The latest project from the cartoonist, who has twice been nominated for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature, is steeped in his other passion: education. We talked to Yang about his forthcoming high school-set graphic novel, Secret Coders (First Second, fall 2015), using comics in the classroom, working with artist Mike Holmes (who illustrated the book), and the transformative power of diversity in literature.
You’re a teacher, and you’ve long been a proponent of using comics in the classroom. How has your interest in comics and education informed Secret Coders?
I've taught high school computer science for over fifteen years now, almost as long as I've been cartooning professionally. I have wanted to do an educational comic for a long, long time. Secret Coders is the merging of my two jobs. I've used comics in my classroom before, but Secret Coders is really my first long-form educational comics project. The premise of Secret Coders is reminiscent of Harry Potter. An intrepid band of tweens stumbles upon a secret school, only instead of teaching magic, the school teaches coding. We hope that as our protagonists become coders, our readers will too.
Comics are such a powerful educational tool. Simply put, there are certain kinds of information that are best communicated through sequential visuals. Look at airline emergency cards or the instructions that come with any Lego set. They're everyday examples that demonstrate the teaching power of comics, and they only scratch the surface. Comics can do so much more.
You’ve written and drawn two NBA-nominated graphic novels. Now with Secret Coders, you're working with an artist, Mike Holmes. How do you decide which projects you’re going to just write, as opposed to produce completely yourself
Writing for myself and writing for another artist are two very different experiences. When I handle both the story and the art, I have full control. I can endlessly tweak every word and every line. For some of my projects, I need that level of control. When I write for someone else, I lose some control but usually I gain something in return. The artist can often make up for my weaknesses, and the final product becomes an amalgamation of two storytelling voices.
I've been lucky. Every one of my collaborators has been amazing, and Mike's no exception. Mike's drawings are full of life. His work has this Saturday morning energy that just leaps off the page. He handles our characters in a way that I can't. You'll see what I mean when the book comes out.
You’ve also written a graphic novel based on, arguably, the first Asian-American superhero. And, this past summer at the National Book Festival in Washington, DC, you eloquently urged your fellow comics artists to produce more diverse comics, despite fears that they might get something wrong. How important has the subject of diversity been to your own passion for comics?
You're referring to The Shadow Hero, a graphic novel I did with Singaporean cartoonist Sonny Liew. Sonny and I revive the Green Turtle, an obscure character from the 1940's rumored to be the first Asian American superhero. The superhero genre is so American. Superheroes were created in America, they're most popular in America, and at their best they embody American ideals. When I discovered the Green Turtle, this (possibly) Asian American hero who dates back to the very first years of the genre, I found affirmation in his existence. Asian Americans often struggle with the perception of foreignness, no matter how long our families have been here. This is going to sound goofy, but the Green Turtle kind of said to me, you're a part of this. You belong. And I think that's what diverse characters can do. They tell readers, you're a part of this. You belong.
Can you describe the cultural climate for comics and graphic novels when you started your career, compared to the reception the medium receives today?
I began making comics in the mid-90's when things were falling apart. Marvel Comics was going through a rough time. Folks were predicting that they were going to go bankrupt and take most of the direct market with them. Outside of comic book nerds, nobody had heard of the term "graphic novel." Bookstores didn't have graphic novel sections. At best, they'd have a single shelf where Maus was put next to Calvin and Hobbes. Nowadays, it's a complete reversal. People know what a graphic novel is. Including Maus or Persepolis or Watchmen on a college syllabus is no longer considered as innovative--it's commonplace. Comics are more diverse in terms of genre, format, and culture than they've ever been. Comics and comic book culture are now a part of the mainstream. Heck, the general public knows who Rocket Raccoon is! Could you have imagined that in 1996?