What connects award-winning graphic author/illustrator Gene Luen Yang and film luminary Orson Welles? Both have cracked codes—figuratively, and in Yang’s case literally, too—and made history. Welles did this back in the 1930s and 40s, when kids sometimes thought that access to power was as simple as owning the right “secret decoder” pin or ring. Anyone—regardless of race, religion, or background—could supposedly become a member of exclusive clubs linked to cartoon heroes or superheroes. Yet Black kids living under Jim Crow laws probably always knew better than to believe they would be equally welcome. Certainly, Black actors of that era, when roles were not “blind cast” irrespective of race, had very limited opportunities. That is why Orson Welles’ 1936 stage production of an all-Black Macbeth was a ground-breaking, historically significant event. Its controversial New York City debut is the background of a fast-paced, fun-filled new graphic novel set in the swank Waldorf Astoria hotel, The New Deal (2015).
One of two central characters in this jewel heist mystery by author/illustrator Jonathan Cash is a Black actress cast in Welles’ play. Teresa Harris’ “day job” is being a maid at the hotel, where she becomes both suspect and detective in the theft. How her race also figures in this part of Teresa’s life is another reason I want to highlight Cash’s book today, the start of Black History Month. Readers tween and up will find the novel eye-opening as well as entertaining.
They may be shocked by the unthinking, blatant racism expressed by some of the hotel’s wealthy patrons, who assume Teresa is a thief. One even calls her a “devil” and is ready to slap the young woman! Even most of the hotel staff—all Caucasian—assume the worst about Teresa and casually use offensive language to describe her. Cash’s ability to draw expressive features and body language make the many wordless panels here memorably telling as well.
Yet The New Deal (a title reminiscent of President Roosevelt’s social programs, such as the one that financed Welles’ Macbeth) is anything but bleak. Its swooping, angled perspectives and sometimes converging panels recreate the madcap pace of 1930s comic mystery films such as The Thin Man series. The sometimes flirtatious banter between Teresa and bellhop Tommy O’Malley, her bumbling detective partner, also echoes the relationships of that era’s on-screen duos. And, just as those black-and-white films end happily, Teresa and Tommy by the end of this blue-and-white novel outwit both the real “bad guys” and the clueless, racist police. After a series of exciting, sometimes humorous chases and near captures—accompanied by sound effects dramatized in different lettering styles—Teresa and Tommy escape to a better life together in a cab. Whether they will remain just friends or become interracial sweethearts (unusual for that period and its films) is unclear, but their happiness is evident. The novel ends satisfyingly on the same mid-Manhattan street corner of its opening scenes.
Gene Luen Yang’s latest stand-alone graphic novel, with its 7th grade protagonists, will appeal to upper elementary as well as tween readers. Illustrated by Mike Holmes, Secret Coders (2015) is also a mystery novel. It combines recognizable school routines such as lunch hour, gym class, and homework with mysterious, odd occurrences—puzzles solvable by understanding and using the binary code central to computer programming! New student Hopper thinks Stately Academy looks “like a haunted house,” but she has no idea about what really makes it strange. Struggling to fit in, Hopper asks questions that win her one new friend, but also send her to the principal’s office and even into danger.
Why are all Stately Academy’s buildings emblazoned with the number “9”? Who built the robot birds that fly around its grounds? And who built the robot turtle that, by the end of the book, leads its kid characters to tumble into a hidden underground chamber? Gene Yang taught computer programming for more 15 years; he has said that “Secret Coders can’t replace a good computer science teacher, but I hope it gets readers interested in learning more.” Each suspenseful chapter contains a different “lesson” about a computer code concept, yet Secret Coders is far from dull or didactic.
Its main detective characters, Chinese-American Hopper and an African-American boy named Eni, have too much personality for that–and too many lively exchanges and narrow escapes! I particularly liked the way author Yang made the race of these characters just one part of the story, not the central element. That integration into the narrative mainstream mirrors the evolving motion of racial integration in society as a whole. Yang has also pointed out that his making Eni a popular, successful ball player breaks another stereotype—the idea that “jocks” are not smart or interested in “nerdy” ideas. Nothing is that clear-cut in this green-and-white book, where illustrator Holmes’ cartoon-like drawings cushion frightening scenes with humor. Secret Coders ends with a reference to an upcoming sequel, Secret Coders: Paths and Portals, and with a link to a webpage, where kids can download games and activities and learn more about the series’ creators.
Computer code is not the only kind of code author Yang has cracked. Like Welles and the Black actors who performed in his Macbeth, Yang has brought different groups, with their own coded ways of understanding and experiencing the world, into new perspective for other people. During Black History month, it is worthwhile to point out this kind of “code switching,” a term adopted by some of today’s National Public Radio producers and reporters who cover the intersections of race, ethnicity, and culture. Code switching—recognizing and breaking down harmful barriers between people while respecting differences—is one of Yang’s demonstrated strengths as well as long-standing interests.
In his multiple-award-winning graphic novel American Born Chinese (2006), Yang uses Chinese mythology to enrich his painfully humorous look at the identity problems of a child of first generation immigrants. In his duology Boxers and Saints (2013, reviewed here in August, 2013), Yang dramatically conveys the brutal clash of cultures and religions in China during the Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901. In The Shadow Hero (2014, reviewed here in March 2014), along with illustrator Sonny Lieuw Yang entertainingly uses comic book history, Chinese lore, and immigrant experience to develop a Chinese-American superhero. Their Shadow Hero is set during the era when Welles was producing that groundbreaking Macbeth!
Just last month, Gene Luen Yang was acclaimed as the fifth National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. It is a history-making appointment, as he is the first graphic novelist to earn this distinction. Yang has said that he will use his new, prominent position to advocate for reading without walls. Walls or codes—both are metaphors for the barriers or blinkered vision that can limit or destructively separate people. I look forward to hearing more from our new ambassador, as his own achievements introduce more people to the rich possibilities of graphic literature.
I also plan to catch up with Yang’s recent forays into some shared, ongoing graphic endeavors: new books in the Avatar: The Last Airbender series as well as a new run of Superman comics. I am curious about how this gifted storyteller is bringing his abilities and interests to the recent Airbender phenomenon as well as the longstanding, iconic Superman multiverse. I have these volumes at hand, while I am still waiting for Bill Foster and Craig Yoe’s The Untold History of Black Comic Books (2016), due to be published later in this Black History month. And I have just discovered and ordered a copy of a reissued graphic work very relevant to Black History month and this post: Voodoo Macbeth: A Graphic Novel (2006; 2015). It is part memoir, part historical fiction about Orson Welles’ groundbreaking 1936 production. The father of its author/illustrator, Norris Borroughs, was an actor in that play! I will see if this work would also suit tween and teen readers.
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