Topic #6: Read an all-ages comic
Book: “American Born Chinese” by Gene Luen Yang
Publisher: First Second (2006)
“It’s easy to become anything you wish…so long as you’re willing to forfeit your soul.”
Jin Wang was born in the United States, grew up there like most of his classmates, and has never even been to China, and yet, wherever he goes, his Chinese heritage is inescapable. If it were simply a matter of withstanding the bullying of his classmates, it might not be so bad, but as the years pass, the worst contempt for his heritage starts to come from within. Interwoven with this coming-of-age tale are two complementary stories: a retelling of the Monkey King’s origins from the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West, and the story of Danny, an average (white) American high schooler who receives a humiliating visit from Chin-kee, his pig-tailed, bucktoothed, slit-eyed, Chinese-stereotype cousin. As these stories alternate, the juxtaposition of the three tells one unified story about a search for identity, once abandoned, and now renewed.
Jin’s childhood, from elementary to middle school, is miserable in a believably restrained way. As with just about any child, his life is not simply a parade of woes, and so he manages to make a few friends, including a Taiwanese boy, Wei-chen Sun. The more obvious instances of bullying eventually peter out, and yet by that point, Jin has has grown so accustomed to a social gap between himself and his peers that he no longer tries to bridge it. It is only when he develops a crush on a white classmate, Amelia, that his dreams of achieving normalcy to impress her threaten to upend everything in his life, even his very identity.
Jin Wang’s story might be the most central of the three, but this comic is best read as a kind of triptych, where no one part can convey its real meaning without the presence of the other two. All three protagonists—The Monkey King, Jin, and Danny—are burdened by similar anxieties about their origins: the Monkey King by his species, Jin by his ethnicity, and Danny by the incongruous Chinese-stereotype that he somehow shares grandparents with. All three parts feature similar conflicts as well, with the main difference between the three being the level of plausibility: one is fairly mundane, another is a fantastical story with Gods, demons and superhuman kung fu abilities, and the last one is almost as commonplace as the first, but with an impossibly racist caricature whose presence continually challenges any sense of realism the story might otherwise have. Nevertheless, the way that these stories are told is altogether quite similar. The dialog is mostly casual and unobtrusively stylized, whether the speaker is an ordinary high schooler or a monkey trying to achieve godhood, and the general tone is rather relaxed and light-hearted. This is one simple story, told three times with a unified style, culminating in a single climax that is greater than any one of version could have achieved on its own.
Chin-kee, although barely a character in his own right, is Gene Luen Yang’s most ingenious invention. Every single moment of him—whether he’s dancing on the tables or salivating over “Amellican” girls—is agony, a rebuke to every American artist and writer over the course of a century who allowed this horrible caricature to represent millions of people within our borders and hundreds of millions abroad. As white as he may be drawn, Danny’s humiliation at the hands of his cousin is a specifically Chinese-American burden: to be at the mercy of racist nonsense that threatens to supplant whatever image one wants to present to the world. While all three stories are necessary, thanks to Chin-kee, the story of Danny is easily the most original and most memorable.
The art is serviceable enough to communicate the story, but it’s easily the most underachieving element in an otherwise outstanding comic. With few exceptions, the faces of the characters are drawn with identically flat lighting regardless of the environment and time of day, which denies the reader a sense of setting, which in turn sabotages the emotional vividness of events and even the characters themselves. Combined with the fact that many of the backgrounds are blocks of solid color, one occasionally gets the unsettling impression of talking heads floating in a light tan void. It doesn’t help matters that for some reason, most of the top and bottom of each page are simply empty space, the actual content only rendered within an identical square on each one. Forced to draw his characters within such a small space, Yang frequently has to depict them with simplified facial features that do a poor job of conveying emotion. There are some artistic successes in this comic, including a handful of striking panel layouts but the overall effect of the art is perfunctory at best.
There are also times when Yang seems a little lost as to how to communicate his characters. I don’t object to unnaturalistic dialog in theory, but when a scene goes as far as to be simply exposition about topics the characters have no reason to discuss, it feels like the author is just wasting time he could be writing the characters in a more genuine way. His habit of representing what characters are thinking about by putting images of objects or faces in thought bubbles is unnecessary, their feelings being obvious from context, and instead of helping, simply puts an uncomfortable distance between the reader and the characters.
In spite of my misgivings about the presentation, American Born Chinese is legitimately touching in a way few comics ever manage, and its unique structure is carefully harnessed to increase its emotional power. Amidst the interweaving of everyday life and a mythical past, we have the story of a boy treated like a foreigner in his own country for so long that it is only after years of searching that he discovers who he is and where he really belongs. Such a powerful story shouldn’t be overlooked.
Final Grade: B+