Gimbling in the Wabe – It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Gene Luen Yang!

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Okay, I have to admit, I find last week’s announcement of the 2016 MacArthur Fellows (and their subsequent awarding of the generous – to the tune of $625,000-no-strings-attached generous – Genius Grants) to be incredibly exciting.

One expects microbiologists, computer scientists, human rights lawyers, chemists, and the like to be named MacArthur Fellows, sure.  And it’s not surprising that composers, artists, and writers of the ilk of award winning poet Claudia Rankine are also added to that vaulted roster.  But a comic book writer?  Whoever expected that?

True, graphic artist/cartoonist Alison Bechdel was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2014 (her graphic novel memoir, Fun Home, was made into a Broadway show that won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2015 and she’s the creator of the Bechdel Test, wherein a fictional work has to have at least two named women characters conversing about something other than a man in order to pass).  But Ms. Bechdel wrote comic strips for newsprint, not serial comic books, which is kinda sorta a whole different animal with a completely different set of variables.  And yes, Ta-Nehisi Coates, 2015 MacArthur Fellow, is currently writing the new Black Panther comic book run for Marvel (and getting rave reviews for it – I got the first four issues, but kind of lost interest after that), but that wasn’t until after he became a MacArthur Fellow for his journalism (and after his book Between the World and Me, won the National Book Award in 2015 and was nominated for almost every other non-fiction literary award out there).

So maybe Gene Luen Yang being named one of the 23 MacArthur Fellows for 2016 is not something to be all that surprised about, but rather an acknowledgment of the legitimacy of comic books and graphic novels in the realm of literature.  As Mr. Yang states in his “Meet the Class” vignette on the MacArthur Foundation’s website, “For decades and decades when people thought of comic books, they thought of superheroes, right?  But comic books, as a format, can really handle any genre of story that you want to tell through it, it can handle any mood, any depth of information.”

Still, I can’t contain my glee.

I admit, I’m a fairly recent convert to comic books, and my preferences are fairly narrow.  But my unapologetic bull-in-a-china-shop foray into the format has opened my eyes to how very well done many of these comic books are, thematically, linguistically, artistically.  When a well developed, well written story line melds with exceptional artwork (which generally includes separate efforts in drawing, coloring, and lettering), then the impact on me as a reader is just as sensorial and deeply moving as a text based novel or short story.

The cool thing is, that a comic book run doesn’t have to be Great Art in order to be an exceptional comic (even though I really appreciate those comic books I’ve come across that I could deem as “great art”).  Thematically, comic books often mirror life, and life is rarely made up of unbroken moments of grace and beauty.  More often than not, they are reactions to what’s happening around us – loud, mundane, direct, necessary.  Comic books capture that, in a very immediate way, universally:  loneliness, feeling like an outsider, having a hidden exceptionality, balancing vengeance with humanity, overcoming fear to venture into the unknown.  We as disparate individuals can relate to the themes, reflected in relatable speech, relatable images, even if we’ll never be faster than a speeding bullet, even when we’re at our very best.  (Maybe this is why Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye run for Marvel  from 2012 to 2015 was so fantastic:  Clint Barton’s catchphrase was not as much an “up, up and away” or “to the bat cave, Robin!” but a pragmatic – and often exhausted, “Okay… this looks bad.”)

So as comic books seem to be evolving from “I wish there could be” to “I wish I could be” to “This is/could be me”, it’s especially gratifying to see them, and their creators, recognized beyond the Eisner Awards and the occasional Hugo Award.  (I wonder, was it Art Spiegelman winning the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for his graphic novel  Maus: A Survivor’s Tale — My Father Bleeds History, which was actually a non-fiction work in a anthropomorphic style and comic book format, that actually began the renaissance of comic books as literature?)

Still, it’s not like Mr. Yang is “just” a comic book writer.  He’s also a high school teacher and a podcaster, and in 2015 was named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature through the Library of Congress (the first time a graphic novelist has been named to such an honor).  Also, out of the four graphic novels that have ever been nominated for a National Book Award, two of them are his:   American Born Chinese in 2006 (the first time a graphic novel was an NBA finalist) and Boxers and Saints in 2013, a 2-volume work about the Boxer Rebellion in China at the end of the 19th century.  (The other two were Stitches by David Small in 2009, and Nimona by Noelle Stevenson in 2015.)  He has a series of graphic novels for middle-schoolers, Secret Coders, which not only tells a fun story in comic book format, but also introduces kids to computer coding.  And he has written numerous issues of the Avatar: The Last Airbender comic book series.

His most common themes, unsurprisingly, are Chinese culture and Chinese-American identity, and the clash between the cultures.  In an interview with Evan Narcisse of i09, Mr. Yang states:

I think anybody who grows up in a minority community, you learn to code-switch. You learn to act one way with your family and you act another way [in other situations]. You learn to manage expectations from multiple angles. When you’re a kid, it’s just subconscious. You just kind of do it because that’s how you survive.

But there’s all these weird consequences of that. It impacts the way you see yourself; it impacts your self-confidence. It impacts what you think is possible in your life, y’know? I think becoming conscious of that was a huge part of me being able to find my place in the world. And I think I’m still trying to figure that out. A lot of [writing] is self-therapy. I write about stuff to figure it out.

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Which makes his newest venture incredibly interesting:  penning the  New Super-Man run for DC Comics (art by Richard Friend and Viktor Bogdanovic).  New Super-Man, now in its third issue, is an offshoot of the Superman franchise, set in China and starring Chinese hero Kenan Kong (well, Kenana’s got super powers and hopefully he’ll become a hero eventually – right now, in the third issue, he’s still kind of a jerk).  Mr. Yang didn’t want anything to do with the Superman story at first.  “Because Superman is like Truth, Justice, and the American Way, right? And with modern China, with the nuances of modern Chinese politics and modern Chinese culture, it felt like there was a bunch of landmines.”  But DC executives Jim Lee and Geoff Johns convinced him otherwise – and the results so far have been wonderful.

I actually didn’t know of New Super-Man until I read about Gene Leun Yang being named a MacArthur Fellow; it was while doing research for an article on LitStack that I decided I needed to know more about this particular writer.  So, despite being a Marvel fan far more than a DC fan (except, of course, for the incomparable Wonder Woman), I headed to Comic Book College up on Hennepin Avenue and picked up all three available issues of New Super-Man  – and simply fell in love with Mr. Yang’s writing.  (So much so that I also requested American Born Chinese and Boxers and Saints from the library; I just brought them home today.)

When I was checking out at Comic Book College, the clerk who was ringing up my purchase saw I was getting all three issues of New Super-Man and told me that he was reading that run, too, sharing that he was “really into it.”  I told him and Tim, the owner, that the only reason I was buying them was because of Gene Luen Yang receiving a MacArthur Fellowship, and about how rare it was that a comic book writer would be so honored, and how well that reflected on the industry as a whole.  Tim grinned in the playful way that all comic book shop owners should have, and said, “Whatever brings ’em in here.”

I held up my purchase and said, “Well, it got me in here.”

He laughed, and said, “Then it’s all good.”

And indeed it is.  Very, very good.

~ Sharon Browning

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