Gene Luen Yang: On Superman and the Immigrant Experience

Gene Luen Yang’s Superman Volume 1: Before Truth hits bookstores on Tuesday, but already he has had quite a busy year. In January, the Library of Congress named Yang as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, his newest offering in the Avatar series is being released the same day as Superman, and the second book of his Secret Coders series, Paths & Portals, will be released in August.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Yang at SDCC15, where we discussed his insightful spin on Superman’s origins. I hope you all enjoy!


OFG: The last two years have been breakout years with Boxers and Saints and now the Superman and Avatar. How did all this come into play? One day you were doing American Born Chinese and a few comics here and there, and now it’s everything.

GLY: It’s been kind of nutty. I started working on Boxers and Saints immediately after American Born Chinese. It took me six years to complete from beginning to end and so far, it has been the hardest thing I’ve worked on…so far. I wrote other books in between that, but that was really most of my focus for about six years.

The Avatar book, the way that came about was that an editor who used to be here at Dark Horse, Samantha Robertson, had read some of my stuff before she read American Born Chinese, and she also read this web comic I had done online. I was a huge Avatar fan when the show was going on. When they announced the casting of that movie I got really mad, so I did this web comic about how I was never going to go see the movie. She had read that web comic so she knew I was familiar with the franchise, and she called me up one day and asked if I be willing to write it, and I thought that was awesome. I signed on to do the first story line, but I had so much fun I wanted to keep going. Now we’re doing our fourth story line [Smoke and Shadows], and it’s been four years. That comes out in September [2015].

For Superman, my agent had a talk with DC, and they made the offer.

OFG: What is it like to writing for a mainstream comic after writing independents?

GYL: It’s really different. With my First Second Books, I have complete control over them. Every piece of dialog came straight from me, and the entire world is something that I construct as I see fit.  I have a vision in my head and I want to express it as authentically as I could in my head. With Avatar, I’m trying to mirror a specific voice. There was a voice the writing team behind the show had, and I just wanted to bring that on paper.

Superman is more complex just because he’s been around for 80 years. Superman has gone through multiple iterations, multiple incarnations. He’s an amazingly flexible character. There is the Boy Scout Superman. There is also the Superman Superman. What I want to find are the parts of his past that overlap with what I care about, and I try to write about those parts.

OFG: Going back to Superman…you’re coming from American Born Chinese, you’re writing about that Asian American cultural experience. How are you going to bring that out in Superman, that cultural element?

GLY: Well, Superman is an immigrant. Embedded in the construction of his character is the immigrant experience. His creators were both the sons of Jewish immigrants, and I really think what they took their own lives and stuck it in this character. Superman has these two identities that he has to negotiate, these two names. He came from a foreign land that he doesn’t really understand. All of those things are part of an experience of a child of an immigrant. That’s what draws me to his character and where I find a connection with him. The first story line we’re doing is all about him getting his secret identity exposed. He used to live in these two worlds, and now these two worlds are coming together, really without his consent. In that way, loosely at least, in subtext, I do think about how as a child of immigrants, I have had these two sides I’ve kept separate and as an adult, I’ve had to piece them together. It may not have been something I wanted to do, but it’s just something I had to do.

OFG: Going back to your career, you were once a computer science teacher and probably a lot of that had to do with your parents’ expectations. How do your parents feel now about your career?

GLY: They’re pretty happy about it. The computer science part…my dad was happy about. The teacher part…not so much. I worked as a programmer for two years, and he was happy about that. When I moved into teaching, he was not so happy. With comics, too, he was always worried about how I would feed myself.He’s on board now. He actually picked up a bunch of copies of my first Superman comic which came out a couple of weeks ago, and he’s been giving them out to his friends. It’s kind of cool to see.

OFG: You have Secret Coders coming out? Are your students going to use it?

GLY: What i would like to do is developing on lessons that i’ll be doing online through I actually want to pilot using the book in the classroom with my kids’ class. The oldest is 11 and I’d love to go into his class and try a couple of lessons. I’m trying to set that up.

Original interview: July 10, 2015 by the OFG Team.

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