Gene Luen Yang joined the superhero "mainstream" when he took over DC's Superman, but that doesn't mean he's leaving his other mainstream-aimed work behind. Yang and Mike Holmes’ Secret Coders hits bookshelves from 01:First Second this week, explaining to readers that not only is computer programming fun, it also translates well into the comics medium.
Secret Coders is a story about a quirky girl who – along with her friend, Eni – discover there’s something secretive going on at their school involving robotic birds, turtles, and creepy janitors. And at the center of it all is a secret code that the two kids uncover, which controls the robotic animals and unlocks mysterious doors to unknown places on the school grounds.
Newsarama sat down with the Yang about his collaboration with Holmes and how he sees this as a sort of experiment for himself as a writer and why the medium needs these types of stories.
Newsarama: Gene, what inspired you to tackle this story?
Gene Luen Yang: For a really long time, I had two jobs. I was a computer science teacher by day and a cartoonist by night. For the first ten years I wasn’t making any money doing this. I never expected this to become a career. It was just something I did for the love of it.
So, while I was making comics at night and teaching computer science during the day, I was finding myself always wanting to bring the two together. I had a whole bunch of different experiences in bringing comics into the classroom that convinced me that comics belong in the classroom. In America, we haven’t explored the full educational potential of comics, and it’s been on my mind for a long time having taught computer science for over seventeen years before moving into comics full-time. In that time, I’ve been wanting to prove to myself that comics could be used to teach coding.
Nrama: That leads into my next question. This story seems to have a very different feel and tone from your other work. Does that have to do with Secret Coders being targeted for a different audience, or were you looking to do something different from what you’ve done most recently?
Yang: This is the very first Middle Grade comic that I’ve done, as most of the comics I’ve written have been classified as Young Adult, and I did that on purpose. I learned how to program when I was in fifth grade. It was a big thing in my life, and I really enjoyed it. There was something about coding that felt both powerful and magical, and I wanted to capture those feelings I had when I first learned how to code.
It’s also something that is explicitly educational. Now, I spent a lot of time looking at strictly educational media while working on this project. I looked at a lot of shows on PBS that my kids watch, and they do the educational part really well. However, when the educational content is placed into a fictional world, it seems the creative elements take a backseat to those educational aspects. The characters almost become avatars for the viewer, and they don’t really have any personality. The conflicts aren’t real emotional conflicts. The only real conflicts that are in the show have to do with the lesson that the episode is trying to teach.
I wondered if it was possible to mix the two. Can you give the characters some more personality and make the conflicts a little more three-dimensional.
And you know, I’m nervous now that the books out there. I’m still not positive the educational stuff stays out of the way of the story elements. But what I’m hoping is that readers will become emotionally connected to the characters, and they’ll want to learn the stuff I’m trying to teach through the story and the narrator. She’s trying to teach someone how to code for a very specific reason and maybe that will help the reader learn as well.
Nrama: Although the comics medium is growing richer in terms of the content covered, there still aren’t very many STEM-centric comics being published today. Was this something you were looking to address? Why do you think there’s a need for these types of stories?
Yang: Absolutely there is! I just read one called The Last of the Sandwalkers by Jay Hosler. He’s a biology professor who cartoons on the side. This is about a city of hyper-intelligent beetles who go out and explore the world, and he just goes about weaving all sorts of biology into his entire narrative. It’s really wonderfully done.
I think that a lot of the boundaries are blurring. The line between text and image is blurring, and it’s finally leading to the acceptance of the comic in America. The boundary between what’s viewed as “high” and “low” art is blurring along with the lines between what is seen as educational and entertainment.
I hoping there will be more of this taking place!
Nrama: You mention that “after two weeks of Voltron reruns, [you] went to summer school” to take enrichment classes, one of which was computer programming. Although the world of coding has changed since the days of the “spinach green” Apple IIe, how has that experienced informed your writing in Secret Coders?
Yang: I use the same language that I used when I was in fifth grade. If you’re in your 30s-40s and learned coding in elementary school, you learned LOGO. I did some research on it when I first started this project, and I wanted to explore this long dead language of LOGO. It turns out it was created by a team of scientists in the 1960s including one Seymour Papert, who’s still alive today. He was really active in both education and computer science, and he created this language specifically for kids to get them interested in coding.
What people may not know is that he also wrote this book called Mindstorms, which focuses on educational theory about how we should educate our kids. It was really influential, so much so that LEGO eventually hired him to help translate his ideas into actual toys. You know LEGO Mindstorms? It’s named after Seymour Papert and his book.
In his book, Papert argues that coding is essentially the coder teaching the computer how to do something it didn’t previously know how to do. For example, you could have a little girl teaching her computer how to draw a flower through creating a code that would speak to the computer. He basically looks to construct a computer-based utopian environment where teachers are teaching students, and students are teaching computers – teaching and learning become one and the same.
And I found that to be true in my own life, so that became the inspiration behind Secret Coders. We see a secret school – that we barely scratch the surface of in this book - that is an embodiment of Papert’s ideals.
Nrama: Although I don’t want to spoil the ending, it becomes readily apparent this story is only the first of many. Where do you plan to go from here?
Yang: I’m going to reveal the secret school that once existed nearly ten to fifteen years earlier, and the characters are going to explore those remnants. Then we’re going to do a reveal of the “Big Bad,” who is going to be representative of a dystopian view of technology.
One of the questions I want to tackle in this is are humans any different from machines? Are they just machines made out of meat? That’s one of the big ideas that’s in the background of the whole story.
But more pragmatically, I’m planning to touch upon more advanced computer science topics. In the first book, I focus only on sequencing and repetition, but the next book will include parameters and random number generation.
Nrama: Now shifting gears a little bit here, you’ve also been busy as the writer for DC Comics’ Superman. Given the work you’ve done in outside of mainstream superhero comics, what’s the experience been like for you?
Yang: It’s been a thrill! I’ve been a superhero comic book fan all of my life. I started reading comics in the fifth grade, and while I admit to reading mostly Marvel Comics, I do have issues of Superman here and there. In fact, the first comic I bought was a DC Comics Presents starring Superman. I also have a run of Justice League: Europe from when I was kid.
Nrama: If that doesn’t earn you some fan credit, I don’t know what will!
Yang: It’s been awesome though. I’ve learned a ton. With my 01:First Second stuff, it was all about defining my vision and then executing it. Now with DC, I’m working in a shared universe and I have to work really closely with the Superman team. There are four different books each with a different writer.
When I came on, they were starting up the "DC You" initiative where they were going to introduce some and dramatic elements. It just takes a lot coordination with others and ensuring there is enough overlap with my voice and the overall vision for the universe.
Nrama: It’s interesting considering you’ve established yourself as a critically-acclaimed, internationally recognized writer and creator with multiple books that have been National Book Award finalists. And I’m not sure if you saw the news, but Marvel announced Te-Nehisi Coates – a recent National Book Award winner for nonfiction - will be taking the helm of the new Black Panther series.
What sort of effect do you think this will have on the Big Two in having authors like yourselves with your literary pedigrees driving the stories that are appearing on newsstands of characters who are heading to the silverscreen?
Yang: I think it really is a blurring of the lines. Literary superhero comics are not a new thing. Watchmen made Time magazine’s Top 100 novels of the 20th Century. They’re able to contain any type of story within their genre. So that isn’t such a new thing.
At the same time, when you diversify the pool in every sense of the word, good things can come out of that kind of collaboration. I think these two worlds – the literary and mainstream worlds – can learn a lot from each other. I’ve learned a lot from the other writers on the Superman team because they’ve spent more time in this world. There’s just a different sense of pacing and a flexibility in monthly comics that I wasn’t used to as a writer, and I feel like I’ve grown a lot as a writer from working in this world for only just a few months.
Nrama: To wrap things up, Gene, you have so many different projects going on, what’s next for you? Maybe you can give us a clue as to where we go next with the Secret Coders?
Yang: The next book will be coming out in the middle of 2016. It’s already done and in the can. In fact, I’m in the middle of writing the third book. Right now, we’re just waiting to see if we’ll be able to continue past this first arc and move into a second run, which I’m hoping will happen as I’d like to keep going!
The next project is one that I will be both writing and drawing. It’s also going to be my first nonfiction book. Last year I followed a high school basketball team from Oakland, and I’ll be writing the book about them. It’s something I’m really looking forward to as well!