Perseverance and Storytelling

Perseverance and Storytelling

Eighth grade students had the opportunity to hear from American cartoonist Gene Luen Yang as part of our Pushing Perspectives speaker series. His inspiring talk centered on themes of self-discovery and persevering in the face of doubt. Eighth graders had already read his graphic novel Boxers and Saints in their English courses at the beginning of the school year. 

Mr. Yang's background is rooted in his identity as the child of immigrants, with a mother from mainland China and a father from Taiwan. During his talk, he shared personal anecdotes about his childhood and the early influences that shaped his love for storytelling. He recounted how, as a child, he was drawn to stories, especially those featuring the Monkey King, which was his most requested bedtime story. Through his affection for stories emerged his budding passion for drawing. “I remember being a little kid, watching cartoons on TV, and realizing that my favorite shows were drawings that somebody created to tell a story,” Mr. Yang reflected. With that realization, the full power of combining stories and drawings to create animation crystalized.

Reflecting on his childhood dream of working for Walt Disney, Mr. Yang humorously recounted his extensive fascination with the iconic figure. “I remember practicing drawing in classic Disney style for hours,” Mr. Yang said. “I thought that would make it easier for me to get a job with Disney when I was older.” Despite this years-long fixation, a fateful encounter with a comic book spinner rack in the corner of his local bookstore during fifth grade altered his path. Superman and the Atomic Night, DC Comics #57, a gift from his mother, became the first comic book in his collection. “This comic blew my mind,” Mr. Yang remembers. “This combination of words and pictures opened up my imagination in a way that had never been done before.” This moment shifted his Disney-centric dreams to a newfound obsession with comic books.

Mr. Yang’s journey through the world of comics continued through his school years, despite discouragement from peers who considered comics “lame” and “nerdy.” He and his best friend in middle school even created their own comic strip and sold their product to classmates. They proudly made $8. However, peer pressure led Mr. Yang to temporarily abandon comics in seventh grade, only to return several years later when his passion proved too strong to ignore. 

After graduating from college, in a moment of self-reflection, Mr. Yang realized: “I have loved comic books for a very, very long time. If I don't publish one comic book before I die, I will die unfulfilled.” This ambitious goal fueled his creative endeavors. After years of toiling away at this goal, self-publishing a few comic books to diminishing financial returns, Mr. Yang—and his parents and friends—were a bit concerned this goal might be out of reach.

The turning point in his career came just a few years later when Mr. Yang received a grant from the Xeric Foundation, founded by one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT)'s co-creators. TMNT—one of the world’s most successful comic book franchises—was started as a self-published passion project. To pay it forward, the Xeric Foundation offers grants to comic book writers to self-publish their work. With this grant, Mr. Yang published Gordon Yamamoto and the King of the Geeks, followed by two more issues of Gordon Yamamoto. None of these comic books turned a profit; in fact, he did not even break even with the grant money he was awarded. After finding this out, Mr. Yang’s parents—who he describes as supportive and tolerant of his comic book habit up to this point—grew worried and annoyed. “I didn’t listen to them,” Mr. Yang said, “and I kept working on my comics for years.” 

Mr. Yang's perseverance and dedication eventually led him to sign with First Second Books, with whom he published his first full-length graphic novel, American Born Chinese. “The response to this book was beyond anything I could have imagined,” said Mr. Yang. “Librarians, teachers, bookstore owners, and comic book fans all came out to support this book. Their support paved the way for me to become the full-time cartoonist that I am today.”

Nearly seven years after the publication of American Born Chinese, Mr. Yang was offered the opportunity to write a Superman comic for DC Comics. He wrote Superman #41 and received a call from his father the day it hit comic book stands. “He told me that he went to his local comic book store,” Mr. Yang reflected. “I think this was the very first time he ever set foot in a comic book store. He bought a copy of Superman and told me that when he opened it up and saw my name in the credits, he was so happy for me.”

Marlborough English teacher Danielle Blette expressed the importance of Mr. Yang's visit in the context of their yearlong theme on storytelling. The curriculum explores why stories are told, whose stories are told, and who decides whose stories are told. Ms. Blette emphasized that Gene Yang's visit aimed to connect students with the relevance of writing and literature beyond the classroom. It highlighted the real impact of storytelling in people's lives and careers. “There are real humans who write the stories we read,” Ms. Blette said, “and they are doing it right now, not only hundreds of years ago. It's also inspirational for teenagers to hear how people found their path, particularly in the face of skepticism or doubt from those around them.”

Mr. Yang's message of perseverance resonated with the students, reinforcing the idea that pursuing one's passion is worth overcoming doubts and challenges. His talk served as a testament to the enduring impact of pursuing creative paths and the power of storytelling in shaping lives.

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In the image that accompanies this article, Gene Luen Yang stands at a wooden podium in front of a crowded, attentive audience in Caswell Hall. He holds a microphone in his right hand and gestures with his left, emphasizing the point he is in the middle of making.

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