The award-winning cartoonist and writer had one answer when DC Comics brought up the idea of a Far Eastern version of Superman: "There's no way I want to do that."
In creations like American Born Chinese, Boxers & Saints, and Level Up, Gene Luen Yang's written and drawn very insightful comics work about Chinese culture and Asian-American identity. (He's also taught computer coding and has a new young-adult graphic novel called Secret Coders, which serves as an intro to coding for young readers.) Despite the tendency to explore identity in his craft, Yang wasn't sure about doing the same in a character connected to the Man of Steel's mythos. In the interview below, conducted at Comic-Con, Yang talks about how he came around to approaching the idea of a Chinese version of Superman and how writing helps figure out his own sense of self.
Kotaku: I read New Super-Man #1 and loved it. It seemed like you were riffing on the knock-off idea, like those bootleg action figures that are supposed to be Superman. Was that intentional?
Gene Luen Yang: [laughs] Yeah, yeah. They're, like, purple and they sell them in packs so it will be Ninja Turtles and Thor and Superman! But, yes, it is intentional. We're going to be hitting that even harder. In two issues, we're going to be doubling down on that.
You've been writing Superman for a while now, going back to the main book. Was the creation of Kenan Kong always a goal you were working on?
Yang: No. It wasn't my idea to create a Chinese Superman. It was actually Jim Lee's idea. When they first pitched it to me, I was like "No, I do not want to touch that. There's no way I want to do that." Because Superman is like Truth, Justice, and the American Way, right? And with modern China, with the nuances of modern Chinese politics and modern Chinese culture, it felt like there was a bunch of landmines.
So what made you decide to go ahead and tap-dance through the landmines?
Yang: I flew down to Burbank and had a meeting with Jim Lee and another meeting with Geoff Johns and the character started forming in my head. He started talking to me and I felt like, "I've got to do this."
Was Kenan a jerk from the beginning?
Yang: He was a jerk from the beginning. One of the inspirations was the jerk Clark Kent. If you read early Clark Kent, that dude was a jerk. He was full of himself; he liked telling people what they were doing wrong. Eventually he progresses to what we know today. We want this New Super-Man to go through that same character arc.
Looking back on the stuff you wrote with the actual Clark Kent, what were the high points for you? Anything that you were proud that you were able to do?
Yang: I was really happy that they let me bring him to Oakland!
The wrestling stuff was great!
Yang: Oh, thank you! There's actually a real underground wrestling ring in Oakland. And it's so Oakland, y'know? It's violent and brash and artistic. And putting him in a wrestling ring was my bid to try and bring back in the red underwear. I wanted to put him in a situation where I could bring back the red underwear and it would make sense but that didn't happen.
I'm sure old-school fans will at least appreciate the intent there. Pulling back to your work as a whole, it seems like the core continuing theme is this clash between Chinese culture and the West. You explore what happens when they impact each other on a personal level and a societal level. Why do you keep on revisiting that in your work?
Yang: I think it's such a core part of who I am. I think anybody who grows up in a minority community, you learn to code-switch. You learn to act one way with your family and you act another way [in other situations]. You learn to manage expectations from multiple angles. When you're a kid, it's just subconscious. You just kind of do it because that's how you survive.
But there's all these weird consequences of that. It impacts the way you see yourself; it impacts your self-confidence. It impacts what you think is possible in your life, y'know? I think becoming conscious of that was a huge part of me being able to find my place in the world. And I think I'm still trying to figure that out. A lot of waiting is self-therapy. I write about stuff to figure it out.
I have a kid and being a parent makes me think about that kind of thing in a different way. She's bi-racial, and we want her to know that she comes from different histories that are rich and have their own treasures, which you won't necessarily learn living here in this modern society. I'm glad that your work is out here in that way.
Yang: Jeff Yang talks about how culture is like water in a bucket and when you try to pass it on to your kids, you always lose a little bit of that water. And there's a mourning that happens when those spills happen.
You have to reconfigure things to preserve what you can.
Yang: Yeah, you just gotta try to do the best you can.
Back to comics: you're setting up a Justice League of China in New Super-Man. People are already asking if DC's other Chinese super-team The Great Ten is going to show up. And has anybody in China reacted to New Super-Man yet?
Yang: To answer that last question first, I have had some reaction from people in mainland China. I mean, it's Twitter so who knows? [laughs] But it seems like they're in mainland China and it does seem like there's a cautious optimism about this character. Which is how I feel, too. I feel cautiously optimistic. In terms of The Great Ten, they're definitely going to have a presence in the book. They have to, right?