The first comic that cartoonist Gene Luen Yang ever bought was a two-in-one issue that featured a man made out of rocks and an intergalactic cyborg. He loved comics, especially the kind that featured space aliens. So he started making his own.
He and a friend drew comics and sold them for 50 cents each. Among their earliest creations were the “Trans-Smurfers,” Smurfs who transformed into robotic fruit. They also flew and fought crime.
But as his comic book interests morphed into a career, Yang began to to introduce more of what he calls “intimacy” into his stories, more autobiographical moments.
“When you read a well-done comic book, it’s like reading a page out of somebody’s diary,” Yang told his audience at the 2007 National Book Festival. “Nowadays, the most popular comics, the most well-received comics are things like ‘Maus’ and ‘Persepolis,’ where you really get this intimate interaction between the reader and the creator.” (“Maus,” by cartoonist Art Spiegelman, documents his father’s tales as a Holocaust survivor, and Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoir “Persepolis” follows the author in her teen years in Tehran, Iran, during the Islamic Revolution.)
Six years after “Persepolis” was published, Yang released “American Born Chinese,” a graphic novel that detailed what it’s like to grow up Asian in America.
Although the work, released 14 years ago, doesn’t completely shy away from the superhero tradition of comics, the graphic novel is grounded in small school-age moments that weigh heavily on its Asian-American characters: the well-meaning teacher mispronouncing a student’s name, the blatant racism found in schoolyard taunts and difficulties of trying to fit in.
The book features Cousin Chin-Kee (as in “chinky”) who is a mishmash of some of the worst historical — and modern — American stereotypes used against Asians.
“Sometimes a stereotype needs to be dressed up in bright yellow skin and a queue in order for folks to recognize its severity,” Yang once said. (Queue refers to a hairstyle historically worn by men in China.)
“Chinese” won several awards and became the first graphic novel to be nominated for the National Book Award. Yang has since worked on “Avatar: The Last Airbender” comics, released a set of two graphic novels on the Boxer Rebellion called “Boxers & Saints,” and is partly responsible for a new spin on Superman for DC Comics. “New Super-Man” chronicles how a 17-year-old in China inherits the Man of Steel’s powers.
TKN spoke with the award-winning author on “American Born Chinese,” the inspiration behind the grotesque Chin-Kee, and the one regret he has about his cherished graphic novel. You can watch the full interview above.