Gene Luen Yang is the hardest working guy in comics

Award-winning creator talks about making comic books for Panda Express and Fresh Off The Boat.

If there's a comic book creator who's at the center of Asian American pop culture, it's Gene Luen Yang.

He recently partnered with Panda Express for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month to revisit his brilliant re-imagining of the obscure Golden Age superhero The Green Turtle, with artist Sonny Liew, in Shadow Hero Comics #1 (available with the purchase of a kid's meal).

Gene also penned the Fresh Off The Boat tie-in comic book, with artist Jorge Corona, featured on this week's episode of the popular ABC sitcom, available in comic shops May 6 as part of "Free Comic Book Day."

In addition to regular writing duties on DC Comics' New Super-Man, he also serves as the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature for the Library of Congress. Oh, and did I mention that he's a MacArthur "Genius"?

Plus, he's the nicest guy.

I recently caught up with Gene, who's on the road for his numerous school visits and speaking engagements. He talked about his collaborations with Panda Express and Fresh Off The Boat, possible future adventures for The Green Turtle, and his efforts to get people to read outside their comfort zones.

The Shadow Hero is one of my favorites of all your work, if not the favorite. I'm guessing you've had a lot of people asking if there would ever be a follow-up to The Shadow Hero and further adventures of the Green Turtle.

Yeah. It's been great. Working with Sonny Liew was super fun. As soon as I stumbled across that character on the internet I was so intrigued by him. Sonny and I have talked about doing a sequel, but it's sort of a matter of getting our schedules cleared and matched. So I was really happy that we got to do this little project together for Panda Express. But I definitely have two more projects that I want to do with the Green Turtle, so I'm hoping we can make it happen in the future.

Anything you can talk about?

Well, it's all super vague right now. He's from World War II, right? So I kind of want to do a story about the relationship between the Chinese and Japanese American communities around World War II. And then you know, [Green Turtle creator] Chu Hing himself, all of his Green Turtle stories were set in China during the war. So I would love to do a story with Green Turtle set in China after the war, when there's that whole struggle between the nationalists, who wanted democracy, and the Communist party. I think it'd be fun to do something there too. I mean, it's all super vague and I don't know if we're ever going to get our schedules matched up, but I hope so. It would be fun to work with Sonny again.

How did the collaboration with Panda Express happen?

Panda called me out of the blue a couple of years ago, and we were just talking. You know, as a company, they're moving in a direction where they're becoming more socially aware, organizationally speaking. They're trying to get more involved in Asian American issues, which I think is kind of awesome. I think they're actually moving towards embracing a Chinese American identity as a company, which I think is really cool.

So they called me and we had some conversations and they were just asking about different ideas. And then I actually met them in person during their "Chinatown Nights" event last summer. They flew a bunch of people out for that. We were talking, and they wanted to so something for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. We talked about doing a giveaway. I was surprised that they had never done a giveaway with their kid's meal before. So Sonny and I feel very honored to be part of their first giveaway. But they didn't want to just do, like, a toy, or something that was just fun. They actually wanted to do something that would point towards something. That's why it's not just a comic, we also have the activity part, and we wanted to promote some books with Asian Pacific American protagonists. All of that kind of fits in with the socially-minded character of their company, that it's not just about food. It's about greater social awareness.

Shadow Hero Comics #1 introduces Miss Stardust, who appears to be this all-American patriotic-type superhero. What kind of dynamic were you trying to explore by teaming up the Green Turtle with this new character?

We wanted to play with the idea of who's an American and who's a foreigner. One of the inspirations of The Shadow Hero is this idea that superheroes are representative of America. Superheroes were invented in America. They're most popular in America, and at their best they really express America at its best. So this question of who can be a superhero is a way of talking about the question of who can be an American. That was the underlying, motivating question behind this short story.

Beyond that, we wanted it to be fun and colorful. We wanted it to feel really Golden Age-y. So Sonny designed a slightly hokey old school Golden Age costume for Miss Stardust that matches the really hokey Golden Age costume of the Green Turtle.

This happens to be a crazy busy week for you. The Fresh Off the Boat tie-in comic book that you wrote is also being released this week as part of Free Comic Book Day.

Yeah! That actually has its roots in the "Chinatown Nights" event that Panda Express hosted. One of the other guests there was Melvin Mar, who is one of the producers of Fresh Off The Boat. We got to hang out a little bit at this Panda Express event, and we texted a bit back and forth. Then the showrunners had this idea of a having superhero theme in one of the subplots, and then this all came together.

It was actually really intense because I was really busy towards the end of the year, but they connected me with BOOM! Studios to do it, and BOOM! really pulled off some magic to make it happen. We got the whole comic done in the space of like two weeks or something, so it was crazy. It was a really tight deadline, and [artist] Jorge Corona just killed it. He was so fast, and his stuff is so beautiful. It turned out great.

I'm assuming you were already a fan of Fresh Off The Boat.

Yeah, I am. But I'm behind. I watch it with my family, but we don't have a TV, so we just finished season two just now. So we're always like a season behind.

So have you even seen the episode that ties in with your comic?

I have not. I've read the script! They sent me the script so I could write the comic, but I haven't actually seen it. It's called "Pie vs. Cake." It aired on Tuesday, but I couldn't even watch it in my hotel room because I had a speaking engagement that night. But the script was awesome, so I'm assuming the episode turned out great too.

Actually, to prep for the comic, I also read Eddie Huang's autobiography, which I had been meaning to do for a long time. I looked at, you know, some of the friction that was around, right around the time the show launched. That was actually interesting to me, so I wanted to touch on that a little bit in the comic.

I feel like you're at the epicenter of Asian American pop culture right now, Gene Luen Yang. And you're killing it! You're doing so well.

Well, thanks! I appreciate that. Right now, I'm trying to write a script for New Super-Man and it's not coming out well, so I will lean in on the nice words you just said to get me through this.

On top of all this, you're the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. Can you talk a little about the "Reading Without Walls" campaign?

That's been awesome. I feel so blessed to be a part of this. So I was nominated as the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature two Januarys ago. Every ambassador picks a platform they want to talk about. And I had this meeting with folks from the Library of Congress, my own publisher and the Children's Book Council. We talked a lot about what the platform would be and we came up with this idea of "Reading Without Walls," which is just a way of getting kids to read outside their comfort zones and get them to pick up books they normally wouldn't pick up.

The way we're framing this is, we are challenging kids and communities like schools, libraries and bookstores to set a deadline for themselves, and by that deadline just do one of three things: 1) Read a book about a character that doesn't look like them or live like them. 2) Read a book about a topic that they might not know anything about. 3) Read a book in a format that they don't normally read for fun, so either a chapter book or a graphic novel or a collection of poetry or something. One of my goals for this, especially with that first part of the challenge, is to see if we can move some more books with diverse characters and characters of color.

We rolled it out last year and since then we've seen it get adopted by librarians, teachers, book store owners. People have just really gotten behind it. And then Macmillan kind of ran with it. They produced all this material -- they put up a Reading Without Walls website, introduced reading packets and certificates of completion that they put up online. They created kits with buttons and bookmarks that they sent out to libraries and bookstores. I think they produced like 4,000 of these kits, and they planned on giving them out throughout the year, but they're all gone now. They sent them all out. So now they've made it into an annual event. Every April is going to be Reading Without Walls Month. So the idea is that after my ambassadorship ends this December, Macmillan, as a publisher, will just promote it every April as a way of getting folks to read outside their comfort zones.

And finally, please tell me that you blew your MacArthur genius money on something crazy and amazing.

I bought a Batmobile! I didn't. I don't know, I've got four kids, dude. Have you looked into saving for college? It's crazy now! Oh my gosh, you have to buy, like, a small country just to send a kid to college.

I hear you. So no Batmobile.

No Batmobile. Not until my youngest is like 22, I think. If I have some money left over I'm going to buy a Batmobile. It'll only be a Hot Wheel, but whatever. I want a Batmobile.

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