Gene Yang: Drawing on Knowledge
After almost two decades teaching high school, Gene Yang realized that comics can be a powerful educational tool.
These days, Gene Yang is one of America’s busiest cartoonists. Since 2016, he’s been traveling the country as the Library of Congress’ Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, all in the pursuit of one goal.
Gene Yang: We’re trying to get people to take comics seriously, to show that comics can tell any kind of story that humanity wants to throw at it as a medium.
And Yang has covered quite a lot of ground with his medium. In the past decade or so, he’s created the semi-autobiographical American Born Chinese, authored Avatar: The Last Airbender, and, most recently, made the New Super-Man for DC Comics, a continuation of the celebrated series featuring Kong Kenan, the Chinese Clark Kent.
AJC: What are the limitations of the form in terms of storytelling? What does it do really well, and what does it do not so well?
Yang: I think comics can be much more intimate than video or than the movies, than any other visual narrative storytelling medium. Like, every line that you see on that page came from a person’s hand, and I think, because of that, a well-made graphic novel feels like, almost like you’re getting a page out of somebody’s diary.
Yang’s breakthrough, 2006’s American Born Chinese, was one such intimate reflection. The book, rooted in Yang’s own experiences as the son of immigrants growing up in California, explores racial stereotypes and the struggle for identity in a way that’s at once both deeply personal and universal.
Yang: It seems like the kids that resonate most with the story are not necessarily Asian-Americans. It’s mostly immigrant kids. It doesn’t really matter where their parents are from, you know. It’s that dynamic of having to negotiate between two different sets of expectations, the dynamic of really wanting to fit in a little bit better than you can. All that seems to be true regardless of the home culture. Just the other day, I was giving a school talk in Missouri, and this kid raises his hand, and he says, “You know, sometimes I feel like I talk one way to people at school and another way to people at home, and I’m not totally sure who I am. So, how do I figure out who I am?” That was his question. And I just felt underneath that question, it’s that same emotional reality that I lived through. You know, you don’t really know who you are. You don’t really know if you’re being fake or not.
School visits such as these feel very comfortable for Gene Yang. Before comics became his full-time job, he spent 17 years at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, California, teaching computer science and math. But it wasn’t pre-ordained that he would be an educator.
Yang: I remember when I was in high school, my calculus teacher told me that he had spent his whole life on either one side or the other of a teacher’s desk, and I remember thinking when he said that, “Oh my gosh, it’s such a sad life.” But then in college, you know, I started realizing that there’s a nobility to teaching that I found really attractive. I think being in a classroom full of teenagers day in and day out kind of made me a man. It kind of made me, you know, it made me an adult. It made me an adult. I made me figure out how to manage a classroom. It made me figure out how to deal with other people’s emotions. It made me figure out how to talk and communicate effectively. All that stuff happened in that classroom. I’m really thankful for my time as a teacher, but what I didn’t realize when I first started doing comics is that being an author actually requires a decent amount of travel. And as things picked up, I was traveling more and more. I remember my very last year teaching. I was only teaching one class, so I was just hanging on by my fingernails. And even for that one class, I would end up missing two or three periods every month, and it just felt too hard. It felt really hard. Then, DC Comics called. They offered me the chance to write Super-Man. That’s not an opportunity that a nerd can turn down, right? And there’s no way I could’ve done that and continued teaching.
AJC: At what point did you become cool in the eyes of your students?
Yang: When I left. It is so hard to impress teenagers that you see on a daily basis. You know, I remember trying to impress my students by telling them that I made comics. It just never worked. And then I visited the year after I left, and kids would be coming up to me bringing up my books asking for my autograph. That never happened. That never happened when I was a teacher there.
AJC: You are a huge advocate for the idea of cartoons being a great tool for education, and that’s now starting to gain some traction.
Yang: It is, it is. I’m so happy about that. I don’t want every subject to be taught through comics.
AJC: Why not?
Yang: Well, I shouldn’t say every subject. Every topic. I don’t want every topic to be taught through comics. I just think comics ought to be included in every educator’s toolkit, ’cause there are certain things that are best taught using a sequence of still images.
AJC: So, tell me the things.
Yang: So, I think, okay, so I’ve only taught math, and I’ve only taught computer science. There are certain—
AJC: They sound really difficult.
Yang: Maybe, maybe. There are certain topics in math that are algorithmic, that are just one step after another, you know, in order to round out a solution. Like factoring is that way. And for things like that, having a visual representation of those steps can be tremendously helpful to students. In computer science, it’s the same way. In computer science, I did a lot of drawing on the board. I did a lot of drawing of variables and constants and how loops work and that sort of thing, and none of that is actually a physical reality. If you open up a computer, you can’t see the variables. You can’t see the loops, right? But to have those mental pictures in your head really helps you understand how the code works.
But getting those picture out of his head and onto the page takes discipline, which Gene Yang has in spades. Take, for instance, his morning ritual, a combination of spiritual, physical, and creative exercises.
Yang: I wake up in the morning, I read the Gospel reading, and then I also read out of Tao Te Ching, which is the text for Taoists. Even though I’m not Taoist, I actually really like Taoists. I think there’s something, there’s something really solid underneath what they believe that I really admire. And then I’ll do 20 minutes of meditation, and then I’ll do exercise. I’ll do seven minutes of exercise to wake myself up, and then I’ll take a super cold shower for about 10 seconds. I’ll take a super cold shower because I feel like before I get into that shower, I feel scared, and if I can force my body to go in, later when I’m writing, I’ll be able to force my mind to do what I want it to. And then before I write, so after that, I’ll get the kids ready, help make breakfast and get them out the door, and then before I write, I’ll do three morning pages. That’s from a book called The Artist’s Way. So, morning pages are three pages written long-hand on binder paper, and it’s supposed to be garbage. It’s supposed to be whatever garbage is in your head, you stick on the paper, and it’s a way of silencing your inner critic before you can get on with the actual writing that you need to do for the day.