A comic book creator, Yang dazzles with “Dragon Hoops,” his new graphic novel which was published this spring by First Second.
Courtesy of First Second
Don’t let his wearing glasses fool you, Gene Luen Yang is a superhero.
For his work as a comic book creator, Yang is well regarded for his mainstream collaborations, writing “Superman” and later “New Super-Man” for DC Comics, and wildly popular “Avatar: The Last Airbender” comics for Dark Horse. But Yang is also known for producing very personal graphic novels, and is a teacher and a juggernaut in the literary community.
As the writer and illustrator of graphic novels “American Born Chinese” and “Boxers & Saints,” Yang is a National Book Award finalist, an Eisner Award winner and he was chosen by the Library of Congress to be Ambassador for Young People’s Literature for 2016-17. He also teaches low-residency graduate students in Saint Paul, Minnesota, in Hamline University’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults program, and he was a computer science teacher for nearly two decades at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, California, which is where Yang’s teaching experience and his new comic intersect.
In “Dragon Hoops,” a 448-page graphic novel published this spring by First Second, Yang sets aside his general lack of interest of sports to follow Bishop O’Dowd’s men’s basketball team, nicknamed the Dragons, and Lou Richie, the team’s head coach. Richie is an alumnus of the school and its basketball program, a graduate of the Class of 1988 who was part of a varsity squad that had a runner-up finish at state. Richie went on to a college hoops career and returned to Bishop O’Dowd in 2001, becoming an assistant and later the program’s head coach.
Richie is a lot like Captain Ahab from “Moby-Dick,” chasing a state title for 25 years like it’s his white whale. As a player, an assistant, and the team’s head coach, Richie is center stage in a Dragons backstory which includes multiple runner-up finishes at state but no championship trophies. By the time Yang tags along with the team for its 2014-15 season, hope is abuzz for the Dragons to finally win a title, as the team boasts mega prospects in seniors Ivan Rabb and Paris Austin.
The Dragons’ assistant coaching staff supplements Richie and his legacy, and Rabb and Austin are supported by a senior-laden lineup while Yang tags along as a spectator with a behind-the-scenes VIP pass.
Courtesy of First Second
Though he may not conduct interviews or frame his story like a professional reporter, Yang approaches research like one. He sifts through the origins of basketball, its founder, James Naismith, how the sport looked in its infancy for women and minority players, and he even delves into Chinese basketball history — from the sport being brought to China by missionaries in the late 1800s, through the career of Yao Ming, China’s most high-profile player who had success in the NBA with the Houston Rockets. As the story of the Dragons unfolds, and as Yang sees and learns more, he begins to appreciate the sport.
Ironically, if there’s one thing Yang either missed in his research, or chose to omit, it’s his one extra link to the game which could have paid dividends in his graphic novel: Hamline University is the birthplace of intercollegiate basketball. The university fielded a squad which played the University of Minnesota’s School of Agriculture at home in 1895 — just a few years after Naismith invented the sport. Through the 1950s, the university was a powerhouse in the sport, producing NBA Hall of Famer Vern Mikkelsen and three national championship titles (1942, 1949 and 1951).
What’s in the pages of "Dragon Hoops" is exceptional, however, despite Yang’s missed opportunity to thread another connection he has into the sport and its history. With colors from Lark Pien, Yang brings to life a rich cast of characters, including assistant coaches and bench players, and he fleshes out Bishop O’Dowd’s hoops history to highlight the significance of what it would mean to win a title. He also takes care in chronicling the pedigree of Rabb and Austin. Yang may not give himself much credit as an artist but his cartooning of “Dragon Hoops” is brilliant. His clean line work and ability to understand narrative blends great with his curiosity of the sport and its history. The close-ups, emotions and even character designs are all stellar, and Yang even goes as far as detailing his design choices for basketball shoes in his notes.
Whether the Dragons finally won their state title, I’ll leave to readers to find out (if they don’t already know). As for the 6-foot-10 Rabb, he racked up more than 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in a Dragons jersey and has since gone on to being a second-round pick of the Orlando Magic in the 2017 NBA Draft. The 6-foot Austin, meanwhile, is a guard coming off a college career in which he played two years at Boise State before transferring to the University of California Berkeley. In his two years with the Golden Bears, Austin averaged 10.5 points and 3.3 assists per game.
As for Yang, while following Richie and the Dragons for his graphic novel, he begins to contemplate a career change. For years, he has balanced family commitments, teaching, and being a comic book creator. But when DC Comics calls Yang, offering him the opportunity to tell Superman stories, Yang wonders if it’s time to back away from teaching and go all-in on being a comic book creator. In an interesting twist, which comes off a bit Gonzo, Yang commits himself as a principal character in the story. Whether he’s interviewing coaches and players, or having a conversation with his wife, he's frequently present and vulnerable on the page.
All together, "Dragon Hoops" is like an elegant tapestry — a comic geared for teenagers but it's really a worthwhile reading experience for those of all ages.