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American-Born Comics Artist

July, 2008
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  The first comic book Gene Yang bought was in the fifth grade and began his lifelong obsession with the medium.

  In his opinion, “comics is the most intimate medium. Every stroke you see on the page can come out of a single person’s brush. It’s almost like reading a handwritten letter.”IMG_6755

  Comics take up all of Yang’s free time outside of his family and teaching duties. And, his hard work has paid off.

  Yang’s first graphic novel as an adult, “Gordon Yamamoto and the King of the Geeks,” won a Xeric Award. In 2006, Yang’s “American Born Chinese” became the first graphic novel to be nominated for a National Book Award, and it was the first to take home the American Library Association’s Printz Award.

  “American Born Chinese” weaves three separate stories together: The first is an Asian-American retelling of the Monkey King legend, a popular Chinese myth. The second features Jin Wang, a Chinese-American boy growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood. The final storyline is a sitcom on paper, starring Cousin Chin-Kee, the ultimate Chinese stereotype.

  Yang said the book is aimed at middle school and up, but he hopes the story speaks to anyone who has had or wants to understand a minority experience.

  During his recent visit to Concordia International School Shanghai, Yang spoke to students not only about “American Born Chinese” but also about the art of the comic books – how to create the characters, how to outline the stories, and how long it takes to draw each page. Sitting with LittleStar, Yang also tells about the perfect balance between his career as a high school computer science teacher by day and a comics artist by night.

   LittleStar: You were born and brought up in the USA, so you are American Born Chinese yourself. In a sense, is ABC autobiographical? And why retell the Monkey King legend?

  Yang: “American Born Chinese” is fiction with bits of autobiography thrown in. For example, many of the words that the character Timmy says to Jin and Wei-chen are insults that were hurled at me and my Asian- American friends in junior high.

The Monkey King is a legendary figure in Chinese mythology that’s become a pop icon. Well, I’ve always wanted to do my own version of the Monkey King ever since I can remember. It just took me a while to figure out what I could add to the story. I eventually decided to use the Monkey King legend as a way of reflecting on my own experience as an Asian-American. The Asian-American identity is a relatively new one. We are built on two separate cultures with two separate mythologies, and we mix the two together. I tried to explore the minority experience, and how different internal and external pressures play a part in that experience. That, combined with the other two storylines, ended up being "American Born Chinese."

  LittleStar: It is said that you’ve been making comics since the fifth grade. What was the first one?

  Yang: The comic I did in fifth grade was called Spade Hunter, who was basically a Robin Hood/ Green Arrow rip-off, except that he used a Captain America-like shield instead of a bow and arrow. He also wore a ninja mask.IMG_6732

  LittleStar: Why comics? Why are you so interested in drawing comics?

  Yang: I grew up drawing; I’ve been drawing all my life. I have always been interested in cartoon and storytelling. So comics is the way for me to combine these two arts. Comics is really a powerful way of telling stories, when you put words and pictures together, you can achieve that effect that neither one can achieve on its own. In fifth grade, I purchased my first comic book and began a lifelong obsession with the medium. The medium of comics is the most intimate medium, in my opinion. Every stroke you see on the page can come out of a single person’s brush. It’s almost like reading a hand-written letter.

  LittleStar: Why did you go into teaching first? Is it difficult to balance your careers as a teacher and a cartoonist at the same time?

  Yang: Teaching was always in the back of my mind. During college, I volunteered as a youth minister at the San Jose Chinese Catholic Community and really enjoyed my time there. Teaching at a Catholic school is an extension of that. It’s an important job. I teach computer science at the high school, and I do use computers a lot in producing my comics.

  Doing both gives my life a good balance. Teaching is a good counterweight to cartooning. Cartooning is very introverted and isolated. Teaching is the exact opposite. Also, at my school, there are two other teachers who are also cartoonists. That’s a lot of fun.

Well, I’m planning on going part time at my school next year so I can spend more time on comics.

  LittleStar: How do you think comics can help with the children’s study?

  Yang: A lot of teachers are.;0 using comics to teach. I think comics is a combination of medias or multi-media. It piles up texts and still images. This will help students learn how to communicate through this multi-media experience. When students learn how to read comics, they are learning how to communicate in a multi-media way. For every piece of information, they have to decide whether they want to communicate that information through the pictures or the words as the caption.

  LittleStar: For the kids, how does one make a comic strip?

  Yang: Well, you start by thinking of a story. Then outline it, like what you want each character to be, the set up/ conflict/ rising action/ climax. Start drawing your characters until you feel you can draw them very comfortably. Take a page and fold it up into fourths or sixths, then draw a panel on each section on the page. Keep going till your story is finished. If it is the very first time you do it, each page may take one or two hours.

  Find more information about Gene Yang and his comics at: www.humblecomics.com

By Xing Yangjian

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