This week's Unshelved Book Club features Young Adult books about contacting an evil spirit via a Ouija board, two teens who explore New York City during a blackout, a young woman sent to prison after beating a policewoman, a young volunteer nurse during the Spanish Influenza, a teen who writes a book on what boys want, two slackers who connect during a poetry slam, a romance that starts during an OCD support group, and a world record setting family.
Plus I recently had a chance to talk to YA graphic novel superstar and Printz winner Gene Yang about superheroes, fatherhood, teaching, and his new book, The Shadow Hero.
Gene A: I heard you’re teaching an MFA class?
Gene Y: I am. I’m on the faculty of an MFA for children’s writing. I’m teaching at Hamline University in Minnesota as part of their low-residency program. I fly out there once a year for about a week and the rest of the year I work with students online. This is the third year I’ve done it.
On top of your high school job and all the writing you do?
I asked for only one or two students each semester, which makes it easier. It’s mainly because I want to be part of a writing community that’s not just cartoonists. There’s a bunch of top-notch folks there like Gary Schmidt — he wrote Okay for Now and The Wednesday Wars — and Anne Ursu who wrote The Real Boy recently. It’s nice to hang out, I get to go to the lectures…
What I hear you saying is that comics are a ghetto and you wanted out?
No, no, not at all. It’s that I feel like you have to learn from adjacent disciplines, right? They’re just brilliant storytellers. I get to hang out with them at the faculty lounge and talk shop.
They must be crazy to talk to you, too?
It’s fun. We go to each other’s lectures. And a lot of the students who are coming into the program are published authors that hit some kind of roadblock that they want to get through. It’s cool.
What was your first book?
Gordon Yamamoto and the King of the Geeks. It was Xeric funded.
I saw that in a bookstore recently. I bought it when it came out, way back in the day. I meant to reread before I sway you today but I couldn’t find it —- it must be in a box somewhere in my garage. I’m not sure it reads like a Gene Yang book now…
I have a garage full of them. I can’t look at it at all. I have a hard time looking at my old work, even stuff that came out a year ago, two years ago. I just see all these mistakes that I want to fix. I read them for readings and stuff, but I cringe. There are little things that I wish I could go back and change. It’s always like that.
I think that I’ve had to let go of a lot because I don’t draw the comics I write. I have a hard time keeping up with what Unshelved comic ran yesterday.
That’s a great attitude to have, a sense of detachment. But it’s fun to work with another artist.
But it’s a choice for you. It’s not a choice for me. I can’t draw.
But if you trust the person you’re working with it’s great, I think it’s awesome.
It is. But Sonny Lieu, the artist of The Shadow Hero, must have made some decisions that you wouldn’t have made. Did you discuss those?
We did. Sonny, I think, has a great sense of the page as a whole, whereas I just think about things in terms of panels. So there are certain layouts where he designed this beautiful page, and there was one instance where I felt like it got in the way of the clarity of what to read next. Part of it is that he’s braver and more experimental, part of it is that he comes from an Asian comics culture. And I feel like because artists of Osamu Tezuka Asian comics are more sophisticated. I think your average manga reader would be able to follow the progression Sonny created, but I don’t think it’s true for most American readers. Tezuka just did crazy stuff, you know? Your eye just goes all over the place. I feel like the vast majority of the American population just hasn’t read comics long enough yet to get that. So for that specific page, it looked gorgeous. We talked about it, we came up with lots of solutions, and then we had the people at First Second show it around the office to people who don’t read comics to test it out. Finally Sonny just redid it because we weren’t able to find a good solution. And there are a couple of other places in the story that were like that where we were able to find solutions.
I try not to do anything too crazy, to make sure the reader knows where his eye is supposed to be. Clarity is a big thing for me. I try to go as simple as I can. There are a couple of places where I do something edgier, but not like Sonny. He does some crazy stuff. His Malinky Robot is brilliant.
What do you want librarians to know about The Shadow Hero?
It’s our version of The Green Turtle, a public domain character from the 1940s.
How did you find out about the character?
Pappy’s Golden Age Blog. It features obscure Golden Age comics characters, one or two every week. Most of them are public domain. Tom Spurgeon features the really weird ones on his blog. And then my friend Derek pointed me to Spurgeon’s post.
I thought it was crazy. I went to The Digital Comic Museum and downloaded all the original issues. (It’s all these public domain comics posted legally. Almost all of them are from the 1940s.) So I downloaded all five of the stories.
The rumor is that The Green Turtle was created by Chu Hing, who was one of the first Asian Americans working in the American comics industry. The story is that he wanted his hero to be Chinese American, but his publishers wouldn’t let him do it. Supposedly Chu Hing reacted very passive aggressively. He drew the comics so that you almost never see the character’s face. He almost always has his back turned towards you and then, when he is turned around, something is usually blocking his face so that you could imagine him as a Chinese American. And The Green Turtle has this really funky costume —- he’s got a cape and a cowl and boots and gloves and a Speedo but he’s bare chested and bare legged. It’s a little weird.
I’m a little disappointed you’re not cosplaying this.
Somebody is, though. We got somebody to do it for us, this dude named Alvin Duong is walking around in costume. I hired him to help me promote the book. He cosplays Avatar: The Last Airbender so I saw him at all of these events and he always had these amazing costumes. I asked him if he’d be willing to do this. I said, “The guy is bare chested, but we can find a way around it.” He said, “No, I’m sticking with the original.” Alvin didn’t pink himself out, though that would be amazing. But I don’t think Chu Hing colored his own books, so the way I read those pages is that the publisher and the artist are having a fight on the page.
In the comic reprinted in your book, The Green Turtle looks pinker than anyone I’ve ever seen. It’s like he’s made out of bubble gum.
It’s a weird thing. It seemed like skin color was really important back then, to make sure you knew who was what.
Even the character, his design is so goofy but it’s like endearingly goofy. The characters were all crazy. But there’s an appeal to that and the roughness of the art. It’s like there were no rules. The publishers were so eager to find the next Superman or Batman that they didn’t read it, they just kind of put it out.
So who did you dedicate the book to? Your kids?
Yeah, I think I grew up with superheroes. That was such a big part of my childhood, and it’s become a big part of theirs, too. They love the Bruce Timm Batman and Justice League cartoons. So I felt like that was a point of connection.
I’ve talked to you about being a dad a few times. I think your books always have a message, and I wondered what you were saying to your kids, especially because this book is about parenting a little bit, too.
Yeah, I guess so. I didn’t think about that part. I guess in general superheroes are all about America. They express American ideals, they were created in America, and I think my hope for my kids is that they find a place.
My twelve-year-old daughter has discovered the X-men now, which tells me we’re firmly in the teen years. I asked, “Who’s your favorite superhero?” She said Rogue. And I was like crap, this isn’t going to be easy.
That’s pathos, man. Not being able to connect with other people.
*I gave her a hug. Take that, Rogue! Dad’s here. And he’s bald like Professor X. *
I loved the mom in your book, she cracked me up. But she’s also kind of sad and depressed and nasty. The dad and the son are very close, the son wants to be a grocer like his father. But the mom is just dissatisfied with everything in her life in America. Then she just comes to life when she’s rescued by a superhero. She’s carjacked by a bank robber trying to get away from the scene of the crime. But it’s a very cartoony scene. You know it’s all going to be okay when you see the dollar sign on the sack of money the bank robber is holding.
That’s so Sonny.
Then she comes home and sews a costume for her son. It’s terrible, because she doesn’t understand superheroes and she made me this costume. It’s bad Halloween costume kind of bad.
That’s what we were going for. Sonny just did an amazing job with that one. He’s so good at expressing comedy through faces.
Is that your mom?
I have to say she was inspired by these ladies I knew at church. I grew up in a Chinese Catholic church, and there were these women that, when I was a kid, my friends and I found them hilarious and terrifying. They were really well-meaning and well-intentioned but they were very opinionated, and they were just not afraid to come up and tell you what you should do.
I loved that she drives him on his first adventure.
We thought she’d be a little like a sidekick. It’s just awkward if you’re a superhero. It’s a male power fantasy, so you don’t want your mom around.
And there she is driving you around, and you get your ass kicked right out of the gate. And then the takes a really dark turn.
That’s a superhero thing, right? That has to be there. Uncle Ben has to get shot. Bruce Wayne’s parents have to die. A planet has to be destroyed. That’s part of the genre.
Gene Yang wrote a book dedicated to his kids and then the father, the nicest guy in the book, a guy just like Gene, he’s gunned down because of his kid.
Maybe it was my subconscious expressing anger at my kids.
”Treat dad right, he’s not going to be around forever.”
Who do you hope finds this book?
Anybody who likes superheroes would be able to connect with it. And I think right now, within the superhero community, there’s a big push toward diversity. There’s a constant pressure on Twitter. And I think because superheroes are so American, in a way, when people want to see heroes of color or diverse superheroes they kind of want to be able to see that anyone can become an American. So I hope The Shadow Hero will be a part of that conversation.
Give me your short pitch for you book.
This is something I make my students do.
The book explores the immigrant experience through the genre of superheroes. As the main character learns to be a hero, he’s also figuring out his place in America.