SOON, IT WILL be on video. For now, it’s absolutely worth reading in print.
Over the weekend, the acclaimed author Gene Luen Yang delivered a speech to an esteemed assemblage of National Book Festival gala guests and organizers and sponsors at the Library of Congress. On this eve of the 14th annual festival, the slate of great speakers included authors E.L. Doctorow, Nina Khruscheva and Kai Bird, who followed festival board co-chair David M. Rubinstein and Librarian of Congress Dr. James H. Billington to the stage. But the speaker who perhaps faced the highest hurdle in trying to win over the room was Yang. That’s because in some ways, he was more foreign to them. The reason:
He hailed from the world of comics.
Now, context is key here. It was only several years ago that graphic novels gained spotlighted admittance to the festival with their own focus and pavilion. This year, for the first time, graphic novels even got their own four-hour block of “super-session” programming. 2014, in some ways, even felt like the year that all the comics got invited to sit fully at the festival’s adult table, instead of the kiddie card table for the rambunctious picture-lovers.
And who better to deliver a talk about the power of words-and-pictures storytelling on this evening than Yang? Not only is he an award-winning cartoonist — his “American Born Chinese” (2006) was the first graphic novel to be a National Book Award finalist, a feat he repeated last year with his epic “Boxers & Saints” — but he also is an educator who speaks passionately and eloquently about comics as a force for learning and enlightenment and change.
And on this night, Yang — proudly wearing a button that said, “We Need Diverse Books” — spoke of the power of comics to reach and engage intellectually curious readers of most any background.
Yang may have put on one fine striped suit, but he put on no airs. He declared at the outset: “I’m a comic-book guy.”
Now this wasn’t a convention hall of comics heads. This theater contained many people who, in conversation, seemed no easy converts to comics as true literature.
Soon, Yang — here with his new graphic novel “The Shadow Hero,” which has roots in the historic suppression of diversity in comics — spoke of cartoonists of color who were inspired by superheroes of color, no matter how ham-handedly those heroes were conceived. The speech’s references were highly specific, but the themes were universal.
Yang leapt this high oratory hurdle with the seeming ease of one of his superpowered characters. And when he stuck the landing, the room of venerated guests erupted with applause.
And perhaps the loudest sounds came from the upper-left of the theater, where a band of comics authors — seated together as if for collective friendly support — whooped at Yang’s talk. For in the ongoing fight for gaining literary cred, these creators knew just what Yang had accomplished.
They knew just what he — now beaming from that Library of Congress lectern — stood for.
Here is a transcript of Mr. Yang’s speech:
GENE LUEN YANG, Library of Congress, Jefferson Building:
Good evening. Thank you, Library of Congress and National Book Festival, for inviting me to share the stage with such esteemed authors, and to speak with all of you. I am deeply grateful for this honor.
I’m a comic-book guy, so tonight I’d like to talk about another comic-book guy. Dwayne McDuffie was one of my favorite writers. When I was growing up, he was one of the few African Americans working in American comics. Dwayne worked primarily within the superhero genre. He got his start at Marvel Comics but eventually worked for almost every comic-book publisher out there. He even branched out into television and wrote for popular cartoon series like “Justice League” and “Ben 10.”
Dwayne McDuffie is no longer with us, unfortunately. He passed away in 2011, at the age of 49. But within comics, his influence is still deeply felt.
I was lucky enough to have met him once. About a year before his death, we were on a panel together at Comic-Con. I had the opportunity to shake his hand and tell him how much his work meant to me.
In a column Dwayne wrote in 1999, he talked about his love of the Black Panther, a Marvel Comics character. The Black Panther’s secret alias is T’Challa, the king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda. He has super senses, super strength, and super agility. He’s an Avenger, though he hasn’t yet made it into the movies.
The Black Panther wasn’t created by African American cartoonists. He was created in July of 1966 by two Jewish Americans, Stan Lee (who was born Stanley Lieber) and Jack Kirby (who was born Jacob Kurtzberg).
By modern standards, the Black Panther is not a flawless example of a black superhero. In their first draft of the character, Lee and Kirby called him “the Coal Tiger” and gave him a goofy yellow and black costume. Even in his final form, his superhero alias includes the word “Black.” This is true of many early African and African American superheroes, as if what makes them remarkable is neither their superpowers nor their heroism, but their ethnicity. Most problematic, though, was that Marvel made their most prominent black superhero the star of a series called Jungle Action.
All of these flaws were lost on Dwayne McDuffie when he first encountered the Black Panther in 1973, at the age of 11. What struck him was the character’s commanding sense of dignity. The Black Panther wasn’t anyone’s sidekick. He wasn’t an angry thug. He wasn’t a victim. He was his own hero, his own man. As Dwayne describes it, “In the space of 15 pages, black people moved from invisible to inevitable.”
Dwayne’s love of the Black Panther eventually blossomed into a love of comics in general. Dwayne was a smart guy with a lot of options in life. He’d earned a master’s degree in physics. But he chose to write comics as his career. I would argue that without the Black Panther, this flawed black character created by a writer and an artist who were not black, there would be no Dwayne McDuffie the comic book writer.
Dwayne wasn’t just a writer — he was also a businessman. In the early ’90s, he teamed with a group of writers and artists to found Milestone Media, the most prominent minority-owned comic book company that has ever existed. The Milestone universe have since been folded into DC Comics, so these days characters like Static Shock and Icon – characters Dwayne co-created – fight crime alongside Superman and Batman.
In the early ’90s, I was finishing up my adolescence. I visited my local comic-book store on a weekly basis, and one week I found a book on the stands called Xombi, published by Milestone Media. Xombi is a scientist who became a superhero after he was injected with nanotechnology. He allied himself with a secret order of superpowered nuns. One sister was known as Nun of the Above, another Nun the Less. Together, they protected the world from all kinds of supernatural threats.
Xombi was inventive and fun, but he stood out to me because he was an Asian American male carrying in his own monthly title. And even more notable – he didn’t know kung fu. Xombi wasn’t created by Asian Americans — his writer was white and his artist black — but he did make Asian Americans a little less invisible.
We in the book community are in the middle of a sustained conversation about diversity. We talk about our need for diverse books with diverse characters written by diverse writers. I wholeheartedly agree.
But I have noticed an undercurrent of fear in many of our discussions. We’re afraid of writing characters different from ourselves because we’re afraid of getting it wrong. We’re afraid of what the Internet might say.
This fear can be a good thing if it drives us to do our homework, to be meticulous in our cultural research. But this fear crosses the line when we become so intimidated that we quietly make choices against stepping out of our own identities.
After all, our job as writers is to step out of ourselves, and to encourage our readers to do the same.
I told you the story of Dwayne McDuffie to encourage all of us to be generous with ourselves and with one another. The Black Panther, despite his flaws, was able to inspire a young African American reader to become a writer.
We have to allow ourselves the freedom to make mistakes, including cultural mistakes, in our first drafts. I believe it’s okay to get cultural details wrong in your first draft. It’s okay if stereotypes emerge. It just means that your experience is limited, that you’re human.
Just make sure you iron them out before the final draft. Make sure you do your homework. Make sure your early readers include people who are a part of the culture you’re writing about. Make sure your editor has the insider knowledge to help you out. If they don’t, consider hiring a freelance editor who does.
Also, it’s okay if stereotypes emerge in the first drafts of your colleagues. Correct them – definitely correct them – but do so in a spirit of generosity. Remember how soul-wrenching the act of writing is, how much courage it took for that writer to put words down on a page.
And let’s say you do your best. You put in all the effort you can. But then when your book comes out, the Internet gets angry. You slowly realize that, for once, the Internet might be right. You made a cultural misstep. If this happens, take comfort in the fact that even flawed characters can inspire. Apologize if necessary, resolve do better, and move on.
Let your fear drive you to do your homework. But no matter what, don’t ever let your fear stop you.
Cavna interviewed Yang on Saturday as emcee of the National Book Festival’s first-ever Graphic Novel Night.