Author Gene Yang Speaks as Part of Graphic Novel Speakers Series


Thank you for coming today, I’m really happy to see all these people here for a talk It’s my pleasure to introduce to you today Gene Yang, author of American Born Chinese, published in 2006 by First Second It was the first graphic novel to be nominated for the National Book Award, and its recently been included in the Best American Comics of 2008 Anthology. Gene has also two projects forthcoming right now and one actually being serialized in the New York times, 20 pages, called Prime Baby, it’s available online, you can take a look at that if you like, and in May, also from First Second, there’s a book coming out called “The Eternal Smile”, which he is collaborating with his friend Derek Kirk Kim, where Gene will actually be doing the writing and Derek Kirk Kim will be handling the art chores, so it’ll be a collaborative work. Before Gene begins to talk I just wanted to say a quick thank you to all the various groups that made this talk possible: The English Department, the Department of Asian American Studies, the Center for American Literary Studies, the First Year Studies Program, the Charles Mann lecture and the book arts, Pennsylvania Center for the Book and Library Learning services. So please join me in welcoming Gene Yang Thank you very much for being here, can you hear me, is this working? It is working, right? Tahnk you very much for being here. This is what I’d like to do, I’d like to start by telling you a little bit more about myself then I’d like to talk about why anybody would actually want to draw comic books and finally I’d like to end with a short reading out of American Born Chinese and I’ll talk a little bit about where some of the ideas behind that story came from. So first, I have two different jobs, I like to tell people that I’m like Batman. Batman has two different jobs; he’s a billionaire by day and a crime fighter by night I am a teacher by day and a cartoonist by night This is Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, California It’s a Catholic High School, anyone heard of Bishop O’Dowd? Nobody’s heard of Bishop O’Dowd It’s a little too far away. We’re best known for our football team and our basketball team. I teach Computer Science there, so, generally, my students have nothing to do with the football team or the basketball team. I’ve been there for about ten years and this is actually the very first year where I am part time at that school. I used to both manage the database and teach computer science this year I am actually mostly managing the database, I do have one independent study student so I’m still technically a teacher because of that one student but most of my chores there now have to do with keeping track of what students are in what classrooms and what teachers are teaching what classes and that sort of thing. Now at night, and nowadays, when I am at home, every other day when I’m at home, I draw comic books Here are four of the books that I’ve done: The blue one on the very left is the very first book that I did as an adult, it’s called Gordon Yamamoto and the King of the Geeks, it is not autobiographical it’s about a young man who gets a space ship stuck in his nose and then he becomes friends with the alien who’s running the ship, and he learns all these deep life lessons from this alien. The second one Loyola Chin and the San Peligran Order is sort of a follow up to Gordon Yamamoto and the King of the Geeks, it’s about a young woman who figures out that she can control her dreams by eating certain foods before she goes to sleep. After eating cornbread one night, she meets the love of her life, and the story progresses from there. The third one is the Rosary comic book; I’m Roman Catholic and the Rosary is a Roman Catholic prayer that Roman Catholic moms like to make their Roman Catholic children pray So I took that prayer and I adapted it to comics form and then the last one, American born Chinese, is the book that kind of changed my life. Support for this book from educators, and from readers, and librarians has really, really changed the way my week looks, so that rather than spending 90% of time working at the school, now I get to spend maybe 40% of time working at the school. So I’ll be taking about that book a little bit later. Scott mentioned another project that I’m working on it’s a short story done in comics form that’s being serialized by the New York Times in their Sunday magazine it’s called Prime Baby, and it’s about a third grader who is intensely jealous of his little sister his little sister’s about 18 months old, and he actually deals with this jealousy by trying to prove that his little sister is an alien. So this is a character sketch, a model sheet for the main character of that short story that started about four or five weeks ago, and it’s 18 chapters long, so it’ll run for maybe three or four months. Alright, so now for the question I’d like to answer: Why would anybody want to make comics? To answer this question adequately, we really have to look at the other side first Why wouldn’t anybody want to make comics? And I can come up with three very compelling reasons why you oughta stay away from making comics, especially as a career. Does anybody wanna do this? Anybody wanna write or draw comics? Or both? So, a couple of you. So, here are three reasons why that’s a bad idea. Number one: Comics take forever to make. If you’ve seen my work, you’ll know that I have a pretty simple drawing style. A lot of my cartoonist friends will actually say that I am just lazy, I don’t really do a lot of cross-hatching, I don’t do a lot of stipling, and sometimes I kind of skimp on the backgrounds. Even with my simple drawing style, a page can take anywhere between four and eight hours for me to complete. So, if you multiply that by a hundred or two hundred pages, which is the average length of a graphic novel, it just takes forever. American Born Chinese took me about five years to finish. So comics take forever. It takes away a good chunk of your life. Second, is that it’s difficult to make money in comics. This is slowly changing. But when I started American Born Chinese in the year 2000, my friends and I would go to these comic book conventions, and we’d listen to our favorite publishers, and our favorite authors and artists talk about how you were about to see the death of the American Comic Book, because there is just no money going into the media. Nowadays there’s been a turnaround, and there’s actually a lot of interest in comics and in graphic novels. But even so most cartoonists, most people who create graphic novels have some kind of a side job, they’re either illustrators, like they’ll draw covers for video game magazines, or the New Yorker, or they’re writers or they’re teachers most cartoonists have some sort of other job. And finally the last compelling reason to stay away from comics, is that comics don’t really make you sexy. Now when I first started dating my now-wife, I waited several months before I told her that I was involved in comics in any way. And after I was pretty sure that we had a relatively steady relationship, I told her, I said I like to draw comic books and she said “isn’t that for third graders? Why would a grown man do that?” Now, since then, I’ve actually converted her into a comic book reader. I did it through two books; one is Mouse, by Art Spiegelman, which is amazing, and the other one is Why the Last Man. Has anyone heard of Why the Last Man? It’s published by Vertigo which is an imprint of DC Comics. It’s about–you’ve heard of it–it’s amazing–it’s about this world where all the male mammals die in this one instant in this one day. Except for one guy. And then the world’s kind of thrown into chaos, ’cause we loose most of our airline pilots, and that sort of thing, most of our politicians… And then the women who are left try to forge a workable society without men. So I don’t know what that means that my wife likes that book so much, but she really liked that book. So this is also changing, comics are slowly becoming sexier, but even so there’s still a social stigma with comic books, with reading comic books. I have some friends, when they read comics in public, they’ll put it in between a bigger book, so you can’t really see the comic book cover. Not that I’m recommending that. Alright, so given these three compelling reasons to stay away from comics, why would someone wanna do comics? For me, the answer starts when I was young. I am the son of two immigrants. My father was born in Taiwan and my mother in mainland China. They came to the United States for Graduate School, met at a library, fell in love, got married and had me. Go ahead?
Can we turn the lights down a little bit? I really want to see these pictures Oh, and it’s hard to see? I don’t know how to do that. But maybe someone else does? Growing up, one of the primary ways that I interacted with my parents was through storytelling. They loved to tell me stories. My dad would mostly make up these stories off the top of his head and usually they were about a young Taiwanese village boy named Anton (?) My favorite Anton stories were all about these crazy chores that Anton’s dad would make him do For instance, there’s one story where Anton’s dad made him go to the front of their house and pick up cow manure with a pair of chopsticks, and a rice bowl. And I thought that was the most hilarious thing in the world. Now looking back on these stories of my dad’s as an adult I came to the realization; I think he was telling me these stories to get me to be grateful that he wasn’t making me do these same sorts of chores. My mom took a more traditional route, she, her parents were living in Taiwan at the time and she asked them to send over a whole bunch of Chinese language story books And she would read to me out of these story books at bedtime. So here are some of the covers of some of the actual story books that my mom read to me out of. I had a realization about my mom’s stories as an adult, and that’s how different these stories are from some of the more typical stories that most kids in this country hear at bedtime. And here is an example of what I’m talking about. This is an actual story book that my mom read to me from when I was five or six years old. If you can’t see what’s happening, there is a young mother, who is breastfeeding her own aged, toothless mother, while her toddler is crying in the corner. You guys see that? This was a collection of short stories about filial piety. Now I’m pretty sure if you go to the children’s section at your local Barnes and Noble you will not find an English translation of this book. Of all of my mom’s stories my favorite were about the Monkey King. So how many of you have heard of the Monkey King? So most of you have heard about the Monkey King. That’s awesome. The Monkey King is an amazing character; in Asia he actually fitsthis really interesting part of the culture. I don’t know if you have an equivalent he is both a literary figure, like Hamlet, and a popular figure, like Mickey Mouse. So his story is originally told in this novel written several hundred years ago called Journey to the West and that novel is considered one of the four pillars of Chinese literature. But at the same time he shows up on lunchboxes, he shows up on saturday morning cartoons, he shows up in comics, so he is very much a popular figure as well. For a five or six year old boy there are many, many things about the Monkey King that appeal. Number one, he is a monkey, and number two, he does Kung Fu. So he is a Kung Fu monkey. He also has superpowers, like American superheroes. He can call down a cloud from the sky and ride it around like a skateboard, he can grow and shrink at the slightest thought, and my favorite when I was little: he has this giant magic stick that he beats people with. So the stick, just like him, can grow and shrink at the slightest thought, so he normally keeps it around a toothpick behind his ear then when he needs to fight he pulls it out and thinks about it and it becomes a staff. So it’s amazing. Now, I grew up listening to stories; I also grew up drawing. My mom tells me that I started drawing when I was about two years old So naturally when you take stories and drawing and add them together you get animation. This was the very first form of drawn storytelling that I was exposed to And I think that’s true for a lot of kids, in this culture as well. When we think of drawn storytelling the first thing that comes to mind are Disney movies, and those sorts of things, and Saturday morning cartoons. I grew up wanting to become a Disney animator. I expected, after I graduated from college, to go and find a job at the Disney Studios. In third grade, we were asked to do these biography reports, I did mine on Walt Disney and pretty soon after I became obsessed with him. I would check out all the books in my library that I could find on Walt Disney I would have stalked him if he had still been alive. I also had this giant poster of Walt Disney’s head hanging in my bedroom. Not his drawings but his actual head. My friends would come over and hang out, they’d look at him, they’d go “Why do you have a picture of a creepy old man hanging in your bedroom?” And I’d have to explain to them, that’s not just any creepy old man that’s Walt Disney. So I grew up wanting to become an animator. In fifth grade this all changed on a trip to a local bookstore. My mom took me a local bookstore back in the day, in bookstores, they’d have these things called spinner racks, which were wire frames racks that carried individual monthly issues of comic books and you could spin them to see all of them. So I’d noticed them before, but for some reason on this particular trip this issue of Marvel 2-in-1 caught my eye. They don’t really publish this series anymore but Marvel used to publish the series that paired up two different superheroes in their superhero universe that normally didn’t get paired up, and made them have an adventure. So in this one, The Thing got paired up with Rom the Space Knight, anyone heard of the Thing? Everyone’s heard of The Thing he’s part of the fantastic four, he shows up in Blockbuster movies… Anybody heard of Ron the Space Knight? All right…so if you raised your hand for that question you are like a hard core card-carrying nerd…in a good way. In a good way. Rom, for the rest of you normal people, is the superhero that dresses up like a robot and he fights crime in outer space. History just hasn’t been as kind to Rom and he no longer has–he’s not in movies and he no longer has his own series. In any case, I saw this, I found this cover amazingly intriguing I brought this upon my mom and said “mom, please, let me buy this comic” and she said, no, absolutely not, those two characters on the cover look really really scary and if you read that book you’ll just get nightmares, so she made me put it back. I was really sulky. So instead, she bought me this. This was the latest issue of Superman. Now Superman is every parents’ favorite superhero. First, unlike The Thing, and Ron, he’s not scary looking at all he’s actually pretty good-looking. Second, he wears, you know, bright primary colors and third he always does the right thing. He’s just like this giant, flying boy scout. I took this comic book home and I read it, to this day I have no idea what the story in that Thing and Rom book is all about. But this story, it was 1984 at the time that my mom bought it for me and in this story the atomic bomb drops in 1986. And kills off most of the world’s population. And the few remnants of society that are left form these feudal-like communities that are pretty lawless. So a group of men decide to get together, dress up in medieval-style armor and ride around the countryside on these giant, mutated dogs fighting crime. Superman is one of the survivors, so he teams up with these atomic knights–they’re called the atomic knights. In the last few pages its revealed that this whole story is just a dream that Superman is having in the fortress of solitude. But that didn’t stop this book from completely freaking me out. I lost several night’s sleep over this book. I stayed up late nights thinking about the atomic bomb which was huge in the 80s, I thought about Superman, and giant mutated dogs. I also stayed up thinking about comic books. This book really got comics under my skin it demonstrated for me how this combination of words and pictures could really achieve effects that neither words nor pictures could achieve alone. So then in high school I had this dilemma: When I became an adult did I wanna draw comic books, or did I wanna do animation? We’ve already talked about three compelling reasons to stay away from comics, so let’s compare this to animation: It takes forever to make a comic; it actually takes more than forever to make animation. Animation is a really really labor-intensive art form. I have a friend who used to work at PIXAR, he worked on A Bug’s Life, which I’m sure you’ve all seen. In A Bug’s Life there’s a scene where all the bugs get together and push this giant fake bird out of a shoot. You guys remember that scene? That took them six months, that was six months of my friend’s life. He told me about his work day, he said in the animation industry, the ten-hour work day is standard. So at the end of ten hours, his director would come in, look over what he did, and say something like “you know, that one bug’s arm, you have it going like this, I’d like to see it go like this” and that’s what he’d have to do the next day. It’s very tedious, very time-consuming. On this particular comparison it seems like comics wins. Comics might take forever, but it doesn’t take as long as animation. Second, with comics you slowly starve to death. Not so with animation, with animation you can actually make a living. That same friend who worked at PIXAR; he actually had health insurance. Which is virtually unheard of in comic books. And third, comics don’t make you sexy Animation might not make you sexy, but it makes you a lot sexier than comic books. I guarantee you, if you are trying to impress somebody, it’s much easier to impress them by telling them that you worked on the Lion King than by telling them that you draw Rom the Space Knight. So for these comparisons, animation wins two out of three. There’s one more comparison that I think really tips things over to comics, at least for me. Animation, because it’s so labor-intensive, is usually created by a team. Comics, even though is still labor-intensive, is still manageable enough for a single individual to create the whole thing from beginning to end. And because of that, because a single person, a single artist, a single storyteller can be in control of every single aspect of that story, of that comic book, I think comics is a very very intimate medium. I would actually even argue that comics is the most intimate medium, even more intimate than prose. I make this argument in front of librarians sometimes and I get these dirty looks. But I’m not getting any today. Let me explain to you what I mean by this. I have two different pages up here from two different works. On the left is a page from David Copperfield by Charles Dickens and on the right is a page from The Rabbi’s Cat by Joann Sfar Now I’m sure a lot of you have read David Copperfield, has anyone read The Rabbi’s Cat? The Rabbi’s Cat is great; I bet they have it at the library here, I’m guessing. But, it’s about this cat that was owned by a rabbi, one day he swallows the family parrot, and he gains the ability to speak. So he starts talking talking talking talking Pretty soon the rabbi and his family realize that all of the words coming out of this cat’s mouth are lies. So he confronts the cat and tells him to repent, and then for a good portion of the first volume the cat tries to convert to Orthodox Judaism, under the Rabbi’s tutelage. It’s this really cute, really beautiful book. In any case, when you compare these two pages, I think you really see the difference between these two mediums, between comics and prose On the left, we see all of the words that Charles Dickens chose to include in his story. But all the visual artifacts on the page, the font, the size of the text, the color of the page, the color of the ink, the margins, none of that has anything to do with Charles Dickens Those are all decisions that his publisher or the printer made. On the right, we get Joann Sfar’s words, but we also get every movement that his hand made as he was drawing that page. And just as how you can tell something about somebody by looking at their handwriting, you can tell something about somebody by looking at their drawing style. So every visual artifact on the page on the right expresses something about Joann Sfar. It’s some decision that he made, every color, every squiggle, every line quality, even the way he lays out his panels, even the choice of six panels on that page tells you something about Joann Sfar. Because of this I would say that the only medium that really rivals comics in terms of intimacy between the creator and the reader is a hand-written letter. Where you actually see the handwriting of the person who is writing to you. And unfortunately because of the internet we don’t really do that anymore. When I look across the landscape of comics, I see the intimacy of the medium the intimacy of comics taken advantage of over and over again. So here are three of my favorite examples. The first one is The Spirit by Will Eisner Will Eisner has been called the Godfather of American Comics How many of you have heard of The Spirit? Okay. How many of you have heard of The Spirit because of the movie that’s coming out? Okay. I’m really worried about that movie. I would encourage you to read the book before you watch the movie just in case the movie completely ruins things. But Will Eisner is like a quintissential cartoonist. He worked until the very end. He died just a few years ago, in his late 80s, I think, and he was working on his last graphic novel, when he felt something funny in his chest He finished the graphic novel, dropped it off at the post office, checked himself into the hospital, and never came out again. So he worked to the very end, he’s a quintessential cartoonist. The Spirit is probably his most well known creation, it was done in the 1940s, it was published as a Sunday insert in the Sunday edition of the paper. And it was very very corporate The setting for the story was very corporate; he had page limitations, he had size limitations but even within those limitations, Will Eisner was able to do a work that was very personal When you read The Spirit you get a sense of what is important to him aesthetically, you get a sense of what is important to him even morally and politically. The second book, Art Spiegelman’s Maus is the only graphic novel to have ever won a Pulitzer Prize. Art Spiegelman’s father and mother were holocaust survivors and Maus really tells the story of his father’s experiences If you look online, if you do a search for Maus, you will find these pages of experimentation that Art Spiegelman did as he was starting up Maus. He experimented with a whole bunch of art styles and finally hit on one that he felt like worked for the story When I first slipped through Maus, I was actually kind of put off by the art Because it’s really rough looking. It’s not very engaging, at least not immediately. But then when you read it, you realize why he chose this art style It really lends it self to the intimacy of the story. It feels like almost something that could have been smuggled out of a concentration camp. The last one is Persepolis, by an Iranian-French artist named Marjane Satrapi. It was recently made into a movie, and this is, I think this is one of the books that’s responsible for this current resurgence and interest in the graphic novel, when the second volume of the story came out in 2003, it hit the New York times bestseller’s list and people kind of flipped out. People didn’t really expect a graphic novel to be able to do that. So pretty soon after, all these big New York book publisher started jumping into graphic novels looking for alternative comics, cartoonists, and offering them large, large sums of cash It was really disconcerting. I am definitely a beneficiary of the popularity of this book. But this book, I think, it points to Marjane Satrapi not being a very good artist when you look at this book, the art looks kind of crude, but being a world-class cartoonist. The reason why she’s able to do that is she’s able to leverage the drawing skills that she does have to build on that intimacy of comics When you read this book, it’s really like reading her diary. It’s like reading her diary You get a sense of who she is as a human being. So inspired by all this intimacy in comics I tried to take advantage of it in my own book American Born Chinese. American Born Chinese tells three different stories that are thematically related The first one is a retelling of those Monkey King stories that my mom told me when I was young. The second one is about Jim Wang, who is a young Chinese American boy growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood, and the last one is a sitcom on paper starring Cousin Chinky, who is this amalgamation of all of the different Chinese and Asian stereotypes that I could think of. Let me do a short reading out of this book now. So there are nine chapters in the book. And the three storylines cycle through these nine chapters. This is the very first Monkey King storyline. Throughout the storyline there are going to be panels that have sound effects. Now, to get the sound a little bit more sound-effectey, I’d like you to read those as an audience, kind of loud, so it’s like we’re watching a movie. Okay? One bright starry night, the gods, the goddesses, the demons and the spirits gathered in heaven for a dinner party. “Your peaches are looking especially plump today my dear…” “Tee-hee, oh stop it Maou-Tzu” “I don’t mean to boast, but that thunderstorm I put together last week impressed even myself”. Their music and the scent of their wine drifted down, down, down the flower-fruit mountain where flowers bloomed year round, and fruits hung heavy with nectar, and monkeys frolicked under the watchful eye of the magical Monkey King. Now, the Monkey King was a deity in his own right. Okay, you see this? This is when you’re on. But not yet, wait till I finish reading the caption first. Legend had it that long ago, long before almost any monkey could remember, the Monkey King was born of a rock. …[Crack]…Not bad, not bad. When his eyes first opened, they flashed rays of light deep into the sky. All of heaven took notice. “What the–” Soon after, he perched flower-fruit mountain of the tiger spirit that had haunted it for centuries. He established his kingdom and monkeys from the four corners of the world flocked to him. The Monkey King ruled with a firm but gentle hand. Play nice…He spent his day studying the arts of Kung Fu. He quickly mastered thousands of minor disciplines, as well as the four major heavenly disciplines prerequisites to immortality. Discipline 1: fists like lightning.
Crack! Good! Now this character right here, in the Monkey King’s word balloon, that’s actually the Chinese character for electricity. I went to Chinese school every saturday for twelve years and I still had to ask my mom how to write that character. My parents when I was growing up, they constantly told me “you need to pay attention to Chinese or you are going to regret it as an adult.” And I didn’t pay attention to Chinese school and now I regret it as an adult. Discipline two: Thunderous foot.
Boom! And this right here is the character for Thunder. Discipline three: Heavenly (?). A dinner party? The Monkey King liked dinner parties very much. “My dear subjects, I must take leave of you tonight for there is a very important party I must attend.” Discipline four: Cloud as steed.
Foosh! You guys are getting progressively weaker. Let’s try that again. One, two, three! Much better.
Whoosh! You see that, you almost felt the wind, right? The Monkey King waited in line for what seemed like an eternity. He fidgeted this way and that, Monkeys just aren’t very good at waiting, but forced himself to stay in line. All the while he thought about how much he liked dinner parties. By the time the Monkey King arrived at the front gate, he was beside himself with anticipation. Announcing the arrival of Ao Run, the Dragon King of the Western Sea Pardon me sir, but might you step this way for a moment? Oh I’m sorry. You may announce that I am the Monkey King of Flower-Fruit Mountain. Yes, yes. I apologize profusely sir, but I cannot let you in. You haven’t any shoes. But there must be some mistake! I am the Sovereign ruler of Flower-Fruit Mountain, where the flowers bloom year round and fruits hang heavy with nectar. Thousands of subjects pledge loyalty to me. Good for you, sir, good for you. Now if you’ll kindly step aside… You don’t understand. I, too, am a deity. I am a committed disciple of the arts of Kung Fu and have mastered the four major heavenly disciplines, prerequisites to immortality. That’s wonderful, sir, absolutely wonderful. Now please, sir… I demand to be let into this dinner party. Look, you may be a king, you may even be a deity, but you are still a monkey. Have a good evening, sir. The monkey king was thoroughly embarrassed. He was so embarrassed, in fact, that he almost left without saying a word. But on second thought, he decided that perhaps saying one word would make him feel better. “Die!” Okay, now you know how in songs there are drum solos or guitar solos, this is a sound effect solo that’s coming up, so this is all you. Ready? Smack! Crash! Crack! Boom! The monkey king couldn’t stop shaking as he descended upon Flower-Fruit Mountain. When he entered his royal chamber, the thick smell of Monkey fur greeted him. He’d never noticed it before. He stayed awake for the rest of the night, thinking, of ways to get rid of it. That’s the first chapter. The second chapter is about Jin Wang, and I think I’m not going to read out of that Because I’d like to leave some time for questions. I’d like to do another reading out of the third story line, which is the Cousin Chinky storyline. This is by far the most contraversial part of the book, this book was published in September of 2006, a couple of months before that my publishers sent out review copies to all of these different independent bookstores all over the nation. There were several Asian American bookstores that refused to carry the book after flipping through it and seeing this particular storyline. Now they changed their minds after they actually read the book, but I wanted to talk a little bit about where this character came from before I do the reading. I got married in the year 2000, actually let me not do this yet I got married in the year 2000, a couple of months before I got married I went back to my parents’ house and I cleaned out my old childhood bedroom. Now, if you were to look at that bedroom today you could not tell that I ever cleaned it out, but I swear I did. While I was cleaning out this bedroom I came across this notebook that I kept when I was little so when I was like in 2nd or 3rd grade I kept this notebook of all of these silly little like writings and drawings and all that sort of thing. This is the table of contents for that book Here is an example of one of the cartoons that I did in this book As two horses, one horse asks another can a horse fly? And the other one says no and then above them a horse fly, which kind of looks like a little horse with wings, says “How dumb horses are these days.” Now in this notebook I found this particular cartoon… oops, not this, this is silly poems…I think back then I thought a poem was a sentence where every word started with the same letter. But I found this particular cartoon. And obviously I thought it was funny because I labeled it funny pictures at the top. Right, in case you can’t see what its saying there are two characters here, the top one is a slant-eyed buck-toothed character, in really traditional Chinese dress, saying “Me Chinese, me play joke, me go pee-pee in her coke.” And, at the bottom is a blond kid spitting out his coke. Now when I saw this picture as an adult, I started to wonder, I didn’t really remember drawing it. I remembered keeping the notebook, I did not remember drawing this particular drawing. So, my adult self wondered, did my second or third grade self understand that that joke at the top of the page was directed at me? You know, I must have heard that on the playground somewhere but I wondered did I think of myself as that character at the top of the page? Now if you look at all the creative writing I did in elementary school I always had this young white boy, generally blond, for some reason, as the protagonist, in all the creative writing and all the different little comics and cartoons that I did. So my guess was I probably thought of myself as more as this kid in the bottom spitting out his cup. I probably identified more with this kid at the bottom than I did with the character at the top. So that I found intriguing. The Chinky storyline really is me taking these two characters that I found in a notebook that I kept when I was in second or third grade and fleshing them out into real characters. The main character’s name is Danny and he is basically, like, this character at the bottom of the page and then Cousin Chinky is obviously the character at the top. So like I said before, this is a sitcom on paper. Along the bottoms of some of the the pages, or the panels are either a laugh track or a clap track. So for this one, I don’t want you to handle the sound effects, I’d like you to handle either the clapping or the laughing. So sounds like we’re actually watching a sitcom. Ready? Everyone Ruvs Chin-kee!
[Applause] Vanderwal’s forces of attraction are stronger when what are present? Mmmmm
[Laughter] That’s good, that sounds really fake. Just like a real sitcom.
[Laughter] Danny, you’re drooling.
[Laughter] What? Well, I…that happens when I’m really concentrating on your, I mean, chemistry. Will you please stop fooling around? If we don’t get this attraction stuff down by tomorrow… You know Melanie, since we’re on the topic of attraction, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about something… I’ve actually been hoping…
Danny! Hold that thought. Yeah, mom? I have some exciting news! Guess who’s coming to visit? Who?
Your cousin Chin-kee! Thud.
[Laughter] I knew you’d be excited. Your father went to go pick him up at the airport. He should be here any minute now. Danny, who’s cousin Chin-kee? Harro Amellica!
[Applause] I’ll put your luggage in your room, Chin-kee! Cousin Danny!
[Laughter] Rong time no see. Chin-kee happy as gingeroo planted in nutritious manure of well-bred ox. Hi Chin-kee.
[Laughter] Well, Confucious say hubba-hubba. Such pretty American girl with bountiful American bosom. Must bind feet and bear Chin-kee’s children!
[Laughter] Chin-kee, is that you out there? Oh no, Chin-kee so sorry, so very sorry. This pretty American girl with bountiful American bosom must berong to cousin Danny
[Laughter] Perhaps Chin-kee can find pretty American girl for his self when he attend American school tomorrow with Cousin Danny. Mom! Oh you two are going to have so much fun together.
[Applause] So that’s the end of chapter three, after that all the storylines rotate throughout the book. At this point are there any questions I can answer? If there are no questions, I’m going to have to start asking myself questions, I’ll sound like a crazy person. Go ahead? Tell you more about Chin-kee? Well, okay. I have a few things that I was trying to do with the character. One was I really wanted to take things that I found in modern media and pair them up with really old-school racist imageries. Imagery that we would generally as modern Americans recognize as racist, like this imagery from political cartoons in the late 1800 and early 1900s. So his que, that long thing in the back of his head, and his dress is really pulled from these old sources. Then, for his words and for his actions I tried to pull from more modern sources. I was inspired by Sixteen Candles, Long Duk Dong is a character in sixteen candles which is considered an 80s teen classic. He’s something of a sore spot for Asian American men around my age. We hate him. Because our classmates would go and watch this movie and then come back and say “Come on, say what’s happening hot stuff, come on, just say it”, and we found it horrible. And I also pulled from a political cartoon that was released in the year 2000, during the Chinese spy-plane crisis, there’s this political cartoonist named Pat Oliphant, who’s very successful, has won the Pulitzer Prize, he did this cartoon of Uncle Sam visiting this Chinese restaurant, and Uncle Sam is served by a slant-eyed buck-toothed waiter a plate of crispy fried cat gizzards with noodles so I took crispy fried cat gizzards with noodles and I stuck them in my book. I think that a lot of times, folks encounter these sorts of things, like Long Duk Dong and the Pat Oliphant cartoon and we don’t necessarily connect it to the old school racist imagery from the late 1800s and early 1900s even though deeply connected, you know, even though they really draw from the same well. I think there’s a disconnect there in the American consciousness, where we kind of think well it’s just harmless and funny, without realizing that it actually pulls from this deep source. Go ahead?
So why create a stereotypical character like Chin-kee? Well, I think in a sense he’s sort of an exorcism for me, to get him out on this page. Now if you read the book, he gets beheaded at the end. So sort of my way of putting all of these stereotypes that bothered me for so long, sticking them in a book, and then taking his head off. It’s also to explicitly connect modern words and actions with old imagery, you know what I mean? I just feel like maybe America doesn’t recognize the Pat Oliphant cartoon, William Hung, as drawing from racist roots, because they’re not dressed up in queues, and their faces aren’t bright yellow So by giving them a bright yellow face and putting them in a que, I wanted to point to its origins. Go ahead? What are the main obstacles comics face when being considered literary canon, and how do fans and teachers and students begin to address these obstacles? I think that a lot of it is being addressed right now. You know, right now there is overwhelming support among librarians, especially young adult librarians for comics. Comics collections are growing all over the country in these different libraries, and comics are being reviewed in places like the New York times and Publishers Weekly which had sort of been unheard of fifteen years ago. I think a big part of the, a big obstacle is just the number of quality works that are out there We’ve seen a huge growth in the number of literary works and comics, but I think we still have a ways to go in order to really flesh out that section in the library with really good quality works. There’s still a lot of territory to be explored. You know, comics has traditionally–in America, at least, has traditionally been male-dominated so we still need a lot of female voices, we need a lot of minority voices, I think that will all help. And I also think that reading comics in public also helps. Seeing people read comics in public also helps. Go ahead? As a child I was sentenced to Catholic School for eight years… … for librarians I think, you have to be really kind of wholesome, you have to be in the comic stores, You have to view it as, some of the professional journals that review, the whole graphic novel review, I don’t know if any of the other librarians here have read the professional journals, I mean The Watchmen is not even listed under best comics, I mean how, it’s in the hundred best books on some lists, things like this there’s a disconnect I’m a huge fan of Alan Moore, Prometheus,
[Inaudible] But my question is, with regard to Chink-kee, and, did you get any, the whole conflict with Tin-Tin, which was, I don’t know if you’re familiar with…
Yeah, yeah, with Tin-Tin in the Congo? Yeah, yeah. It sounds like they’re pulling Tin-Tin out of publishing and so on for this same kind of thing. Yeah, yeah. I think…I’ve gotten a few different reactions to Cousin Chin-kee. One is folks who come up and say you know, those chapters are really difficult for me to read it made me really uncomfortable and I think that’s kind of what I was going for. And then other folks would say you know, I found those chapters really funny, but I felt weird laughing about it. So the difference between Chin-kee and Tin-Tin is you’re trying to be… I think…I personally think that race…Yeah, yeah, I know…I personally think that racism is a source of humor. And I think it can be a source of humor in two really distinct ways. I think one is we can see those racist ideas as funny because they are so ridiculous. And another way we can think is that racism is funny because it’s true, because we think it’s true. Right? And I think we as a nation are still struggling with where that line is. Like the Dave Chappel show, I’m sure you’ve all seen. The reason he stopped making that is because he was trying to approach topics on racism from that first wave, you know, from making fun of of the racist ideas themselves but he got increasingly more and more worried that people were laughing at it because of the second reason because they thought it was true, because they thought it was a mirror of reality. And that’s a tension that I struggle with as well. When American Born Chinese first came out it was released as a comic and as a web-comic and it had these really really small readerships, mostly made up of seasoned comic book readers. And I felt like at that point I didn’t really worry about the Cousin Chin-kee character because I thought most people who are going to read this will understand where I’m coming from. Now since then it’s gotten this wide readership and I think most readers will still understand where I’m coming from if they’re laughing at it I think most readers are laughing at it for the right reasons they’re laughing at it because of the sheer ridiculousness of what he represents. But every now and then I do get folks who give me a reaction that makes me really uncomfortable. Like, they’ll say, Cousin Chin-kee is so cute, you should put him on a t-shirt, and I would wear it. Like things like that that make me really uncomfortable, you know? And I thought that if I had known at the time that it would have such a wide readership I would have tried Chin-kee a little bit more monstrous, to emphasize that he’s actually meant to be extreme, you know? Go ahead?
[Inaudible] I don’t think I have, no, sorry…
[Inaudible] Okay, okay, is that a mini-comic, or is that self-published? Okay. Well-Dressed Bear. All right, I will. Go ahead? Oh, yeah.
[Inaudible] Lat? I really like Lat. Lat, he’s like the Malaysian Charles Shultz, he’s huge in Malaysia, and if you haven’t checked out any of his comicsyou should. His name is just Lat and that’s it. I actually didn’t build that part of the slide. That was actually put together by my publisher and they’re doing a translation of Lat’s books. So I think what you’re picking up on was them trying to subconsciously get you to buy their book. But I really admire Lat, I think there’s an honesty and integrity to his work that I really respect. Go ahead?
How is your night job work into your day job? Well, when I started teaching, I started comics and teaching at about the same time When I started teaching I would make sure on the first day of every class to tell the students that I make comic books. Because I thought that would make me really cool. But it did not, it did not make me cool at all, the students would just give me funny looks, and they kind of at that point, the comic book industry was kind of in the dumpster. So they kind of reacted the same way my wife did when I told her I drew comics, they said, “you know, I used to read those when I was a second grader”. Things like that. So eventually I just tried to keep those two worlds separate I tried to keep my teaching world and my cartooning world separate. And now that they’ve slowly merged again. I’ve used comics in my classroom in an art class that I taught, I taught a computer-art class, and we did four sections, one section was on comics. I’ve also used them as lecture aids in a math class, I would draw out really quick comics explaining some of the more difficult material. So they’ve integrated that way. But every now and then I’ll get a student who’ll say “Oh, you should write me into one of your books”, and I never do. Because they would be unhappy with me if I did Go ahead?
[Inaudible] Like Mainstream Superhero comics [Inaudible] Yeah, I…for the first one, I think there’s a place for it, I think it’s a little more difficult to come up with works of quality when you’re working in that sort of environment. Not that it doesn’t happen. I think it definitely happens, but I think it’s just more difficult. Generally, it seems to me with comics, the more hands you have working on a project the harder it is to get that project to be good. But it seems like in mainstream comics a lot of the best work is still driven by a single vision. Like Watchmen was really driven by Alan Moore, Alan Moore actually did all of the page layouts himself, so Dave Gibbens was really just doing the finishes. So that’s what I think about mainstream comics. With the collaborative project, Derek and I have been friends for a really long time. So I think that as a comic done by individual is an expression of that individual, I can also have a comic that is an expression of a relationship. That’s what I’m hoping. But we’ll see when it’s all done. I’m hoping it’ll also show the character of my friendship with Derek. Go ahead?
[Inaudible] I think right now is a really exciting time, not just to be in comics but to be in media in general. Because of the way technology has changed the landscape. The way I did it was I started by self-publishing You know, I self-published, and I did mini-comics, and I did web comics, and eventually I got the attention of a publisher, and that seems to be a very very common story now. With comics, most people start off by just doing their own stuff. Doing their own stuff, self-publishing really gives you an idea of what the entire process is like from creating the work itself to the printing and the distribution to collecting money…you know, it gives you a view, a really broad view of how the industry works and I think that’s really valuable. And I think that principle of doing it yourself first, gathering an audience and then figuring out how to get broader financial support translates to other media you know, a lot of musicians nowadays will start by releasing music on the web. We Need Girlfriends…have you all seen We Need Girlfriends? It’s a web television show that three guys who lost girlfriends got together and made this web television show and now it’s been picked up by CBS. So it seems like that’s a very common thing now, is for folks to start by doing the entire thing themselves and then eventually getting broader financial support. Go ahead?
[Inaudible] What I do is I first start when I have an idea, I’ll mull it over for a while, and then I’ll write it up as a synopsis, as like a story outline, and then I’ll send it to a few of my friends whom I really trust. And they’ll tell me whether it’s good or whether it’s crappy. So if its crappy I’ll abandon it. And if is good I’ll pursue it. And at that point I kind of view it like a marriage that you just gotta commit. And it’s gonna suck sometimes. But you just gotta, it’s like, till you die, right, till either you die or the work is done, you gotta stick through it. And I have friends, like, when I first started comics I was living with two other guys, and I made a deal with them. Whenever they came home from work I wanted them to ask me how I was doing on my comic. And if I didn’t get as far as I wanted, I wanted them to make me feel really, really guilty. And we did that for about a year before I developed my own sense of guilt that drove me. Go ahead? [Inaudible] Yeah…Yeah, comic book conventions are crawling with movie agents now. And you can always tell there’s like a slight sleaziness to them. I think…I’ve been talking with folks in the movie industry about adaptations and those sorts of thing. And it really freaks me out a little bit like I’m very hesitant about it. If I ever were to do, like if I ever were to have one of my works adapted I would want it to be kind of like a movie version of how I did my comic like I would want it to have some sort of, like an independent producer, or an independent director on a shoestring budget, doing the movie version of mini comics. That’s what I’d like to see So I’ve had some talks with folks that are like that, but nothing’s gone anywhere yet. [Inaudible] Yeah, yeah, yeah… Yeah, that would be awesome. If it was more like American Splendor that would be awesome Go ahead?
[Inaudible] Yeah, sure, sure….oh, go ahead? The backdorm boys? For the first question, when I looked into doing my own adaptation of the Monkey King, I looked around at what was there and I realized that in Asia, there are tons and tons and tons of Monkey King adaptations you know, almost every cartoonist worth his or her salt in Japan or China or Korea has done something with the Monkey King. Like Osamu Tezuka, the God of Manga, has done his version of the Monkey King, and I just got really intimidated, like, what could I do, what could I add, to this body of comics work that is already dealing with the Monkey King. In the end, I hit on this idea that I could do something that none of these Asian artists could do and that was to do an Asian American retelling of the Monkey King story. Because they’re not Asian American. So the way I did that was I wanted to combine eastern and western stories, so I took the monkey king stories, and I threw in Judao-Christian elements to it. Or even just western elements into it. So one is, in the original story, the deity that confronts the Monkey King, it’s Buddha. At it’s heart, it’s a Buddhist tale and I took the role that was originally given to Buddha and I gave it to a chinesified version of the Judao-Christian god and the words that come out of his mouth are paraphrases from the psalms. The second way is in the original, it was the Buddhist goddess of mercy that comes and talks to the monk, and I have, I gave that role to these four figures called the ox, the eagle, the human and the lion. Which within Christian thought are considered to be, from the Book of Revelation, considered to be standard, considered to be symbols of the four gospels, but what I’ve been told is that they’re actually much deeper than that. That they actually, their roots date back to Western Pagan literature that pre-dates the Bible. So they’re deeply, deeply Western figures. So I wanted to take Western and Eastern and mash them into one because I feel like that’s what Asian Americans are. The second for the chops, those chops are sort of indications of what storyline you’re in, so there’s three different chops used throughout the story, and they’re written in this really old-school Chinese. At least that’s what the chop-maker told me. He could have just been making it up and I would have had no idea. But I went to San Francisco Chinatown to get them made. And the last story with the Backdorm boys, the Backdorm boys is a Youtube phenomenon, I think they offer a really good contrast to William Hung Both the Backdorm Boys and William Hung are these Asians, these Asian Americans interacting with Pop Culture, but from my view it seems like William Hung was being used by American pop culture to be funny and the Backdorm Boys were using American pop culture to be funny. So I think, I think maybe one more question? Go ahead? [Inaudible] Yeah, that’s actually a given name and my parents, Gene is actually a transliteration of my Chinese name which is Jinn So originally they were actually going to translate my name as Jinn, as Jinn, like the character of the book and then before I went to school they decided that life might be easier for me if I had an American name so they changed it to Gene, because that was the closest American name that they could find to my Chinese name. All right, well, thank you very much for being here.
[Applause]

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