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Gene Luen Yang has won a MacArthur Genius Grant. Here’s how he’s changing comics.

Yang is creating comics that we can all see ourselves in.

Gene Yang
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Gene Luen Yang is a National Book Award finalist, a cartoonist, a teacher, a podcaster, and a comic book industry hero. Now we can add genius to the list, too.

Today Yang was named to the 2016 class of MacArthur Fellows and was awarded $625,000 — what’s known as the foundation’s Genius Grant.

In its announcement of this year’s fellows, the MacArthur Foundation explained that Yang is being recognized for “bringing diverse people and cultures to children’s and young adult literature and confirming comics’ place as an important and creative force within literature, art, and education.”

The recognition is well-deserved. Yang has been producing great, personal comic books and graphic novels for years, and now he’s putting his unique spin on one of the most classic superhero stories ever written.

Yang makes comics about culture, faith, and identity

It’s been fascinating in recent years to watch the MacArthur Foundation’s growing cognizance and support of cartoons, comic books, and graphic novels as an art form. In 2014, the foundation awarded cartoonist Alison Bechdel for her work. In 2015, it took the year off from comics but did coincidentally recognize Ta-Nehisi Coates for his journalism; Coates would go on to write a stellar Black Panther comic for Marvel. This year, Yang joins the club.

Yang’s career is punctuated by his stellar graphic novels, like 2006’s American Born Chinese and 2013’s Boxers & Saints. Both were nominated for the National Book Award, with the former being the first graphic novel to be named an NBA finalist. And in 2014, Yang published The Shadow Hero, a modern-day retelling of an obscure 1940s superhero called the Green Turtle, first created by Chinese cartoonist Chu Hing.

The stories Yang has written are very different from one another, but they share his fixation on exploring how culture, faith, and experience shape identity. American Born Chinese is a coming-of-age story wrapped around the idea of myth, while Boxers & Saints explores faith through historical fiction. And The Shadow Hero muses on the idea of American identity within the frame of a superhero story.

Yang creates characters and depicts cultures that are not usually seen in popular fiction or comic books. And he and his stories are part of the reason this is starting to change.

Yang is now applying his favored themes to an iconic superhero

New Super-Man. (DC Comics)

Yang spoke to Vox in 2014, and what he said about The Shadow Hero stuck with me. Talking about the idea of superheroes and how he perceived them, Yang said:

For The Shadow Hero, what was on the forefront in my mind was what it means to be an American. I think superheroes are such an American genre. They were invented in America, and became popular as America grew into a superpower. I thought that book would be a good way of exploring what it means to be an American.

In 2016, Yang got to put his own spin on the superhero story via one of the most iconic superheroes ever created. Yang is part of the creative team — with artists Viktor Boganovic and Richard Friend — behind DC Comics’ New Super-Man, a story about a Shanghai teen named Kenan Kong who inherits Superman’s powers. (It’s a complicated story.) The ongoing series will presumably continue to tackle the difficult task of living up to that title.

It’s a nifty spin on Superman, and a different way of thinking about superheroes. The elements of a Spider-Man–like coming-of-age story are there, but the writing and the editorial arc exhibit the thoughtfulness that Yang brings to all of his stories: a question of identity, a glimpse at what shapes us and what makes or doesn’t make us, well, super.

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