Interview: Gene Yang Pt. 1 [of 2]

Categories:  Interviews


It was 2006’s American Born Chinese that put Gene Yang on the sequential art map. The book, an exploration of Asian-American identity situated at the cross section of cultural struggles, stereotypes and fantasy, was nominated for a National Book Award—the first graphic novel to receive that prestigious honor.

Yang’s follow up to that much lauded project is this year’s The Eternal Smile. The book—the artist’s sophomore work for First Second Books—teams him up with fellow Bay Area comics veteran Derek Kirk Kim on three short stories that explore the sometimes thin lines between fantasy and reality.

In this first part of our interview with Yang, we discuss his day job as a high school teacher, the roles he sees technology playing in the creation and consumption of comics, and how his collaboration with Kim first came about.

It’s loud on your end. Are you at work now?

I am at work now, but I was only supposed to be here half the day, so I’m working on my own time now.

What’s your day job, if you don’t mind my asking?

I work at Bishop O’Dowd High School—it’s a Catholic high school in Oakland. I teach computer science and I also do computer stuff for them, like managing their database.

So you do interact with some of the students directly?

Yeah, yeah. This year actually, I’m only here part-time. I only have one student in an independent study course.  Later this year I’ll still be part-time, but I’ll have one regular class.

Does being a cartoonist make you the cool teacher?

Uh, not really. There are actually three of us here that are cartoonists.

Oh yeah? Who else?

There’s Thien Pham. He does a book called Sumo. He’s with First Second, too. And then there’s Brianna Miller.

How did that happen that there are three cartoonists at the same high school?

Well, I got Thien the job and Thien got Brianna the job. And we all kind of know each other from the Bay Area comics scene.

Is that your background, computer science? Is that what you went to school for?

Yeah, yeah. That’s what I went to school for.

Has that had any influence on your work? You seem to draw comics rather traditionally, on paper, for the most part.

Yeah. It ends on my computer. It starts on paper, but it always ends on my computer. I don’t use White Out anymore. I do all of the corrections on Photoshop. I fill out all of the blacks in Photoshop, and I also don’t letter anymore.  I do that in Photoshop, too.

Do you create works specifically for the Web, or is everything targeted to ultimately end up in print?

I’ve done Webcomics before, but they’re always formatted for print. I’ve never done anything that wouldn’t work as a print comic. I’ve never used Scott McCloud’s “infinite canvas” or anything. I’ve always formatted the pages so that they’re printable. But I have done comics where it’s up on the Web before it appears in print form.

Is that something of a personal preference? Would you rather read something in print, in terms of your own consumption?

I definitely read way more print comics than Webcomics. But I’m actually starting to get into the iPhone. I just got the Kindle application. I don’t have an iPhone, but I have an iPod Touch. I think that’s actually a really good medium. But I’ve also gotten some of those Uclick comics for my iPod. And while I think there are some problems with it—because they mostly take print comics like Bone and format them for the iPhone—I really thank that it’s something really exciting to explore, comics for the iPhone and comics for the iPod.

You’re sort of working your way to that end, and you mention Scott, who’s obviously written plenty about the Internet as the medium. Is that a space that interests you, moving forward?

Yes, yes. I would say, not necessarily the Internet, but definitely some sort of handheld device, like either the Kindle of the iPhone. I would definitely be interested in that. I think that reading in front of a computer, a desktop or even a laptop computer, is still a little clumsy. But the portability of the Kindle or the iPhone really makes is so that it’s much closer to the print reading experience.

The Kindle, for the most part, seems to want to maintain that traditional page-at-a-time reading experience. The iPhone gives the reader more freedom. If you were to format something specifically for the iPhone, what sorts of things are you taking into consideration as an artist?

Well, the page size would be different. I think just the size considerations would be different, like the number of panels on a page and that sort of thing. And even the way a page turn works is different. I think all of those things come into play. And I think the use of color, especially on the iPhone, is important. a black and white comic in print, I think there’s something that feels very native. Most of what we read in print is black and white. When we read prose, it’s black and white. I think black and white comics in print really feel at home. I think black and white comics on the Web or on these portable devices feels a little bit more foreign. People are used to seeing so much color when they’re reading on the Web.

The iPhone has such a beautiful screen that you want to take advantage of it as much as possible.

Yeah, yeah. That’s definitely true.

The new book is out this month, right?

It’s out next Tuesday, actually. [Yesterday, -ed.]

How did you first start working with Derek?

Derek and I met at an Alternative Press Expo a long, long time ago—maybe ten or eleven years ago. And we became friends soon after that. At first we’d just go to cons together, and eventually we would draw together every week. We would have this thing called “Art Night.” So we hung out a lot. He lived in Oakland for a while and so did I, so we lived within walking distance of each other. Around that time he was working for an animation company that never went anywhere. But he was feeling really creatively stifled.

He wanted to work on a project where he didn’t have to write the story, where he could just provide the visuals. So we came up with Duncan’s Kingdom that was eventually released as a two issue black and white from Image Comics in the late 90s. Derek had been published by Antarctic Press before that. That was my first experience working with an actual publisher. That story was a lot of fun to do. Larry Marder was in charge at the time.

And then after that we just did our own projects for a long time, but we always wanted to do something together, but Duncan’s Kingdom was so short that it didn’t merit its own graphic novel. After we both hooked up with First Second, we talked to Mark Siegel, the editor over there, about putting together the sort of themes that we explored in Duncan’s Kingdom, but it would take things in a slighty different direction.

So you do definitely see a common thread between the three short stories in the book?

Yeah, I think they’re all explorations of the intersections of fantasy and modern day life.

When you were trying to figure out what to do with the first story, did the thought of expanding it into a full-length graphic novel occur to you?

We hadn’t actually thought about it. I think in the beginning, we just wanted it to be short, because we both had our own personal projects that we were working on. And then Derek wanted to draw something fantasy, because at the time he thought it was really fun. I think since then he’s moved into more of a cartoony style that he pairs up with naturalistic stories. But at the time he was really into fantasy.

Looking through the book, it seemed like an opportunity for him to try out as many styles in as short a space as possible.

Yeah, yeah. I mean I don’t know if he really wanted to try out the styles—I think he was more concerned about using styles that would serve the stories. I think he did a really incredible job.

Yeah, it really looks like a different artist did the three stories.

Yeah, yeah, it really does. I was really luck to work with him on that.

[Concluded in Part Two.]

–Brian Heater

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4 Comments to “Interview: Gene Yang Pt. 1 [of 2]”

  1. larrymarder | April 29th, 2009 at 2:19 pm

    “Duncan’s Kingdom” sorta slipped through Image Comics during the waning days of my tenure there but it was a book I was very glad to have helped get into the marketplace.
    For a long time, after I left Image, whenever anyone would ask me what my favorite books were that I personally championed while there my response would be “Bone, Groo, and that great little fantasy book with the frogs in it.” And someone would have to remind me that it was called “Duncan’s Kingdom.”
    A coule of years ago, I was as about as far out of the comics business as one can be. But I always went to Scott McCloud’s dinners at Bucca di Beppo during Comic-Com to meet the up-and-coming kids perpetually gathered around “Professor McCloud.”
    After supper, either Gene introduced himself or Scott introduced him as the author of the amazing new GN “American Born Chinese.” Gene said we already knew each other because I had published “Duncan’s Kingdom” at Image. “Ah, the frog book,” I said. Sheeesh!
    At the time I han’t read it but now ABC is one of my favorite GNs.
    I’m quite delighted to see that this wonderful fable has found a new, enhanced life at First Second in “The Eternal Smile.”

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