“I Think We’re All Scrambling”: An Interview With Gene Luen Yang

Gene Luen Yang is one of only a handful of cartoonist to receive a MacArthur “genius” grant, he’s been twice shortlisted for the National Book Award and was the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature in 2016-17. It’s been seven years since the last book that Yang wrote and drew was published, though it’s easy to lose sight of that since he spent much of the time writing, from The Shadow Hero (with Sonny Liew) and the six volume graphic novel series Secret Coders (with Mike Holmes), to graphic novel sequels to Avatar: the Last Airbender, Superman Smashes the Klan, and runs on monthly comics like Superman, New Super-Man, The Terrifics, and an upcoming Shang-Chiseries.

We spoke recently about his new book Dragon Hoops, which came out right before the country shut down. With the book tour shut down, Yang has been doing digital events, including ones for DC’s Kids Camp where he’s been demonstrating origami and talking with kids about keeping a journal. We spoke about what sports can teach us, the fine line he walked in making the book, and the rituals that have helped during lockdown.

Could you set the scene for a few years back when Dragon Hoops started and how became interested in basketball?

It’s a nonfiction graphic novel where I follow a high school basketball team for the 2014-15 season and I began working on the graphic novel in 2014. It was the team of the school where I was teaching. I was a high school computer science teacher for 17 years and I ended up leaving in June 2015. When I was a kid, I was not into basketball at all. I wasn’t into sports. [laughs] One, before I was terrible at them. I was asthmatic and I was really skinny. I had no coordination at all. I liked drawing but any kind of game with a ball in it was just a humiliating experience. But before 2014 things started to happen and I started paying attention to basketball. One was Jeremy Lin and Linsanity in 2012. It intersected with Asian-American issues – and it made me wonder about why I cared about this sport that I hadn’t cared about at all before. Jeremy Lin made me realize that what he was doing on the court was actually having an effect off the court. Sports did have an effect outside of the arena in which they’re played. After that my son joined his school basketball team and I started going to his games. I started reading books about basketball. A couple of books started getting attention like Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover came out in 2014, which is a novel told in verse [that] eventually went on to win the Newbery. So basketball was popping up all over the place. I was in this weird position where I’d finished this book, Boxers and Saints, which had taken me six years to do and I felt empty. I wasn’t sure what project I wanted to do next. Around campus people kept talking about the varsity men’s basketball team. When I finally went and looked around and talked to the coach I found this crazy story that I thought would make a great graphic novel.

It seemed like a lot of the attraction of this story for you was Coach Lou and how he was and how he approached things.

It’s funny because he and I had been on the same campus for over a decade. We talked now and then. I was not just a teacher but part of the tech team so whenever the coaches had a tech problem I would help them fix their computers. That was the extent of our interactions. Every now and again I’d have a student who was on a team and they would ask me to go, but outside of that I rarely went to any sporting event. Once we started he told me this crazy story and it ended up being the first chapter of Dragon Hoops and that was what set me off. Even though I didn’t know much about basketball, I saw the emotion in his eyes when he was telling it and I saw the drama behind the situation.

It sounded like you grew up like a lot of us did, where on the one hand theres sports and on the other hand theres academics and art and, well, everything else. [laughs] And I dont know what its like today, but that divide was very real.

[laughs] Yes! When I was a kid, being good at sports felt like such an easy and automatic way to assert yourself at school. And if you weren’t good at sports, you would have to figure something else out. [laughs] At least that’s how it felt back in the eighties when I was growing up. I don’t know what it’s like now. Having been a teacher and knowing that you don’t get to see one hundred percent of your students lives, but it did seem like neediness and geek culture was a way of asserting yourself as well. I remember in high school I had this Spider-man t-shirt, but I would think twice before wearing it to school. But now everybody wears superhero t-shirts. It feels like a totally different culture.

It really does. And one of the things it felt like you took away from these experiences and what people often talk about sports can be is that its this opportunity to teach character. Because you can walk onto a court or field, play better than you ever have, and lose miserably. Or the opposite. That notion of building character because you have to let the outcome go in so many ways.

That’s exactly right. That was one of the things that struck me as I followed the team through the season. First I realized that at least within American culture, sports are a narrative form. That’s how we talk about them. A game, presented properly, is actually a story. But the big difference between that and the superhero comics I grew up with is that the outcome could be anything. As you said, you can be literally the best athlete and still lose. There’s an element of chance there that you can’t get around.

You have a few moments where the assistant coach is running through plays and you comment, "I understood every word he used, but I dont know what hes saying." [laughs]

That’s right. [laughs] Observing the team really blew up the whole notion of “dumb jocks”. All the different strategies and plays that they had to memorize. Even just the lingo of how to talk about basketball was a little intimidating for me as an outsider.

Did you spend the season more taking notes and doing sketches and trying to think about the book rather than actually make the book? How did you work?

I kind of felt lost during the season. This was my first nonfiction graphic novel. In the beginning of the season I was debating between doing it as nonfiction or making a fictionalized version so I could have more control over the plot. I was really nervous about the ending. I constantly worried about what I would do if the ending wasn’t what I wanted. I started reading a lot of nonfiction sports books just to get an idea of how to do it. I read Friday Night Lights and watched the movie and the TV series. In the book, the team that the author is following does not win. They don’t come out on top at the end of the season, but he still manages to create a compelling arc. I read The Last Shot, which is a lot darker. It’s about high school basketball players, one of whom is Steph Marbury. It’s not super happy all the way through. I guess one of the things I was really nervous about was writing folks who were my friends and part of my community. It wasn’t like Friday Night Lights where the author immerses himself in this community and then writes this book and leaves. I didn’t have the luxury of leaving. Even though I did leave the school as a teacher, I’m still connected to the community. I’m still friends with teachers there. I still volunteer there. I knew I was writing about folks who would be a part of my life even after the book came out and that made me nervous. That was one of the arguments to make a fictionalized version. What ended up happening was that it was so compelling, I felt like I couldn’t fictionalize it. At the beginning of the season I was taking notes and doing sketches and then I started seeing a narrative arc towards the end of the season. I picked games and players to focus on.

As you spent time with some of the players and talked with them, I would imagine that depicting their lives was important.

Especially because I was still a teacher. I wasn’t a reporter. I guess I tried to pretend a little, but I wasn’t. I think I would make a terrible reporter because there were lines I did not feel comfortable crossing and I think to be a good reporter you have to cross those lines.

As you said, you were a part of this community. Being a teacher complicates the relationship with the students. You were walking an odd line.

Yes and it’s different from writing about your own family. If I’m writing about my family, in some ways I feel like I have a little more elbow room. If you have the guts to be a reporter, you have elbow room because you’re writing about strangers. This wasn’t either of those two and there was a tightrope there.

Youve spoken in other interviews about how you never intended to be a part of the narrative, is that one reason why you felt you needed to include yourself?

Absolutely. I felt like I had to be real about all these weaknesses that I had as a storyteller. From not knowing much about basketball to being in this weird relationship with the folks that I was writing about. There were a couple kids on that team that were from rougher backgrounds than me and I thought that being an Asian-American kid from the suburbs, some of what they experienced I’ll never truly be able to understand. I thought I had to be real about that. The cartoon Gene started sneaking into that project. When I first proposed it I expected to just focus on the players and the coaches. Then my plan was to put myself in in the prologue and epilogue. I would show myself interviewing Coach Lou and then have the panels focus more on him. Then I showed up in the middle. I’m part of a cartoonists group called the Storytellers Trust that’s an informal group and we’d video conference and read each other’s scripts and thumbnails and give each other feedback. One of the big pieces of feedback that I got fairly early on was that I had to be in it more, so I did.

How much did the thinking about the role youshould play go hand in hand with figuring out the structure of the book

I was very nervous about the structure. Obviously I knew I had to put games in but pretty early on I thought about how to make the games as compelling as possible. I thought about how sports are presented to non-sports people. Like in the Olympics where right before they show you a sporting event, they’ll do vignettes about the athletes you’re about to see and often center those vignettes around some kind of struggle, and then show the event. I thought I would do something similar as a way of building interest in the actual games themselves.

I put the historical stories in fairly late. To get to know the game I was reading a lot of books about basketball history and I just kept seeing these correlations  between what I was reading and what I was seeing on the court. It really affected how I saw the game. A real simple example is that I read about the Lakers-Globetrotters game from 1948. It was a really big deal to have white and black players on the same court then, but at these games that I was watching, that was taken for granted. There would be kids of all different backgrounds on that court and that’s just how it was. But to go from there to here was a big trek. After reading about that game and seeing kids today playing, there was something very touching about that and I wanted to include those things.

I dont want to say those sections were your own personal history of basketball, but you found so much in the history of the game that you could understand and relate to.

It really grew my appreciation of basketball because it really interfaced with and had an effect on “the real world.” I think it’s the same with the stories we tell. The superhero stories we tell affect American culture and in the same way, the narratives around basketball can affect culture.

You talk about the strange tradition the Globetrotters came out of, which will remind readers of James Sturms Golems Mighty Swing, but it also made me think of code switching and how that often plays out in different ways in comics and sports.

I felt that with Coach Lou. I’m a child of immigrants and there was code switching. I did it as a kid without knowing what to call it. I spoke one language at home and one language at school, but it wasn’t just language. I also acted differently. I think Coach Lou would code switch in a bunch of different ways from when he moved from a mostly black environment to a mostly white environment. He would code switch between being an athlete and being an academic. He’s kind of a nerd. [laughs] I didn’t realize this until I got to know him, but he is. He loves reading and puts a big importance on education. That’s why he ended up at Bishop O’Dowd to begin with, because his family put a big emphasis on education. The way he talks changes subtlety when he goes from one environment to another. And he does it unconsciously but it’s part of the reality of living in a diverse community.

On rereading the book I kept thinking about how much time you spend depicting ritual. From setting up plays, small preparations on and off the court. You were very focused on showing that.

I think some of that comes from being a Roman Catholic. I grew up Catholic and am still a practicing Catholic and there’s a lot of ritual involved. As a kid I don’t think I understood it. It seemed weird and maybe even a little bit robotic, but as an adult I grew to appreciate those shared rituals that I have that bind us to a community. Obviously there’s a dark side to that, but from a positive angle, they can bond you to a community and bond you across time. There’s something about knowing that people 50 or 100 years ago did the same thing as we do now. I’m also interested in how rituals can change over time. How the meaning can change, the actual actions can change, and our relationship to them can change. So when I went into this brand new environment of basketball, I saw a lot of rituals. The way a game is played. There’s a sequence of events that feels very ritualistic. Each individual player has a set of rituals. You can see this at the free throw line. That’s the most obvious one. Every player has some kind of sequence they go through before they shoot a free throw. As a team there are chants. I didn’t really touch on it too much fun the book but there’s a 1-2-3 chant that Coach Lou did as a player at Bishop O’Dowd in the 80s. By the time he was a coach it had grown into a 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9 chat. A ritual can change and even if the original meaning is lost, it takes on a new meaning that remains just as important.

And not to psychoanalyze you, but I thought about how you made the book after you left teaching. Depicting and capturing these rituals was about depicting and capturing not just these games, but this place that had been such a constant in your life.

I think that’s true, too. There definitely is a part of me that mourns my time there. I know that even if I go back now, it just won’t be the same. There’s just no way to go back. I’m a freelancer now and my days are completely unstructured. I spend most of my time alone now, whereas when I was at the school I was around people all the time. It’s weird to say but I miss the bell, but I miss having that bell to divide my day. I miss being a part of the calendar where everybody shows up on the same days and has vacation on the same days. There’s something about that shared experience that I really do miss.

There is one line towards the end that didnt feel right to me. You mention how some kids didnt want to open up and you make a line about how on the court they were Superman and didnt want to show you Clark Kent. That felt too pat.

Maybe it was. That was part of figuring out how to handle a lack of access. Ivan is a really shy kid. I was able to get some information about his childhood from his mom and younger brother, but I didn’t feel right putting it in because it didn’t come directly from him. It felt like if he didn’t want to share it, it shouldn’t go in. That scene at the end, where we were at this restaurant and celebrating and the coach finds out that Ivan didn’t eat, apparently it happened a lot. He will go out of his way to not be in people’s way. It struck me at that moment as maybe him not wanting to reveal more about his childhood is more about him not wanting to be in people’s way. Whatever your stereotype of a high school sports star is, he’s not. I have a friend who works out at UC Berkeley where Ivan went. My friend was on the basketball shooting around for fun and Ivan walks in and the gym just clears out. He walks up to my friend and says, if you want to keep shooting, don’t mind me. Which is such a weird thing. He was the star of the team.

He was an unusually mature high school student. In some ways I think it’s worked against him. In his class he was the only top ten player to not go into the NBA after his freshman year. He didn’t go in because he liked college. My suspicion is that his younger brother was still in school and Ivan wanted to stay in the Bay Area until his brother graduated. He was projected to go top 10 in the draft, but when he left after his sophomore year, it was seen as a sign of weakness that he stayed in college and he ended up going 20-something. It’s a difference of literally millions of dollars. Part of me feels really mad on his behalf because I feel like he made the right choice and he kind of got screwed for it.

In Boxers and Saints there was action and motion but you had to do something different and something youve never done before in this book as far as thinking about how depict action and motion. Is that fair?

Of course. I had to depict a game that I didn’t know that well. I looked at Slam Dunk. I also looked at Check, Please by Ngozi Ukazu. There are some sports comics out there but it was definitely a challenge.

Did having to think about action and motion for this have an affect on how you wrote comics like Superman and Shang-Chi?

Maybe. My first Superman comics came out a month after leaving O’Dowd but writing superhero comics on a monthly basis was so different form making graphic novels. I really felt like I was jumping into the deep end of the pool. That period is such a blur I think it was the other way. Writing Superman and seeing how superhero artists handled action affected the way I wrote Dragon Hoops. But really I was thinking about manga. I looked at Slam Dunk and Sam Bosma gave me a lot of pointers.

Its odd Dragon Hoops coming out now just after Superman Smashes the Klan came out, because that felt like a very personal book. Even if youre not a character in it.

I’m super grateful and shocked that they let me do it. I put in the proposal and they said sure. To be perfectly frank when I signed onto write the main Superman title, it was a weird time at DC. The mandate was to take the classic heroes and tweak them and do something different with them. So when I came on Superman, I couldn’t write Superman the way I liked him. I had to make him different. Greg Pak is one of my favorite people and one of my favorite superhero writers and he’d been on Superman for a while so he got to write classic Clark Kent and red cape Superman and that was what I wanted to do but couldn’t do it. I feel like Superman Smashes the Klan was me putting all that energy into a book. I’m really excited and hopeful about the DC Young Reader line both as a creator and as a parent of kids who are reading those books. I think it’s awesome and a step in the right direction. But yes, that is my most personal work from DC so far.

In that book and in The Shadow Hero, in different ways, youre carving out space and very consciously saying, no, let me show you how comics were always political and how people who look like me have been a part of this space.

In the time period in which superhero comics emerged you couldn’t get away from politics. It was baked into everything happening in that era. Being both a longtime superhero fan and finding these Asian-American characters at the beginning of the superhero genre, there was very affirming about that.

We were talking before about everything happening right now. You had this whole March book tour canceled. What have you been hearing from people about trying to talk about comics and teach and just, trying to figure out what to do?

I think we’re all scrambling [laughs] As authors, as parents, as students. I don’t know. It’s a bummer to have a book tour cancelled. The team at First Second books has been planning this for months and put in so much work, and to have all that go up in smoke is hard. But in the world right now, a canceled book tour is small. My brother is a doctor and my brother in law is a doctor and hearing about what they’re ramping up for is so hard and so intense. All of us are trying to figure out what it means. Find a way to approximate normality in our current environment. I’ve heard from folks. I published strips on Instagram and people responded positively and I’m really grateful for that but we all are struggling. As comic book people, I’m freaked out about the direct market. We all have fears about our health and the health of our loved ones, but I’m also freaked out about the long lasting effects of what’s happening on American comics and Americans books.

Youve been doing a lot of things online, but Im sure it must be almost like the book didnt come out? I dont even know.

It’s weird. We timed the book release to March Madness – which got cancelled! If you told me a year ago when we started planning this that all of basketball is going to get canceled, I wouldn’t have believed you.

You mentioned DC Young Readers program and youre a part of the DC Kids Camp. Do you want to say what youre doing?

I think in a lot of ways people are trying to figure out how to help. Speaking personally, part of that is needing a way of relieving anxiety. For a lot of writers and artists, when we’re feeling anxious the best way to deal with that is to make something. A lot of book people now are putting stuff online to help with parents who might be homeschooling for the first time. Jarrett Krosoczka is doing drawing lessons every day. I think that’s one of the more stellar examples out there right now. First Second is doing a lot right now. A lot of these book festivals are going online and doing panels. DC is doing a DC Kids camp where every day they do an activity for kids to do. So far there have been two of them from me. I did an origami Superman project and then a Fortress of Solitude project. The Fortress of Solitude activity was designed by my wife. My wife is a writing coach so she teaches elementary school teachers how to teach writing to their students and she’s a part of networks of teachers. They were talking about how right now the emphasis shouldn’t be on writing skills, but on using writing to process things. Even thought he virus doesn’t seem to affect kids the way it does older people, it’s affected them in really deep ways. We know that writing is a great way to deal with that and we’re trying to encourage kids to keep a journal so they can use the journals the way Superman uses the Fortress of Solitude to get away from the craziness of the world and process what they’re going through.

I keep thinking how you made this whole book about sports and talking about processing everything going on. Sports are such a good place to learn about defeat and failure and to grow from that in a very controlled way. And of course now all sports are cancelled [laughs]

[laughs] Yeah I have to be honest I was expecting there to be another step in between. I was expecting the NBA to play in empty stadiums at least for a while, but then one of the players got coronavirus. I kind of wish that they would figure that out. Even if the Curry brothers could do a one on one game. It’s like you said, it’s a microcosm of what’s happening in the greater world. And it’s a way of generating narrative – and we need some narrative now. Even as a distraction.

We were talking about ritual earlier. Have you and your family found a routine to be able to work, or just to get through the day?

I can’t take credit for most of this because it was designed by my wife. My wife was a teacher for a very long time and she was a school librarian and she homeschooled for a year years ago. For us the shelter in place happened almost unexpectedly. The school administration was debating it on a Thursday and before we went to sleep that night, they said they were locking down the schools. So the schools set up this elaborate schedule for kids to return to campus to get the rest of their textbooks. It all happened really quickly and as soon as that happened my wife sat everybody down, created a schedule and she’s been introducing rituals. One of the rituals that felt really hokey in the beginning but has really been paying off was at breakfast we all sit down to eat together and we go around and share affirmations. We all have to say something nice to one other person in the family. The first few times we did it, it felt really hokey and contrived, but the effect has been it’s reduced the amount of fighting by maybe seventy percent. We’re still fighting, but we’re together 24 hours a day now, and that simple ritual reduced the fighting significantly.