Gene Luen Yang introduced himself to Norfolk Academy students with a photo of himself as a fifth grader, hair standing up stick-straight, glasses on, eyes gazing curiously and intently toward the camera.
Then, as befits an award-winning cartoonist and graphic novelist, he provided the punchy caption. “I am a nerd!” he said.
In his presentations to Lower, Middle, and Upper School students, he revealed just what kind of nerd he is—one who deeply loves using words and images as a nearly limitless canvas for telling compelling stories. Yang remembers the moment he realized the power of comic books: He saw a Marvel Two-in-One comic book entitled The Thing and Rom, with the alarming orange-plated creature leering on the cover, and he asked, even begged, his mother to purchase it. “She said, ‘No, absolutely not. Those characters are too scary,’” he recalled. “I had to put it back.”
However, his mother offered a consolation prize: a Superman comic. “He is every parent’s favorite superhero. He is like a flying Boy Scout,” Yang said. With that inspiration, he was off and drawing; he and a friend made comic books and even sold them to friends at 50-cents a copy. With his first run, they made $8, which they cheerfully, in Superman-style, donated to a fund for restoration of the Statue of Liberty.
From that auspicious beginning, Yang has crafted a career. He has used the graphic novel form to explore issues that might seem surprising, including the experience of immigrants in America; his mother was born in China, and his father was born in Taiwan. In 2006, he made a literary splash with his graphic novel, American Born Chinese. It was the first graphic novel to be nominated for a National Book Award and the first to with the American Library Association’s Printz Award. He has many additional titles to his name, including Boxers and Saints (2011) and Secret Coders, an ongoing series that teaches computer coding through storytelling.
In 2016, he was named as a MacArthur Fellow—often referred to as the “genius grants”—and the MacArthur website described American Born Chinese as integrating “tropes from American comics, Chinese folklore, and the Chinese immigrant experience. Three interlocking narratives contribute to a nuanced depiction of the struggles of adolescent Jin Wang as he comes to terms with his bicultural identity and attempts to assimilate in America.”
In his presentations, Yang also discussed the intersections between superheroes and the immigrant experience, weaving in detailed history of Marvel and DC comics. He noted that Superman must live between two cultures, so it makes sense that the character was created in the late 1930s by Jerry Siegel (writer) and Joe Shuster (artist), who were the sons of Jewish immigrants. “Superman must live between two cultures; he is a foreigner who must hide his true heritage from the people around him,” Yang observed. That situation, he noted, is a familiar reality for all immigrants, including himself. “I felt that I had dual identities growing up,” he said, as he used his Chinese name and spoke Chinese at home but tried to fit into American culture at school, even using all the money he had saved to purchase comic books to buy a jean jacket in 10th grade, so that he could look cool.
In addition to giving presentations in the Johnson Theater, Yang spent time on Sunday afternoon with Lower School students and parents who had undertaken his three-part “Reading Without Walls” challenge: 1) Read a book about a character who doesn’t live or look like you; 2) Read a book on a topic you don’t know much about; or 3) Read a book in a format that is unfamiliar to you.
“Reading literature is a way of growing our human capacity for empathy,” Yang noted. The Lower School’s Cooper Library had organized the reading groups and a variety of activities for students and parents to enjoy. In addition, Y
ang signed copies of his books, taking time to talk to students as they came to the table.