid­dle grade.

Secret Coders is a bit like Har­ry Pot­ter – our young pro­tag­o­nists find a secret school.  How­ev­er, instead of teach­ing mag­ic, the secret school teach­es cod­ing.  Mike and I hope that, as our char­ac­ters learn to code, our read­ers will too.

A final ques­tion about The Shad­ow Hero: If you hopped into the way-back machine and land­ed in sev­enth grade and had to give a very short report on The Shad­ow Hero to your class­mates, what one thing about the book would you want to share with them?

It’s got punch­ing in it!  And mahjong!


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