It is an honor and a privilege to interview Gene Yang, known for “American Born Chinese” and “Boxers & Saints.” And now he and Sonny Liew offer you “The Shadow Hero.” With all the unpacking, literally and figuratively since Comic-Con, I finally share with you this interview. You really can’t say enough about Gene Yang. He has opened up a great path for others to dare to follow. Yeah, he’s that big of a deal.
“The Shadow Hero” revels in Chinese culture and so much more, addressing universal issues like the dynamics of family. In the case of this fabulous story, we have a most fabulous mother who leads the way. When Hua, middle-aged and disillusioned, finds herself rescued by an actual fly-thru-the-air superhero, she finds a new lease on life. And that lease depends upon her turning her teenaged son, Hank, into a superhero if it’s the last thing she ever does. This is how Gene Yang’s new graphic novel, “The Shadow Hero,” opens up. For this story, Yang writes and hands over the drawing to Sonny Liew.
The first thing to know about the Monkey King is that he is not exactly a hero. He is and he isn’t. He’s not exactly likable either. Basically, he represents just about everything you should not do if you were in a position of power. And he is quite literally willing to do anything to keep himself amused and one step ahead of any authority that would dare stop him. How did this Monkey King become such a stinker? Well, that’s quite a story. In fact, it’s pretty involved, part of a set of stories, based upon a work from 16th century China, Wu Cheng’en’s “Journey to the West.” Thanks to JR Comics, these stories can now be shared as high-quality comics with a Western audience.
Visitors select comics products during the 9th China International Comics Games Expo (CCG Expo) in Shanghai, east China, July 11, 2013. A total of 325 animation and game companies from home and abroad took part in the five-day expo, which kicked off here on Thursday. [Photo: Xinhua/Liu Xiaojing]
Entering its 10th anniversary, CCG EXPO must be quite an event. For us in the West, we’d do well to take a closer look. How many comics and game creators in China are you aware of? We’ll give you some time to think that over.
China Daily: CCG EXPO 2014-The 10th China International Cartoon & Game Expo(CCG EXPO) is held by People’s Republic of China Ministry of Culture and Shanghai Municipal People’s Government, and organized by Shanghai Municipal Culture, Radio Broadcasting, Film and Television Administration and Shanghai Media Group co., LTD. (SMG). So far, it has been successfully 8 times. SInce the 1st Exhibition, after 8 years, annual CCG EXPO has featured as professional, international, high-level, large-scale. Now, this event aims to give the priority to B2B and partially depends on B2C.
Like a lightning strike, Gene Luen Yang’s new graphic novel, “Boxers & Saints,” is charged with energy. It is pure comics in the sense that it is immersive, dynamic, and holds you with a powerfully consistent pace. Much in the way that Jeff Smith’s comics command the page, you enter a very animated and colorful world when you read the work of Gene Luen Yang. And speaking of colors, Lark Pien provides a palette with an artist’s sensitivity. This is a most remarkable hero’s journey that, at once, is familiar and quite different and specific.
This is a story about China being thrown into the modern age with all its bloody consequences. It is told in two volumes. The first volume is the main story focusing on the Boxer Rebellion as seen from the vantage point of a rebel leader, Little Bao. The second volume is a look at those Chinese citizens who accepted the Christian faith as seen from the vantage point of an average young woman with grand aspirations, Vibiana. You can place both books facing up and you have half a portrait of Bao and half a portrait of Vibiana that together provide a full picture to a complex story. These two characters never get to know each other. Their lives only briefly touch. The reader gets to see how they connect in a profound way.
“Boxers & Saints” takes graphic novels to a new level. It’s that good. While we hear endless theorizing on the potential of the comics medium and what has yet to be surveyed in this new art frontier, here we have a work that is grounded in the best comics tradition of precision and consistency and, as a bonus, seems to effortlessly break new ground. You have two stories, of different scope yet equal in their impact. They can be read separately but, together, prove to be a powerful whole. This is something of a first: two volumes, one ostensibly the main story at 325 pages; and the second volume that fills in some essential gaps as a parallel story. And, at 170 pages, it carries a similar impact as the first volume. I have not seen anything quite like this before. Maybe you have. But at such an exceptional level? No, I don’t think so.
The Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901) is the focus here. And while this is also a story of self-discovery, it is very much a valuable, and highly accessible, history lesson. Take a look at the Boxer Rebellion and you get a deeper sense of the heart and soul of China and where it’s coming from today. If not for this event, the superpowers of that time, on a path to take over China, would have had no motivation to pause and control their urge to plunder. Considering such a volatile topic, Yang manages to immerse himself in the subject and pluck out gems of wisdom.
A French political cartoon depicting China as a pie about to be carved up by Queen Victoria (Britain), Kaiser Wilhelm II (Germany), Tsar Nicholas II (Russia), Marianne (France) and a samurai (Japan), while a Chinese mandarin helplessly looks on. (Wikipedia)
The way Yang sees it, there’s something to be said for the Boxer rebels mirroring today’s geek culture. The Boxer youth learned about the Chinese gods through opera, which was the pop culture of the day. That is precisely what we see our main character, Little Bao, wrapped up in. He loves opera! He can’t read or write and is essentially ignorant, like all his peers in the village he lives in. However, he has a window into culture and the rest of the world. It is through regular viewing of these popular street performances that he learns about Chinese gods, much in the same way that comic books provide a window into the world of myth. And it is this passion that leads Little Bao to want to be like his heroes, similar to the passion demonstrated by today’s cosplay.
It’s that deep love of Chinese gods that gives Little Bao his sense of identity and the inner strength to fight for his country as a Boxer rebel leader against the “foreign devils” with their various interests and agendas. Christian indoctrination is the key point of conflict.
But things are never that simple. Once you’ve seen one imperialist, you’ve seen them all, but Yang asks the reader to consider another point of view. While any Chinese citizen who embraces the Westerner’s Christianity is looked upon by the Boxers as nothing but disloyal to the people’s cause, we read the story of one Chinese girl’s Christian faith in volume two. With as much sincerity as Little Bao, the girl only known as Four Girl finds her place in life. It’s not with her abusive family. It’s among the Christians. She joins the faith and becomes Vibiana.
There’s a fleeting moment early in volume one when Little Bao sees this girl and instantly senses some connection. He spots her while she is making a devilish grimace of her face. He has no idea what it all means and concludes that he is destined to see her again. It is one of many perfectly timed moments in this book. What Yang does to briefly connect these two precious lives coming from opposite ends is magical and powerful. Together, Little Bao and Vibiana provide us with a whole story, a face to China, and a window for the reader.
Below is a quick video recap:
“Boxers & Saints” is a two volume set published by First Second which you can visit here. And also be sure to visit Gene Luen Yang at his website here.
“Chinatown” is a unique ghost story with a lot of heart and character. It’s an enchanting look at old and new. It mixes the every day with the supernatural. And it has a distinctive vision. The thing to keep in mind about this 126-page graphic novel is that you’ve been invited to explore a subculture and the creators are not holding back. You’ve been invited into someone’s home and you’re having dinner and staying for a nightcap and chatting throughout the night. That’s what this work feels like.
The Sun brothers have found a sweet spot or two in how to run a successful Kickstarter campaign. Yes, this is one of those Kickstarter success stories. It’s really cool how Kickstarter has made such a positive impact for so many talented people, and just the comics community alone has been reshaped by the support. Would “Chinatown” have gotten published the way the creators of this book had intended without that help? Yes. It would have inevitably have happened but, given all the factors involved, who can say when that would have happened. Maybe it would have been years down the road. Thankfully, the Sun Bros, writer Wesley Sun and artist Brad Sun, don’t have to wait a lifetime to get their shot at moving forward with their creative pursuits.
The ghost story is a very ambiguous one here. It’s better that way as it really manages to haunt you after reading it. You feel the despair and struggle these characters have with their own issues. It’s when a neighborhood girl goes missing that it seems everyone has reached their breaking point. The local Chinese community comes together without any hope of solving a crime but, at least, they can try to console themselves and still, despite it all, hope. Their is a mixture of bitter pessimism and reliance on supernatural forces at work here that is truly fascinating. This is a brilliant story and beautifully rendered.
Visit Sun Bros Studios to learn about where you can get your own copy of “Chinatown” as well as all their other exciting projects. You can also find them on Facebook.