Humble Comics graphically depicts Far East history

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Matt Lee/Staff

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When Gene Luen Yang entered the comic book world, he had humble beginnings in the literal sense. He began self-publishing under the name Humble Comics. His most popular work, “American Born Chinese,” was the first graphic novel to be a finalist for the National Book Award. He also continues to write the “Avatar: The Last Airbender” series for Dark Horse Comics. Yang’s latest graphic novel, “Boxers & Saints,” has been shortlisted for a National Book Award. It follows the paralleling storylines of Little Bao fighting to drive away foreign imperialism and Four-Girl converting to Catholicism and upholding her faith.

The Daily Californian: What did you find most compelling about comic books that made you want to become a graphic novelist early on in your life?

Gene Leun Yang: I began reading comics when I was in the fifth grade. I started with superhero comics: “Spider-Man,” “Fantastic Four,” “Hulk.” I’ve always loved storytelling, and I’ve always loved drawing. Comic books combine the two.

Later, I got into the alternative comics scene. I read Jeff Smith, Lynda Barry, the Hernandez Brothers and my fellow Cal alumni Adrian Tomine. They proved that comics is a flexible medium, capable of handling any topic under the sun.

DC: You graduated from UC Berkeley with a computer science degree and a creative writing minor. How did your experiences at Cal affect your storytelling?

GY: I loved Cal. I had amazing professors there. I studied creative writing with authors like Gary Soto and Thaisa Frank. Professor Frank co-wrote a book called “Finding Your Writer’s Voice,” and that’s exactly what I did in her class: I found my writer’s voice.

Even my computer science degree plays into my comics, albeit indirectly. Programming is a sequential discipline. Programming forces you to break complex tasks into smaller, simpler parts. Both of those aspects are reflected in comics. The comics medium is often referred to as the sequential art, and cartooning is simplifying characters and objects into their most essential visual forms

DC: I think “Boxers & Saints” is currently your most ambitious graphic novel because it combines Chinese history, mythology and religion into two parallel storylines. How was the process of merging these different elements into your narrative?

GY: This was my most research-intensive project to date. I spent over a year reading everything I could about turn-of-the-century China. I even got the opportunity to visit a Jesuit archive in France where they keep photos and letters that once belonged to French missionaries to China. I loved the entire process. I felt like I learned so much.

DC: What made you choose the Boxer Rebellion, with the amount of violence and turmoil it entailed, as the foreground for “Boxers & Saints?”

GY: I first became interested in the Boxer Rebellion in the year 2000, when Pope John Paul II canonized a group of Chinese Catholic saints. I grew up in a Chinese American Catholic community. Naturally, my home church was very excited about the pope’s announcement. When I looked into the lives of the newly canonized, I discovered that many of them had been martyred during the Boxer Rebellion, a war that was fought on Chinese soil in 1900.

The Boxer Rebellion embodies this tension between East and West that I’ve experienced in my own life from time to time. On one side of the war were Western soldiers, missionaries and Chinese Christians. On the other were the Boxers, an army of poor, illiterate Chinese young people who believed they could call the Chinese gods down from the heavens. I found both the Chinese Christians and the Boxers compelling. They were motivated by essentially the same impulses. The Boxers wanted to preserve their identities, rooted in traditional Chinese culture. The Chinese Christians wanted the same — only their identities were constructed from both Chinese culture and Western religious stories.

“Boxers & Saints” is by far my most violent work.  Though I tried to mitigate it, I felt like I had to include the violence in order to stay true to the time period.

DC: Just like “American Born Chinese,” there’s this push and pull between rootedness and rootlessness, the natural and supernatural, the negotiation between two identities. The way you play with these oppositions in your graphic novels is really compelling. Can you talk a little about that?

GY: I think that comes from the way I grew up. I’m the son of Chinese immigrants. I grew up with one name at home and another at school, one language at home and another at school, one culture at home and another at school. Early on, I had to learn to negotiate between two identities. Sometimes the identities meshed well together. Other times, they came into conflict.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that many people, maybe even most people, go through this. America is a single nation made up of multiple subcultures. Many of us have to cobble together unified selves from disparate sources. It’s a fascinating process.

DC: What projects are you currently working on?

GY: Next year, First Second Books will release “The Shadow Hero,” a graphic novel written by me and drawn by Sonny Liew. Sonny and I are reviving an obscure superhero from the 1940s called the Green Turtle. The Green Turtle was created by Chu Hing, one of the first Asian Americans to work in American comics. Supposedly, Hing wanted the Green Turtle to be a Chinese-American hero, but his publisher objected. Hing reacted very passive-aggressively. If you look at his original Green Turtle comics, the hero almost always has his back to the reader — all you see is his cape.  And when he is turned around, something is blocking his face: another character, a piece of furniture, a shadow. Rumor is that Hing did this so he could imagine the Green Turtle as he originally intended: as a Chinese-American superhero.

Contact Fan Huang at [email protected].