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Drawing Interest

Lauren Murrow | December 19, 2016 | Lifestyle Story City Life

When graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang first started making comics two decades ago, he would draw, photocopy and bind his booklets by hand, then sell them for $2 apiece at bookstores in San Jose, Berkeley and Oakland. He’s come a long way since those afternoons spent hunched over a copier: This September, the San Jose artist was chosen as one of the 2016 MacArthur Fellows—a rarified group of 23 “Geniuses” across creative and academic fields who will receive a no-strings-attached prize of $625,000. Yang is only the third graphic novelist to win the award in its 35-year history. “I’m in elite company,” he says, praising fellow MacArthur-winners and graphic novelists Alison Bechdel and Ben Katchor. “It points to the rising esteem of the graphic novel in American culture.”

In a departure from the superhero-packed pages of his youth, Yang sees comics as a tool for effecting social change. His work often confronts themes of culture and identity, the product of growing up in San Jose and Saratoga in the ’70s and ’80s as the son of immigrants. “Nowadays, the South Bay is incredibly diverse,” he says. “But as a kid, I experienced growing pains associated with that demographic shift.” In 2006, American Born Chinese, Yang’s debut book drawn partially from his own childhood, became the first graphic novel to be nominated for a National Book Award. He went on to study computer science at U.C. Berkeley and California State University, East Bay. After a brief stint as a computer engineer, he left his desk job for Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, where he taught computer science for over 15 years. (He drew at night; his book of historical fiction, Boxers & Saints, earned another National Book Award nomination in 2013.)

This January, the Library of Congress named Yang its fifth national ambassador for young people’s literature, a role ideally suited for the former teacher. “I spent 17 years around teenage voices,” says Yang. “I have characters shaped by former students.” He’s currently working on New Super-Man for DC Comics, as well as Secret Coders, a six-part series with illustrator Mike Holmes that weaves the basics of coding into a mystery plot. The third installment of the latter will be published in March 2017. As a newly minted MacArthur Fellow, Yang intends to devote portions of the prize to his family, his future graphic novels and his teaching pursuits. But though he has joined the prestigious ranks of MacArthur “Geniuses” at age 43, he’s still a comic book kid at heart. “If I didn’t have four kids to put through college,” he allows, “I would buy a Batmobile.”

Originally published in the November issue of Silicon Valley

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