New Super-Man writer Gene Luen Yang is having a better year than you.
Earlier in 2016, the writer, artist, and teacher became the first comic book creator to be picked as the U.S. Library of Congress's National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, a position that sees him promoting reading at schools and libraries across the country. Now, he’s managed to top that as the recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, commonly referred to as the “Genius Grant.” The grant, which provides $625,000 “no-strings” funding for creative individuals, has only been awarded to a handful of people associated with comic books in the past, including Fun Home cartoonist Alison Bechdel and current Black Panther writer Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Yang spoke with Newsarama in the wake of the announcement for a quick chat about the award, its implications, and his hopes for the comic book industry.
Newsarama: Gene, so, first off - you’re having kind of an interesting day.
Gene Luen Yang: I am! [Laughs] I really am. It’s been very interesting. I’ve spent most of it on a plane, though. This book tour’s been on schedule for a long time, now, and I’ve been working on the plane with my laptop open, trying to hit my deadlines! But it’s it’s still been amazing.
Nrama: Odd running thing, every time I talk to you for Newsarama you’ve had something big happen - Boxers & Saints, the literary ambassadorship, now this - you’re always hitting some new milestone.
Yang: [Laughs] I’ve been incredibly blessed. It’s just been crazy. My wife and I talk about it - it’s hard to believe it, how many amazing things have happened.
Nrama: You didn’t offer anyone your soul at some point in the past, did you?
Yang: Not that I remember. I’ve been thinking back about it, though.
Nrama: Well, it could just be luck, or talent, or something like that.
Yang: Luck does play a big role in a lot of things, yes. But it’s also that I’ve been the beneficiary of being in comics at a certain point in our medium’s history.
I think there’s been a huge explosion in graphic novel awareness, a huge explosion in the literary influence on graphic novels, and I’ve been blessed by that. I’m blessed to be a part of that.
Nrama: What excites you about comics these days - the medium and the industry?
Yang: Oh man. So much excites me about comics right now. I’m really excited by the diversity of comics right now, not only terms of representation, but in terms of format, of genre, of artistic style.
There’s so much happening in comics - in minicomics, webcomics, superhero comics, YA and children’s comic - every area of the medium. You go back 20 years, there wasn’t really an adult graphic novel category. The difference between comics now and when I was 15 years old is just stunning.
Nrama: There’s been an amazing amount of progress - it’s hard to really chart the progress within the last few years, let alone the last decade or two, in terms of new material and older material coming back into print.
Yang: Yes, yes, I agree. I think, in a lot of ways, we’re reaping seeds that were sown by cartoonists before us, many of whom are still making work, such as the Hernandez brothers, Scott McCloud, Lynda Barry, Art Spiegelman, Françoise Mouly... they collectively created a category of literary comics in the mind of the American public, and they set the bar for everything that followed.
I think cartoonists my age and younger, we just owe a huge debt of gratitude to all those folk.
Nrama: On that note - who are some creators you feel have not gotten the recognition they deserve, either on a level like your grant, or just in general?
Yang: There are so many deserving cartoonists out there who are producing really innovating work. The first cartoonist to get a MacArthur grant was Ben Katchor, and it was several years before you had another cartoonist recipient, and then it was just a few years before I received this.
I think you’re going to see more and more cartoonists receiving recognition - it just shows the literary value of the medium.
Nrama: What were the circumstances like for you when you got the announcement - did it just come out of nowhere?
Yang: Oh, it came out of nowhere. The process of this - I don’t really know how it all works. I just got a call one morning while I was on my way to a Panera Bread to do some writing, and they told me this was going to happen. And that was it! It was just crazy.
Nrama: Well, you get something like this, the two questions this begs are: One, how many people remember you’re friends and start calling you up for money?
Nrama: ... And two, this is designed to give you the opportunity to do whatever you want to do. So... what do you want to do?
Yang: Yeah. You know, I feel like I have three different roles in life, three areas of responsibility. One is that I’m a member of a family - I’m a husband and a dad and a son. And I think I’m going to put a large chunk of these resources toward that. I have four kids - I want to get them through college in some way.
The second responsibility is that I’m a cartoonist, and the third is that I’m a teacher - and for the next year and a half, at least, I’m the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. So I want to put some of these resources towards that as well, to see what we can make happen.
I’m being vague - I need to make concrete plans, talk to people. So a chunk will go to college tuition, but I want to use a bit to help in cartoons and in education.
Nrama: There’s been some changes in the funding and production of comics - for example, they ended the Xeric Grant a few years ago, due to the new possibilities with digital and print distribution -
Yang: Yeah... you know, I have to disagree with that. I love Peter Laird, and I’m thankful for what he did, but I disagree with his decision to stop the Xeric Grant. It was about so much more than just the actual publishing – there was so much more going on. I’m sad that that grant went away. I think it was a huge boon for the comic book industry to have that there…
Nrama: Well, you’re in a position to do something yourself, either through your resources or speaking out for funding for arts publication and such...
Yang: That’s true. We’ll see how things go. I think there’s some interesting options out there.
Nrama: ...obviously, do what you want to do. That’s why they gave you the grant!
Nrama: On a different note: You’ve talked about getting some creative satisfaction on work-for-hire books like the DC titles, the Avatar books...
Nrama: You have the grant now, so are these things you see yourself continuing to work on for an indefinite period of time, or something that you would bring your focus away from, considering your circumstances?
Yang: It has been difficult, I’ll admit that. It’s hard to juggle deadlines while traveling - and I love traveling, I love meeting and getting to talk to people, but I find myself having to write on planes a lot!
It’s one of those things where I know it’s not always going to be like this, these options are not always going to be on the table, and I want to take advantage of them while they’re available. But it is tricky. It’s a busy time of life, for sure. But I can’t complain.
Nrama: Going back to the comics industry in a broader sense, what are some possible red flags or pitfalls you see for the industry over the next few years? In terms of what could inhibit creativity or possibility in the medium, what do you feel people should be most cautious about?
Yang: I don’t know if anything comes off the top of my head in that category. I see a lot of hope. When I think about our industry right now, I feel hope.
In terms of what I see more of - and people are doing this - I want to see more comics used in the classroom, more educational comics. I started my own with Mike Holmes, Secret Coders, the second volume of which just came out. It’s definitely a first try - we’re doing this and learning as we go along.
There’s some other examples - First Second has Science Comics, for instance. And different cartoonists have done different things in this category, and I want to see more of that, more cartoonists figuring out how to do work in this educational space. Jay Hosler is someone I’ve admired for a long time, and Clan Apis is one of my favorite comics ever. I wish they would reissue it.
The second category I want to see expansion in is nonfiction. There’s great work being done, but it’s still very underrated – I want to see more people doing this work.
In terms of representation – the more diverse stories you put out there, the better and stronger our industry will be.
Nrama: What are some comics you’ve read recently that have impressed you?
Yang: I’ve been reading a good amount of DC's "Rebirth." I really like what Benjamin Percy is doing on Green Arrow, what Hope Larson is doing on Batgirl, I think they’re doing phenomenal jobs. I’m very excited to see Christopher Priest back in comics on Deathstroke, I’m a huge fan of his work. I think everyone in the Super-Family is doing great work; I feel really privileged and blessed to work with such a talented group of creators.
Greg Pak is doing Kingsway West, which is a terrific Asian culture-meets-magic-world-meets-old-West, and I loved his run on Totally Awesome Hulk. Raina Telgemeier is just a rock star, and I thought Ghosts was wonderful. Shannon Hale, who’s primary a prose author, has her first graphic novel coming out called Real Friends, and I read an advance and it just blew me away, it stuck with me for days.
Recently, I recommended two middle-grade books in the New York Times. One is The Grand Plan to Fix Everything, and the other is called Girls, Geeks, and Secret Identities. Both feature protagonists of color, both are a lot of fun.
Oh, and Jason Shiga’s Demon - which is not for kids, and not for some adults, but is an absolutely amazing book. Great guy, Jason.
Nrama: We’ve touched on some of what you have coming up - you have your ambassadorship, you’re still working on a number of different books, but if you wanted to preview what you have over the next couple of months, what would you like to promote?
Yang: I’m on a short tour right now, and I’m working on Secret Coders with Mike - I just finished the script to book five out of six, and I hope to have all of them done by the end of the year. Mike is a workhorse - he’s good and fast.
My next project is a basketball book, following a high-school basketball team for a season. And there’s New Super-Man at DC Comics.
Nrama: So... when do you plan to sleep?
Yang: I’m trying to figure that out, for sure. I’m glad I have such a great support system – my wife is very supportive, and makes sure I take enough time to get everything done.