Cracking the comics code

Silicon Valley author Gene Yang releases new comic book for middle schoolers

Twenty years ago, headlines trumpeted the observation, "Comics aren't just for kids anymore!" In today's superhero-saturated media landscape, however, the more pressing concern might be, "Which of all these comics should kids -- and adults -- be reading?"

Award-winning comics creator Gene Luen Yang, author of "American Born Chinese" and "Boxers & Saints," has produced work that appeals to a wide range of ages. Having until recently taught computer science at Oakland's Bishop O'Dowd High School and served as its director of information services, Yang has long promoted the use of comics in education.

Now, he's writing and drawing comics full-time from his home in San Jose. With his latest book, "Secret Coders," illustrated by Mike Holmes, Yang hopes he has broken the code to helping middle-school kids learn about programming while enjoying a fast-paced comics adventure.

Reached during a break in his current book tour, Yang explained, "I wanted to see if I could combine an actual narrative with educational content. And I feel a little nervous about 'Secret Coders,' because I'm not positive as to how well it's going to work. The big fear is that the entertainment part will get in the way of the educational part and vice versa."

Yang shouldn't worry too much. His books include some of the medium's most critically acclaimed titles. "American Born Chinese" was the first graphic novel nominated for the National Book Award and the first to win the American Library Association's coveted Printz Award, which is given annually to the "best book written for teens, based entirely on its literary merit." "Boxers & Saints," a two-volume historical chronicle of China's Boxer Rebellion, also was nominated for the National Book Award and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Yang recently received a "Best Writer" Eisner award for his work on Dark Horse Comics' "Avatar: The Last Airbender" spin-off, and for "The Shadow Hero," a revival of the Green Turtle, probably the first Chinese-American superhero.

With energetic art by Holmes, "Secret Coders" is the first installment of what will be at least a three-volume saga. The story follows middle school student Hopper as she survives her first day at Stately Academy. The campus is creepy, her fellow students aren't friendly, and she immediately gets in trouble with her teachers and the principal. After she encounters a grouchy janitor and his flocks of weird, four-eyed birds, Hopper seeks help from Eni, an African-American student who teaches her about binary numbers. Together, Hopper and Eni use the principles of coding to solve some campus mysteries.

Yang, 42, spent his early years in San Jose and Saratoga. His father was an electrical engineer; his mother was a programmer. "I feel really lucky that I got to grow up in the Silicon Valley," he said, adding that he got his start in coding the summer after fifth grade, when his parents sent him to a computer camp. From there, his fascination with coding grew in tandem with his burgeoning obsession with comics.

"Even though I didn't connect them at the time -- they were just separate interests to me when I was a kid -- I really think there's a lot in common between the two," Yang said. "In comics, you'll usually take a really complex story and have to break it up into these component parts, until you get to the (individual) panel. In coding, it really is the same way. You have this very complex idea, and you have to break it into these simple lines of code."

The cast of "Secret Coders" plays against the assumptions people make about who might excel at programming. Yang pointed out that the world's first programmer was a woman, Ada Lovelace, and that the young protagonist of "Secret Coders" is named after Grace Hopper, inventor of the compiler.

"She basically invented the interface between humans and computers," Yang said. "It felt appropriate to have a character inspired by her to be my interface between the reader and the computer material."

Yang made sure that the supporting cast of "Secret Coders" has a realistic range of diversity. Hopper's calm, collected friend Eni excels at computer tech and at basketball.

"There are often these stereotypes that say that athletes can't be nerds, and vice versa," Yang said. "I know from teaching that there are plenty of kids who can have a foot in both worlds and do it successfully."

Yang said he thinks coding develops a set of skills important in all aspects of life:

"In order to be a good coder, you have to be able to think clearly. You have to be able to think logically. You have to be able to put things in sequence, in the proper order."

Now that "Secret Coders" is complete, Yang is in the midst of a 12-issue run as the writer of DC Comics' flagship title, "Superman." But computing is never far from his mind. He's putting an "information age" twist on The Man of Steel by introducing Condesa, a new supporting member of the cast.

"Aquaman can speak with fish; Condesa can talk to machines," Yang explained with a chuckle. "Coding has been on my mind a lot."

"Secret Coders" by Gene Luen Yang, illustrated by Mike Holmes; Macmillan Children's Publishing Group, New York, 2015; 96 pages; $10

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