Alumni blends comics with education

Kris Stewart,
Online and Social Media Editor

Born in Alameda and raised in the South Bay, Gene Yang, a Chinese American writer of graphic novels and comics, had an interest in art at a young age. Some of his most memorable childhood moments include going to the comic book store with his brother and friends.

Yang’s interest in art centers on the idea of visually telling stories. As a child he drew all of the time. He loved comic books, cartoon strips, animated shows and anything that told stories through drawings. “I love being able to use drawings to tell stories, to convey information, and to teach,” said Yang. “I’ve loved art — specifically cartoons — since I was a kid. I also love education. I taught high school computer science for over a decade and a half.”

Pullquote Photo

Work hard. And don’t worry if you feel afraid or discouraged at different points in your career. Everybody feels those things. Just push through – you won’t feel like that forever.

— Gene Yang

Yang’s process is similar to that of most graphic novelists. First, he writes the story. Afterwards, he pencils, or draws, what he envisions for the story. The pencil is traced with ink and then he usually sends the piece over to a colorist to finish the illustrations. He added, “I enjoy inking the most.  It’s the most relaxing.”

Themes woven in his work tend to surround identity. “I write about identity a lot,” said Yang. “I write about culture, religion, and other ways we humans find our place in the world. Stories are a sustained conversation about what it means to be human.”

American Born Chinese” was Yang’s first big graphic novel. Over 200 pages long, Yang took five years to write and draw the novel.

“I felt amazingly good when I finished. I felt grateful,” confessed Yang. This was the first graphic novel to be nominated for a National Book Award in addition to being the first to win the American Library Association’s Printz Award. The graphic novel also took home an Eisner Award for Best Graphic Album – New.

His mother always shared his interest in art and was supportive of his passion while his father was a traditional immigrant dad who wanted him to pursue a more practical occupation like a doctor, lawyer or engineer.

Yang graduated from California State University, East Bay in 2003 with a graduate degree in education. “I did my final project on using comics in the classroom,” he said adding that comics can assist students with learning core principles presented in STEM education.

Prior to starting a new project, Yang spends a lot of time reading and researching. Before starting on his graphic novel “Boxers and Saints,” Yang spent a year and a half reading about the Boxer Rebellion, an anti-imperialist uprising that occurred in China in 1899, before he picked up a pen to write or draw.


Yang’s newest project, a collaboration with cartoonist Mike Holmes, is a novel series geared towards middle schoolers called “Secret Coders.” The plot resembles that of Harry Potter. Tweens find a hidden school — where in lies a world filled with new knowledge — and are exposed to new unimaginable things.

However, instead of the school teaching magic, it teaches computer coding. “We’re hoping that as our protagonists become coders, our readers will too,” reads the description on Yang’s website. “It’s my first explicitly educational project,” he explained. “I’m incorporating some of the concepts I learned through my master’s.” Yang was a part of the online program and rarely needed to visit the campus. He completed his graduate degree at CSUEB while teaching high-school computer science full-time.

Yamamoto and the King of the Geeks” was first comic Yang completed as an adult. “My stories, no matter how fantastical, are rooted in my own life,” said Yang. This can be seen in Yang’s story of Yamamoto, which surrounds a high school student who learns a valuable life lesson after getting a spaceship stuck in his nose. “It was inspired by my lifelong struggle with suns problems,” explained Yang.

According to Yang computer science and art are intimately linked. “Both coding and comics require sequential thinking. You have to break large, complex concepts into small, discrete pieces,” he said.

Besides comics, Yang was employed as a software developer right after receiving his undergraduate degree in Computer Science from UC Berkeley and worked for two years before teaching computer science at a high school.

While Yang wouldn’t mind returning to CSUEB as a teacher at some point in the future, he holds a full plate with a variety of upcoming projects. In addition to Secret Coders, he is currently writing popular Nickelodeon cartoon “Avatar: The Last Airbender” graphic novel series for Dark Horse Comics as well as “Superman” for DC Comics.

As students graduate and enter the next chapter of their lives, Yang offers words of encouragement, “Work hard.  And don’t worry if you feel afraid or discouraged at different points in your career.  Everybody feels those things.  Just push through – you won’t feel like that forever.”

The first volume of “Secret Coders” will be available this September.