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The power of graphic novels as literature, art

Get Graphic speaker breaks literature barriers, leads the way for the future of graphic novels

When some people think about graphic novels or comic books, they automatically picture superheroes. While they wouldn’t be exactly wrong, there is a movement in America that has graphic novels evolving and heading toward literary recognition.

Author and illustrator Gene Luen Yang, who will be speaking at the Get Graphic Festival in Provo Sept. 16-17, is at the forefront of the graphic novel movement working in his appointment as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.

“This idea that comics are limited to a single genre is limiting to the art form,” Yang said in an interview. “Luckily, it’s a misconception that’s slowly falling away.”

In Yang's opinion, the other two main comic book cultures of Japan and France are ahead of America in this regard.

“For decades, American comics have been dominated by superheroes,” he said. “I love superheroes, but I don’t only love superheroes. It’s only in the last decade or two we’ve found genre diversity in comics where you can find the action and the quiet moments.”

“American Born Chinese” (Square Fish, $10.99, ages 8 and up), Yang’s graphic novel that he wrote and illustrated, won the 2007 Michael L. Printz Award and is a good example of this newly accepted kind of comic. Yang has also worked on other graphic novels, including "The Eternal Smile," the Boxers & Saints series and the Shadow Hero series. His most recent book, "Paths & Portals" (First Second, $10.99, ages 8-12), which was released Aug. 30, is part of the Secret Coders series he wrote and worked with illustrator Mike Holmes.

"American Born Chinese" is drawn from Yang's experiences as a son of Asian immigrants. He wanted to write a story about the children of American immigrants and how life was for them. He ended up with three ways he wanted to tell the story, and when he couldn’t choose one, he found a way to weave them all together.

Jin Wang wants to fit in, but as the only Chinese-American boy in his school, who also happens to be in love with an all-American girl, jocks and bullies make his life hard and having no friends makes it even harder.

Danny keeps transferring to new schools after his cousin, Chin-Kee, the typical negative Chinese stereotype, shows up and embarrasses him. He doesn’t know how long he can run away.

The Monkey King, one of China’s oldest fables, is a monkey who doesn’t want to be a monkey; he wants to be a God.

Yang draws together all three of these characters, and they help each other solve their problems, while learning to love the skin they’re in and encouraging others to do so as well.

“It’s about the Asian-American experience, about growing up stuck in between two cultures as the kids of immigrants,” Yang said.

Yang said the experience of not fitting in is one many people, not just children of immigrants, can relate to.

“My platform as ambassador is reading without walls,” Yang said. “I want kids to explore outside of their comfort zone through books specifically about kids who don’t look like them or live like they do. I want kids to read in a variety of formats, especially one that they don’t read for fun.”

For some readers, the format they don’t read for fun is graphic novels. Whether it’s because they weren’t always accepted as a form of literature or because some find them difficult to read, Yang encourages giving them a try.

“I have heard from some folks that they’re not totally sure whether to look at the words first or the pictures first, so they don’t know where their eyes should go,” Yang said.

He also says it’s understandable about comics and there is a learning curve, but the way comics are arranged is one of his favorite things about them. The reader controls how they take in the story, instead of the story streaming in front of them like a prose novel or even a movie.

“On a comic, past, present and future all sit side by side on a page so it helps the reader absorb information,” he said. “Comics is really the only visual storytelling medium that gives control of rate of info to the reader as opposed to the creator.”

Yang said teachers are also utilizing graphic novels more in the classroom, which is something he supports but acknowledges they aren’t the new and only way, just a supplement.

“I grew up in the ’80s and we didn’t have a ton of comics, and in the school they were generally looked down upon,” Yang said. “As a teacher myself, I realized how powerful they can be in a classroom. I don’t think they are replacements to prose novels, I think they are additions — yet another tool in a teacher’s toolkit.”

Yang is passionate about teaching all forms of literature to children around the country. For those interested in writing or creating their comics, Yang has some advice.

“I think you need to read a lot of stories in different formats,” Yang said. “Read prose, read stories in verse, read stories in graphic format. The more stories you take in, the more you’ll understand the bones a good story needs to have.”

Aside from reading, there is something Yang says is essential to the creative process, and that is writing every day and, if interested in graphic novels, drawing every day.

“Especially a lot of young cartoonists, they will get hung up on being good, when really all they need to do is finish,” he said. “Sometimes we allow our inner critic to keep us from finishing, but the way you get good is by finishing. The more you complete, the better you’ll get. The feeling of being finished has to feel familiar, it’s the only way to succeed.”

“American Born Chinese,” contains no objective language or sexual content but does contain scenes of bullying and other karate combat scenes.

If you go ...

What: "Get Graphic Festival: Celebrating Comics and Graphic Novels with Gene Luen Yang"

When: Sept. 16-17

Where: Provo Library, 550 N. University Ave., Provo

How much: Free, but tickets are required for some events

Phone: 801-852-6650


Tara Creel is a Logan-native-turned-California-girl and mother of four boys. Her email is, and she blogs at