American Born Chinese

April 21, 2007 at 4:53 am | Posted in awards, comic books, fantasy, genre fiction, monsters | 5 Comments

american-born-chinese.jpgYang, Gene Luen. Color by Lark Pien (2006). American Born Chinese. New York: First Second Press. 

 I discovered American Born Chinese in a display of manga, comic books and graphic novels near the YA section at my local public library. Based on the book’s cover, I picked it up with mixed feelings. The title ABC is derogatory slang familiar to 2nd generation+ Chinese-American families such as mine. (Fresh Off the Boat–FOB— is retaliatory slang for recent Taiwanese and mainland immigrants). I couldn’t dismiss the novel as inflammatory junk though, because the graphics were artfully rendered and the cover featured 2 book award medallions. Once I opened the cover and saw the words “Monkey King”, I had to read it. The Monkey King is one of the most famous characters in Chinese folklore, but I haven’t been able to get my kids to slog through a full translated text.   abc_monkey1.jpg

American Born Chinese has three storylines. The first is a comical retelling of the Monkey King legend, with kung fu and Chinese fable elements for authenticity.  The second story features Jin Wang, a Chinese-American teenager in a white neighborhood. Jan perms his hair and rejects his Asian school friends to win a date with a redheaded honor student. The final storyline is an over-the-top paper sitcom featuring Chin-Kee, the ultimate Oriental student stereotype. Chin-Kee has a pigtail, wears a kimono, eats strange animal parts for lunch, is the class know-it-all and oblivious to his social gaffes. Yang deftly interweaves the three separate stories to a surprising, but satisfying end involving the mischievous Monkey King.

 082806_americanbornchinese03.jpgI was blown away by this book! I can understand why American Born Chinese was the first graphic novel nominated for a National Book Award and was Amazon’s “#1 graphic novel pick of 2006”. Writer-illustrator Yang also won the ALA Printz award. His novel is both hysterically funny and brutally honest in its exploration of image, identity and self-acceptance. Although the characters represent different Asian stereotypes, the story will resonate with readers from age 10-adult who are struggling to define themselves and to belong. There are story elements of teenage romance, Chinese folklore fantasy, supernatural monsters, spirituality, and hidden clues for a mystery relevaled in the climax. The only genre missing is the western, though there are elements of adventure, a long journey and the hero’s lone battle to conquer a harsh environment.    

 There are books by Laurence Yep, Amy Tan, Allen Say and other Asian-American novelists who’ve written serious novels about their experiences. What makes Yang’s book different is its iconoclastic, hip approach to the issue of cultural identity. In a December 2006 interview with The Trades, Yang speculates on why he’s seen as blazing a new path in fiction. Growing up in San Francisco, Yang was told to “Keep your head down, study hard, and make a good life for yourself. Don’t make any waves.”  The idea of writing caustic social commentary is new and frankly scary for many Chinese who lived through the upheaval of the Communist regime.

Yang’s content takes risks in confronting prejudices and misconceptions about American Born Chinese. In contrast, his illustration style is skillful but abcmeeting325.jpgconventional, even conservative. Each page contains 4-5 panels which read left to right. The book is read as an English-language text, from front to back (the opposite of the manga page pattern). The text is conveyed through standard thought bubbles. Characters are 2-D rendered in flat colors, with the visual style of an Archie Comics. His Asian characters, aside from Chin-Kee, are visual amalgams of Western and Eastern features, reinforcing his message of assimilation. This message is hammered home on page 194, as Yang shows a freeze-frame transformation from black haired Oriental Jan to blond, blue eyed Danny as the teenager’s wish to be like his classmates comes true–briefly.  

American Born Chinese was originally presented in serial form as a web comic self-published by Yang. This is his fourth published graphic novel, and his first published with a promising new graphic novel press which debuted in 2006, First Second.  For more information about Yang’s works, visit his website, Humble Comics or check out Comic Book Resources.

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