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A Talk With Gene Yang

It’s been a full three days since Gene Yang graciously allowed me some time in his schedule to talk to him; for the record, I almost begged off because I could see that I would be causing him to delay a much-needed meal, but he was insistent. As such, I kept things as brief as I could and remain grateful for his generosity; his reputation as one of the nicest people on the planet is well-deserved. Also, one of the smartest — he’s got a point of view of his work (particularly his recent work with DC) that he wants to convey, and he knows how to reinforce his point while remaining unfailingly polite. This came up fairly early on in our talk as I asked him for his thoughts …

On Superman vs New Super-Man
A disclaimer to start: I never read a Superman monthly until I heard that Yang would be taking over the flagship title¹, so I had little idea what had been going on with the character in The New 52 continuity.

I read Yang’s run faithfully, but I don’t think it was successful; it seemed to me that Yang wanted his story to go in an interesting direction (he’d been handed a Superman who was fairly depowered and on the verge of having his secret identity outed; Yang placed him in a community of mostly-forgotten gods from around the world, re-enacting their great mythic battles as MMA to sustain a portion of their worship), but was hamstrung by story dictates to tie into what was happening in other books.

Speaking purely for myself, the parts of Superman that seemed most Yangian to me were interesting and entertaining; the rest was confusing and haphazard. I asked Yang if he had felt constrained by editorial restrictions on Superman.

I love being part of Rebirth, he told me. Rebirth is the name of the current DC continuity, now that they’ve blown up The New 52; he had no desire to share any frustration he may have felt with the prior work, he only wants to focus on what’s next, what’s positive, where he thinks he can do good work². New Super-Man, he said, was very satisfying because my talks [with DC] started from building a character.

In case you hadn’t heard, this new character is a superhero built up by a faction of the Chinese government, taking as their subject a teenager who’s a bit of bully and only accidentally heroic (I’ve heard him compared to Spider-Man, in that a teen suddenly has his life changed by superpowers and his first instinct is to exploit it; my reading on the character is he’s more of a Flash Thompson).

The character distinctly isn’t American, or even Chinese-American (the book takes place in Shanghai), and comes from a completely different perspective. What do powered individuals mean to nominally-communist, authoritarian government of China? Yang let on that the antagonists of the series (they haven’t shown up yet in issue #1) will super-powered pro-democracy activists; it’s a far more complex story than just the three (somewhat simplistic) poles of Truth, Justice, and The American Way.

And it’s one that almost didn’t happen. Yang said no when he was first approached to do the book, and wasn’t sure if it would have been done without him. I asked about the possibility of cultural pitfalls if a non-Chinese writer had been assigned the gig (specifically, I wondered how many characters might become inadvertent Cousin Chin-Kees), and he was entirely positive. There are plenty of talented writers that could have done it well, he told me, but allowed that a non-Chinese writer might not have thought to explore the very different nature of Chinese society with the story. He was grateful that DC was giving him reign to explore all the contradictions in that society, the things that most fascinate and scare me. He’ll have some time to explore those ideas, as he’s signed for twelve issues, with a full story contained in the first six.

On other occurrences of the number six
Yang confirmed that there will be six books in the Secret Coders series from :01 Books and was really thrilled to be working with artist Mike Holmes (he can draw in any style, it’s amazing). He’s also working on a nonfiction graphic novel, Dragon Hoops, for :01 now; it’s about basketball team from the high school where he used to teach.

On the differences in scripting styles
Like Hope Larson, Yang is doing a lot of writing for other artists now, but he’s had experience with that in past (I’m recalling at least four or five :01 books where he was partnered with an artist) and like Larson he’s still working on writing for superheroics. His work on The Shadow Hero helped prepare him for the conventions and tropes of supers, but the writing for monthly floppies means that he still has to tighten up the story presentation, and it’s been a transition.

On the future
Yang’s done a lot of work a lot of places — DC, Dark Horse — and had a lot of fun doing it, but he gestured toward the stacks of books at the :01 booth and made a simple declaration that revealed both his career plan and the nature of comics he really loves to make in five words: First Second is my home.

¹ Disclaimer to the disclaimer: I have, of course, read All-Star Superman multiple times because I’m not a monster. I consider it to be the definitive representation of the character.

² Which reminds me more than a little of Superman himself.

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