Gene Luen Yang talks 15th anniversary of ‘American Born Chinese,’ diversity in comics, upcoming series

As the iconic graphic novel “American Born Chinese” turns 15 this year, Asian American writer and artist Gene Luen Yang spoke to NextShark about his reflections on the book nearly two decades later, as well as updates on his current and upcoming projects.

An award-winning graphic novel

In the year 2000, “American Born Chinese” was a black-and-white, hand-stapled minicomic sold at select comic book stores. Today, 20 years since the minicomic’s inception and 15 years since the graphic novel’s commercial publishing by First Second Books, “American Born Chinese” has won several prestigious awards, is taught in classrooms across the country and is even in the process of being adapted into a live-action Disney Plus series. To many, the book is a staple in Asian American art and literature.

“American Born Chinese” Preview Image via Macmillan Publishers

For creator Yang, the journey has been anything but anticipated. “It’s been 20 years since I began working on ‘American Born Chinese’ and the fact that it’s still around and that people are still reading it is shocking,” he said. Despite the years, Yang is still proud of his work — save for the occasional urge to redraw everything, a quirk he attributes to most artists.

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“American Born Chinese” Preview Image via Macmillan Publishers

Since “American Born Chinese” was first published, Yang has created other graphic novels that explore Asian American identity, such as “Boxers & Saints,” “Dragon Hoops,” “Level Up” and “The Eternal Smile.” He has also written and drawn for major franchises, including “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” “Superman” (most notably “Superman Smashes the Klan”), “New Super-Man,” “Shang-Chi” (including the current run) and DC Comics’ “Monkey Prince.”

“American Born Chinese” Preview Image via Macmillan Publishers

Changing industry attitudes

Yang notes that in the 15 years since “American Born Chinese” was created, reader responses have been markedly different. When the comic was first released, Yang recalls non-Asian readers frequently telling him about how much they loved Cousin Chin-Kee, a character intended to be a grotesque and offensive caricature of East Asian culture. Some of these readers even asked if Yang sold shirts with the character on it.

“Ten to fifteen years ago, I would get that.” Yang said, laughing. “Nowadays … I can’t remember the last time that somebody has said something like that to me. I think that as our world has grown more diverse, people are more sensitive and understanding of issues of diversity. The conversations that I used to only have with my Asian American friends or my friends of color in general, we are now having as a broader culture.”

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To Yang, diversity in the comics industry goes beyond checking demographic category boxes. “Asian Americans, we’ve been a part of comics since the very beginning, but more often than not, we were on the art side of things. Now, we’re finally seeing more and more Asian directors and writers who are driving the story. I think it’s nice to be on both sides of that coin.”

“We’re seeing a lot more women in mainstream comics, and we’re seeing diversity in terms of genre. If you look at comics as a whole, when I was a kid, the only comics that were available were superhero stories, and I love superhero stories, but now we’re also seeing Westerns, science fiction and this whole category of middle-grade comics.” Yang notes that these trends are large strides in the right direction, especially in comparison to the largely male, largely white state of mainstream comics in the 1990s and early 2000s when he first started.

Disney Plus adaptation

The recent changes in the industry are much of the reason why Yang is thrilled to be working on the Disney Plus adaptation of “American Born Chinese.” The show’s team currently includes brothers Kelvin and Charles Yu, Destin Daniel Cretton and Melvin Mar, talents who have been behind productions like “Fresh Off the Boat,” “Bob’s Burgers,” “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” and more. 

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“Progress has been moving way faster than I was expecting,” Yang added. “A lot of what we’re talking about now is how the TV show will be different than the comic.” He anticipates quite a few changes from the source material in order to take advantage of the new medium and serialized format, as well as new perspectives on the cultural issues at the heart of the story. “We’re asking, ‘What does it mean to re-engage with these issues in the context of 2021?’”

As for the question of when eager viewers can start streaming the show, Yang promises that its release will be much sooner than many might think, though a definite release date has not yet been announced.

Current DC and Marvel projects

In the meantime, the writer says he is having “a lot of fun” working with characters like Shang-Chi for Marvel and the Monkey Prince for DC. Since Shang-Chi is an established character, Yang can work with the character’s history and reimagine certain aspects of his universe. As many comic enthusiasts have been discussing since the recent revival of the character, past Shang-Chi comics are often considered insensitive or offensive by modern readers, an issue at the forefront of Yang and his team’s project.

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“How do you deal with those aspects?” he asks. “In a lot of ways, the process mirrors how I feel about myself as an American in our country. I’m a product of America. I can’t divorce myself from the history of America. But then, what does it mean to take aspects of our past and figure out what’s worth keeping and how to ‘retcon’ the problematic bits?”

In contrast, the Monkey Prince is an entirely new superhero despite being derived from the Monkey King story from Buddhist Chinese mythology, the same legend which inspired much of “American Born Chinese.” Yang sees the integration of the Monkey King myth into modern superhero comics as being similar to Thor or Wonder Woman comics, where Norse and Greek deities, respectively, are at the heart of the action. 

“I’ve been in comics for 25 years now and I’ve always been interested in telling Asian American stories, but it often felt like it was a struggle to find a home for them. But now, all of a sudden within the past few years, it seems like there is this new interest in Asian American stories. For me to be working on two different projects for the two big superhero companies, both featuring Asian American protagonists, it’s a little bit mind-blowing.”

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Looking forward

As time goes on, Yang also hopes that live-action adaptations of comic media will continue to honor the artists behind the original stories, with credit being given to comic writers and artists who inspire Hollywood films and TV shows like those of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. His comments come in light of accusations that Disney Plus’ “Hawkeye” used visuals from artist David Aja without credit, let alone compensation.

“As a creative in the comic book industry, I was very disappointed. That’s one of the places where we need to do better.”

Despite some of the persisting issues, Yang is hopeful about the future of comics and the medium’s ability to offer a platform for different and experimental stories.

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“When I think about the future of comics, I think we’re facing in the right direction. Now, I would just like to see us move forward. I’d like to see more diverse voices in comics, more diversity in the types of stories that we’re telling through comics. I think that’s what we need.”

Featured Image via Macmillan Publishers

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