In this second part of our interview with Gene Yang, we speak in more detail about his latest book, The Eternal Smile, a collaboration with fellow Bay Area-based cartoonist Derek Kirk Kim, which collects two brand new stories and an old, largely forgotten fantasy tale, which saw a small run on Image Comics in the late-90s.
Yang discusses his collaboration, the impact of its predecessor’s success, and the difficulties of tackling ethnicity in comic book form.
It sounds like Derek initiated this collaboration in which you wrote the script and he illustrated. Was that sort of method something that had interested you before the project?
Yeah, I jumped at the chance to work with him. He’s a world-class illustrator. And it’s also the most physically tasking part of putting a comic together. One of the things I really like about comics is that one person can really drive a project. One person can really have a hand in every element, and I think that’s much different than other storytelling media, like animation. But I think when you’re able to work with another person who really has common sensibilities with you, I think it can work really well. That’s how I feel about working with Derek. Especially in that last story. He took a greater role in the last story. I storyboarded the other two, and in the last one, I wrote the story, but he was the one who wanted to break it up a little more into a panel layout. I think that really set the story better—it enhanced it a lot.
Then he didn’t play much a role in terms of developing a plot for the first two pieces?
Well, I think the plot was mostly mine. All of the characters were mine. For certain panels, I would have the camera shot in a certain way, and he would shift it in a way that he thought was more dramatic. When I storyboard, I storyboard for me. I storyboard almost subconsciously for my own limitations in illustration. He would come up with visuals that I just couldn’t draw, so he doesn’t need to tell stories in that way. He did a lot of that, where he would reshoot panels. But the general pacing and the panel layouts on each page were from my thumbnails. But in the last one, the actual panel structure was all him.
When he approaches you and says he wants to create a fantasy story from the aesthetic point of view, how do you approach that? How do you tackle such a potentially alien genre?
I actually wrote another story first and showed it to some friends, and it didn’t get a very good reaction. Duncan’s Kingdom was actually the second story that I wrote for him to draw. I think that was actually helpful to write a project that didn’t actually get finalized. At the heart of it, it’s not really a fantasy story. That was helpful, too. I haven’t written a straight fantasy story, yet.
There were some fantasy elements to American Born Chinese.
Yeah, I think so. I think it’s the whole magical realism thing, where you blend the two together. The whole “Monkey King” story takes place in a fantasy setting.
The second two-thirds of The Eternal Smile were done specifically for the book.
Yes, they were done after American Born Chinese and Duncan’s Kingdom was done much, much earlier.
American Born Chinese won all manner of awards and was really well-received in general. After having that manner of success, is it important for you to try on something new?
Yeah, I think I was a little freaked out by it. I didn’t really expect all of the attention that it got. I was just happy that it was being collected into a graphic novel by a great publisher. But I did get a little freaked out. It definitely changed my life, especially the support from teachers and librarians. So I was a little freaked out by the next project. I think working with Derek took some of the edge off, because I know, if nothing else, it’ll at least look pretty gorgeous.
Was it important to take the work in a different direction, story-wise? You get a little more legroom with short stories, because you don’t have to carry a piece out for 200 or 300 pages.
Yeah. I think that I do end up hitting lot of the same notes, though. One of the people I work with makes fun of me for putting a twist in each story. So there’s that element that I think I’m a little tired of that, by this point. But that’s where I was, and that’s one of the things that kept coming out when I was writing. I didn’t really want to explore ethnicity again, in the second one.
Is there a reason for that? Is it a hard subject to keep hitting, over and over again?
I think there are definitely other ways of hitting that. I’m dealing with some of those themes in the new project that I’m working on with another artist.
It’s something people tend to shy away from. Sometimes it seems hard for people to digest it, in the form of entertainment.
Yeah, I think that’s true. And I think that different generations perceive that topic very, very differently, depending on how old they are, and what part of the country they grew up in. it can be a difficult thing to talk about.
You mentioned before that you were surprised by all of the feedback from teachers and schools for American Born Chinese. Is that something that you’re taking into account now, as you’re working on new books?
No, I don’t. I really, for the most pat have tried to keep my cartooning life and my teaching life separate, but nowadays they’re kind of convergent.