Spoiler warning for the opening page of writer Gene Luen Yang and artist Mike Holmes’ new “Secret Coders,” published by First Second.
“I’m going to tell you a story— a story about me,” it reads, in caption boxes over a black background. “But I’m telling you so you’ll remember— remember about you.”
(This article about storytelling, coding, STEM, and diversity stands on its own, but you can also read Part 1 of this longform series on Yang, “Secret Coders,” and comics as education here.)
Although I got to sit down with Yang to talk about his new book, I didn’t ask him to reveal the significance of that cryptic opening. I don’t want the story spoiled either, and I won’t speculate. But you could apply the phrase “a story about me” to Yang and “Secret Coders” in multiple ways. The all-ages graphic novel is an engrossing puzzler about a girl named Hopper who’s the new student in a spooky prep school called Stately Academy, finding her way through mean kids and weird rules, unlocking the campus’ mysteries alongside new friend Eni. Stately’s secrets, as readers discover, are the rudiments of computer programming, and unwittingly readers are taught the beginning lessons of coding through a riveting narrative.
Fans of Gene Yang’s other works, like “American Born Chinese” or “Shadow Hero,” will quickly decode the recognizably Gene Yang aspects of the story. Each chapter of the book introduces a new coding concept; Yang is a Computer Science teacher. The tale is set in well-endowed Stately private school; Yang worked for years in stately Bishop O’Dowd private school in the California Bay Area. The characters are characteristically Yangian and Jungian archetypes—tricksters, mother figures, and rebellious children, tossing chocolate pudding and sobriquets like “jerk-face” and “hooligans” at each other.
But if this is a story about Yang, who is it being told for? In what sense might Yang, who has eloquently argued for humble yet bold representation of diversity in literature, who has advocated for the importance in media of race-conscious casting, be telling a story in which others can see something about themselves?
It’s no accident that the first volume of “Secret Coders” centers on two protagonists who don’t fit the stereotypes of computer programmers, a girl named Hopper and Eni, an African American boy. Yang revealed, “It was important to me that the main character was a girl because my mom was a programmer, and I kind of picked it up a little bit through her. Studying the history of programming, I realized that in the beginning, it was really seen as a woman’s job, and not for good reasons. [There was this idea that] hardware is the important stuff, so men do that, and software is just superfluous, women do that.”
“But even the idea within computer programming of a ‘Compiler’— you take a programming language that’s structured so that a human being can understand it, and then you translate it in to something that a machine can understand; the piece of software that does that is called a Compiler—that whole idea of a Compiler was a woman’s idea.”
A woman named… Grace Hopper. To quote Rear Admiral Hopper: “Humans are allergic to change. They love to say, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’ I try to fight that. That’s why I have a clock on my wall that runs counter-clockwise.” In a culture that bombards girls with deleterious messages about their capacity and ceilings as mathematicians and scientists, “Coders” is a narrative that tries to run counter-clockwise.
As for the other protagonist, Eni is irresistibly affable and incurably curious, sort of a teenaged Neil DeGrasse Tyson with a Reggie Miller jump shot— and three Cheryl Miller sisters to boot, it appears. Yang intimated that Eni’s character— not his likeness, but his personality and enthusiasm— was based on a combination of an African-American former student of Yang’s and Miami Heat NBA All-Star Chris Bosh, an ardent coder who also has a computers-professonal mom. Along with his multiple championships next to Lebron, Bosh is known for his broad interests and individuality, like wacky Youtube videos, on-court unselfishness, and photobombing teammates. And stuff like reading books about nanotechnology.Continued below
Here’s Bosh, from a Wired editorial: “Being a kid of the 1990s and living in a house run by tech-savvy parents, I began to notice that the world around me was spinning on an axis powered by varying patterns of 1s and 0s. We’d be fools to ignore the power of mastering the designing and coding of those patterns. If brute physical strength ran one era, and automation the next, this is the only way we can keep up. Most jobs of the future will be awarded to the ones who know how to code….At this point, learning to code is simply about understanding how the world functions.”
Change. The future. The axes the world spins on, how it functions. Yang might be too modest to grandstand about the cultural significance of his own work, but I don’t need to shy from it. In comics we’re (slowly, sometimes painfully) learning to have ample and robust conversations about representations of women and people of color in our stories. With perhaps greater urgency and higher stakes, a similar conversation goes on in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) about gender and race.
Maybe the two conversations could have something to say to one another. With “Secret Coders,” maybe they are.
As Yang joked, talking about another subject, “Back then, it was only us comic book geeks that wore Avengers shirts… I wonder if it’s just because geeks have become so powerful. Like Silicon Valley has sort of taken over the world and brought comics with it.”
Those patterns of 1s and 0s that Chris Bosh made reference to? Those are the secrets of “Secret Coders.” I admit my own total ignorance of binary code, until through Eni and Hopper and some funny four-eyed birds, Yang and Holmes made how binary code works abundantly clear—and totally cool—to this mathphobic English major. The tantalizing language of comics had a magical way of demystifying those secrets, despite my mental roadblocks to comprehension.
I kept wondering, would it work with my students, predominately Latino/a, Filipino/a, and African-American, male and female? Would “Secret Coders” intrigue them and give them a sense that programming was not only possible but compelling?
Stanford Professor Bryan Brown has pointed out that “science often serves as the epicenter of… great culture clashes” between the language, symbols, and ways of the perceived Guardians of Science (i.e. schools and teachers) and the language, symbols, and ways of the highly intelligent and perceptive “underprivileged” youth in “urban schools.” Those last two phrases, by the way, Dr. Brown points out as oft-used code words for Black and Brown youth. “As a result,” Brown explains from his research, “students often see the appropriation of cultural characteristics commensurate with science learning as symbolic of cultural betrayal.”
What does Dr. Brown recommend, in layperson’s terms? Demystify the clouds of Scientific Discourse. Start with what kids know intuitively, what they sharply observe in the world. Acknowledge its brilliance, and gradually advance their conceptual knowledge. Do so without forcing students to shed their vital senses of self. They can be ballers and scholars at the same time, or geeks and grrlz.
And indeed, our two “Secret Coders” scheme up the heist-movie, con-job, take-down-the-institution-by-learning-its-codes heroism that is not only classic fun, but suggests the exciting possibility that, as Yang said, “[they’re] good at two things. One thing that the world expects [them] to be good at.”
“And one thing that the world doesn’t expect [them] to be good at.” In doing so, Yang writes into existence the potentialities of STEM for kids, including underrepresented kids. He also helps rewrite them for the world.
I ask Gene if he sees parallels between coding and storytelling.
“I think they are very interconnected. You know, I kind of think that this whole divide between like the Sciences and Arts is a little bit artificial. I don’t think it’s existed historically.” Yang rattles off examples like Leonardo Da Vinci, or Jay Hosler, biology professor and creator of First Second’s “Last of the Sandwalkers,” a graphic novel narrative with real scientific substance.Continued below
“But I definitely think that being trained as a coder affects me as a writer. There’s this idea of taking something complex and breaking it down. This idea of trying to structure things so that one piece logically flows into the next. All that is both something a storyteller has to do and something a programmer has to do.”
I ask how Yang manages to keep all the details together, structuring that logical flow. Especially these days, when his writing duties include “Secret Coders” (whose next installment, “Paths and Portals,” is scheduled for Spring 2016, while Yang is at work this very moment on the third book); the Dark Horse licensed “Avatar the Last Airbender” series which just launched its fourth arc, “Smoke and Shadow”(Yang is contracted for five arcs); and DC’s current “Superman” monthly, which involves working with a Rolodex (look it up, kids) of DC collaborators from artists John Romita Jr. to the creative teams behind the four other Superman books, including Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder, Peter Tomasi, and group editor Eddie Berganza. A succession of increasingly complicated storytelling/juggling challenges. How does Yang take that many complex tasks and break them all down?
“Post-Its,” Yang answers. “On my closet door. When I open my closet, they all go flying. It’s annoying.”
But in all seriousness, I can imagine the cognitive load. Yang has an immigrant story to tell about Superman, a story about identity, about the corporate social media age, about fidelity and friendship. But he must finagle it to tell his story to fit with Pak and Kuder’s “Action” series, and everything happening in “Superman/Wonder Woman” and “Superman/Batman,” an ongoing collaboration and its own “fun” and “challenging” endeavor.
Meanwhile, he landed the “Avatar” writing job both because of his gifts as a storyteller and his passion for the culturally syncretic richness of the source material. But the series, lodged between the end of the “Avatar the Last Airbender” series and the more recent “Legend of Korra” set seventy years in “Airbender”’s future, has to keep tabs on characters, conflicts, and consequences on both ends of that universe.
Compared to those Gordian knots, compiling an engaging story for all ages that simultaneously teaches computer science should be a walk in the park, right?
Certainly, Yang has nary a complaint about his circumstances, collaborators, or chances to do comics. For all the acclaim his books have earned him, he remains wary of the narcissism and self-centeredness that the solitude and interiority of a writer’s life risks. As I sit across the table from him, though we share many commonalities and a healthy dose of laughter, I perceive an elegant thinker who manages complex messes into clear and simple messages. By contrast, I’m one of those overthinkers, making synthetic mountains out of mundane molehills.
Because for all these social stakes I’ve raised and the many complex themes I’ll discuss in Part 3 of these long columns about Gene Yang’s work, I realize that the secret code of Gene Yang’s artistry is actually really quite simple.
“I tell these stories about me. I tell them so you’ll remember about you.”