A panel from Marvel Comics’ Shang-Chi series by Gene Luen Yang.

Can Comics Make a Difference? Gene Luen Yang Says Yes

Writer Alexander Lee interviews the author of 'American Born Chinese' about Asian superheroes and the power of storytelling

A panel from Marvel Comics’ Shang-Chi series by Gene Luen Yang.

Courtesy of Marvel Comics

Words by Alexander Lee

Gene Luen Yang needs no introduction, but we’re going to introduce him anyway. An award-winning author of graphic novels American Born Chinese (coming to Disney+ on May 24), MacArthur Fellow, and former U.S. Library of Congress National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, Yang is one of the most prominent Asian American voices in the world of comics. Alex Lee sat down with Yang to learn more about his 2020 release Dragon Hoops, his work with DC Comics and Marvel Comics, and how it all relates to the identity crisis the United States is facing today.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Alex Lee: Do you think comics, both graphic novels and traditional serials, have the power to sway public opinion and change minds?
Gene Luen Yang: There’s historical precedents to this. My project for DC Comics called Superman Smashes the Klan is actually an adaptation of a storyline from the old Superman radio show from the 1940s. In this 1946 storyline called Clan of the Fiery Cross, Superman actually takes on the DC Universe version of the Ku Klux Klan. After it finished, the actual real-life Klan saw a drop in its membership. So Superman, a character who originated from the comic, had a real-life effect on a real-world hate group. So I absolutely think that comics—that stories in general, even if they’re fictional—have a place in our world today.

AL: I’m wondering if you’ve connected any of this to your Marvel Comics debut, Shang-Chi. Shang-Chi is possibly the most prominent Asian superhero out there. Did you include any content that addressed the rise in anti-Asian sentiment caused by the coronavirus pandemic?
GLY: Yeah. I would say that for Shang-Chi, we’re not dealing directly with that sort of stuff the way I did in Superman Smashes the Klan or even in Dragon Hoops [a graphic novel tracing the highs and lows of the varsity basketball team at Bishop O’Dowd High School, where Yang used to teach computer science]. Shang-Chi is more about family, from an Asian perspective. But the thing is, when you’re writing a story about Asian characters in today’s context, it’s just going to be a part of the story. The current climate of anti-Asian sentiment, it’s just within the way that the world is built.

AL: Your graphic novel work often has a strong personal component. Do you find you’re able to include elements of your personal experiences in these more fantastic narratives that you’ve created for mainstream comics?
GLY: Even when we’re writing fantastical stories, the emotional content often comes from our own lives. And I think that’s definitely true when I’m writing The Terrifics or Superman Smashes the Klan. For Superman, the Lee family in Superman Smashes the Klan is a Chinese American family who moves into a predominantly white neighborhood. I remember moving into the neighborhood where I grew up, where I spent most of my childhood. And when we first got there, we were one of just three Chinese American families in that neighborhood. I remember feeling a discomfort that I had a hard time describing or putting my finger on. I think writing that family in Superman Smashes the Klan, it really came out of those experiences from my childhood.

They began their existence, arguably, with a magazine that had on its cover a Yellow Peril villain. And then, decades later, they hire a Chinese American writer to create a Chinese version of their most prominent superhero character.

AL: In Superman Smashes the Klan, American Born Chinese, and even in New Super-Man, you recreated stereotypical and racist iconography of Asian people in order to turn those stereotypes on their heads. Why did you decide to use these images so prominently
GLY: That’s definitely one of the more controversial parts of my comics. In New Super-Man [a 24-issue series about the adventures of a “new Super-Man” granted superpowers by the Chinese government], we actually bring back probably the oldest character in the DC Universe, a character who dates back to the cover of Detective Comics No. 1, all the way back in 1937. On the cover of that comic is a character named Chin Lung who we would now recognize as a Yellow Peril villain. My hope was to bring Chin Lung into that narrative and to have him interact with a Chinese Superman, decades and decades and decades after he debuted. I think in some ways it shows how far we as a culture, and even DC Comics as a company, have come. They began their existence, arguably, with a magazine that had on its cover a Yellow Peril villain. And then, decades later, they hire a Chinese American writer to create a Chinese version of their most prominent superhero character.

AL: I’ve always felt like a lot of Asian superheroes embody stereotypes about Asian people, for better or worse. One example that comes to mind is Ryan Choi, the Atom, who is a bit of a nerdy, studious guy. So, if you were to reinvent another prominent DC or Marvel hero that isn’t Asian as an Asian American character, which one would it be, and how would you do it?

GLY: Well, I do love Ryan Choi. I love Ryan Choi because his face looks like mine. He’s just a stereotypical nerd. It’s amazing. But there are also problems when he’s the only or even most prominent Asian American superhero, which he was for a little while. I remember there was a moment in the late ’90s, early 2000s, where the two most prominent Asian American characters in the DC universe were the Asian American Atom—an Asian male who could shrink—and the Asian American Batgirl. Great, great character. But in the beginning, her whole deal was she couldn’t speak. She had no voice, no literal voice. I don’t think they did it on purpose, but in a lot of ways, those two characters began their lives as confirmations of Asian stereotypes.

For New Super-Man, for the Chinese Superman, we don’t conform to Western stereotypes about Asians or Asian Americans. But his personality really does come from this old Asian source. I’m a huge fan of the Monkey King, whose character comes from this old Chinese novel called Journey to the West. The Monkey King begins as a bully. He begins as a bro, and that book is about him learning to become a hero. Sort of enlightening spiritually. That’s really what I wanted New Super-Man to be. I wanted to show a brash 17-year-old begin his life the same way that Monkey King does.

Writer and graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang.

Courtesy of Gene Luen Yang

AL: I want to go back to Dragon Hoops for a bit. Did authoring Dragon Hoops change your relationship with sports in a lasting way?
GLY: I don’t pay attention to all sports by any means, but I definitely pay attention to basketball. With Dragon Hoops, the main difference that doing that book made for me is it made me understand why people around me love sports so much. And specifically with basketball, it made me understand the importance of basketball to American history and especially to race relations in American history.

AL: I love the splash panels that you had in this book of players and all the Dragons dunking and doing these incredible shots. Are there any specific visual inspirations that you used for these splash images?
GLY: I did have video of all the games, and besides one exception, every time I showed a high school kid dunking, a high school kid actually dunked in real life. But to jazz it up a little bit, I did look at Slam Dunk, which is a Japanese manga series about a basketball team. I also looked at photos of NBA players. A lot of the players that I was profiling, they had favorite NBA players that they would try to mimic. So I would look at those NBA players when I was drawing those players.

I hand it to (my son) and he reads it and goes, “So what? What’s the big deal?” I was like, “You don’t understand. When I was your age, there is no way you would read this in a Marvel comic.”

AL: How have your kids’ experiences shaped your own, especially with regard to the kind of insecurities that you said you felt as a kid
GLY: My kids go to our local school, which is predominantly Asian American. So I would say that their experience of being Asian American is very, very different from my own. I remember when Greg Pak did this run on a series called Totally Awesome Hulk, which is about Amadeus Cho, the Korean American Hulk of the Marvel Universe. He has this one issue where the Hulk gets together with all of the other Asian, Asian American heroes of the Marvel Universe, and they go out for a Korean barbecue and then afterwards they go karaoke. At the end of their meal, they have this super-powered fight over the check. I read this issue and immediately went to my son’s room. I hand it to him and he reads it and goes, “So what? What’s the big deal?” I was like, “You don’t understand. When I was your age, there is no way you would read this in a Marvel comic.” But to him, it’s just part of what he grew up in. And in a lot of ways, I think that’s great. I think it’s awesome that he doesn’t have the same experiences that I do. But at the same time, I wish he could still appreciate how revolutionary Greg Pak’s story in that one issue of Totally Awesome Hulk is.

AL: Do you think that the commentary on American society in American Born Chinese still rings true today despite these changes?
GLY: I’ve heard one of those tech guys talk about how the future is here, it’s just unevenly distributed. I think that’s true as well of Asian American history. Before the pandemic, I was lucky enough to get to go to school communities to talk about the issues that I addressed in American Born Chinese. I would go to some communities and I would see these Asian American kids who would just flip back and forth between Korean and English in front of people and not feel self-conscious about it. For them, it seemed like American Born Chinese was just kind of a fun book. Then I would go to other communities and I would have these children of immigrants. And often it didn’t even matter where their parents came from. I would have the children of Nigerian immigrants or immigrants from the Middle East come up to me and tell me how, even though the details were different, the emotional realities of that book were their everyday experience. So I think all of that is at play. There are some communities where it really does seem like the kids have a very different relationship with ethnicity than I did, and other communities where it’s still all very relevant.

AL: You’ve defined this connection between Superman and the immigrant experience. Is that something that was apparent to you even as a kid reading these early stories?
GLY: No, no. I thought he was kind of boring. It wasn’t until later that I realized that Superman is kind of boring in the same way my parents are boring. My parents, when I was a kid, I thought they were boring because they never wanted to break rules. But then as I got older, I realized part of that is because they’re immigrants—they’re worried if they rebel too much that people will call them out for not fitting in. And that’s my theory about Superman as well. We see him as kind of a rule follower because he’s an immigrant. He tries to come off as the perfect citizen so that nobody will question his citizenship. He is the model minority.

Published on May 18, 2023

Words by Alexander Lee

Alexander Lee is a writer and editor based in Queens, New York. His work covers the intersection of gaming, esports, nerd culture and the Asian American experience, both as a staff writer for Digiday and a freelancer for a range of other regional and national publications.