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Fundamental Humanity

Scott McCloud and Gene Luen Yang spoke and there’s only one thing you need to know: It is imperative that you shelve Boxers & Saints in that order from left-to-right, or both McCloud and Yang will punch you.

It was an informal talk (McCloud’s prep notes covered one sheet of hotel notepad) between two creators that have very similar approaches to their work (outline, preparation, revision, revision, revision), one of whom directly credits the other for his career, and who have thought deeply about the creation if comics and their power as a medium. McCloud’s direction of the conversation returned time and again to Yang’s very humane approach to his work — in addressing the immigrant experience, he credit’s Yang’s willingness to engage all perspectives with “eyes unclouded with hate” (an idea McCloud returned to in discussing Yang’s objections to the racebent casting in the Avatar movie, which he called the Martin Luther King approach).

This was most apparent in the discussion of that most complete collection of lazy racist cliches, Cousin Chin-Kee from American Born Chinese; Yang found ways to make even Chin-Kee something resembling a sympathetic person. He also noted that Yang is an unpredictable writer, in that Chin-Kee came out of nowhere, and couldn’t have been been foreseen even a page before he intruded on the story. Yang pointed out that ABC was original a series of mini comics, and It had like twelve readers, and I knew eleven. If somebody didn’t understand, I could call them up and explain.

Counterpointing that unpredictability was Yang’s direct nature with words; reading an excerpt from The Shadow Hero he challenged any English teachers in the room to find a single word to remove, or one that needed to be added. The writerly discussion contrasted Yang’s approach to writing for himself versus writing for an artist; for example, Boxers & Saints required a singular focus¹ that required complete control, but The Shadow Hero that couldn’t have been done without the artistic contribution of Sonny Liew.

They also discussed the relationship that Yang has with mythology in his work, particularly in the opposing belief systems of the Boxer Rebellion, all of whom had their mythology made physical and real … they couldn’t all have been true, but they all were. It makes for an ambiguity in the story that perhaps makes it more real. The best uncertain stories invite you to find the story in your own life said Yang, primarily in relation to a discussion of the Book of Matthew — his favorite of the Gospels, and one that originally had a different, more ambiguous ending (McCloud: So, they ran it by a test audience and they didn’t like it?).

This led McCloud to observe that there is one project that perhaps only Yang could tackle.

McCloud: You know what you need to do? You know the Gnostic gospels with teenage superpower Jesus?
Yang: He’s a jerk.
McCloud: Somebody annoys Him and He zaps them? You could be the one person that could do that justice.
Yang: The Gospel of Thomas: the Comic!

Quick cuts:

  • Yang is no longer teaching computer science as a day job, as he did through most of his cartooning career; he went part time, primarily doing database work, but is going back to teaching because he’s found comics to be lonely work. He’ll be teaching one class come the start of the next school year.
  • Yang has been called “the Asian Scott McCloud” before, and I think I’ve tried to cultivate that.
  • The Anglo Gene Yang was unsurprised (delighted, even) to find out the Asian Scott McCloud is also the son of an engineer, given that their work methods and approaches to comics are so very similar. To be specific, Yang says I try to work by the seat of my pants, to harness my inner spontaneity, but I have no inner spontaneity. Asked if he ever feels out of place among the right-brained community of comics, Yang replied Sometimes I’m with other creators and they talk about things like their feelings and I’m like McCloud then exclaimed Feelings only get in the way!
  • Yang does not, in fact, have the ability to be in two places at one time. During the two panels that are scheduled at the same time, he will not be at the one led by Nick Abadizis. During the two that overlap, he will be leaving one early and arriving at the other late.

Gene Yang will be found many, many places during the rest of Comic Con. Find him and tell him how you like his work.

¹ Although they later discussed Yang’s actual collaborator in the person of Lark Pien, his frequent colorist.

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