From coding to comics, and what it takes to reach the finish line, with Gene Luen Yang

with your host Jessica Abel

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When I was a kid, I had this habit of just starting up a project and leaving it usually halfway through or three fourths of the way through. I just did it over and over and over again.

It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I figured out how to finish something. And I do think there’s something spiritual about it.

Gene Luen Yang

Gene Luen Yang is a prolific cartoonist whose personal work is deeply rooted in the Chinese-American experience. He’s best known for his original graphic novel American Born Chinese, and his work with franchise stories such as Superman and Avatar: The Last Airbender. Hear how Gene went from being a computer engineer and high school teacher to full-time cartoonist and recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant.

More from the episode

  • How did the success of American Born Chinese change the trajectory of his career?
  • Gene opens up about quitting his day job: “It felt like breaking up with somebody.”
  • What do coding and comics have in common? And how did teaching help Gene become a better writer?
  • The difference in how he approaches licensed vs. creator-owned work, and the benefits of doing both.
  • Gene talks about the importance of learning to finish, and the anxious voice inside his head that keeps him on track.
  • How he juggles working on multiple projects at once with being a husband and parent.

About Gene Luen Yang

Gene Luen Yang writes, and sometimes draws, comic books and graphic novels. As the Library of Congress’ fifth National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, he advocates for the importance of reading, especially reading diversely. American Born Chinese, his first graphic novel from First Second Books, was a National Book Award finalist, as well as the winner of the Printz Award and an Eisner Award.

His two-volume graphic novel Boxers & Saints won the L.A. Times Book Prize and was a National Book Award Finalist. His other works include Secret Coders (with Mike Holmes), The Shadow Hero (with Sonny Liew), Superman from DC Comics (with various artists), and the Avatar: The Last Airbender series from Dark Horse Comics (with Gurihiru).

In 2016, he was named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow. His most recent books are Dragon Hoops from First Second Books and Superman Smashes the Klan from DC Comics.

Connect with Gene Luen Yang

Additional links

Visual Scripting: using InDesign to write comics


Click here to view the transcript!

Gene Yang: In coding, really what you’re doing is you’re taking this big abstract idea and then you’re breaking it up into sequential concrete pieces, right? This abstract idea becomes these sequential lines of code.

Comics is very similar. You’re taking this big abstract idea. It’s like this big fuzzy cloud and you have to take that big fuzzy cloud and break it up into these concrete pictures, these panels that fit in sequence.

What does it really take to become successful as a writer or artist?

There are a lot of destructive myths out there about what a creative career is supposed to look like. We’re told we shouldn’t care about worldly success or money. We’re told that if we’re good enough, everything would magically fall into place. That’s a lie and it keeps us struggling, baffled, and hungry for any shred of information that might shed light on how to keep making the work we love. That’s why I get any two artists or writers or any creatives really together in a room. And it’s a foregone conclusion that the conversation will turn to money and the nitty gritty reality of being a professional creative.

I’m cartoonist and creative business coach Jessica Abel.

In my own life the studio visit back channel conversations with other artists where we share our insights and hacks anxieties and red flags have been critical to any success I’ve achieved.

And now. I’m bringing that conversation to you. This is the autonomous creative.

Gene Yang introduction

My guest today is cartoonist Gene Yang. Gene creates comics that tie into his Chinese American roots, including American Born Chinese, Boxers and Saints, and Dragon Hoops. He also works with franchise characters, such as Superman, Avatar: the Last Airbender and Shang Chi.

Gene is a former high school teacher and current grad program prof, and is deeply committed to comics as an educational tool. Witness his TED talk on the topic and his role as the us Library of Congress Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.

All that, and he remains one of the kindest, most engaging people in comics.

In this interview, you’ll hear all about how one goes from being a computer engineer and comp-sci high school teacher, to being a full-time cartoonist.

Plus, what happens when you get a MacArthur genius grant? What changes after you do a TED talk?

I’ll bring you the inside story right after this.

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To most people, it feels like it’s just a permanent character flaw. Like they were born that way and doomed to suffer, but that’s just absolutely untrue.

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Now let’s start the show.

begin interview

Jessica Yeti interview mode: So Gene, welcome.

Gene Yang: Thank you. Thank you, Jessica. I’m incredibly excited to get this chance to talk.

Jessica Yeti interview mode: I am really excited to get to do this too.

so what are you doing right now, Gene? What are you working on? Like, what’s coming next and what does your work life look like at this point?

What does your work life look like?

Gene Yang: Well, right now, uh, I’m working on a monthly series for Marvel. And then I’m just ending another monthly series for DC and I’m starting up like a mini series for DC. So those two, those two are going on right now. So for Marvel, I’m doing Shang Chi, which is their kung fu superhero. He has a movie coming out in September, so he’s getting like the most love he’s ever gotten in like his history, like in the

Jessica Abel: I saw the preview. It looked amazing.

Gene Yang: It did. It looked great. It looked great. Yeah. I, I do think that with Shang Chi there’s like a little bit of, you know, when I talk to my Asian American friends, we’re like, This cannot be Marvel’s first flop, right? You don’t want ’em to flop on the Asian guy. But we’ll see. Hopefully it’ll be good. And then

Jessica Abel: I don’t know. It looked good to me. There was a really good, uh, bus fight scene that I was like, Oh yeah. When they, when they nail the bus fight scene, I’m all in.

Gene Yang: Any kind of fight on a moving vehicle, they can do that. They’re, they’re good.

And then for DC I’m, ending a run on Batman, Superman, and I’m starting up a new project with them called . The Monkey Prince, which is like this DC superhero based on the old monkey king legend. It’s a old Chinese legend. For a second I have two different projects going on right now, but neither of them have been announced, so I can’t really, can’t really give details on those yet.

Jessica Abel: But so your work for Marvel and DC you are writing, correct?

Gene Yang: I’m only writing. Yeah. I can’t, I can’t draw like that.

Jessica Abel: But then your personal work is with First Second. In that you are writing and drawing, correct?

Gene Yang: So right now, neither of those. Yeah. Actually right now I’m not drawing anything. I’m doing thumbnails. I’m doing thumbnails for one of the projects I’m doing.

Jessica Abel: It’s fine. It’s fine. No judge- no judgment. It’s fine.

Gene Yang: But I dunno how that happened actually. I do wanna, I do wanna draw again, but right now I don’t have a project where I’m drawing.

Jessica Abel: Okay. It’s cool with me, man. I love your writing. It’s

I mean, I guess the advantage of that is you can be working on four books at the same time.

Gene Yang: Yeah. You can be working on four books at the same time. Although, you know, so for one project I am thumbnailing and that does take more time, but I do want to get to a point where I’m drawing again. I just gotta figure that out. I think I gotta get past a few of these projects.

Jessica Abel: Yes. Well, I mean, four is a lot, no matter what your role is. So I guess one’s winding down, one’s in the middle, others are start- you know, there’s like at different stages and stuff. But how do you organize that? Like how do you…?

How do you organize working on multiple projects at once?

Gene Yang: Oh, if you have tips, I’d love to hear them.

Jessica Abel: Oh, I got tips. That’s what I do, but I wanna hear how you do it.

Gene Yang: Okay. Here, here’s how I try to do it. I try to think of my workday as two giant chunks of time, right? Like I have the before lunch chunk of time and the after lunch chunk of time. And for each chunk of time I just try to devote it to just one project. And that doesn’t always work out cuz I think, um, what I’ve noticed is that for Marvel and DC.

because it comes out monthly, the turnaround is really frenetic. You know what I mean? It’s like sometimes, like they’ll send me something and they’ll need like feedback on lettering or something like within a couple hours, sometimes even. I can’t always do that. But that, I think that’s the ideal. The ideal is I work on one project during the morning and then I work on another in the afternoon.

Jessica Abel: So you, you really are in a position where you need to sort of budge all four forward at the same time. You can’t just like take a month and do one.

Gene Yang: No, no, I can’t do that. And I do try to, this doesn’t always work out either. I This, this is something that’s happened to me as I’ve gotten older, but my brain works better in the morning, right? When I was in my twenties, I think it worked better at night, but now my brain works better in the morning. So I do try to devote my morning time to whatever’s the most difficult. So for me, the most difficult part of a project is like outlining, like figuring out what the bones of the, of the story are. So I try to do that in the morning.

Jessica Abel: Mm-hmm. Yeah. That is hard. Although that’s actually my favorite part.

Gene Yang: Is it? Wait, why? No, that’s not my favorite. Wait, why is that your favorite?

Jessica Abel: Because it’s like I can get into like puzzle master brain, you know, where it’s like, oh I need to get from here to there, but in order to do that I’m gonna have to take this and this and this path. And oh, if I come up with this little thing I can do, then everything click like clicks into place.

Gene Yang: Oh, okay. So it’s like a tetris-like satisfaction for

Jessica Abel: I have a very strategic brain and that’s just it very satisfying for me. It’s not that it’s not difficult and it’s not frustrating cuz it is. Like, I definitely get frustrated by that, but especially as I’ve gone through a bunch of work on developing storytelling tools, frameworks and things, and I can use those to plug in and go what’s missing and figure things out. It’s really satisfying.

Gene Yang: Mm. Yeah, I guess, I mean, I like having outlined just while I’m in the middle of it, I’m not as big of a fan.

Jessica Abel: Oh, I just get very, very charged up and especially if I’m talking about it, if I get to talk to somebody about it and not just do it in my head. Yeah.

Gene Yang: So do you, do you try to work with a writing partner or anything like that or? I mean, most of your stuff is just you, right? Do you have somebody, like an editor? Is that what you?

Jessica Abel: I have a husband.

Gene Yang: Yeah. Okay. Who’s also a cartoonist. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Jessica Abel: Yeah, I force him to listen to me sometimes. And, and, you know, other people too. But no, I mean, I, I realized way too late in life that I probably would’ve gotten along really well in a writer’s room, but never did it and never had that. So I really, I value having that kind of collaborative experience.

Gene Yang: Yeah. Yeah.

Jessica Abel: This is not about me though. Let’s get back to you. So, you’re doing these four different books, and I assume this is, this is like how you’re making your living, right? This is your full living at this point, writing comic books?

How do you make a living?

Gene Yang: Yeah, it is right now. So I, I’ve only been full time at cartooning for about six years now. So I left my, I was a high school teacher for 17 years, left that job in 2015. And actually, so during those 17 years, like the second half of that, I was actually only part-time.

But that was hard. It was really hard to leave my day job for a billion different reasons. And then since then I’ve been doing, like the bulk of our family’s income is from comics, which is super scary. But that’s how it’s been going.

Jessica Abel: Scary, but working right?

Gene Yang: So far, so far. But I mean, like, this is one of the things that kind of freaked me out when I first went full time is that at the beginning of the year, you really don’t have any real idea of how much money you’re gonna make that year. Right? Like you can guess, but you don’t know for sure. It’s not like when I was a high school teacher and before that I was a, I was a computer programmer for a while.

You generally know how much money you’re gonna make in January. Right. When you’re trying to figure that stuff out, you know by December you’re probably gonna make this much. So that’s helpful, right. When you have, when you have kids.

Jessica Abel: And you do. You have four kids, right?

Gene Yang: Yeah. We have four kids.

Yeah. No. I mean, I get that. I totally get that. I think that the way I was working when I stopped working on books regularly. I was working on a longer term model where I would get an advance that then I would work for several years on that and something else.

So these are longer arcs. I would have more of an idea. And also, and this is a big difference and something that I think is really important to highlight is that, I don’t know how this works with your licensed work, but with your personal work, at least with American Born Chinese and probably with some of your other books, you have earned out your earning royalties. And so you’re getting royalty checks and that’s what you kind of don’t know about. You know your advances.

Yeah, yeah. That’s right.

Jessica Abel: And most authors, including me, don’t earn out. Your advance is what you get.

Gene Yang: Yeah. I mean, earning out that’s like, 80% of books don’t earn out. Right. So I, I am lucky with American Born Chinese that it earned out. And I do have, definitely not all of my projects were earned out, but I do, I do have a couple. So it’s, uh, I’ve-

Jessica Abel: Right. And those are sort of like the gift that keeps giving, right? Like you get, you have a, you have like a steady backbeat of income from that that can kind of support the other work to a certain extent. Yeah. Which I think is amazing. That’s so great.

Gene Yang: But even with the royalty stuff though, right? It’s, it is dependent on you finishing. And like for Dragon Hoops for example, I missed like three different deadlines. So at that point I was already working for DC and Like, one of the things I do like about a monthly book is that it gives you monthly income.

And I was kind of using that in to, to replace my day job. But if I had solely been relying on Dragon Hoops, we would’ve had a hard time because I, it just took way longer than I was expecting it to.

Jessica Abel: Yes. Yes, exactly. And that’s, I think your point that you have to finish stuff in order for it to do anything.

Gene Yang: That’s right.

Jessica Abel: Is something I would like to highlight for everybody here. Like you have to actually finish the thing and put it out.

Gene Yang: to finish the thing

Jessica Abel: Yeah. And for whatever, royalties or not, it’s like in order for it to start getting awards and getting attention and building, so even if you aren’t gonna earn out, if it’s not gonna earn out, there’s still other ripple effects that only happen once the things published.

I was talking about this in a coaching call the other day and I was like, the main thing is just get stuff out there and that’s how you build something. And that really, I think is your story in some ways, like going all the way back to self-publishing.

Reaching the finish line

Gene Yang: Yeah. I mean, I, I think, this is, this is something that I’ve talked with all four of my kids, right? All four of them are creative. They like doing art. None of them like doing comics. They look at my job and they’ve told me over and over again, like, I’ve asked them, “Oh, do you want to do what I’m doing?”

And they’re all like, “No, your job looks so tedious. It looks terrible. We want nothing to do with that.” Right? But they all like draw on that kind of stuff. And I do think that that’s… I, I was just thinking like, what can I give them as their parent? And I do think it’s like the discipline to reach the finish line.

I think that’s- it’s just people don’t realize, right? I think when I was a kid, I had this habit of just starting up a project and leaving it usually halfway through or three fourths of the way through. I just did it over and over and over again. It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I figured out how to finish something. And I do think there’s something like, like spiritual about it. There’s that book The War of Art. Have you read that book?

Yeah. Where it talk, it talks about how like there’s something, there’s something inside of you that freaks out when you get close to the finish line and you have to figure out how to force yourself to the very end.

So with our, with my older two, I’ve been trying to do that. I wanted them to take any creative project, right? That’ll take a good amount of time, three, four months, and just get to the finish line so you know what that feels like. So it becomes familiar to you.

Jessica Abel: Mm-hmm. So what do you do?

Gene Yang: For, for the my kids or for me?

Jessica Abel: For you. How do you get yourself to the finish line?

How do you get yourself to the finish line?

Gene Yang: So this was the, the thing that pushed me over for my very first project. When I was in my early twenties, I was just graduated college. Up until that point, like through junior high and high school. I tried finishing comics. I never finished the single one.

And I was like, I’m gonna finish one. This is the thing I’m gonna do. And I was living with three other guys, old college friends, and I told them, I said- we used to have house meetings once a week where we would like talk about bills and cooking schedules and that kind of stuff. And I was like “Every week at the house-

Jessica Abel: Extremely mature of you

Gene Yang: Well it wasn’t my idea, it was somebody else. It was somebody else in the house’s idea. I think there was like a future businessman we were living with. But I was like, at the house meeting every week, I want you to ask me how far I got that week my comic right? And and I think I budgeted, I was supposed to get like three or four pages done a week. I was like, “And if I don’t get it done, I want you to make me feel bad about it.” And they were really good at that. They were super good at making me feel bad. And I feel like in some ways I, I internalized their voices and I’ve been able to do it even though I don’t live with them anymore.

Jessica Abel: So literally when you’re trying to finish Dragon Hoops in your, in your whiffing deadlines, you’re like being mean to yourself and saying like, you suck?

Gene Yang: I guess so. Yeah, I guess so. I, I mean I, I’ve, I’ve gone through, uh. I’ve gone through, uh, I’ve gone to therapy for this too. I don’t wanna lose that voice. I don’t wanna lose that voice in my head cuz I’m worried that I’m not gonna be able to finish anything and my family will starve, but I also don’t want it to like overrule everything else.

Jessica Abel: Yeah. No, I mean, I deal with it myself and I also help a lot of other people with that particular, like, that voice is so common. That’s-

Yeah. Yeah.

Yeah, exactly. All right. Let’s talk a little bit about you do have sort of, I would say two main bodies of work. You have licensed character work that you’re doing on monthly books or projects like that, including you’ve done stuff with Batman and Superman. And you, you’re doing Shang Chi, and then you have self-generated work, I would say.

So you have American Born Chinese, you have Dragon Hoops. I, you have a bunch of other projects. I’m not sure where they fit in there. Maybe they were fully collaborative or I don’t know, but like, can you talk to me a little bit about how you think about those things? Do they feel different to you? Where do they come from? That kind of thing?

Liscensed vs self-generated work

Gene Yang: Yeah. Yeah. I, I mean, I think the license stuff versus the, like the creator owned stuff, it definitely feels very different. With the creator owned stuff I’m generally… like the best part of that is you’re in full control of it. And usually like I’m just trying to express something in my own voice when I’m working on that kind of stuff. Or I’m trying to express something in the voice of my friendship with somebody.

So I did a book with Sonny Liew called The Shadow Hero and that really was like, I felt like we were trying to say something kind of together. But it was just two people and it’s, it’s still really personal. Whereas with working for DC comics, which I do love, but it’s a very different thing.

I am looking for the overlap between what I’m interested in and the Superman mythos. For Avatar: The Last Airbender too, I was trying to replicate a voice that was from a television show while trying to figure out how to talk about what I’m interested in. So I think, I mean, I think there are advantages to both.

The way I kind of think of it is when I’m working for DC or for Dark Horse comics on the Avatar books, usually I’m part of a team with a lot of people on the team. And because there are lots of people on that team, I actually get an up close look at other people’s creative processes, and sometimes I could take what I learned and apply it to my own story.

So for instance, with Avatar: The Last Airbender, I got to work really closely with Mike DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, the two creators of the show. And they’re both animators, right? They come out of a, of an adjacent but different field and the way they like beat out a story using post-its and index cards. That was something that I’d never really seen before. So I do that now. I do that now for my own comics cause I beat things out.

Jessica Abel: Yeah. Very cool.

Gene Yang: That’s all from, that was all from them. But I mean, there are lots of little things like that that I pick up, like even from my editors. I, I think a good editor, they get to see the creative processes, they get like a bird’s eye view of the creative process. And I can, I can get stuff from them.

Jessica Abel: Yeah. Well, and they work with so many different people with different techniques and so on. Yeah. I’ve had the same experience. I worked on a project briefly with Ronald Wimberley and his way of using sort of film language to break down a script was really influential on me.

Oh. And doing all my radio research I learned all kinds of things about how narrative audio programs put together stories. And that was immensely helpful in sort of this structural thinking around stories. So I totally get what you’re saying. I think that’s really, really important. And then you can bring it back to your own personal work.

One of the things you said there is like, what’s great is you have full control over it, but it also sounds like having full control over it is a source of anxiety, perhaps.

Gene Yang: It is. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it’s a funny tension, right? Like I, I think sometimes having constraints, like Superman can’t do this, can be really helpful.

Jessica Abel: Mm-hmm.

Gene Yang: Like guardrails around you.

Yeah. I mean, I don’t know. My… I think most, most creative people struggle with anxiety to some extent.

Jessica Abel: Oh, sure. Yeah. I mean, you know, we’re putting our inner thoughts out into the world. What could be bad? You know.

Gene Yang: Yeah. Yeah.

Jessica Abel: Yeah. I think that’s very, yeah. That happens.

Gene Yang: And constraints are a way of dealing with it, I think.

Jessica Abel: Oh, for sure. Yeah. Having deadlines, having rules around how stuff is made, having systems for getting your ideas organized, all of those things are super helpful. For sure.


Gene Yang: Wait, can I ask you something though?

Jessica Abel: Yeah.

Gene Yang: Can I ask you, okay, so, so you said that working with all these other folks affected you. If I remember this right, you at least used to write your comics by thumbing them out. Is that true?

Outlining comics with InDesign

Jessica Abel: Um, I have never written in- I’ve never written in thumbnails, strictly speaking, like drawn thumbnails. I used to write in script just, and it was usually just dialogue. It was not even a full script. It was just like, here’s stuff people are gonna say. And that was, you know, a good start, but it wasn’t really a fully written thing and evolved into a system where it’s a full script on a panel layout. So nothing’s in the panels, but descriptions of what’s gonna be there are in the panels.

Gene Yang: Ohhhhh

Jessica Abel: And I actually originally learned this from and adapted it from Alison Bechdel,

Gene Yang: oh, that’s what she does?

Jessica Abel: Yeah, so she does this thing and she originally did it in Illustrator, and I taught her how to use InDesign, and she was like, Oh my God, that’s amazing. But anyway, I use InDesign. So does page design software and have different type styles for dialogue and for narration and then have descriptions. And you can make the boxes essentially for where- what you’re doing.

And what it does is gets your brain thinking visually immediately. So you’re not writing these scenes that are like one line of description that takes three pages. You know how that is. So like, there’s a line of description, which is like, Joe walks down, you know, walks down the stairs, grabs a cup of coffee, gets in his car and goes to work. And you can write that in one sentence, but that takes four pages. So if you’re doing it visually, then you never end up in that situation and you can now- and I, I ended up being able to write in a more cinematic way. In my last two books I wrote that way. I wrote Out on the Wire and Trish Trash that way.

Gene Yang: Okay. So it’s, there’s no drawing on it though? It’s just text descriptions in boxes.

Jessica Abel: Yes. And then there’s a thumbnailing, there’s a thumbnailing pass after that where you have those boxes and you do some thumbnails and you build them up and you can change stuff at that point. But yeah, just to keep the, the writing going.

Gene Yang: Yeah, yeah.

Jessica Abel: And make it really flexible, like you can move stuff around. I feel like you should be interviewing me. Like you are interviewing me.

Gene Yang: No, I just wanna know. I wanna know.

Jessica Abel: Yeah. No, no. I think it’s really, it’s like that was a game changer for me because I’d had a really hard time fully utilizing the visual power, the visual narrative power of comics until I started writing in like visual units essentially.

Gene Yang: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Jessica Abel: Yeah. And it also made it a lot easier for editors because editors reading a script don’t necessarily, depending on who they are, if they’re at a commercial house and they’re not familiar with comics, they can’t really read a script, comic script effectively. Yeah. Or thumbnails, never mind, but you know, they’d never be

Gene Yang: So do you, do you do like a little sketch before you build it in InDesign? You do? Okay.

Jessica Abel: Oh, no, no, no, no.

Gene Yang: Oh, you don’t.

Jessica Abel: I just do directly. No. Yep. Straight up.

Gene Yang: Wow.

Jessica Abel: Yeah. Yeah. And I use a grid, you know, so it’s based on like a grid for a particular book. I’d be happy to give you a demo sometime.

Gene Yang: I would love to see that. I would love to

see that. That’s not on YouTube somewhere?

Jessica Abel: Uh, I have a, I have a post about it. Yeah. So if anybody’s listening to this and is like, Oh my God, that sounds amazing, by the way, it is. Not my idea, Alison Bechdel’s idea, but I have a post on my site about what’s called visual scripting, and, uh, it has a whole explanation and a downloadable template for InDesign.

Gene Yang: I’m gonna, I’m gonna have to check that out. That’s, that does sound amazing.

Jessica Abel: let me know if you use

Gene Yang: Yeah, I will, I will.

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Okay. Back to the show.

Jessica Abel: All right. So, okay. We’ve talked a bunch about organizing your life around creative work. You have two time blocks and stuff. You also have four children, and you are married. And I know that that is a very important aspect of your life, that you’ve very devoted to your family. And of course we’ve just been going through homeschooling forever and pandemic and all that stuff. And you’re trying to work at home and this is your only income stream. So, talk. What was that like?

Gene Yang: Oh, it was, it was,

Jessica Abel: this? Does

Gene Yang: mean,

Finding work/life balance

Gene Yang: Uh, she, she doesn’t anymore. She did for a while. She was a elementary school teacher for a very long time, and then she was a librarian for a little bit. Now she’s running her own business, but it’s not at a point yet where it’s generating significant income.

Hopefully it will soon, but it’s not, it’s not there yet.

Jessica Abel: But so she is working though? So she has work hours?

Gene Yang: Yeah, yeah. She has, she, I guess she is. Well so, so this past year she decided she was gonna homeschool our kids, like pull ’em out of Zoom school cause our, like the two younger ones. So that was really like a full time job for her during the pandemic.

And then now they’re, they’re back in school. And she’s trying to figure out how she’s gonna move forward with this business that she started. But the year, like the pandemic year was amazing in some ways and horrible in the other. I mean, we were, we were really lucky.

Like none of us got sick. And my income was fairly steady throughout the entire pandemic. But then at the same time, everybody was at home. Like, we had six people under the same roof for like a year and a half. And it was, it was hard. It was hard to maintain boundaries to get work done.

And there were times where I just had to be like… like I, I don’t really have an office at our, in our house. Like, the place I’m sitting in right now is our dining room. And I kind of just took over a corner of it, but like, during pandemic the kids would also be working at the dining table on the, on their stuff.

And sometimes I just couldn’t concentrate. So I would just migrate. Right? I would like, I’d go and see if one of the kids’ bedrooms was empty and I go work there, or we had a table in the backyard. I would work there, but it was, uh, it was definitely difficult to, to maintain focus.

Jessica Abel: Yeah, I imagine just like having, having these people around all the time, fortunately your wife was able to take the time to sort of be in charge and that’s like what happened with me too, that Matt was like the person in charge. So I was able to, come here and do stuff. Yeah. But it’s, you know, it’s been really challenging for sure.

And overall in general, like comics and, and creative work, they can really take over all available time and energy. So, have you made a very specific kind of, do you have boundaries around that where you’re like, this is when I, this is family time, this is what I…?

Gene Yang: I try to end at six. It doesn’t always happen, but I try to end at six, and then after that it’s family time. I do have this problem where if, like if I hit something during my workday, like some kind of a problem that’s diff- like a plotting problem or something that’s difficult to work out, it’ll just end up sticking in my head.

Even if my nine year old’s talking to me, I’ll be like, nodding my head, but secretly thinking about this plotting problem. So I’ve been trying to get out of that. Like I heard, like meditation’s good so I’ve been trying to meditate so that when I’m talking to my nine year old, even if there’s a scripting problem, I’ll be able to focus on her words. But my brain, like my brain sometimes feels like a, like an wild elephant that doesn’t wanna cooperate.

Jessica Abel: I understand.

Gene Yang: Yeah.

How did your teaching career feed into what you’re doing now?

Jessica Abel: Let’s talk a little bit about your teaching career and how that fed into what you’re doing now. And I know you’ve been teaching also at Hamline in an MFA program for a long time. Can you talk a little bit about how those things kind of how that evolved and how, how did you start?

And then balancing cuz like, you know, high school teaching, I know you said you ended up being part-time for a long time, it’s very demanding. So how, how did you manage all that at that time?

Gene Yang: So I, I started teaching when I was, I don’t know, I think I was 20? I must have been 24 when I started. So I, I wasn’t even that much older than the seniors on campus.

And it’d been something I, I thought about for a really long time. So I graduated from college with a degree in computer science. I was a programmer for two years, and I realized it wasn’t for me. I didn’t wanna be in a cubicle my whole life. And I was also super interested in comics at the time, but like in the nineties, the American comic scene felt like it was gonna collapse. Like Marvel comics had declared bankruptcy.

I remember going to my very first Comic-Con in San Diego, and back then there were so few people that wanted to go, you could buy tickets at the door of the day of, right? So I remember that Sunday, like the Sunday of the very first Comic-Con I had ever gone to. It just felt like on the exhibit floor there were more exhibitors than there were attendees.

It felt like a ghost town. And I was like, I don’t, I don’t know if this is gonna work out as a career. So my plan was, my plan was I was just gonna find another career that I liked and then just do comics on the side as a, as a way. I was like, people waste money playing golf, I’m gonna waste money publishing my own comics.

So that was my plan. I was gonna be a high school teacher and then do comics on the side. In the beginning, the very first year of teaching was my hardest year that I’d ever had until I had kids. I was just exhausted. I think I was trying to figure out my curriculum. I remember every Friday I’d come home, I’d be so tired. I’d fall asleep at like seven and I would not wake up until the next morning, like 10 the next morning cuz I was so tired. So I just didn’t get any comics done until the summer. And then, and then during the-

Jessica Abel: And of course your former roommates are calling you up going like, where are the pages? What’s going on?

Gene Yang: Yeah. Yeah, that’s right. But I, I think that with high school teaching, after a while you get your… I would say between three to five years, you get your curriculum down. You kind of figure out what you’re doing.

You develop a reputation on campus so kids aren’t like constantly trying to test you. And at that point you have, you can have energy at night, unless it’s during finals week or something where you have a ton of grading, you can have like maybe a couple hours a night to work on something else if you want.

So for a long time, um, what I would do is I would. Do maybe a couple hours at night on comics. I would catch up during breaks, like during winter break and during the summer. And that’s, that’s how they fit together. And it works really well for me. I, I felt like… teaching is very extroverted and then comics is not. Comics is like the exact opposite.

It’s super introverted. And, and for me, they felt like they came out of two very different energy buckets. I don’t think I could have been like a programmer and also a comic book artist because for me those would’ve come out of the same energy bucket.

Jessica Abel: Yes, I totally see that. Was your family supportive of your life choices being a teacher and then becoming a cartoonist? Your parents and your siblings, whatever?

Was your family supportive of you becoming a cartoonist?

Gene Yang: My parents were not supportive. I guess, you know, I, that’s not fair. My mom was okay. My dad was not. My dad like when I told him that I was gonna leave my programming job and become a high school teacher and also like focus on comics. He like started shaking and then he got so upset he started shaking.

And he used to, when I was a, a high school teacher for the first- until American Born Chinese came out actually every six months he would send me a little envelope and there would be like newspaper clippings of like want ads. Like Apple Computer is looking for programmers or like, they’d be like articles comparing salaries across different professions.

Jessica Abel: Of course you’re in like Silicon Valley. I mean, that’s where you live. So like, it would, would not have been hard for you to find whatever it, whatever that thing was.

Gene Yang: Yeah.

Jessica Abel: Yeah.

Gene Yang: Maybe. No, I mean, Apple jobs are hard to come by, but I probably could have found like a programming job for a smaller company. Yeah.

Jessica Abel: Yeah, yeah. So did, but when American Born Chinese came out and became a big hit, so this is 10 years later, by the way. Did he stop with envelope?

Gene Yang: He stopped with the envelope. So I went home to visit him and he showed me this newspaper clipping. It was actually clipping from the World Journal, which is this Chinese language newspaper. And their living section had an article about an American Born Chinese. So he showed that to me and I never got another envelope again after that.

Jessica Abel: That’s very heartwarming. At least, at least when somebody else acknowledged your success, he could acknowledge it.

Gene Yang: Yeah,

Jessica Abel: That’s

Gene Yang: right.

Jessica Abel: I’m glad. Yeah.

Gene Yang: Yeah.

Jessica Abel: So when you did leave your teaching job, and I actually have a question that I normally get to questions at the end, but this is so relevant to what we’re talking about right now I wanna bring it in.

So, GR asks, what skills from the engineering field did you find yourself accessing or were a hindrance in your work as a cartoonist? In which skills from your education career? And this person is a cartoonist who works in education and had a career as a ceramic engineer. So coming from a personal place.

What skills from past careers did you find yourself accessing or were a hindrance in your work as a cartoonist?

Gene Yang: Okay. Okay. So I, I was a programmer and I really see a lot of parallels between like coding and storytelling. I mean, comics storytelling specifically, right? So in coding, really what you’re doing is you’re taking this big abstract idea and then you’re breaking it up into sequential concrete pieces, right? This abstract idea becomes these sequential lines of code and it all has to make sense or it’s not gonna compile.

Comics is very similar. You’re taking this big abstract idea. Anytime I’m talking about a book that I want to do with my editor. It’s all super abstract. It’s like this big fuzzy cloud and you have to take that big fuzzy cloud and break it up into these concrete pictures, these panels that fit in sequence.

So I really feel like coding was good training for me for comics. In terms of teaching, I think what I got most out of teaching was figuring out how to be clear. Like when you’re, when you’re delivering a lecture or when you’re creating a handout, it has to be clear. Your life is gonna be hard if it’s not clear. You’re gonna have to teach it over and over and over again until it’s clear. So I think there’s something about that too that applies to comics. With comics, I do think, like when I’m, when I’m teaching comics through Hamlin, I usually tell the students like, unless you’re being confusing on purpose, unless it plays a narrative role, you should go for clarity above all else. Right. You don’t want your, don’t want your reader to wonder what the panel’s supposed to be communicating.

Jessica Abel: Mm-hmm. Yeah. That’s great. And I think too, like you have to sequentialize what you’re trying to teach when you’re teaching. You know, you have to put it into steps that make sense and tell a story of the content.

Gene Yang: Yeah, that’s right.

Jessica Abel: It’s funny, I used to teach at the School of Visual Arts, and one of the other teachers there is Gary Panter.

And so Gary visited my class, visited his class, whatever, saw how he teaches. And what’s interesting is Gary Panter is a very experimental cartoonist and pushes all kinds of boundaries all the time, but his teaching is like almost entirely focused on clarity. So he’s always saying like, What is this guy doing? Where is he going? What’s next? Like, okay, so from here to here, what hap- gets people to explain it. It’s really interesting. Like that’s, that’s his focus as a teacher.

Gene Yang: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I, I think, like, even as a kid, I realized this without even realizing that I realized it, right? Like, you would get these books that were drawn, like superhero books that were drawn. They looked amazing. They looked dynamic. But then when you try to read ’em, you can’t read ’em. You can’t make heads or tails of ’em.

Jessica Abel: Mm-hmm.

Gene Yang: This other book that did not appeal to my 12-year-old mind immediately when I flipped it open. But when I brought it home, I enjoyed it way more simply because I could understand how the panel’s related to each other.

Jessica Abel: Well, and probably they were like, well written. There’s probably something else to it too. Like there was something worth getting out of all that clarity. That’s also important.

But so when you quit your day job, when you first reduced and then quit your teaching job was that cool? I mean, you’ve said you miss things about it, so like what you know is it, is quitting your day job, all it’s cracked up to be is what I’m asking you.

Are you happy you quit your day job?

Gene Yang: I really liked my day job. I had been there for a very long time. I had lots of friends on the faculty. There were actually two other cartoonists on faculty who are still there. Thien Pham who’s done a book with First Second, and Briana Loewinsohn, who just signed a book with Fantagraphics. So we had like our own little comics community within the faculty of that school. So it was just, it was a lot of fun. It was nice to have people to eat lunch with. And I liked being part of a community in general. I liked having my own classroom, all of that. So leaving was hard. It was a really, it was a really difficult decision.

I remember right after I went into my principal’s office to tell her that I wasn’t gonna come back next year. I just had a, it felt like breaking up with somebody. That’s what it felt like. Like, I couldn’t eat. I had a hard time sleeping for a couple weeks. And I had all these doubts about whether I’d made the right decision.

And then after that, I worked for DC. I began working for DC. I wrote 10 issues on the main Superman title. And I have to tell you, that year working on those comics, I think it’s okay for me to say this now because it’s been a while, but that was like the worst year I’ve ever had in comics.

It was so hard for like a billion different reasons, and I think it took me a while to get to a point where I started liking it. I started liking being full time at comics. So now I, I mean, I still think about teaching, right?

I wouldn’t mind ending my working career as a teacher, but for now, at least, I feel like I, I have enough projects that I want to get through that I don’t have time to teach.

Jessica Abel: Mm-hmm. Yeah. So you’re leaving Hamline for now as well, right?

Gene Yang: Yeah. Yeah. So, Hamline, I started at Hamline nine years ago, and then this semester will be my last semester there. So I’m, I’m really leaving Hamline same reason. I just, I have a lot of projects I want to get through. so until I get through ’em, I’m not gonna be able to teach.

Jessica Abel: Right. Yeah, no, I get it. And it’s, it is tough, right? Because there’s so many wonderful things about teaching and communica- you know, talking about the work with people.

Yeah. Okay. So I have so many more questions I wanna ask you and limited time. So I’m gonna pick here. So one thing I wanna ask you about though is when you, so you’d been self-publishing and then publishing in a small way for a number of years, and then you came out with American Born Chinese. It was a huge hit, won tons of awards, tons of attention.

How did the success of American Born Chinese change your life?

Jessica Abel: How did that change your…? How did it change your life? How did it change your self-conception? How did it change? Like, did it make things easier, harder? I mean, what happens when you have a big hit?

Gene Yang: Practically speaking. I mean, it was, it was crazy, right? It was just completely unexpected, I think. And, and in a lot of ways, I felt like I was this beneficiary of a lot of stuff that had been happening in comics for a while.

Like Blankets. I think of Craig Thompson’s Blankets as the book that really created a space in the minds of librarians and teachers for literary YA graphic novels, right?

If Blankets hadn’t happened, I don’t know. I just, I just don’t think the landscape would’ve been the same when American Born Chinese came out. So in a lot of ways, I feel like I was kind of at the right place at the right time as this wave of, of awareness about comics was building up within academia, within the library market.

And after that the really practical thing that happened was, I got to sign another book with First Second, and then I was able to go part-time at my job. So we were on a block schedule. I would spend one day at school teaching and then the other day at home working on comics.

And that was a great balance. That was like the balance that I had for almost a decade, maybe, I don’t know, seven, eight years after that. Beyond that, I think the thing that happened was just something that I wasn’t ever expecting, right? I was expecting to work in education full time for my entire career and always just do comics on the side.

So it changed what I thought of as, as my career, what, how I thought of my career path.

Jessica Abel: Yeah, I would. I can see that, that it’s just all of a sudden it’s like, Oh, my expectations are just blown to smithereens now. And a good way, you know? Now we have to think of… Did it make it hard to do your next book? Did you feel the weight of expectation?

Did the expectations make writing your next book hard?

Gene Yang: It did. It was super hard. Yeah. So the next book I ended up doing as a collaboration in part because it made it easier right? To team up with a friend of mine. So I did, let’s see, I think the next book that came out was Eternal Smile, which I did with Derek Kim and we’ve been friends for a really long time. We kind of came up in comics together.

Jessica Abel: Mm-hmm.

Gene Yang: And that was super helpful to, to, you know, have Derek to lean on for,

for the second book. And then after that I did a book with Thien Pham who was also a, a, a teacher at Bishop O’Dowd. So, um,

Jessica Abel: Right.

Gene Yang: that was, that was helpful as well.

Jessica Abel: So that kind of bridged that like getting into feeling like getting yourself comfortable with the new person you are in the world. In a

Gene Yang: Yeah. Yeah. I guess, I mean, .Yeah. I don’t, I don’t know if like, I, I think it, I think as a cartoonist, you know, it was definitely different, right? Like I, I got to go on speaking engagements and um, and, and that sort of thing, which I hadn’t done before that. Uh, but like at home and with my cartoon’s friends it didn’t feel that

Jessica Abel: Oh yeah. No, no. I, I mean, but in the, in the world, like people, you know, oh, it’s Gene Yang, you know, like that’s that kind of reaction, you know, It’s a different,

Gene Yang: it, Yeah. It was different. Yeah. Like going to a library conference especially was, was just a

Jessica Abel: Getting mobbed,

Gene Yang: Yeah. I dunno if it was, “mobbed” but at least there’d be like, Yeah. more like when I’m sitting at a table trying to sell my comics, I would actually sell comics as opposed to just sit there. Right? That would

Jessica Abel: A good thing. A good thing. Yeah. I mean, and there’s all, the other aspect of it is that, um, you are unfortunately one of the first people, and I mean unfortunately cuz I wish there were more, you know, throughout history, who’s representing the Asian and Asian American experience in a centered way. Like not just, there’s some Asians in the story, but like, This is, it’s normal, like normalizing that experience and just helping everybody kind of see through the experiences of Asian Americans.

And so, um, it seems to me that you may have also ex, I mean I’m sure that’s one of the reasons why, uh, American Born Chinese was as, as successful as it was cuz it, it was a huge lack that you filled like a gap that needed filling. Um, but I wonder if that also set up some weird dynamics for you.

Gene Yang: It did like, Okay, so the, the, the book that I do with Thien Pham it’s called Level Up and um, And, uh, it’s okay. I, I think it’s okay for me to tell the story because, uh, Mark Siegel, my editor, has told this story in public, but, um, I, we, we put in a, we put in a proposal for that book, right. And it was approved, and then I submitted an outline it, and it was approved.

And then, um, and then we started working on it. So I would thumbnail it, Thien would do the pencils, I would do the inks, and then he would do the colors. Uh, it was, uh, it ended up being like a 250 page book. And we got to page and we worked sequentially right on it, and we got to page 240 something and Mark called us up and was like, This is, this is not working. And he was totally right. It wasn’t working , but we had to start over from the very beginning.

Jessica Abel: Oh, Mark!

Gene Yang: Yeah. And, uh, and uh, and you know, so, but it, it was the right call. It was just the right call a little bit further down in the process that I wanted. But, but one of his critiques was it felt like I was like, Trying to write, um, about Asian American issues because I had to like, you know, like, like I was, I was trying to tackle these issues from a, from a vantage point of obligation. Um, and i, and I think, I think that that critique was a hundred percent correct. Like I had to work through that to get back to like a more organic story, you know?

Jessica Abel: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Cause that’s what I’ve always loved about your work is it is. It’s just in there. Like it just is. And that’s the thing that makes it so effective, I think, in, you know, helping diverse stories exist, you know, is that it’s not about like, Hey look, you know, , it’s just it. Exactly.

Gene Yang: Well, thanks. I mean, but I did that, right? I did the, Hey, look for 240 something pages before Mark was like this,

Jessica Abel: But you didn’t publish it.

Gene Yang: Is what it is. We didn’t publish it. Yeah. I think we still have it in a filing cabinet.

Jessica Abel: Well that would be interesting one day for a grad student to do a paper about that. Yeah. So cute. Hold on to it. . Um, okay. So I wanna ask you if you ever felt like, uh, if, if you ever felt like in your career, there was a time when you were like, This is a huge mistake, and then what did you do? And that maybe that’s the moment, like that book, but was there anything else where you’re like,

Gene Yang: yeah, at that moment was one, and then and then when, when I was working on Superman, I, I also had moments when I regretted it, right? So when I was doing the, my, my run on the main Superman story, I, I think, um, there are lots of things that were just, it, it took me a long time to get used to. One was, um, uh, like uh the pace of monthly superhero comics is, is just really frantic. Um, and then, um, and then Superman being a, being who he is as a character, he was tied into other books. You know, there are certain things I just couldn’t do with him. Uh,


Jessica Abel: Too many constraints,

Gene Yang: Yeah, writing in Universe. Yeah, exactly. Too many constraints and, and constraints that were constantly changing. So, because I was writing in universe, sometimes things would happen in another book that would affect what, what, was happening in mind, right? So I would plan something out and I wouldn’t be able to do it because of that. Uh, a friend of mine, Greg Pak Have you hung out with Greg before?

Do you…?

Jessica Abel: No.

Gene Yang: No. So he’s a, he’s a superhero writer, and, um, he’s, he spent most of his comics writing career in the, in the main, like the, they’re not mainstream anymore, right? Like the, in the superhero world. Um, he says that writing superhero comics is like improv. Like, people in the audience are just constantly throwing stuff at you, and you just have to figure out how to work it into the story. So all of that really took me a long time to get used to. And, and I did have times when I was working on that run where I was like, Dude, maybe I should have stayed a teacher. I was happy as a teacher. I don’t know what I’m doing. But the, the happy ending on that is I feel like eventually I did get used to it. And I, I got into a situation with, um, editors that I really like, like my, my editor right now at DC is a guy named Paul Kaminski, and I think, um, his sensibility in mind mesh much better, right? And, and that I’ve been able to do work at DC that I feel much happier about.

Well, and you’ve also mostly worked, what is the opposite of in universe, out of universe? Like you’ve worked on other, like the Superman versus the Klan.

That’s right.

Jessica Abel: not part of the main storyline, right?

Gene Yang: Yeah. Yeah. It’s not, it’s not. Yeah. And, and that’s been like the, the fun part of doing things that are not in continuity like that is you get to take pieces of continuity that you like and kind of interpret them the way you want.

Jessica Abel: That sounds like a lot more fun to me. Although describing writing superhero comics as improv does make it go. The Yes and

Gene Yang: Yeah,

Jessica Abel: like that’s kind of, that’s kind of fun. I don’t know.

Gene Yang: Yeah, yeah, yeah. “Yes, and…” But there’s also like people who really love these characters, which is great, but they also have really intense opinions about what happens to them.

Jessica Abel: Mm-hmm. really visible, public intense opinions.

Gene Yang: Yeah. That’s right.

Jessica Abel: That’s a bit of a problem. Yeah, for sure. Um, okay, one last question, which is things changed again in 2016 when you won the MacArthur grant. Um, what was that like? I mean, suddenly you’re not just, “I’m a bestselling author who people love my books and give them awards, but I am now a genius. Thank you.”

Gene Yang: That was I, I got the, I got a call from Chicago that morning and it was an unrecognized number. I wasn’t planning on getting it, but I don’t even know why. But I was in my car and I got it and it was the MacArthur Foundation calling me to tell me I got this, got this grant. So that was the end of my work day. It was like ten nine in the morning or something. That was the end of my work day. I couldn’t concentrate on anything else after that.

Jessica Abel: At least you didn’t crash.

Gene Yang: Yeah, at least I didn’t crash. I was, I was, I was pulling outta my driveway, so I just pulled right back in. And then I called my wife after I was, I was then talking to the McArthur Foundation. I, I mean, it was, it’s, it’s this crazy thing. It’s this crazy thing. So afterwards, um, they give you the option of going to a retreat where you meet all of the other people in the same classes as you. Right. Who, who also got grants. And, um, and each of us did a presentation about our work. So I go up there and I do a presentation about Superman, which I was working on, and, um, and Secret Coders I think I was working on at the time.

And then the, like, the, the next, like one of the next presentations was this other guy who was working on technology. That would take carbon emissions and use sunlight to turn it back into usable fuel. You know, like, uh,

Jessica Abel: “Like…”

Gene Yang: Yeah, exactly. Like, like, this is just so weird. It’s so weird. But, um, but like, very practically speaking, it, it it solved, uh, a problem for us, right? Like, as a cartoonist, I’ve always wondered how am I gonna pay for my kids’ college? So that’s, that’s what the bulk of that is, is going to. Um, and the, the other issue that it solved was I just never had a space of my own to work at, in my house. Uh, I was a nomad and, um, and I was able to use some of that money to, to rent a space for myself.

That I used until pandemic hit, you know, outside

Jessica Abel: Wow, that’s great. Yeah. But so it didn’t, it didn’t, uh, rock your world in other ways. It wasn’t like, how, how do I function now? I mean, like I said, I’m gonna be talking to Alison, um, Bechdel in a few months, and I’ve talked to her about this before also, cuz she also was a, is it MacArthur recipient? And she’s just like, This screwed me up man.

like, I’m sure there’ll, there’s a more complicated story there. We didn’t get into it, but.

Gene Yang: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I think it helped that Alison, uh, had got it, got it before, right. So it wasn’t like, like she was, was she the first of the second? It was, Is Ben [Katchor], Wasn’t there somebody before her? I, I

Jessica Abel: I don’t remember.

Gene Yang: to ask her. Yeah.


But yeah. But then, I mean, Lynda Barry got it. I feel like I’m, I’m glad that it’s becoming a thing, right. That, that cart it would be, it would be great if they had at least one or two cartoonists get it every, every year.

Jessica Abel: Yeah. That’d be amazing.

Um, okay, so I wanna move on to questions. We just have a few questions that I, I wanna make sure to get to and we’re running short of time. So, um, let’s see. Uh, Leonie asks, Gene, with your coding skills, have you thought of making in interactive stories with your comics or trans media of any kind?

Gene Yang: Yeah, I did one comic, um, so I got a Master’s in Education and my final project was a, was an interactive comic that I think I did on Flash, which doesn’t really exist anymore, but I think you can still find it. It’s called, uh, “Mr. Yang and Mosley the Alien Teach Factoring.” So it was,

it was uh, it was a comic that was based on a lesson that I did for my Algebra two class like a couple years before.

So I’ve done that.

Jessica Abel: into your, uh, TED talk and like, you know, comics and education, kind of that whole thread, which we haven’t had any time to get into,

Gene Yang: Yeah. I would love to do more though. I would love to do more of that vein. I just, Yeah, it. Maybe, maybe in the next thing

Jessica Abel: Right.

Gene Yang: project that I’m working on, I would love to do more.

Jessica Abel: Yeah, that sounds great. Um, which relates to Jaz’s question, what are your long term goals as someone who works in comics, Do you imagine working comics for a long?

Gene Yang: Yeah. I would like to, um, like, I’d like to always be making comics, you know, in, in some form until I die. Like the, what I heard about Will Eisner, I, I don’t know if this is just an nor urban legend or what, but what I heard was for his final book, he was working on it and he felt something wrong inside of his chest. And then he finished it. He finished his book, he dropped off his pages at the post office, checked himself into the hospital and just never came out. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but that’s, that’s what I’ve heard. And there is something very romantic about that. Right. About just creating work until the very end. So I, I would like to, it’d be fun to finish my, like, working career as a teacher, but even, even, if I’m lucky enough to retire, it’d be nice to still be making comics, right?

Jessica Abel: Oh, so you’re saying like comics is not working and teaching is working, is what you’re saying?

Gene Yang: Yeah. Maybe, maybe , I mean, comics is,

Jessica Abel: So, you slacker, you’re not working now, are you?

Gene Yang: This is what I’d say comics is, comics is work if you’re trying to hit other people’s deadlines. But if you’re just doing it on your own without having to work, having to worry about other people’s deadlines, then I think it’s, it’s just pure self expression, right? It’s not a this in-between of you. Like it’s not a, uh, a compromise between self-expression and the necessities of daily life.

Jessica Abel: Right. So, um, final question from Leonie. Um, do you ever get the feeling you may be reaching more kids with your stories than you ever could as a teacher in just one class and one institution?

Gene Yang: Yeah. Yeah. I think that’s definitely true for, for all of us, right? For, I mean, look at Raina [Telgemeier]. Raina’s the, the perfect example of this. So the the number of kids who have been touched by her work. I mean, it’s just like, millions and, and billions, right? Millions of kids feel better about getting braces because of Raina’s work.

But at the same time, there is something very special about being one on one with a student. You know, like teaching a class and having a student come in and afterwards, uh, for office hours forming a relationship with them and, um, and kind of, you know, mentoring them through a year. I think, I think there’s something, uh, I, I, I guess it’s, it’s, it’s being, it’s uh, it’s broadness worth versus depth. I think you can get much deeper when you have a face to face relationship with, with the student.

Jessica Abel: Yeah, I agree with that. I think that’s very, uh, and, and having a balance about those things.

Gene Yang: Yeah.

Jessica Abel: The best. I think having kind of an ability to, to spread a message widely, but also then to go deep with certain people. Yeah, for

Gene Yang: I.

Jessica Abel: Well, thank you so much for hanging out with us today. It has been a pleasure and an honor. Um, I’m so thrilled we got time to, to talk about all this stuff.

Gene Yang: yeah, me too. Me too, Jessica. Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. This was great.

Jessica Abel: How can people find more of your work? Where should they go to check out what you’re doing?

Gene Yang: Uh, so I am on, on Twitter and Instagram @geneluenyang. Uh, and I also have a, a website,

Jessica Abel: I think your website is, is it not?

Gene Yang: It is, it’s both.

You could, you could put my middle name in or not, and it’ll bring you to the same spot.

Jessica Abel: Perfect. Perfect. . So thank you for being here with us and I will see you next time. Thanks everybody.

Gene Yang: Thank you. Thank you everyone. Thanks Jessica.

Jessica Abel: Bye bye.


Thank you so much for joining us today for the Autonomous Creative.

Our show is produced by Matt Madden, our production coordinator is Lousine Boyakhandjyan, and our production assistant is Rhiannon Sunday. Music is by Matt Madden, and I’m your host, Jessica Abel.

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