Monday, January 31, 2011

That Time Gene Yang Came To My Grad School And Blew Everyone's Mind

So I think I mentioned this once before on the blog, but I just started making my way towards a Masters of Fine Arts in Writing For Children at St. Paul's Hamline University. And when I say "just started" I mean my first contact of any kind with any person or work connected to school was a ten-day intensive residency earlier this month. In fact, "intense" is a pretty good word for the experience as a whole. When I arrived in the Twin Cities, my plan for absolutely no comics work on the week was crushed when Marvel named Axel Alonso Editor-in-Chief. Meanwhile, they were warning us about the cold weather with phrases like "flesh can freeze in seconds."

BUT, one crazy twist to my first residency at Hamline that made me feel right at home was that one of our required readings coming into the workshop week was Gene Yang's American Born Chinese. And – if you couldn't guess by the post title – Yang played guest lecturer to talk about the creation of the book and generally blow the minds of everyone in attendance.


Think of it this way: the crew that works for and attends my Masters program write kids books for a living (or are trying to). That includes classic picture books, chapter books, and novels that range from zany middle grade and tween tales on through some provocative and smart Young Adult stuff. But the majority of these people had ZERO experience with comics before reading Yang's book. So much so that "comics" didn't even break into the vocabulary for a lot of the folks. The writers at the school were introduced to our medium (if they'd been introduced to it at all) through the term and category of "graphic novel" which might not sound like too big a distinction but really stood out as the week went on.

I mean, there were a few comic woks that were familiar to members of the residency – all of them produced and promoted through the lens of the book industry. I heard more than a few people mention David Small's Stitches. Everyone was passingly familiar with what Bone is. Neil Gaiman is a rock star and a half in this world for reasons other than comics, but I think most people knows he wrote them before blowing up as a novelist. But most importantly like I said, anyone at least partially interested in kids book publishing these days understands that graphic novels have spent the past few years as the super hot category. They think of what we do as the "cool new thing" in general and want to know more about it even when they're a bit confused by it.

Being the resident "comics guy" in the group (a position I happily played up perhaps too much by weeks end), I fielded a lot of questions and comments through out the week because of that. Common things I heard:

"I was trying to read this, but some times I was confused on what I was supposed to be looking at. Am I following the pictures? Do I read the text first?"

"So the difference between a comic and a graphic novel, what is that? A comic is silly, but a graphic novel is like a real book, right?"

"I'm really interested in writing a graphic novel myself. How would I go about doing that?"

I don't mention these as a put down to any of the supremely intelligent and creative people who I learned a whole hell of a lot from about writing in those ten days. I just wanted to express how strange it was to be in a position where I'm talking about the thing I spend my entire working day talking about but where I can't assume any of the basic knowledge or terminology I rely on. So it was pretty tough at times for me to try and speak on comics without sounding super jargony or super nerdy or both.


Luckily, Gene Yang is the straight up Jedi Master of talking comics in front of book people. I can't imagine how many times he's had to talk about ABC in front of librarians or school groups or teachers or traditional YA writers, but his behind the scenes breakdown of what cultural and visual influences shaped the book was as engaging and accessible and well rehearsed as any talk on comics I've ever seen (and I've seen art spiegelman speak on comics like four times so I feel pretty confident saying that Yang was on his #%@&!ing GAME).

The real defining moment of the whole experience was Yang's breakdown of Cousin Chin-Kee, the highly over-the-top caricature of Chinese stereotypes who plays a central role in ABC's story. He took a lot of time to explain the cultural references that influenced Chin-Kee's creation from early racist political cartoons about Chinese immigrants and railroad workers to Long Duck Dong on through to the recent response to/debate over the sudden popularity of "American Idol" reject William Hung. Over the days following his speech, I heard several classmates confess that they'd initially been put off by American Born Chinese because they felt uncomfortable with Chin-Kee's role in the story until they heard Yang place the satirical elements of the caricature in context. The act of cartooning as satire and commentary rather than just being broad stereotyped comedy hadn't even occurred to them.

And on a nuts and bolts craft level, there were so many ideas about how comics are made that came out and caught the audience totally by surprise. The idea that Yang would script pages before drawing was revelatory for some. Others asked about why someone else would color his work for him. And even the briefest mention of the punk rock respect comics self-publishers get had people looking around going "Whaaaaaaa?"

[I should note that the kind of "THAT'S how they do it?" experience hit me in the reverse sense later in the week as we discussed the ins and outs of picture book creation. I had to have it explained to me several times that the authors and illustrators of something like 95% of picture books have no creative interaction or collaboration. You write some words, you send it to a publisher, and they get it drawn by someone. In fact, pitching picture books as a writer/artist team is really frowned upon...which is INSANE to me still today. One professor told us a story about a woman who wrote a picture book manuscript meaning for the characters to be two children, but the illustrator decided to make them cats, and that was that. Writers in comics would go apeshit if they experienced that lack of control, which is saying something.]

Finally when Yang read his NY Times Magazine strip turned First Second graphic novel Prime Baby and his incoming Level Up, I began to see people really "get" what comics could offer on their own as a medium. The rhythm of his in-panel jokes, the power his page turns held and the raw emotional information given off by his cartooning had everyone completely pumped by lecture's end. In fact, for the rest of the week I don't think I heard one person refer to Yang without some variation of "And Oh My God...Gene Yang!" being uttered.


Okay...so why the hell am I doing all this anecdotal blathering on my comics blog? I guess partially I just wanted to illustrate for any comics folks out there how big the gulf between what we assume and understand about the medium and what even the most literate and engaged "general audiences" think about comics. Even a decade or so into the graphic novel book store boom, our status amongst readers and publishing professionals is still very new and not at all assured in a long term sense. Just because Comics Project X earned Major Accolade Y recently doesn't mean that the book publishing world will continue to find comics a necessary part of their business model.

And it would be TERRIBLE at this point to lose the interest and resources of that market. Even with book stores in general in rotten shape, the kinds of material that have a chance in those outlets but have such a harder time in the Direct Market can have a fighting chance at big publishers. And while we all know that artists looking to work in that segment of publishing should know how that game is played, I think it's of equal importance for us core comics folk to reach out to traditional book people and open channels of discussion on why comics are rad.

I've been thinking a lot about how to do this lately in terms of my writing about comics here and at CBR as well as my work in the Hamline MFA program. As a first step on the latter front, I put together a suggested reading list for my classmates and profs at the end of residency which included ten comics aimed at the kids-to-YA market and five more from the literary publishing spehere. I won't post all the descriptions and stuff I gave the Hamline crew, but the books I suggested were:

1. Blankets by Craig Thompson
2. The Comics of Hope Larson
3. Owly by Andy Runton
4. Smile by Raina Telgemeier
5. Selections From The TOON Books Line Edited By Francoise Mouly
6. Amulet by Kazu Kibuishi
7. Mouse Guard by David Petersen
8. Saltwater Taffy: The Seaside Adventures of Jack And Benny by Matthew Loux
9. Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane by Sean McKeever, Takeshi Miyazawa & David Hahn
10. Runaways by Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona

1. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth by Chris Ware
2. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
3. It's A Good Life If You Don't Weaken by Seth
4. Wilson by Daniel Clowes
5. Love & Rockets by Los Bros. Hernandez

Was there anything I missed? I will say that so far, my playing comics pusherman seems to be working as thanks to the help of my comics-literate classmate Peter Pearson, some of the folks on the staff went right out and bought Blankets, and my advisor for the semester – the super awesome Anne Ursu – got Understanding Comics on my recommendation the week we were at school.

In any event, let me know what you think in general in the comments, and I'm sure we'll swing back around to this topic sooner rather than later. In the meantime, I'm blogging about my grad writing and reviewing a metric ton of kid lit at my Rockopolis blog if you're interested.

[Note: Props to my rad classmate Tracy Pagel Wells for snapping the shots of Yang lecturing at Hamline.]

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