The world of pop culture and comic books looked a lot different 10 years ago. There were fewer conversations about diverse representation in pop culture and comic book superheroes had not quite achieved the dominance over entertainment they retain today (the game-changing one-two punch of Marvel Studios’ Iron Man and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was still two years away). It was into this world that Gene Luen Yang published American Born Chinese, a comic he had been working on for years – since the days when he made Xerox copies of hand-drawn pages and distributed them himself.
American Born Chinese follows the story of a boy named Jin Wang, who struggles with his identity after moving from San Francisco’s Chinatown neighborhood to a mostly white suburb. The book won awards, critical acclaim, and popular success. Since Tuesday marks the official 10-year anniversary of American Born Chinese‘s publication, EW spoke with Yang about what’s changed in the years since, and how he’s trying to forge a path for educational comics with his new series with artist Mike Holmes, Secret Coders, which aims to educate kids about computer science.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How does it feel for you to look back on the 10th anniversary of American Born Chinese?
GENE LUEN YANG: I think it’s crazy that people are still reading the book. It’s kind of crazy it was even a book in the first place. I started American Born Chinese as a series of Xerox mini-comics. Then I would take it to my local Kinkos, staple it by hand, and sell it through my local comic store and local shows. To even have it as a full color graphic novel is kind of amazing. The fact it’s still on shelves 10 years later is just mind-blowing.
When I started in comics in the late ’90s, Marvel Comics had declared bankruptcy. It was not the powerhouse it is today. I remember going to San Diego [Comic Con] back then, and you could buy tickets the day of. On Sunday it felt like there were more exhibitors than attendees. It was like a ghost town. I would go to these panels where publishers would talk about how we were about to see the death of the American comic book, predicting that comic books would go the way of poetry in America. Epic poetry used to be something everyone read, and now it’s a niche thing. I just remember thinking I’ll never be able to make any money at this, I’m just gonna do it because I love it. To have the entire industry go from there to here, where pretty much everyone you meet on the street knows what a graphic novel is – it’s amazing. As a cartoonist I have definitely benefited from all the changes and growth that have been experienced by the comic book industry in general.
What kind of changes do you mean?
The fact that I’m full time at comics now is amazing. Ten years ago I was a full time high school teacher, which I really loved. I actually just left the school a year and a half ago, and by then I was only teaching a single period. I never would’ve been able to imagine that I would be full-time in comics, and I am now. I also never would’ve imagined that the world would be so interested in comics, that America would be so interested in comics and graphic novels. That you’d be able to find them in pretty much every library, that people would talk about them in colleges, that they’d be regularly assigned in college classes – all of that is just a 180 from what it was like when I was starting off.
In addition to comics, how have you seen Asian-American representation in pop culture change in these last 10 years?
I think things are definitely moving in a good direction. It seems like there’s a large conversation about diversity in American storytelling. Not just comics, but in movies and TV and books. I think it’s an important discussion to have because of the changing demographics of our nation. Another thing I couldn’t have imagined in the ’90s was two sitcoms about Asian-American families. Now we have Fresh Off the Boat and Dr. Ken – that’s just mind blowing to me that would happen. And the fact there are starting to be a good number of Asian-American characters even in other shows that aren’t primarily about Asian-American families.
How did you develop Secret Coders?
When I was at the school, I was teaching primarily computer science, so I was teaching coding to kids. Three different levels of coding: I taught an introductory class, I taught an AP class, and I also taught a computer art class. Coding factored into all three. When I would teach I would do it in a visual way, so I would do a lot of drawing on the board to explain my concepts. I always thought those lessons would work well in a graphic novel format. So that’s what Secret Coders is: Me taking these lessons I taught in my classroom and translating them into comics.
I’m teamed up with a guy named Mike Holmes, who’s an immensely talented cartoonist. He worked on Adventure Time comics and Bravest Warriors comics before working with me on Secret Coders. He’s fast, and his drawings have this energy to them that fits the series so perfectly. In a lot of ways, Secret Coders is an experiment for me. It’s my first explicitly educational comic. I’ve always thought that in America there’s been this dearth of educational comics. If you go to Asia, there are an entire section of educational comics at your local bookstore. Japanese and Korean educators have already recognized the educational potential of comics, but in America we’re still trying to figure that out. Secret Coders is my entry into that category, trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t when it comes to educating kids through comics.
What have you found so far?
The big thing is this: I want to figure out if you can have narrative goals and educational goals in the same project, or whether they’ll step on each other’s feet. I want to tell a compelling story, and I also want to get in some educational concepts. My hope is, with some of the tougher concepts, the narrative intrigue will compel the reader through those pages and will also make them want to reread those pages to understand what I’m teaching. With coding, there are some concepts that can be a little more difficult to understand. That’s a benefit of comics, actually. When you’re watching an educational video, the rate at which the information is coming at you is determined by the person showing you. You can rewind it and watch it again, but it’s a little bit clunky. With a comic, you can read as quickly and slowly as you need to, and you can reread panels as often as you want. That’s what I want: I want kids to be intrigued by the story enough to go back to those educational parts and reread them to try to understand them. I don’t know if that’s actually happened yet, but that’s the hope.