GENE LUEN YANG had never written a superhero story before. Now, a year later, the two-time National Book Award finalist has two heroes in tow.
Last summer, Yang and artist Sonny Liew released “The Shadow Hero” (First Second), in which a graphic novel is built around the revived Green Turtle, a comic-book crimefighter created during World War II, and believed to be the first Asian American superhero (his true ethnic identity was literally, and literarily, masked).
And next month, Yang debuts his writerly take on the superhero who, in 1938, launched the entire industry. The Bay Area-based Yang, working with star artist John Romita Jr., has inherited the mantle of rebooting Superman — leading to another comic-book milestone.
Yang tells The Post’s Comic Riffs that this is the first time ever that two authors of Asian descent are writing DC’s signature Superman books. Since 2013, Greg Pak has plotted the Man of Steel’s stories for Action Comics.
Yang, acclaimed also for “American Born Chinese” and “Boxers & Saints,” will talk about his work — from superheroes to character diversity — Saturday at the Gaithersburg Book Festival in suburban Washington. (Note: Comic Riffs will introduce Yang at his “Shadow Hero” panel.)
Comic Riffs caught up with Yang ahead of the festival to delve into his full plate of creative projects:
MICHAEL CAVNA: Congrats on “The Shadow Hero’s” success, Gene, as well as your Eisner nom. What’s the most gratifying thing about having created this work?
GENE LUEN YANG: Thank you! “Shadow Hero” was a dream to work on. I’ve been friends with Sonny for a while, and a fan of his for even longer. Getting to work with him was awesome. Also, I’ve been a superhero fan for most of my life. “Shadow Hero” was my first superhero story. I don’t know why it took so long
MC: Your talents and Sonny’s seem to merge so well. Could you talk about your style of collaboration with him — and did you ever find yourself consciously writing to his strengths as an artist?
GLY: I wrote the script as thumbnail sketches. Sonny “re-shot” many of the panels, of course. I think Sonny and I have similar storytelling sensibilities, which made it easy for us to work together. Sonny’s style is very flexible. He can handle humor and drama and action.
MC: Like much of your work, “The Shadow Hero” is accessible to those as young as middle school, while simultaneously providing nuance and layered depth that adult readers can fully appreciate. Do you aim to reach a demographically wide swath of audience?
GLY: I kind of just write what I like to write. I’m thankful that readers of different ages seem to connect to my stories. I don’t consciously think about age demographics when I’m working on my comics.
MC: In speaking at conventions and book festivals like this one, have you learned anything about your own work from the viewpoint or insights of your readers? Have they taken things from it that perhaps surprised you — and what is most rewarding about festival feedback?
GLY: Yes, absolutely. Readers surprise me all the time. I love hearing people who are smarter than me talk about my comics. It makes me feel smarter.
I truly believe storytelling is collaborative. There are things that a reader may see — that a writer may not have been conscious of when she was writing — that are legitimate parts of a piece.
MC: For those who don’t know, could you recount how you discovered the Green Turtle, and what compelled you to create a full GN story for him? And might we see a sequel?
GLY: The Green Turtle isn’t my character; he was created in the 1940s by a Chinese American named Chu Hing. Chu was one of the first Asian Americans in the American comic-book industry. There’s a rumor about the Green Turtle — supposedly, Chu wanted to make him Chinese American, but his publisher wouldn’t let him.
So Chu reacted passive-aggressively. In those early Green Turtle comics, he almost never shows us his hero’s face. He almost always has his back turned towards us. And when he does turn around, something is blocking his face — a shadow, another character, his own arm.
Rumor is that he did this so that he and his reader could imagine Green Turtle as he originally intended, as a Chinese American. I found the rumors so compelling, I wanted to do a story about him. Lucky for Sonny and me, Green Turtle is in public domain now.
MC: You spoke last year at the National Book Festival about authors giving themselves permission to write diverse characters, even if out of their comfort zones. How is that going for you yourself these days? And were you able to sense — as its deliverer — just how viral that speech went? Did you get much feedback?
GLY (laughing): In many ways, that speech was a pep talk for myself. I’m writing a diverse set of characters these days. I deal with those fears on a daily basis. I worry about getting stuff wrong, and sometimes my worry results in stiff, cardboard writing. So I try hard to do my homework. I talk to folks, read, and hope for the best. If I make mistakes, I hope I’ll learn from them.
I’ve heard from a lot of folks about the speech, especially other writers. I’m grateful. It’s heartening– I know I’m not alone in this struggle. There are people I can learn from, and with.
MC: You teach, you write, you draw, you tour — and you have a family. To those of us multitasking however we can, please enlighten: How do you juggle it all?
GLY: It’s gotten a little rough lately. I’m actually planning to leave my teaching job in June. It’s just gotten too hard to juggle. I love teaching, though. I hope to end my working life as a teacher.
MC: Speaking of juggling assignments, and your life after doing a superhero book: You now write Superman. Did “The Shadow Hero” have any role in DC offering you the Man of Steel? And with your Superman due out soon, how have you enjoyed the challenge? What’s your state of mind when inheriting the oldest comic-book superhero?
GLY: Working on the first superhero is both thrilling and intimidating. It’s been an amazing learning experience. Superman’s currently starring in four books from DC, so I’ve gotten to learn from the other writers and artists on Team Superman. We’re trying to push the Man of Steel in a new direction, while respecting what came in the past. His new costume, which debuted a month or two ago, is a reflection of that. It’s simple and modern — just a T-shirt and jeans — but the “S”-shield is from his past. We decided to go with the old black, red and yellow “S” from the Fleischer [Studios] cartoons. It’s been a blast.
I’m not sure if “Shadow Hero” played a part in my hiring, but now both Sonny and I have upcoming DC projects! He’s doing Dr. Fate with Paul Levitz.
My first issue of Superman will be #41, coming out in June. It’s drawn by John Romita Jr., inked by Klaus Janson, and colored by Dean White. Every one of them is a legend.
MC: Related to that: How does your Superman differ from anyone else’s — what makes him “Yang-ian” — even within his long and established history?
GLY: This is really up to the readers to decide. When you write a character with as big and as long of a legacy as Superman’s, you look for parts of his past that resonate with you. I love how Superman reflects the immigrant experience. I love the outsider/insider dynamic at the heart of who he is. And I love how the whole idea of a secret identity is both reflective of, and at odds with, the Information Age.
MC: As you and I talked about, educators are becoming converts to the power of comics. As a creator and an educator, can you characterize where we are now, and where we still need to go?
GLY: Teachers and librarians are so supportive of comics these days! It’s really heartening to see. Now, it’s very common for teachers to use comics as a way of engaging reluctant readers. That a wonderful place for comics in the classroom, but I also hope that teachers will realize the comics medium is worthy of study in and of itself.