Two comics masters, Gene Luen Yang and Scott McCloud, sat down for a wide-ranging conversation at SDCC, covering everything from the Gospel of Thomas to the white-washed cast of The Last Airbender film adaptation.
Just in case you need a refresher on their careers: With his Boxers and Saints, Gene Yang recently became a National Book Award Finalist for the second time. Yang’s earlier work, American Born Chinese, marked the first occasion the prize went to a graphic novel. American Born Chinese is also the first comic to win a Printz Award (2006), and Boxers and Saints became the first graphic novel to win the LA Times Book Prize and the Boston Globe Horn Book Award.
If comics has a wise older brother, it’s Scott McCloud. Understanding Comics and Making Comics prove he is the great theorist of comics, and have inspired many people, including Gene Yang, to take up their pens. His creative work includes the classic Zot, and soon, in 2015, his ambitious new work of adult fiction The Sculptor comes out. As if that wasn’t enough he also lectures around the world, and gives the odd TED talk or Google interview.
Gene Yang: Scott has been a great influence since my childhood—I’ve been making comics for 21 years, ever since reading Understanding Comics. So Scott is to blame for my career in comics.“
Scott McCloud (on the design of Boxers and Saints’ boxed set): It’s a great design, how the faces match up. Do you feel like punching someone in the face when the books are put in wrong?
Gene Yang: Yes, sure, I punch people a lot.
The two discussed Yang’s latest work, The Shadow Hero. Yan praised his collaborator, Sonny Liew, and recommended Liew’s earlier work, Malinky Robot.
SM (praising Yang’s element of surprise): You may be one of the most unpredictable writers on the planet. Like… cousin Chin-Kee in American Born Chinese?
GY: ABC was originally a mini-comic, and I gave it to Scott. And later when he met me, he said “It’s a really good thing you’re a Chinese-American.”
SM: Even when you’re examining injustice, you do it from a place of humanity. You do things that are so bold, and daring…. who would have greenlit such a project, if it hadn’t been a mini-comic to begin with?
GY: There’s something about the intimacy of comics that gives you a false bravado; you don’t always consider the consequences.
McCloud asked Yang about his willingness to seek out collaborations, after controlling every aspect of Boxers and Saints.
GY: When you work with somebody else, you automatically get a mixed voice. You hope it will benefit the story. But you don’t know what the result will be. For Boxers and Saints, the tension between Eastern and Western ways of thinking was very personal for me, and I needed to control every aspect. With The Shadow Hero… superheroes aren’t exactly my style anyway? But Sonny Liew was perfect for it. Superheroes seem to have been built by communities.”
The two authors praised Lark Pien’s very subtle palette, with Gene Yang quoting his father: “I didn’t used to think you could draw that well, but after seeing Lark’s colors on your work, I’m thinking you’re pretty good!”
McCloud also praised Yang’s talent for showing multiple viewpoints and beliefs in his work, particularly in the clash between Little Bao and Vibiana in Boxers and Saints.
SM: By showing two different sides of a world conflict, you’re showing two different beliefs, and by showing the beliefs of each side, you make them real. There’s an assumption with religion that different sides can’t both be right. But you show their mythologies as being real to them. How do you view the internal consistency of the mythological landscape of this conflict?
GY: I grew up in a religious community, and like everyone I went through a period of doubt, and later made a conscious choice to embrace the faith of my childhood. Having a story embody a belief is always a part of faith — it’s a way of entering into the belief. Religions and stories have all sorts of different functions, they’re like a collective consciousness, separate from the individual. Everyone who writes a story knows this: you struggle, you’re stuck, but you go away [from the story] and it turns up, unearned.
SM: Do you feel good stories should have an element of mystery, unresolved?
GY: My favorite gospel in the Bible is the Gospel of Mark, the first gospel. And it has two different endings. One is ambiguous, open-ended. And then they ruined it by adding to Mark 16, and suddenly it’s not open-ended. [The oldest version of the Gospel of Mark ends with 16:8, in which a group of female disciples discovering an open tomb, and a man who asks them to tell the other disciples that Jesus in’t there because he was ”raised.“ In the longer ending, 16:9-19, Jesus appears physically to his disciples, and tells them to star evangelizing.]
SM: So, they ran it by a test audience and they didn’t like it? You know what you need to do? You know the Gnostic gospels with teenage superpower Jesus?
GY: He’s a jerk.
SM: Somebody annoys Him and He zaps them? You could be the one person that could do that justice.
GY: The Gospel of Thomas: the Comic!
SM: Talking about your Avatar: The Last Airbender comics… The quality of storytelling in kids animation, the mythology—it’s poor. But Avatar—it starts out good, but then it kicks over into greatness. When?
GY: It got me on the third episode. Kyoshi Warriors.
SM: I was going to say Toph, the blind bandit. What is about Toph?
GY: Oh yeah, Toph was originally going to be a big dude. They made her a young, frail, blind girl—and she’s the world’s greatest earth bender. Fantastic character.
Then McCloud brought up M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender and its all-white cast of protagonists.
SM: Some saw as an assault, a racist, offensive move. You didn’t, you saw it as a mistake?
GY: Yes, I think it was a mistake, driven by money. Money clouds the issue sometimes.
Scott McCloud was also happy to learn that he and Gene Yang share a parental trait: they are both the sons of engineers. They both think that it affected their work methods, and led to a discussion of ”pantsers“ vs. ”planters.”
GY: I try to work by the seat of my pants, to harness my inner spontaneity, but I have no inner spontaneity. I wanted to be a seat-of-your-pants writer, but I’ve grown into more of a planting the garden plot and slowly growing the stories.
SM: Do you ever feel out of place among the right-brained community of comics?
GY: Sometimes I’m with other creators and they talk about things like their feelings and I’m like…
SM: Feelings only get in the way!
Take heed, comics creators of tomorrow!
All of our ongoing San Diego Comic Con 2014 coverage can be found here.