Big Steps - Dragon Hoops by Gene Luen Yang

Dragon Hoops
by Gene Luen Yang 
with colors by Lark Pien and art assists by Rianne Meyers & Kolbe Yang
Published by First Second

I was incredibly excited to open my copy of Dragon Hoops. Almost three years ago to the day, I watched Gene Luen Yang give a keynote presentation at the SoMIRAC conference (Maryland’s reading teacher convention). Yang was at a great place in his career at this point – he had already completed his run on Superman and had launched New Super-Man as part of DC Rebirth, he had received a MacArthur Genius grant, and he had been named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. About eight years earlier than this conference (2009 to be exact), Yang first came into my life with American Born Chinese via a graduate school class on young adult literature. His book hit me at the perfect timing. I was less than half a year into my return to comics and graphic novels, and prior to picking up American Born Chinese, I was almost exclusively reading mainstream superhero books, Jeff Lemire’s Sweet Tooth being the only exception.

Yang’s keynote was excellent. Keynotes at education conferences can be hit or miss. I’ve seen great presenters give average keynotes. Often, they are vague and overly philosophical, filled with platitudes and short on actionable information. Yang’s, though, provided the kind of inspiration educators were looking for. In his hour-long talk, he described his love for teaching, his early comics fandom, his connection to Superman, and, most importantly, his belief that reading opens new worlds to the reader. Such a philosophy was the core tenet behind his Read Without Walls campaign, and most of the second half of his keynote was directed at earnestly promoting it. Educators, teachers, librarians, administrators, other writers – they all loved it.

The Reading Without Walls challenge asks people to intentionally read books outside of their comfort zone, to approach genres or forms they normally wouldn’t with characters or settings that aren’t in their normal repertoire. The basic idea is that reading new stories allows you to break down the walls around you. Dragon Hoops is essentially the realization of that concept in graphic novel form.

In 2017, when I first heard Yang mention his new project, he mentioned that reading helped get him to a place where he could begin to approach a book that was so far outside his comfort zone. Dragon Hoops is, on the surface, a story about a phenomenal year for the Bishop O’Dowd Dragons boys basketball team. Even though he had worked at the school for seventeen years, Yang never immersed himself in the school’s storied basketball program. Reading books about basketball was one of the reasons he allowed himself to take a step towards something new. Yang uses the recurring step metaphor throughout the story. It helps to build a feeling of universality for the book – everyone needs to take certain steps in their lives if they want to progress. For Yang, as the book begins, he’s struggling to determine the focus of his next graphic novel. Stepping into something new would be a challenge, but it’s perhaps the exact challenge he needs.

Dualism is a concept that permeates nearly all of Yang’s work. It provides both the definitive structure and thematic grounding of American Born Chinese; it serves to bisect the narrative of the two-part Boxers and Saints; and is the undercurrent that guides both Yang’s Superman run as well as New Super-Man. So much of Yang’s work is a meditation, an attempt to reconcile Western upbringing with Chinese roots.

Dragon Hoops marks a bit of different path for Yang, a different type of narrative, though one still primed for dualistic motifs. This book is the first to feature Yang as a character, and while it is certainly a story of a high school’s basketball team’s remarkable season, it also delves deep into Yang and his creative process. If all of Yang’s previous works had some sort of autobiographical slant to them or function as a cultural history, Dragon Hoops represents a formal dive into the world of memoir. Yang’s ability to be a character in his own story allows the reader to see the story through a more personal lens. By the end of the book, we have taken a journey not only with the O’Dowd Dragons, but with Yang himself.

There two main plot lines in Dragon Hoops. The first is the one you'd expect, the chronicling of an historic basketball season as the Bishop O'Dowd Dragons fight for their first championship in history, one that eluded the team not only in the previous season, but eight times total, including a particularly heartbreaking moment for the current coach who, as a player, might have had a championship-winning basket if not for a controversial call. But more so than being a book about the team, it's a book about writing a book about the team. The second core plot line tracks Yang as he struggles to find the right angle into the book, maintain the inspiration necessary to complete it, and consider a major life hurdle of pursuing a career as a full-time comics creator. Interspersed in the story are little snippets of Yang's conversations with DC Comics about starting on Superman, a run that would see him succeed Geoff Johns, reveal Clark Kent as Superman's secret identity, and ultimately preside over the death of the New 52 iteration of the character. Big steps indeed.

As a story-teller, Yang is most adept at layering narratives. I don’t know of a better graphic storyteller who can weave multiple threads together with such a degree of precision that still allows for enough unpredictability to drive page-turning. That Yang can maintain that same level of multi-layered narrative thrill for information and events that are four and five years old and entirely Google-able is testament to the way he can structure a book.

One of my favorite undercurrents in the graphic novel is the inclusion of brief segues into the history of basketball. Not only does Yang use stories from basketball’s past to parallel the O’Dowd Dragons, he does so to point out the importance basketball has to certain communities and individuals. As a basketball novice, you can see that Yang has done his research. He sets up basketball as the sport of innovation, of taking the proverbial step that defines his entire narrative. From James Naismith, the immigrant inventor of the game, to the nascent days of the sport’s popularity with inner-city Catholic schools filled not with prized recruits but with poor ethnic Catholics, Yang explains exactly how basketball became a phenomenon, why it resonated so well with black urban youth, and how it became an international game. Basketball, Yang explains with great clarity, has always been a sport that required big steps.

Yang focuses on the ups and downs of the Dragons’ season, but the core of the graphic novel is a series of character studies. We are gifted the transformation of Austin Walker, one of the few players Yang actually teaches, throughout the book. Yang is fortunate to be able to profile Alex Zhao and Jeevin Sandhu because both personify his “big step” theme. Neither are prototypical high school basketball starts. Alex is an exchange student from China, and Jeevin is of Pubjabi descent. Pairing their stories, and the stories of the team as a whole, with basketball’s history of segregation and disclusion funnels directly into Yang’s main objective. For a sport that has become so wonderfully multicultural, it managed to erect plenty of walls over the years. It’s fitting that the fruit of Yang’s Reading Without Walls campaign not only highlights those instances but also profiles the people who have, and who continue to break down those barriers.

Graphically, Dragon Hoops features some of Yang’s most detailed work. The book’s paper stock is the more textured feel of Boxers and Saints, not the glossy stock of American Born Chinese. Despite working with such a large cast over a long story, the book never feels cluttered. He peppers in a few splash pages, especially when recounting an important game. One of these is a particularly thunderous dunk from one of the team’s stars, Ivan Raab, that explodes off of the page with a big assist from Yang’s coloring partner, Lark Pien. Pien does great work in this book capturing the diversity of the team and the tone throughout the book. Yang’s most viable talent as a cartoonist is in facial expressions. He is adept at placing dialogue, but it’s the way his characters interact that help tell so much of the story. These clever, sometimes subtle attributes truly work to deepen the impact of Yang’s narrative.

Dragon Hoops is in many ways Yang's most complete book, his truest narrative since perhaps American Born Chinese. It is certainly the most personal, and it represents his continued development as a comic creator. He pointedly captures the magic of a special season and honestly portrays his own anxieties about the creative process. It is a complete story, sincere and heartwarming, that marks another high point in Yang's exceptional career.

Yang with yours truly at the SoMIRAC conference, 2017. In my hand is a copy of New Super-Man 1 he just signed. Belated apologies to the people I elbowed out of my way to find him at the end of his keynote.