Humble Creator

Gene Yang's Catholic-inspired comics.

February 28, 2007

COMIC BOOK CREATOR Gene Luen Yang is best known for his retelling of the Chinese trickster tale of the Monkey King in American Bom Chinese (First Second Books), the first graphic novel ever nominated for the American Book Award.

Though he didn't win, he was showered with praise at the 2006 awards ceremony in New York City by literati, as comic book enthusiasts hailed this as an honor for the genre.

As opposed to the usual superhero or daily newspaper fare, Yang's comics -- which include four other major works, in addition to his most recent ABC, as fans call it -- are all inspired by his faith.

Yang, a 33-year-old devout Catholic and computer science teacher at a Catholic high school in Oakland, CA, said all his comics have a moral to them, but "Jesus explicitly appears in three of them."

American Born Chinese has a subtle Christianizing of the Chinese classic, Journey to the West. The original tale is about a Buddhist monk's journey through China to India with three characters -- one of them the Monkey King -- who accompany him to find holy texts.

In Yang's novel, he focuses on the story of the mischievous Monkey King. A long-haired, God-like figure represented as his creator eventually confronts and humbles the proud monkey. In the original version, the Monkey King does not have a creator, though Buddha -- who is not represented in Yang's novel -- confronts him in a similar scene.

His book, tediously drawn panel-by-panel and edited on his computer, weaves in three characters -- the Monkey King, Jin Wang and "Chin-Kee," who embarrasses his cousin and encapsulates all the Chinese stereotypes Yang could muster up.

Jin, the protagonist of ABC, moves from San Francisco's Chinatown to a suburb, where he is one of only a few yellow faces.

In real life, Yang never lived in Chinatown but says his novel uses direct references to his experiences of racial taunts in middle school-taunts like the ones fictional Jin faces at his new school. Yang attended Chinese school for 12 years, allowing him to see two worlds growing up-one where Chinese are the majority, and the other where he and his Asian friends were the minority.

While American Born Chinese has an Asian American protagonist, some of his other comics do not.

One of his previous comics is based on the Rosary Prayer. He writes on his website, "I've always struggled with how to incorporate my faith into my comics in an authentic way. One Lent, I decided to do a comic adaptation of the Rosary Prayer, rather than giving up chocolate or soda. The Rosary Comic Book is the result."

The comic is designed to help young students meditate while praying. "I took incidents from Jesus' life and illustrated them out in the comic book," he explains.

When Yang was young, he would say his Hail Marys, but he didn't understand the importance of meditating on Jesus' life while praying.

"You could use the panels of the comic to pray if you didn't have a rosary handy," he says, because the number of panels in The Rosary Comic Book is the same as the number of beads in a rosary.

Yang resides in the San Francisco Bay Area, where there is a tight circle of comic book artists, including other Asian Americans such as Jason Shiga, Lark Pien, who colored American Born Chinese, and Derek Kirk Kim, who illustrated Yang's first comic script, Duncan's Kingdom. Beginning about nine years ago, a group of comic book creators would get together on Tuesdays for "art night" and draw.

"I don't know if I'd still be drawing comics if I weren't a part of that crew," Yang says today.

Yang admits he hasn't been to art night in a while-lately, he's been busy with other endeavors, like being a husband and father. Yang has a young son and is expecting another little one this spring, perhaps his best creations of all.

Visit Gene Yang's website at:

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Momo Chang

Senior Contributing Editor

Momo Chang is the Content Manager at the Center for Asian American Media, and freelances for magazines, online publications, and weeklies. Her writings focus on Asian American communities, communities of color, and youth culture. She is a former staff writer at the Oakland Tribune. Her stories range from uncovering working conditions in nail salons, to stories about “invisible minorities” like Tongan youth and Iu Mien farmers. She has freelances The New York Times, WIRED, and East Bay Express, among other publications.