- Teacher-turned-cartoonist Gene Yang believes in the educational power of comics.
- If you feel like you missed out on 1970s glam rock, The Struts are here to help.
- Believe it or not, romance is alive and well…and living in your phone.
- Art & Design
- Art & Design
Coming up on Articulate, Gene Yang’s career choices have always been driven by vocation. After spending almost two decades teaching high school, he came to the realization that making comics could be just as potent an educational tool.
Gene Yang: I 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.
If you feel you missed out on British 1970s glam rock, don’t worry. The Struts are here to help.
Luke Spiller: If you’re a performer, and you really do give 110% like all the greats have, the audience appreciates that.
And for all the alarm about the death of courtship in the 21st century, you might be surprised to learn that it’s alive and well and living in your phone.
Tommy Pico: The person who you’re talking with on OkCupid or Grindr or Tinder or Bumble or whatever, to a certain extent is a project of you.
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
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.
Luke Spiller: I’ve just always wanted to be the biggest and the best.
And from a young age, the idea of conquering rock and roll has been Luke Spiller’s obsession. His band, The Struts, are named for the way its front man fills the stage. The now-four-piece outfit is known for its bombastic live shows, oozing glam rock nostalgia. Spiller is celebrated as a front man who treats performance as an art form unto itself. But long before he studied the likes of Mick Jagger and Freddie Mercury, Luke Spiller learned performance basics from an unlikely source: his dad, an evangelical Christian preacher.
Spiller: At my age, he was touring around the world, preaching. And his thing is he leads a sermon with his music, and he preaches messages through his songs. He’s gifted. People really look up to him, and he’s a great performer, and he really gets his message across. And, you know, in the house, it wasn’t like the radio was banned, or anything like that. They were very much involved with whatever particular church that we were at in that specific moment in time.
One of the few times that the family’s Christian beliefs butted heads with rock and roll came about because of a provocative documentary.
Spiller: It was talking about the Columbine incident, and how Marilyn Manson was completely to blame for it. There was a shooting where a guy had shot a bunch of people and dropped his AC/DC hat, and therefore, they completely blamed it on AC/DC. And of course, we went home that day, and mum got the bin bag out, and you know, we went through the CDs and “snap, snap, snap.” I did think that, “This isn’t right.” And at the time, there was a Queen Greatest Hits, and I managed to convince my mom, like, “No, I don’t think that’s evil.” I mean, now when I talk about it, they cringe because, like I said, they grow up with you. And I think, as naive as I was as a child to that kind of thing, so were they. So, we kind of all laugh about it now, and it’s kind of like a running joke. But they’ve always been really supportive to a degree where, as long as what I do is truthful and tasteful, they’re always gonna be behind me.
Their support came in handy when, as a teenager, Spiller discovered the outrageous British rock band, The Darkness.
Spiller: It was, like, flamboyant. It was dangerous. It was completely unique, at the time, compared to what everything else was going on in rock. And I suddenly felt like I found something, which I completely connect with, you know. And then I just went down this rabbit hole. And, because none of this had been really shown to me when I was growing up, by my parents—which is really what happens to a lot of young kids—for me, it was fresh. It was like I was living all of this for the first time, and discovering it, and it was my music. None of my friends at school were listening to it, or talking about these kind of artists or bands, and I had found my world. And from there, I’ve just been on a journey to educate myself and look backwards in order to know where to go next.
But the darker side of the rock and roll lifestyle—the booze and the drugs—was not something Luke Spiller clung to too tightly.
Spiller: My priorities have changed. I want to be able to give the best show possible. That person exists now just on the hour and 30 minutes that we’re on stage, and he stays there. And then, when we come off, I then get to be myself and become normal again.
And for that hour and a half, Luke Spiller is totally subsumed by his role.
Spiller: You know, I wanna win people over. It’s all about “I’m the best. I’m the best. I’m the best thing you are going to see this day, and I’m gonna prove it to you.” And I like that challenge. Even if they all have already come to see us, and they know what to expect, I want them to, sort of, be blown away. And I really feel that, if you’re a performer, and you really do give 110%, like all the greats have, the audience appreciates that.
Spiller: Some people think it’s uncool to get people to clap and whatnot, but I have been in many show situations as an audience member, and I can feel the tension in the room, because everyone’s wanting a good time. You don’t go to a show to, sort of, stand there, and sip a drink, and, sort of, tap your foot. You know, you want to lose yourself. It’s like when you’re at school, and you went to your first disco. I can remember it so clearly. I wanted to dance, but I was too self-conscious and embarrassed to do so. And then, I remember the last half an hour, all the kids suddenly work up the courage, and then they’re going mental. And then their parents are saying, “Right, it’s time to go home now.” You’re like, “No, I don’t want to stop!” That’s what I’m talking about, and that’s exactly what happens as an audience member. They want to look around them and see everyone else letting go. And it’s my job to make that happen.
The past decade or so has been filled with foreboding about the impending death of romance, but much less time has been spent examining what romance is and whether it’s even a concept worth saving. A poet, a painter, and a historian all believe the vocabulary of romance is changing, but that may not necessarily be a bad thing.
Painter Jessica Libor is a romantic in every sense of the word. The goal of her art is to capture what she calls the enchantment of love.
Jessica Libor: I think that romance is the primary way that people do touch magic in their lives, because it does feel magical when you fall in love. There’s nothing like it. I think it’s not the only way to have magic in your life, though. I was attracted to the romantic ideal of being an artist. I liked the idea that, for most artists, it wasn’t about money as much as it was about expressing yourself and creating something that could last for generations. So, there was this longing to make a difference, I think, that I was really interested in. That’s what really drew me to it. And I think that I liked that artists always seem so different than the rest of society and that that was okay, and I was like, “Yeah, I like that.”
One of Libor’s signature works, Tender Missive, is an installation made from facsimiles of love letters written by important historical figures.
Libor: There is a huge drawing on the wall, and it’s of a forest, and it gets deeper as you go through it. And it’s kind of, like, tangly and a little bit complicated, but beautiful. And, to me, that represents a feminine energy. It’s there, and it’s beautiful, and it invites you in, and it invites you to figure it out. And all these letters from men, it’s more the masculine energy. They do something. They want to figure it out.
Such tender missives may read like fossils of a bygone era, particularly for those of us who have bought into recent hype surrounding the so-called death of romance. Moira Weigel, author of the book Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating, begs to differ.
Moira Weigel: It’s not over. It’s changing, and there are negative aspects to that, but there are positive aspects to that as well.
AJC: The negatives are?
Weigel: I think the negatives are that, in romance, as in more and more of our lives in general, I think that some of these mobile, sort of on-demand digital technologies have made it easier to treat other people as kind of disposable in the same way I might call an Uber because I need to go somewhere. I can call up someone to meet up for a romantic or sexual encounter and then be done with them.
Tommy Pico: It’s really easy for people to only have relationships with themselves. The person who you’re talking with on OkCupid or Grindr or Tinder or Bumble or whatever, to a certain extent is a projection of you. And in your mind, they’re gonna hold you when you want to be held and let go when you don’t want to be held, and they’re not ever get sick or weird or awkward, and you’re only together as long as you want to be together, and when you don’t wanna be with them anymore, they’re gonna be gone.
Libor: I think it’s totally a false sense of abundance, because you can be on any of these apps. You can have all these people that you could connect to, and I don’t think that you’re gonna have a great love story with all of these people. But because you have so many options, you never actually invest.
And invest is the right word for it. Back when society was organized around agriculture, marriage was a purely economic transaction. Your daughter would marry the son of a neighbor so that your two families could pool their resources. The period when marrying for love enters the mainstream is called, creatively, the Romantic Era—defined by an artistic, literary, musical, and intellectual movement, that emphasized emotion, individualism, and, as industrialization took over, a nostalgic appreciation for nature.
But this preoccupation with the past wouldn’t slow down the future, which arrived like a train crash. Well, in truth, more like the collapse of a railroad bubble. Overbuilding led to the Panic of 1893, the worst depression the U.S. had seen to that point. Desperate for work, young men and women migrated to the cities, where for the first time, couples had the chance to self-select. But though this invention of dating removed parents from the courting equation, Moira Weigel says it did nothing to separate love from money.
Weigel: I think that this is a brilliant commercial invention in the 20th century, and it serves bars and movie theaters and places that sell tickets to people who go out looking for love—as well as dating apps, this is our latest incarnation of it. But I think that it’s this tremendous economic engine to tell everyone that you know, you just have to go on enough dates, pay for enough dinners or movies or if you’re a woman, the traditional scenario, buy enough skirts and makeup, and take care of yourself in this way, and that will lead you to this transcendent form of happiness that just comes out of nowhere.
AJC: And lasts forever.
Weigel: And lasts forever, which is not how it is.
AJC: Hasn’t technology changed the culture of the ideal, the perfect one, “My prince is out there” kind of thing? Has it made us more cynical in that regard do you think?
Weigel: I think ironically it’s made people even more romantic in a certain way, because, rather than going out and seeing who you like and interacting with them, it sort of facilitates this idea that if you just look long enough on OkCupid, spend one more night adding information about yourself and searching a little longer, that it’s gonna 3D-print you your perfect mate who’s there. So, in a funny way, I think that the business of those apps and sites thrives on a certain kind of romanticism and really encourages it, and whereas I think in reality, you know, relationships happen in time. It’s so funny. I mean, bell hooks, who’s this wonderful writer, about love, says, “Love is a verb.” You have to think of love as a verb, not a noun. You’re not looking for love, a noun. It’s a process that you undergo with someone. So, I think the things that seem least romantic to me about those apps is this sort of illusion of that you could somehow not have to waste the time of falling in love, that you could just find the person.
But it turns out plenty of time is wasted anyway. A 2014 New York Times study found that the average Tinder user is tied up with the dating app for long stretches of their day, time that Tommy Pico believes he’d be better off investing elsewhere.
Pico: I feel like, if I was going to be in a relationship, it would’ve happened by now. I mean, I’ve had—the longest I’ve ever been in a relationship is eight months. And I feel like if, at 33, if that was going to happen, maybe it would’ve happened by now.
AJC: But when you were in that eight-month relationship, did you have that fuzzy warm feeling all the time? Was this person in your head all the time? Did you think a lot about him? What was the relationship with the person when the person wasn’t there?
Pico: Hmmmm. Relief? Being with somebody is hard because I feel like I’m with myself in a way that I cannot escape.
Pico’s outlook represents just one of the many ways expectations around romance are changing.
Libor: For me, romance is about making something or someone special and showing that. Any way that you figure it out to show them is romantic. I don’t think it needs to be flowers and chocolates and a romantic dinner. It could be any number of things. It doesn’t need to be a cliche. I think the most important thing is that you just try and that you show the person that they mean something to you.