American Born Chinese original graphic novel
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Gene Luen Yang
Colors: Lark Pien
Publisher: First Second
Price: $16.95 US/$22.95 CAN
American Born Chinese was released a few months ago, to much acclaim. It’s garnered praise and awards in a way that’s rare (though fortunately not unheard of) for an original graphic novel. I’m running a bit behind schedule when it comes to giving this landmark book a read, and apparently, I’ve been depriving myself of a fascinating, fanciful and frank story for months. Creator Gene Luen Yang’s story is made up of three different plotlines that converge surprisingly well and seamlessly. Yang’s storytelling focuses on matters of racism and culture shock, but it also deals heavily in matters of self-esteem. That makes for characters and circumstances to which the reader can easily relate. Yang’s artwork is charming with its clean simplicity, but the slightly muted colors bring a grounded quality to the visuals as well. This slice-of-life/fantasy story actually reminds me a great deal of another great graphic novel released last year: Mom’s Cancer. The subject matter and storytelling approaches are radically different, but the personal and down-to-earth tones of the two books, as well as the lighter look for character design, make them seem like companion volumes in an odd way.
The son of Chinese immigrants, Jin Wang was born in California, but when his family moves to a new town, he discovers he’s seen as a stranger in a strange land, an almost alien presence in the regular world of grade school. And it’s not just the kids who treat him differently, but the teachers as well. He finds friendship in the form of a Taiwanese immigrant kid, but Jin’s own insecurities impact that connection. Meanwhile, we meet Danny, a Caucasian middle-school student who is “cursed” with a cousin who’s an over-the-top stereotype. And hundreds and hundreds of years ago, a powerful monkey god who had mastered all of the kung-fu disciplines, arrogantly defies the creator-god who encourages him to be true to his monkey heritage.
As I noted earlier, the simple, cartoony tone of the artwork in this book reminds me a bit of Brian Fies’s line art on Mom’s Cancer, but Yang’s efforts also evoke memories of Scott McCloud’s Zot and Tim Levins’s The Copybook Tales. There are also shades of Herge’s Tintin here, and there’s a clear Osamu Tezuka influence in the monkey god sequences. The character designs are simple but incredibly striking. Yang’s vision for the Chin-Kee character stands out from the crowd. It assails the eye, as it’s intended. Chin-Kee is supposed to be ugly, because he is an extreme symbol of racism and a subtler symbol of self-hatred. Though the designs for the down-to-earth characters are simple in tone, they’re surprisingly convincing. Yang conveys a believable sense of movement and anatomy with these cartoony figures. The colors are often bright, but they’re never garishly so. A muted tone also pops up often, and all of these coloring methods are in keeping with the reflective tone of the storytelling and the message Yang wishes to convey.
Yang’s three-pronged approach to the book took me by surprise, and the shifting plotlines kept things fresh and interesting. I enjoyed the parallels in the storylines and the synergy. What I didn’t expect was the convergence of these radically different stories in the latter part of the book. It makes for a great balance of the personal, grounded story and the epic side.
The creator’s core message is a powerful one, but he also balances that subject matter with a strong subplot about a “tweenage” boy struggling with his emerging sexuality, mixed with his hopes and desires for the future. The subplot is intertwined with the main character’s struggle with racism (both externally and internally), but it nevertheless stands out as compelling just on its own. It’s yet another shining example of Yang’s ability to capture a genuine and universal tone with which the reader can connect.
What makes this such a compelling read is that while prejudice and racist cliches are the catalysts, the real story is about self-image and self esteem. I’m a white kid from Atlantic Canada rather than an “American Born Chinese,” but I can easily identify with Jin’s sense of isolation and Danny’s embarrassment. We’ve all felt those ways, rightly or wrongly; what’s different for everyone are the causes of those feelings. Even the monkey god’s journey of empowerment and later rediscovery of his cultural identity are elements that one can easily find in one’s own life. The meticulous quality of this graphic novel’s construction is eclipsed only by the honesty and universal nature of the subject matter. 10/10