Gene Luen Yang (Chinese Traditional: 楊謹倫, Simplified: 杨谨伦, Pinyin: Yáng Jǐnlún; born August 9, 1973) is an Asian-American cartoonist. He is a frequent lecturer on the subjects of graphic novels and comics, at comic book conventions and universities, schools, and libraries. In addition, he was the Director of Information Services and taught computer science at Bishop O'Dowd High School in Oakland, California. In 2012, Yang joined the faculty at Hamline University, as a part of the Low-Residency Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults (MFAC) program. In 2016, the U.S. Library of Congress named him Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. That year he became the third graphic novelist, alongside Lauren Redniss, to receive the MacArthur Fellowship.
Yang believes he was born in either Alameda or Fremont, California. He is the child of an electrical engineer from Taiwan and a programmer who grew up in Hong Kong and Taiwan, both of whom emigrated to the United States. They met at the San Jose State University Library during graduate school. His parents instilled in him a strong work ethic and reinforced their Asian culture. In a speech at Penn State, where he spoke as a part of a Graphic Novel Speaker Series, Yang recalled that both of his parents always told him stories during his childhood.
Yang was a part of a small Asian-American minority in his elementary school. He grew up wanting to be an animator for Disney. In third grade, he did a biographical report on Walt Disney, which is where he says his obsession started. This changed in fifth grade when his mother took him to their local bookstore where she bought him his first comic book, issue 57 of the Superman series DC Comics Presents, a book she agreed to buy because Yang's first choice, Marvel Two-In-One issue 99, featured the characters Thing and Rom on the cover, which she thought looked too frightening.
Yang attended the University of California, Berkeley for his undergraduate program. He wanted to major in art but his father encouraged him to pursue a more "practical" field so Yang majored in computer science with a minor in creative writing. In college Yang found himself much less of a minority. During this time, he began to question his faith, but a moment he experienced while walking through the woods during his freshman year caused him to make Jesus his life's focus.
After graduating in 1995, Yang worked as a computer engineer for two years. However, after a five-day silent retreat, he felt he was meant to teach, and left his job as an engineer to teach computer science at a high school. In 1996, Yang began self-publishing his own comics under the imprint Humble Comics. Yang went on to be published with First Second Books (an imprint of Macmillan Publishers), Marvel Comics, SLG Publishing, Dark Horse Comics, Harper teen, The New Press, and Pauline Books & Media.
In 1997, Yang first published comic Gordon Yamamoto and the King of the Geeks under his Humble Comics imprint, and it won him the Xeric Grant, a self-publishing grant for comic book creators. Yang later published two more installments in the Gordon Yamamoto mini-series and a sequel, Loyola Chin and the San Peligran Order. In 2010, both Gordon Yamamoto and the King of the Geeks series and Loyola Chin and the San Pelgrino Order were published together as Animal Crackers by Slave Labor Graphics.
In 2006, Yang published American Born Chinese with First Second Publishing, winning the annual Michael L. Printz Award from the American Library Association, which recognizes the year's "best book written for teens, based entirely on its literary merit". It was the first graphic novel to be a finalist for the National Book Award, Young People's Literature, and won an Eisner Award for best new graphic album. American Born Chinese has been on the Booklist top Ten Graphic Novel for Youth; NPR Holiday Pick, Publishers Weekly Comics Week Best Comic of the Year, San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year, the Rueben Award for Best Comic Book, The Chinese American Librarians Association 2006/2007 Best Graphic Album – New, Time Magazine Top Ten Comic of the Year, and Amazon.com Best Graphic Novel/Comic of the year.
Yang's other works have been recognized as well. In 2009, Yang was awarded another Eisner Award for best short story for his collaborative work The Eternal Smile which he wrote and Derek Kirk Kim illustrated. Yang was nominated for Eisner Awards for both Prime Baby and his collaborative work Level Up.
Yang writes the Avatar: The Last Airbender comics series for Dark Horse Comics, the first volume of which was released in January 2012. Yang's graphic novel, Boxers & Saints, which was published by First Second Books in September 2013. In July 2016, DC Comics released the first issue of The New Super-man, featuring a separate Chinese character in the Superman mold, written by Yang.
Yang advocates the use of comics and graphic novels as educational tools in the classroom. In his final project for his master's degree at California State, Hayward he emphasizes the educational strength of comics claiming they are motivating, visual, permanent, intermediary, and popular. As a part of his Master's project, Yang created an online comic called Factoring with Mr. Yang & Mosley the Alien as a method of teaching math. This idea came from a time where Yang was substitute teaching a math class at Bishop O'Dowd. Due to the position of Director of Information Services he held at the school, he was forced to miss classes and used the comics to help the students learn the concepts in his absence. Positive student feedback inspired him to use the idea for his Master's project. American Born Chinese has been recommended to teachers for classroom instruction.
American Born Chinese
American Born Chinese was released by First Second Books in 2006. The first story line is Yang's contemporary rendition of the Chinese story of a Kung Fu practicing Monkey King of Flower-Fruit Mountain, The Monkey King, and his journey to the west. Yang, a Catholic, replaces the Buddha, from the original story, with a Christian influenced deity Tze-Yo-Tzuh. Throughout the story, The Monkey King is unhappy with himself as a monkey and continually tries to become another version of himself. Tze-Yo-Tzuh tries to help The Monkey King accept himself. When The Monkey King refuses Tze-Yo-Tzuh imprisons him under a mountain of rocks. A monk named Jiang Tao is sent by Tze-Yo-Tzuh on a mission to carry three packages to the west and is to pick up his disciple, The Monkey King, on his journey. He finds The Monkey King imprisoned under the mountain of rocks and frees him from the mountain by convincing The Monkey King to return to his true form.
The second story line follows an American-born Chinese boy, named Jin Wang, who moves to a suburb where he goes to school with only two other Asian students. Jin struggles with his Chinese identity and begins to reject it when he meets a new Asian student, Wei-Chen. Wei-Chen is a Taiwanese/Chinese immigrant who just came to the United States and he and Jin become best friends. Jin begins dating a Caucasian girl in his class and her friend Gregg asks Jin not to ask her out any more because he felt she needed to protect her image. Jin perceives this as a personal attack on him because of his race and becomes angry. Angry and confused, he kisses Wei-Chen's girlfriend and they have a falling out. That evening, Jin recalls the fight he had with Wei-Chen and convinces himself that Wei-Chen deserved it. That night, Jin has a dream about a Chinese woman he had met when he was younger. She had told him that he could be anything he wanted if he was willing to give up his soul. He awakens the next morning and looks in the mirror to see himself as a Caucasian boy and he changes his name to Danny.
The third story line follows Danny, the "all-American boy" and his Chinese cousin Chin-Kee, who comes to visit every year. Danny is embarrassed by his cousin Chin-Kee, who is depicted in traditional queue and buck-teeth, because he is Chinese. At the end of this narrative, we learn that Chin-Kee is really The Monkey King. The Monkey King then proceeds to tell Danny that his son Wei-Chen was sent to live among the mortals without sin for forty years but that he had changed and no longer wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father. That is when The Monkey King decided to visit Danny. Danny realized that the reason Wei-Chen fell into sin was his fault and as he realizes this, he turns back into Jin Wang. The Monkey King gives Jin Wang a card with an address on it and Jin Wang goes there to make amends with Wei-Chen.
Although Yang draws from experiences in his past to write these narratives, they are not autobiographical.
Awards and recognition
In January 2016, Yang began serving a two year term as National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, a program organized by the Children’s Book Council, Every Child a Reader, and the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress.
Yang was named to the 2016 class of the MacArthur Fellows Program, receiving what is commonly called the "Genius Grant". The MacArthur Foundation that names the fellows said that his "work for young adults demonstrates the potential of comics to broaden our understanding of diverse cultures and people."
- The Rosary Comic Book (Pauline Books & Media, 2003) A graphic novel telling of the stories behind the mysteries of the Catholic rosary in which each panel represents one of the prayers.
- Animal Crackers (SLG Publishing, 2004) Featuring Gordon Yamamoto and the king of the Geeks and Loyola Chin and the San Peligran Order.
- American Born Chinese (First Second Books, 2006)
- The Eternal Smile (First Second Books, 2009). A collection of three short stories.
- Prime Baby (First Second Books, 2010) Thaddeus is upset to discover that not only is his baby sister (who he hates) is an inter-dimensional conduit for peace-loving aliens, but that nobody will believe him.
- Level Up (First Second Books, 2011) Dennis Ouyang's parents expect him to go to medical school instead of becoming a professional gamer. He finds himself trapped on the path to medical school by four angels and must find a way out.
- Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Promise (Dark Horse Comics, 2012)
- Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Search (Dark Horse Comics, 2013)
- Boxers and Saints (First Second Books, 2013), Two novels set during the Boxer Uprising, Boxers describes the "bands of foreign missionaries and soldiers" who "roam the countryside bullying and robbing Chinese peasants." Little Bao, "harnessing the powers of ancient Chinese gods," recruits an army of Boxers, "commoners trained in kung fu who fight to free China from 'foreign devils.'" Saints concerns an unwanted and unwelcome fourth daughter, Four-Girl, who finally finds friendship in Christianity. But bands of young men roam the countryside, murdering Westerners and Chinese Christians alike. She will have to decide whether she is willing to die for her faith. Boxers and Saints is the winner of the 2013 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Young Adult Literature and is nominated for the 2014 Ignatz Award for Outstanding Graphic Novel.
- The Shadow Hero, illustrated by Sonny Liew (First Second Books, 2014) An origin story for the obscure Golden-Age comic book hero The Green Turtle, who is thought to be the first Asian-American superhero.
- Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Rift (Dark Horse Comics, 2014)
- Superman Vol.3 #41–50, illustrated by John Romita Jr. and Klaus Janson (DC Comics, 2015–2016)
- Secret Coders, illustrated by Mike Holmes First Second 2015
- New Super-Man, DC Comics series about a Chinese Superman, Kenan Kong, in China (2016–)
- Paths & Portals, illustrated by Mike Holmes, First Second, 2016
- Up All Night (Harper Collins) – 14-page short story
- Secret Identities (The New Press) – 12-page short story
- Strange Tales II (Marvel Comics) – 4-page short story
- Nursery Rhyme Comics (First Second Books) – 1-page short story
- Shattered (The New Press) – 4-page short story
- Open Mic (Candlewick) – 4-page short story
- Comic Squad: Recess! (Random House) – 12-page short story
- Cavna, Michael (August 18, 2014). "SMALL PRESS EXPO: Here are your nominees for the 2014 SPX Ignatz Awards…". The Washington Post. Retrieved 18 August 2014.