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.


Demon Sidekick: Frankenstein

April 2, 2007 at 4:06 am | Posted in genre fiction, horror, monsters, sidekick | Leave a comment

frankenstein-movie.jpgCameron, Ann (2002). Sidekicks in American Literature. Series in American Literature . Volume 55:  New York:  The Edwin Mellen Press.  

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft (1818). Frankenstein: Or the Modern Prometheus. New York: Random House.             

The Oxford dictionary declares that “sidekick” was derived from “side-kicker”, 17th Century gambling slang for a “strong card held in reserve”. Thus, it is the sidekick’s role to serve as support or backup for a fictional hero. The sidekick assumes subservient status because of his inferior intelligence, class or power (e.g. Sancho Panza and Don Quixote). Despite this subordinate position, the sidekick represents a powerful force for good. He personifies integrity and the voice of reason, tempering the hero’s idealistic exuberance. The sidekick serves as a mediator between realms of good and evil, shielding the hero from danger.             

Although the sidekick is typically a positive character, there is also the literary tradition of the “demon sidekick”. As Cameron (2002) explains in Sidekicks in American Literature, the demon sidekick has a threefold role: “probe for the truth, punish the guilty, and call into question the established order”. The demon sidekick can run the emotional gamut from prankster or mischievous sprite (like Shakespeare’s Puck) to evil incarnate (like a fallen archangel). According to Cameron, the demon sidekick is an outcast, morally corrupt and physically repulsive. Like all sidekicks, these characters provides insight into hidden aspects of the hero’s scarlet-letter.jpgpersonality. What the demon sidekick reveals are the hero’s dark side, weaknesses and perhaps a flawed alter ego. This revelation will provoke a power struggle between hero and demon, as illustrated by the confrontation in The Scarlet Letter between Reverend Dimmesdale and evil Roger Chillingworth.              

Within the horror genre, the monster in Frankenstein is the classic demon sidekick. The monster transforms from yearning innocent to vengeful villain after years of abuse from humans. What twists the monster’s instincts from good to evil is Dr. Frankenstein’s failure to accept the horrid creature as his own. The monster’s external physical deformity spreads to a deformity of spirit when faced with the truth: the scientist will not accept responsibility for his selfish violation of nature’s laws. At first, the monster is just a stalker, lurking close to where Frankenstein is living. Next, the monster taunts and threatens his creator.When the sidekick is still ignored, the monster seeks revenge, punishing Frankenstein by murdering his loved ones. Murdered first is the scientist’s young brother, then his guileless bride Elizabeth and finally Henry, his dear friend and exemplar of the “good sidekick”.  

mini-me.jpgThe creature challenges the established order by trying to coerce Frankenstein into creating a female monster as a mate. When the scientist rejects its proposal, the monster goes on a rampage of death and destruction that can have only one end. The novel’s climax reflects the standard fate described by Cameron (2002): the hero/master dies, and with him, dies the demon sidekick. What does vary is whether either character expresses remorse for his actions. In Frankenstein, the monster reacts to his creator’s death with surprise, anger, satisfaction, remorse and finally self-loathing. 

Frankenstein:Horror Archetype

March 14, 2007 at 2:17 am | Posted in horror, monsters | Leave a comment

frankenstein-lightning.gifSaricks, Joyce G. (2001). The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction.Chicago: ALA. 

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft (1818). Frankenstein: Or the Modern Prometheus. NY: Random House (Knopf, 1992).    

 Horror fiction differs from other genres in that it does not have a defining plot or exhibit unique themes and conventions. Instead, horror’s purpose is to create a visceral, emotional response of fear in the reader. Subgenres vary in the pace and intensity of the horror story’s emotional rollercoaster ride.   victor.jpgvictor1.jpg

At one end of the goosebump continuum lie spooky but restrained horror classics such as Turn of the Screw or Frankenstein; at the other extreme lie  gory borderline pornographic novels such as “splatterpunk” :

Abstract fear    Terror and revulsion —- Graphic Excess 

 (Frankenstein)          (Carrie)                 (Texas Chainsaw Massacre)

Saricks (2001) proposes some intuitive guidelines for identifying horror fiction (p. 107)

  • Produces emotions of fear and foreboding in the reader
  • Dark menacing mood conveyed by setting, violence, sex, strong language
  • Usually includes supernatural elements, such as monsters
  • Endings are ambiguous or unresolved, suggesting the “horror lives on”
  • Fast-paced, action oriented plot with unexpected twists
  • Protagonists may be psychologically scarred, and the antagonists are evil 

Frankenstein spans horror and speculative fiction genres, since it explores the consequences of attaining forbidden knowledge: of challenging accepted science/technology to make the “unknown known” (Diabello lecture). Within horror plot structures, Frankenstein illustrates the over-reacher plot” : 

  1.  Preparation–Victor Frankenstein devotes years of secret solitary research to discover how to breathe life into cobbled together parts from human corpses;
  2. Experiment–After Victor creates a sentient superhuman monster, his scientific pride dissolves into shock and horror at the grotesque being he wrought;
  3. Boomerang– Frankenstein rejects the creature by running away, refusing responsibility for nurturing his monster. In response, the monster’s naturally open, inquisitive nature is twisted by human cruelty until the monster is driven by anger and a desire for vengeance upon his heartless creator;
  4. Confrontation–When the monster first confronts Frankenstein, he attacks only with words, leaving his master physically unscathed. After the monster’s pleas are scorned, it tries negotiation and threats to spur the scientist to sympathetic action. As the novel proceeds, the confrontations between creator and creation spiral to extremes of rage and vengeance. The “mortal conflict” culminates as Frankenstein chase the demonic monster across the Arctic until the human is on the brink of death;
  5. Resolution/Ambiguity– Frankenstein dies a broken soul since he is unable to kill the monster. After revelling in the scientist’s death, the monster is overcome with remorse and disgust, but denies that it is evil. The monster maintains that its creator is responsible for all the death and destruction resulting from his meglomaniacial drive to create life. In a single final paragraph, the monster jumps out of the boat, with an implication of suicide. However, in classic horror fashion, there is some ambiguity whether the monster is truly gone forever. 

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