Gene Luen Yang is a writer, artist, and teacher. His graphic novel, American Born Chinese (First Second Books), became the first graphic novel to be nominated for a National Book Award and the first to win the American Library Association’s Printz Award. It also won an Eisner Award for Best Graphic Album New. The Eternal Smile, his collaborative project with Derek Kirk Kim, won an Eisner as well.
Recently, comics writer Jorge Aguirre and comics artist Rafael Rosado sat down with Gene to talk about is work ethic, his awards, and becoming the voice behind the further adventures of Aang in the Avatar: The Last Airbender series from Dark Horse Comics.
RAFAEL/JORGE: We love this quote of yours: “A lot of people have great ideas…but if you go from the idea to producing something, you’re setting yourself apart from 80 percent of them.” So how do you produce your work? It seems like you have so many projects going on at the same time. Do you have a particular work habit or daily page goal?
GENE: Going from idea to production is a huge hurdle. It took me a while to overcome it. It’s basically all about self discipline, right? When I first started making comics, I was living with a bunch of guys, old college friends. We had this deal. At the end of each day, they would ask me how far I’d gotten on my comic. And if I hadn’t made my goals, they were supposed to make me feel really bad about myself. They happily obliged. Eventually, I internalized their voices and now I have enough motivation to finish comics on my own.
But this is a huge issue for folks who are just starting out. At any comic book convention in America you’ll find aspiring cartoonists with dozens of complex plot ideas and armloads of character sketches. Only a small percentage ever move from those ideas and sketches to a finished book. If you aren’t born motivated (and most of us aren’t), you need to get some friends to help you out, to keep you accountable.
I do have daily goals for myself. I’m not nearly as fast as Rafael on a good day, I can pencil, ink, and letter two pages. My speed varies, of course, based on how much is on the page, how much coffee I’ve had, how many exciting e-mails I get. That’s for drawing. When I’m writing, things are much more nebulous. Some days are awesome and I can get pages and pages written, other days are terrible and I barely get anything done. Writing, for me, is very inspiration-dependent. And inspiration can be a jerk.
RAFAEL/JORGE: Rafael is Puerto Rican and Jorge is Colombian and we often find ourselves talking about our culture in relationship to our work. Do you feel an obligation to tell stories that explore your ethnicity like American Born Chinese?
GENE: I don’t really feel obligated because I enjoy exploring those issues. For immigrants and immigrants’ kids, navigating one culture at home and another at school is a daily reality of childhood. It effects how we see the world and makes us who we are. Stories are a discussion about being human, and culture is an essential part of the human experience.
RAFAEL: Several of your books like, Level Up and The Eternal Smile are collaborations. When you come up with ideas, is it immediately apparent to you whether it’s something you draw and write by yourself or whether it’s collaboration? How do you make those decisions?
GENE: Both Level Up and The Eternal Smile were collaborations with close friends. Those two projects grew out of friendship. The Eternal Smile was drawn by Derek Kirk Kim. Derek and I came up in the industry together. I met him at one of my very first comic book conventions. Derek does his own comics too, where he handles both the writing and the drawing. Years ago, he was going through a bout of writer’s block so he asked me to write a story for him to illustrate. The result was “Duncan’s Kingdom,” the first story in The Eternal Smile.
Level Up was first inspired by my brother’s experiences in medical school. He’s a medical doctor now, and when he was in school he’d tell me these crazy stories about his assignments. Doctors have to do some incredibly disgusting things to become doctors. I thought his stories were so interesting, so vivid, and so visual that they really belonged in a comic book. I eventually teamed up with Thien Pham, a good friend from the Bay Area comics community. He also has a brother who’s in the medical field, so it was a good fit.
RAFAEL/JORGE: Like us, you have a day job. How do you balance writing, drawing, marketing, your day job, a family, and sleep? Do you sleep? Ever?
GENE: That’s just a reality of modern life, don’t you think? Everyone has multiple roles. Your dentist has a music review blog, your barber leads a World of Warcraft guild, the guy who bags your groceries coaches soccer and makes political commentary YouTube videos. Technology has allowed us to squeeze much, much more out of a 24 hour day.
That said, it’s hard to balance everything sometimes. I’m sure you guys struggle with the same sorts of things. I’ve forgotten my share of appointments, and my sleep has certainly suffered. I can’t remember the last time I got a good eight hours straight.
RAFAEL/JORGE: What’s your writing process like? Do you work from an outline or a script? Both or neither?
GENE: I’ve used both outlines and scripts before. For my own stuff, the graphic novels from First Second Books, I’ve been going from outline to thumbnails. For the books I’m doing for Dark Horse Comics, I’m doing outlines and scripts. Dark Horse has a house-style for scripts, so I’m conforming my writing to that.
RAFAEL/JORGE: How has being a finalist for the National Book Award and other accolades you’ve received affected your work? Did it make you nervous about keeping up the same caliber of work or do you feel like you’re still writing for yourself?
GENE: The awards were just CRAZY. Crazy in a good way, but still crazy. They definitely helped the books sell. As a result, I’ve been able to go part time at my day job. These days, I’m at home every other day working on comics. I’m very, very grateful for that.
RAFAEL: When I heard you were writing the new Avatar: The Last Airbender comic book series it seemed to me like a cool idea, kind of like an indie director doing an episode of CSI or something. Did you want to try something more “mainstream” and try your hand at a proven franchise like Avatar? Or did you just want to write it because you’re fan?
GENE: I’m a huge fan of the original Avatar: The Last Airbender cartoon series, so when Dark Horse asked me to write the comics I jumped at the chance. Writing other people’s characters is a brand new challenge for me. I’ve been lucky enough to work closely with Bryan Konietzko and Michael DiMartino, the creators of The Last Airbender franchise. They’re world-class storytellers. I’ve learned a lot from them.
I grew up reading American superhero comics, stories of superpowered beings living in richly developed fantasy worlds. The Last Airbender has a lot in common with American superheroes. At the same time, it draws heavily on Asian culture and Asian mythology. It’s really been a great fit for me.
JORGE: Is there more or less pressure when you’re writing someone else’s characters like Avatar than you’re own creation? How are the two kinds of writing different writing for something you created and writing for something created by someone else?
GENE: The pressures are different. Avatar: The Last Airbender was, in my opinion, the best American cartoon series ever produced. Many, many people agree with me, so The Last Airbender has legions of fans with high expectations. When I write The Last Airbender comics, I try hard to retain the storytelling voice of the original show. I want the characters to be recognizable, the world to be recognizable. I’m working within an established tradition.
When I’m writing my own stuff, I’m trying to put my own vision onto paper. Rather than emulating something that’s already out there, I figure out what’s unique, what makes my story different, and emphasize that.
Both types of projects can be rewarding, but they’re very different.
Jorge Aguirre is a writer and Rafael Rosado is an artist and together they co-created Giants Beware! from First Second Books. Besides graphic novels, Rafael is also an animator and storybook artist based in Columbus, Ohio, and Jorge writes for animated kids shows, and he’s based in New Jersey.