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Interview with Sonny Liew

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

Grow­ing up in Malaysia and Sin­ga­pore, what were the pop­u­lar com­ic books?

Well in terms of what you’d see at the news­stands , there was Old Mas­ter Q or Lao Fu Zhi from Hong Kong. In schools, there’d always be some­one read­ing Tin Tin, Aster­ix or Archie. Myself, I also read a lot of Beano, Richie Rich and, a bit lat­er on, Mad mag­a­zine. That last one prob­a­bly turned me into a life­long dis­si­dent.

How old were you when you start­ed draw­ing or paint­ing? What were your fre­quent sub­jects?

I think draw­ing comes very nat­u­ral­ly to kids, it’s just an instinct to pick an pen or cray­on and scrib­ble away. But I sup­pose I con­tin­ued draw­ing at an age when a lot of peo­ple stop—the ear­ly to mid-teens? By that stage I was very caught up with role-play­ing games like Dun­geon and Drag­ons and Drag­on War­riors, so a lot of it was fan­ta­sy art fea­tur­ing bar­bar­ians and elves.

What deci­sions took you on your life path from Cam­bridge [Uni­ver­si­ty] to the Rhode Island School of Design?

I start­ed doing a com­ic strip for a local Sin­ga­pore­an news­pa­per whilst I was still in Cam­bridge, and that whole process—thinking up ideas, finess­ing a punch line, draw­ing the final art—it just felt like some­thing I could be total­ly engaged with. So I was pret­ty sure I want­ed to do some­thing arts-relat­ed after grad­u­at­ing, though it took me a while longer to fig­ure out that I ought to go to art school, to learn every­thing from paint­ing to sculpt­ing, col­or the­o­ry and com­po­si­tion.

p. 60 illustration excerpt

p. 60 illus­tra­tion excerpt

At what point did you decide that you’d like to be a comics artist?

Look­ing back at it now…I guess dis­cov­er­ing works by cre­ators like Chester Brown and Charles Burns—they opened up my mind to a dif­fer­ent kind of comics then what I’d been used to—complex, per­son­al sto­ries that took the medi­um to whole new places. I sup­pose I had a sense then that engag­ing with the medi­um could be a lifetime’s endeav­our.

How does it work in the comics world…how did you get signed on to The Shad­ow Hero as the illus­tra­tor?

Heh, I actu­al­ly think that’s the wrong term, “illus­tra­tor.” Comics is a com­bi­na­tion of text and images, there’s no real way to divide the two in the way the sto­ries are told. It’s more a case of sto­ry­telling as a whole, with the writ­ing and art­work being han­dled by dif­fer­ent peo­ple in some cas­es. It’s a minor detail maybe, but per­haps does have some sig­nif­i­cance in the way books are clas­si­fied or con­ceived in some places, espe­cial­ly those more  used to prose nov­els, where illus­tra­tions are seen as sec­ondary, an add-on rather than an inte­gral part of the sto­ry.

In any case…Gene and I had worked togeth­er on a short sto­ry for the Secret Iden­ti­ties anthol­o­gy a few years a back, and his sto­ry is that I was the first per­son he thought of when he had The Shad­ow Hero script ready. I’d like to believe that’s true! On my end, it was a no-brain­er to get the chance to work with Gene again on the project.

The col­or palette you chose for The Shad­ow Hero goes from a fair­ly neu­tral gray and brown palette to vivid­ly intense reds, greens, and golds. How did you choose those col­ors?

Top: from p. 3;  Bottom: from p. 87

Top: from p. 3;
Bot­tom: from p. 87

It’s usu­al­ly a mat­ter of tri­al and error, tweak­ing the palette until it looks right. It’s always a func­tion of sto­ry­telling, and in the this case, we need­ed dif­fer­ent palettes to mark out the past from present, as well as a look that evoked the feel of the orig­i­nal Green Tur­tle comics.

Did you con­fer with Gene Luen Yang while you were draw­ing the sto­ry? If so, did parts of the sto­ry change based on your dis­cus­sions?

Only minor things like lay­outs, rather than any deep­er struc­tur­al or the­mat­ic con­cerns. Gene’s scripts are won­der­ful­ly clear-head­ed, and the changes I sug­gest­ed were most­ly to add a lev­el of visu­al dynamism where pos­si­ble. Or maybe just to jus­ti­fy my pres­ence on the project.

Did you refer to Chu Hing’s Green Tur­tle comics when you were doing your sketch­es?

For sure! I don’t own any phys­i­cal copies of the com­ic, but for­tu­nate­ly these days you have access to dig­i­tal ver­sions.

Who was your favorite char­ac­ter to draw?

Uncle Wun Too. There was a won­der­ful eccen­tric­i­ty about him, and I got to draw him in a cos­tume that paid homage to Old Mas­ter Q.

Art of Charlie Chan coverWe’re look­ing for­ward to The Art of Char­lie Chan Hock Chye (Pan­theon, ear­ly 2016). What can you tell us about your work on that book?

The book con­tains three main strands, I think—the life of a long-for­got­ten comics artist, the sto­ry of Sin­ga­pore, and the sto­ry of comics. The main chal­lenge was to try to bring them togeth­er in a nar­ra­tive that would be both for­mal­ly inter­est­ing and com­pelling. It’s the most chal­leng­ing thing I’ve ever done, and it’s been called mul­ti-tex­tured and lay­ered… but I’m going to go with the blurb Gene wrote for the book: “A joy to read…masterfully weaves the his­to­ry of Sin­ga­pore with the his­to­ry of comics into some­thing you’ve nev­er expe­ri­enced before.”

 

 

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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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From the Editor

by Mar­sha Qua­ley

ph_catI made my pro­fes­sion­al entrance into the world of children’s books in the ear­ly 1990s when the first of my YA nov­els was pub­lished. One thing that has changed dras­ti­cal­ly since then is the increased media cov­er­age; YA lit is an espe­cial­ly big show right now. While you still run across some ves­ti­gial arti­cles of the “Should Adults Read Children’s Books” nature, gone are the days when a children’s book author would be dis­missed out of hand as not being a real writer, espe­cial­ly by writ­ers of lit­er­ary fic­tion and poet­ry.

My response—most often deliv­ered to unap­pre­cia­tive but patient cats but a few times when face to face with those writers—was always, “Well, where do you think your read­ers come from? Do you think read­ers don’t exist until they dis­cov­er your writ­ing?” #snap!

Okay… #sad­snap. 

Shadow HeroAnoth­er thing that has changed is the preva­lence of graph­ic nov­els in the class­room, libraries, and pub­lish­ers’ cat­a­logues. For the sec­ond time in its short his­to­ry Bookology’s Book­storm™ book is a graph­ic nov­el: Gene Luen Yang and Son­ny Liew’s The Shad­ow Hero.

I’ve had the good for­tune of work­ing with Gene in a writ­ing pro­gram for adults. He is a nat­ur­al, bril­liant teacher. I’ve observed die-hard nov­el­ists and poets emerge from one of his Writ­ing a Graph­ic Nov­el work­shops excit­ed about this new sto­ry­telling form.

Of course it’s not real­ly new, just new to us here in the main­stream US book world. Wouldn’t you love to go back in a time machine to a library con­fer­ence in the 1940s or 50s and tell every­one about comics in the class­room? Can’t you just see the white gloves fly­ing up to smoth­er gasps or cov­er ears?

Lat­er this month we will have inter­views with both Gene and Son­ny. Today we’re rolling out the Book­storm™ and a cou­ple of relat­ed features—storm cells, you might call them (and yes, it’s pour­ing as I write this.) We also have a thought­ful Knock Knock essay by author Lynne Jonell: “Jus­tice in Anoth­er World.” Skin­ny Dip inter­views and our reg­u­lar columns will of course appear through­out this week and weeks to come.

Enjoy—and thank you for stop­ping by.

 

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Bookstorm: The Shadow Hero

Bookstorm-Shadow-Hero-Diagram-655px

In this Bookstorm™:

Shadow HeroShadow Hero

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

As we become a cul­ture adapt­ed to screens, visu­als, and mov­ing pic­tures, we grow more accus­tomed to the sto­ry­telling form of the graph­ic nov­el. For some, their com­fort with this com­bi­na­tion of visu­als and text telling a sto­ry sat­is­fies a crav­ing to “see” the sto­ry while they’re read­ing. For oth­ers, the lack of descrip­tive detail and mea­sured, lin­ear momen­tum through the sto­ry feels like a bar­ri­er to under­stand­ing. With the vari­ety of graph­ic nov­els avail­able and the inven­tive ways in which they’re assem­bled, we encour­age you to keep try­ing. Find a sto­ry that intrigues you and per­se­vere … we believe you’ll grow accus­tomed to this form. In time, you’ll add graph­ic nov­els to the depth of offer­ings you eager­ly rec­om­mend to stu­dents, patrons, and friends.

We select­ed Shad­ow Hero for our fea­tured book this month because the super­hero has been present in comics since the ear­ly 1900s and cur­rent films and tele­vi­sion have reawak­ened an inter­est among chil­dren that we believe can eas­i­ly trans­port them into read­ing. Yang and Liew have giv­en a back sto­ry to a super­hero, The Green Tur­tle, orig­i­nal­ly cre­at­ed by tal­ent­ed com­ic book artist (and fine artist) Chu Fook Hing in the 1940s. There’s plen­ty of action, humor, mys­tery, and sus­pense in this new book … all the right ingre­di­ents for the best read­ing.

In each Book­storm™, we offer a bib­li­og­ra­phy of books that have close ties to the the fea­tured book. For Shad­ow Hero, you’ll find books for a vari­ety of tastes, inter­ests, and read­ing abil­i­ties. Shad­ow Hero will be com­fort­ably read by ages 10 through adult. We’ve includ­ed pic­ture books, nov­els, and non­fic­tion for the pletho­ra of pur­pos­es you might have.

Graph­ic Nov­els About Super­heroes. With the pop­u­lar­i­ty of The Avengers and X-Men, Iron Man and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., there are a num­ber of graph­ic nov­els about super­heroes avail­able for dif­fer­ent ages. Some have mature con­tent. Many are acces­si­ble for younger read­ers. Whether or not they’re wear­ing capes, super­heroes are appeal­ing because of the pos­si­bil­i­ties.

Graph­ic Nov­els About Mythol­o­gy. The Green Tur­tle is a part of Chi­nese mythol­o­gy. We hear a lot about Greek and Roman mythol­o­gy, but there are com­pelling myths around the world. Graph­ic nov­els make those tra­di­tions and sto­ries avail­able to read­ers who might have trou­ble with straight text.

Fic­tion about Super­heroes. Longer texts, with­out illus­tra­tions, often hold as much attrac­tion for com­ic book read­ers if the sto­ries are engag­ing. And there are pic­ture books that are just right for the read­ers who are too young for graph­ic nov­els but have the inter­est.

Com­ic Books, Non­fic­tion. Whether it’s learn­ing how two boys came to invent Super­man, the super­hero from Kryp­ton, or exam­in­ing info­graph­ics and sta­tis­tics, or lis­ten­ing to a pod­cast with Gene Luen Yang on pub­lic radio about his inspi­ra­tion, The Green Tur­tle, there’s a lot of research and learn­ing to be done with super­heroes.

Draw­ing. For those kinet­ic and visu­al learn­ers, telling a sto­ry through draw­ing, pop­u­lat­ing a page with char­ac­ter­i­za­tion and set­ting and voice is a way to use com­ic book art for devel­op­ing writ­ing skills.

Chi­nese His­to­ry. There are many, many books, some of them quite schol­ar­ly, about Chi­nese his­to­ry. We’ve select­ed just two, both of which are also visu­al his­to­ries.

Chi­nese Art. Chi­na is such a large coun­try, with a civ­i­liza­tion that is thou­sands of years old, that these books orga­nize the infor­ma­tion in order to present the diver­si­ty of arts in a way that makes sense.

Chi­nese Immi­gra­tion. There are fine books about the immi­gra­tion of Chi­nese and Asian Pacif­ic peo­ple to Amer­i­ca, the Gold­en Moun­tain. We’ve select­ed a few, from pic­ture books to nov­els to mem­oir. 

Chi­nese Food. Read­ers learn a great deal about dif­fer­ent cul­tures from the food they eat, their tra­di­tions for prepar­ing food, and the ways they share it with their com­mu­ni­ty. We’ve found cook­books for both learn­ing and eat­ing, for adults and for chil­dren.

Chi­nese Geog­ra­phy. It always helps to have a good map to rein­force the visu­al knowl­edge of a coun­try. You’ll find sug­ges­tions for maps, down­loads, pho­tos, and facts about this large coun­try in Asia.

Tech­niques for using each book:

Downloadables

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bk_shadowhero_140.jpg

My New Hero

I am a fan of super­hero comics. After read­ing about talk­ing ducks, pre­co­cious teens at Riverdale High, and an equal­ly pre­co­cious rich kid, I want­ed some­thing with a real sto­ry, not a sit­u­a­tion. I wasn’t allowed to buy com­ic books, so I had to rely on the kind­ness of cousins. What­ev­er I could scrounge up […]

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