Colorblind Comics: Award-winning Yang makes art of ‘outsiders’

Gene Luen Yang remembers the first comic he ever bought: DC Comics Presents #57 Superman & the Atomic Knights.

“That comic book blew my mind,” Yang said in a phone interview. “Pretty soon after buying that comic, I was making comics of my own.”

From ‘American Born Chinese’ by Gene Luen Yang

Yang was in fifth grade at the time, and he and his best friend, Jeremy, collaborated on stories, with Yang handling the writing and the pencils and Jeremy doing the inks. They would make copies and sell them to classmates.

“It was the ’80s, and the dividing line between who was a comics creator and who was a comics reader was very thin,” he said.

Yang has come a long way since those fifth-grade comics. He’ll be featured during the 2017 edition of the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature’s One Book Two Book Children’s Literature Festival Feb. 24-26.

In 2006, Yang’s book American Born Chinese became the first graphic novel to be nominated for a National Book Award and the first to win the American Library Association’s Printz Award. It also earned Yang an Eisner Award.

His work includes the acclaimed historical graphic novel Boxers & Saints, which was also nominated for a National Book Award; The Eternal Smile with Derek Kirk Kim; Level Up with Thien Pham; Secret Coders, a series for young readers with Mike Holmes; The Shadow Hero, a reimagining of the first Asian American superhero with Sonny Liew; Avatar: The Last Airbender; and — to bring things full circle — a ten-issue run on Superman followed by an ongoing DC series called New Super-Man, featuring the first Asian character in the Superman family.

Yang was recently named a MacArthur Fellow, and, in January 2016, he was named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Library of Congress, which co-sponsors the program with Every Child A Reader and the Children’s Book Council.

Much of Yang’s work — from American Born Chinese to his Superman run, during which the Man of Steel was depowered and estranged from most everyone — features characters who are outsiders.

“Throughout my life, I’ve often felt like an outsider in different contexts,” Yang said. “The outsider experience is actually very common. It’s almost something that ties us all together.” Yang notes the irony, but also suggests that is why stories of outsiders resonate with so many readers.

Yang’s work is notable for its narrative complexity. American Born Chinese, for example, features three storylines that seem distinct until they come together in a powerful and creative way. The two-volume Boxers & Saints explores China’s Boxer Rebellion of 1900 from two different perspectives without making judgments about who was right and who was wrong. To craft these stories, Yang has a strategy.

“Oh, I’m a big outliner,” he said. Early in his career, he tried making things up as he went along. “I just was not satisfied with how my stories were turning out.”

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So now he starts with a plan. “The way the different stories weave in and out of one another is all figured out.”

Yang doesn’t shy away from complexity even when writing for younger readers. His Secret Coders series, which teaches the basics of computer science through an interactive adventure, features the same sort of fully-realized, outsider characters found in his other work.

“That book really comes out of my teaching experience,” Yang said, explaining that he spent 17 years teaching computer science to high schoolers. “What I was interested in was experimenting with how to weave together educational content and narrative. I’m still trying to figure it out.”

The challenge, he said, is in creating three-dimensional characters within a plot that is also trying to teach something. He argues that most characters in educational materials are two-dimensional and “serve as avatars for the readers.”

“It could be that three-dimensional characters actually get in the way of the learning,” he said.

His interests in education and storytelling make him an excellent selection to serve as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. He’s pleased to serve.

“The goal of the whole program is to get more kids reading and kids reading more,” he said.

He hopes to encourage kids to stretch themselves with a new program scheduled to roll out in April.

“The Reading Without Walls initiative challenges kids to read outside their comfort zones,” he said.

Yang’s website expands on the goals of the program: “I want every kid — every reader, really — to explore the world through books. Books have played a vital role in getting me outside my comfort zone. I believe they can do the same for you.”

He goes on to challenge young readers to “read without walls” by exploring books in three different categories: books about characters who don’t “look like you or live like you,” books on “a topic you don’t know much about” and books “in a format that you don’t normally read for fun” (chapter books, graphic novels, verse, etc.).

“If you really want to go for the gold star,” Yang writes, “read a book that fits all three criteria!”

While in Iowa City, Yang will give a presentation — “Most likely about Secret Coders and Reading Without Walls” — followed by a signing, and a workshop with kids (already full). Details are available at

Yang’s duties as ambassador aren’t slowing him down creatively. He’s currently finishing up the Secret Coders series and his Airbender run, as well as working on New Super-Man. He’s also working on his first nonfiction graphic book, called Dragon Hoops. Yang followed a high school basketball team throughout its 2014-2015 season, and Dragon Hoops will tell the team’s story.

Don’t expect it too soon, however.

“That’s going to take forever,” Yang said with a laugh. “I’m drawing it, too … I’m a very slow artist.”

Born colorblind and therefore convinced he’d never enjoy graphic forms of storytelling, Rob Cline was first bitten by the comics bug in college. The resulting virus lay dormant for many years before it was activated by the inscrutable work of Grant Morrison. Now Cline seeks out the good and bad across the comics landscape as the Colorblind Comics Critic. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 215.

Friday, Feb. 24

INVITATION ONLY—Friday Once Upon A Time
hotelVetro, 6 p.m.

Saturday, Feb. 25

The Little Engine That Could
hotelVetro, 10 a.m., Free

Comic Book Confidential w/ Franky Frances Cannon
hotelVetro, 10 a.m., Free

Darrin Crow: Talespinner & Troubadour
hotelVetro, 10:30 a.m., Free

Gene Luen Yang
hotelVetro, 11 a.m., Free

Book Character Meet & Greet
hotelVetro, 11:30 a.m., Free

Young Author Autograph Session
hotelVetro, 12 p.m., Free

Jr. High Writing Jam!
The Mill, 12 p.m., Free

Saturday, Feb. 25 cont.

FULL — Illustration Workshop with Gene Luen Yang
hotelVetro, 12:30 p.m., Free

Darrin Crow: Talespinner & Troubadour
hotelVetro, 12:30 p.m., Free

Absolute Science
hotelVetro, 1 p.m., Free

Creative Conversations with Animal Puppets
hotelVetro, 1:30 p.m., Free

Book Character Meet & Greet
hotelVetro, 2 p.m., Free

Read to the Bump
hotelVetro, 2 p.m., Free

Never Say Never with Sofia the Dragon
hotelVetro, 2:30 p.m., Free

‘Cordelia’ by Michele Nelson-Schmidt
hotelVetro, 2:45 p.m., Free

Sunday, Feb. 26

Out Loud
MacBride Hall Auditorium, 1 p.m., Free