Read This: Gene Luen Yang’s rousing comics speech at the 2014 National Book Festival gala
From the Washington Post, article here.
GENE LUEN YANG, Library of Congress, Jefferson Building:
Good evening. Thank you, Library of Congress and National Book Festival, for inviting me to share the stage with such esteemed authors, and to speak with all of you. I am deeply grateful for this honor.
I’m a comic-book guy, so tonight I’d like to talk about another comic book guy. Dwayne McDuffie was one of my favorite writers. When I was growing up, he was one of the few African-Americans working in American comics. Dwayne worked primarily within the superhero genre. He got his start at Marvel Comics but eventually worked for almost every comic book publisher out there. He even branched out into television and wrote for popular cartoon series like “Justice League” and “Ben 10.”
Dwayne McDuffie is no longer with us, unfortunately. He passed away in 2011, at the age of 49. But within comics, his influence is still deeply felt.
I was lucky enough to have met him once. About a year before his death, we were on a panel together at Comic-Con. I had the opportunity to shake his hand and tell him how much his work meant to me.
In a column Dwayne wrote in 1999, he talked about his love of the Black Panther, a Marvel Comics character. The Black Panther’s secret alias is T’Challa, the king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda. He has super senses, super strength, and super agility. He’s an Avenger, though he hasn’t yet made it into the movies.
The Black Panther wasn’t created by African American cartoonists. He was created in July of 1966 by two Jewish Americans, Stan Lee (who was born Stanley Lieber) and Jack Kirby (who was born Jacob Kurtzberg).
By modern standards, the Black Panther is not a flawless example of a black superhero. In their first draft of the character, Lee and Kirby called him “the Coal Tiger” and gave him a goofy yellow and black costume. Even in his final form, his superhero alias includes the word “Black.” This is true of many early African and African American superheroes, as if what makes them remarkable is neither their superpowers nor their heroism, but their ethnicity. Most problematic, though, was that Marvel made their most prominent black superhero the star of a series called Jungle Action.
All of these flaws were lost on Dwayne McDuffie when he first encountered the Black Panther in 1973, at the age of 11. What struck him was the character’s commanding sense of dignity. The Black Panther wasn’t anyone’s sidekick. He wasn’t an angry thug. He wasn’t a victim. He was his own hero, his own man. As Dwayne describes it, “In the space of 15 pages, black people moved from invisible to inevitable.”
Dwayne’s love of the Black Panther eventually blossomed into a love of comics in general. Dwayne was a smart guy with a lot of options in life. He’d earned a master’s degree in physics. But he chose to write comics as his career. I would argue that without the Black Panther, this flawed black character created by a writer and an artist who were not black, there would be no Dwayne McDuffie the comic book writer.
Dwayne wasn’t just a writer — he was also a businessman. In the early ’90s, he teamed with a group of writers and artists to found Milestone Media, the most prominent minority-owned comic book company that has ever existed. The Milestone universe have since been folded into DC Comics, so these days characters like Static Shock and Icon – characters Dwayne co-created – fight crime alongside Superman and Batman.
In the early ’90s, I was finishing up my adolescence. I visited my local comic-book store on a weekly basis, and one week I found a book on the stands called Xombi, published by Milestone Media. Xombi is a scientist who became a superhero after he was injected with nanotechnology. He allied himself with a secret order of superpowered nuns. One sister was known as Nun of the Above, another Nun the Less. Together, they protected the world from all kinds of supernatural threats.
Xombi was inventive and fun, but he stood out to me because he was an Asian American male carrying in his own monthly title. And even more notable – he didn’t know Kung Fu. Xombi wasn’t created by Asian Americans – his writer was white and his artist black – but he did make Asian Americans a little less invisible.
We in the book community are in the middle of a sustained conversation about diversity. We talk about our need for diverse books with diverse characters written by diverse writers. I wholeheartedly agree.
But I have noticed an undercurrent of fear in many of our discussions. We’re afraid of writing characters different from ourselves because we’re afraid of getting it wrong. We’re afraid of what the Internet might say.
This fear can be a good thing if it drives us to do our homework, to be meticulous in our cultural research. But this fear crosses the line when we become so intimidated that we quietly make choices against stepping out of our own identities.
After all, our job as writers is to step out of ourselves, and to encourage our readers to do the same.
I told you the story of Dwayne McDuffie to encourage all of us to be generous with ourselves and with one another. The Black Panther, despite his flaws, was able to inspire a young African American reader to become a writer.
We have to allow ourselves the freedom to make mistakes, including cultural mistakes, in our first drafts. I believe it’s okay to get cultural details wrong in your first draft. It’s okay if stereotypes emerge. It just means that your experience is limited, that you’re human.
Just make sure you iron them out before the final draft. Make sure you do your homework. Make sure your early readers include people who are a part of the culture you’re writing about. Make sure your editor has the insider knowledge to help you out. If they don’t, consider hiring a freelance editor who does.
Also, it’s okay if stereotypes emerge in the first drafts of your colleagues. Correct them – definitely correct them – but do so in a spirit of generosity. Remember how soul-wrenching the act of writing is, how much courage it took for that writer to put words down on a page.
And let’s say you do your best. You put in all the effort you can. But then when your book comes out, the Internet gets angry. You slowly realize that, for once, the Internet might be right. You made a cultural misstep. If this happens, take comfort in the fact that even flawed characters can inspire. Apologize if necessary, resolve do better, and move on.
Let your fear drive you to do your homework. But no matter what, don’t ever let your fear stop you.
I have long had a bit of a writer crush on Gene Yang, for he is awesome in so many ways.
Ditto. What a speech.
I gotta say something
daniel radcliffe is a treasure to be protected
1690s book with filigree silver binding - National Library of Sweden
This binding is an exquisite example of Danish filigree technique
from the 1690s.It belongs to the National Library’s Huseby
Collection and was once owned by Karren Mogensdotter Skoug.
Her name and the year 1692 are engraved on the inside of the clasps. -(x)
the stars on the american flag are actually asterisks for all the restrictions on the freedom it boasts
Dean + favorite queer moments
In regard of 9x23. Here you go.
Astronaut readjusts to life back on Earth
> Don’t give him a baby for a while.
HE GRABS THE CUP BUT THEN HE DROPS THE PEN 0.0003 SECONDS LATER
AND HE LOOKS UP AT THE CEILING INSTEAD OF AT THE GROUND WHEN HE CAN’T FIND THEM
I CAN’T STOP LAUGHING HE JUST DROPS IT
IT’S NOT FUNNY IT’S VERY LOGICAL THAT HE WOULD HAVE ADJUSTED TO LIVING LIFE WHILE HE WAS IN SPACE BECAUSE IT’S DIFFERENT FROM EARTH BUT I CAN’T FUCKING BREATHE
YES IT’S BACK ON MY DASH THIS IS MY FAVORITE VIDEO
honestly if you dont think like, the tumblr feminist scene, with all the occasionalyl cheesy kawaii-aesthetic misandry art, hasn’t had an impact on anyone at all like
you dont remember what the average teen girl in a fandom was like before this. you don’t remember how we used to make hate-sites about female characters who “got in the way”, games where you could beat them up, how much we hate our gender and bragged about not being like other girls, used to completely reject everything girly. a lot of us just wanted to be one of the guys. there was a lot of internalised misogyny there
now you get these 15 year old girls loving other girls and loving themselves fiercely, even at the total cost of male approval and just. god. if like 14-year-old me could see this shit now.
and like if you dont think teen girls learning to love themselves and their body and each other isnt important than i do not know what to say to you
if this isn’t the best thing you’ve seen all day then I don’t know what to tell you
"Don’t judge a book by its cover? NO! People judge books by their cover! They fucking do it. They MUST judge books by covers!!! I am a designer! That’s what we do! TO MAKE PEOPLE JUDGE AND INTERESTED BY THE COVER!"
my cousin, art student (via thecaptainswanskiss)
As a librarian THIS IS SO TRUE. Good covers make or break books. Make it too feminine looking, a boy will never touch it (maybe you’re marketing to girls, but it seems like sometimes that’s cutting off a demographic depending on the book). Make it too dated looking or cheesy and NO ONE will touch it. Many a good book has been doomed by an ugly ass cover.
A book store owner and I were just talking about out facing books and how important that is the other day. You’ve got to flip the cover out to be visible because the cover is what makes you PICK THE BOOK UP.
You have fallen in every way imaginable