Another one coming.

American Born Chinese


EDIT (8/28/06 6:01 PM): I've been informed that the price on the copy of the book I was given is incorrect - the below review has been updated with the true (lower!) price.


This will be out in a few weeks. It’s an original softcover graphic novel from writer/artist Gene Luen Yang, published by First Second, 240 color pages for $16.95.

The book is entirely about race in the United States. The topic permeates every single page of the book, it dictates the setting and development of every plot and subplot, it is to some literal or allegorical degree on the mind of every major character, and it is the soil from which the entirety of the book’s iconography grows. Moreover, Yang’s examination of the topic refuses to yield upon setting out the difficult situations faced by young men and women of minority races; rather, Yang posits that the cloud of racism, while obviously real and awful, can be magnified even more through the self-loathing and angry internal nature of the oppressed and insulted themselves. Not an easy, comforting topic, even as Yang’s plentiful humor and fantasy combat and teenage drama hi-jinx and candied art style strive to make it all go down as easy as possible.

Thus, the tone of the story is sometimes confrontational, but ultimately contemplative, concluding that the questions of race must first be answered in the individual’s own mind. The book’s use of familiar visual images of race is both fitting, in that it forces the individual reader to make up their own mind about what they’re seeing, as well as detrimental, in that it sometimes raises hugely complex questions one can only wish the book had directly addressed rather than leaving to the infinite tossing of unguided subjectivity. Of course, Yang has been the first to admit that the book traffics in simplifications - on his occasional blog over at First Second, the author admits to tackling a “much more complex” topic than the contours of the book can quite hold. But it’s more satisfying a work than not, the sort of complicated, sprawling thing one hopes to see from flawed original graphic novels more than floundering excursions into storied genre.

Look at the title. American Born Chinese. Well gosh, if you’re born in America, aren’t you simply American? That’s never been the only question for me though, a white guy. There’s “What nationality are you?” “Well, I’m American.” And then, “No no, what are you?” “Oh, Scots-Irish and Italian.” The nature of the melting pot. And to my personal experience, the son of, say, Chinese immigrant parents is labeled ‘Chinese’ as much as ‘American.’ Oh, I trust there’s cosmopolitan centers all over the country where such matters of origin are half-considered, at the most, but I have never lived in those places. I’ve lived in suburbs and the like, and I assure you that there are middle-class places all over this nation in 2006 where things like interracial dating are still scalding, scandalous material, as much as some would care to wish the climate off to backwaters and mountains. No. American Born Chinese acknowledges this state, its mostly suburban, well-enough-off setting a more than viable stage for two of its three stories.

Oh yes - it’s also a structurally ambitious piece, with a trio of distinct tales to tell.

There’s the young life of Jin Wang (do compare to the author’s name), one of three ‘Asian’ kids in grade school. I use that label since despite Jin’s being of Chinese descent, classmate Suzy’s being of Japanese decent, and best pal Wei-Chen’s being an immigrant from Taiwan, they’re all kind of looked at as the same by both fellow kids and good-intentioned adults. Jin initially can’t stand Wei-Chen’s inability to grasp English, or his dorkish nature, but the two soon bond over that famed Japanese-born, American-streamlined toy sensation, Transformers. And not only is that a potent enough symbol for cultures crossing, but the transforming nature of the toys reflects Jin’s deep-seated desire to become someone else, someone less a target of taunts and epithets. There’s a great moment where the three characters are engaging in teasing and joking, only to have passerby hurl unkind comments at them, stopping the conversation in its tracks and forcing the page to complete itself in awkward silence. But as the story moves on, and Jin attempts a romance with a pretty white girl, it is strongly implied that his own unease in his skin might be creating some of his problems.

Another story takes the approach of a fable, that of the legendary Monkey King, who lives in a mythic world of magic and creatures that’s nevertheless distinctly Christian in its makeup (as Yang notes at the above link, this is to tie the book even tighter down to the Asian-American experience, mixing and matching Eastern and Western elements). Specifically, I’d say it’s Catholic in its approach, with themes of holy deeds necessary to demonstrate one’s devotion to God, and the payment of hard penance for one’s sins. The Monkey King, you see, is livid that all the minor gods of the world refuse to respect him, due mainly to his simply being a monkey. He trains hard, and masters all the most potent martial arts, all for vengeance - would he have achieved so much had he not been insulted? This is a natural question, and one the book suggests yet doesn’t quite answer; rather, we largely see the nasty consequences of a shame-driven life of anger, and the peace that can only arrive through satisfaction with one’s self and the worship of God.

And, to keep things from getting too pious, we have the adventures of lily-white high school student Danny and his fantastical visiting cousin Chin-Kee, a walking, kung-fu kicking, English-mangling summary of every single Chinese stereotype that author Yang can conjure. His skin is bright yellow, his eyes a permanent squint! He wears his hair in a queue! He sings Western pop songs in the most amusing ways! When someone sets down their Coke, we know what kind of joke he’ll play! He eats cats! He excels in every school subject! He occasionally bears the demon eyes and sharp fingers of an early comic book Fu Manchu-modeled villain! But what he never does is listen to the insults of those around him; the only one embarrassed, mortified, is Danny. Is it really all a satire of white anxiety over the stereotypes they once cheerfully propagated? Well, no. Eventually the story changes, and moves away from that potentially fascinating direction, which is too bad - as funny as I found a lot of this material to be, it’s bumped up well past the point of queasiness, for good reason.

None of the three stories end as the same type of thing they began as, actually. Very late in the book, there’s some jarring upsets of tone and expectation, shifts so fierce that they can’t help but distract the reader, though upon a second review you'll see they are set up earlier in the book, and they absolutely serve to bring Yang’s themes to their logical conclusion, realism or narrative smoothness be damned. Yet, one can’t help but think this message didn’t quite need the last layer of formal play that Yang applied in the last 40 pages, that perhaps the stories could have spoken with greater eloquence when left alone upon the stage. Yang’s use of iconography is smart, mixing and matching nervous young kids and noble monkeys, vehemently racist images with the sensitive delineations between the individual faces of his international, all-Asian young characters - we see them as differently as they see one another, the author guiding us through the nature of comics to a deeper appreciation.

But the allegorical drive of his storytelling begins to jumble in the heat of his ending. By the time one character pops up near the end driving a tricked-out car and clad in hip-hop gear - to symbolize his rejection of traditional values of patience and a turn toward self-absorption, no less - well, that’s quite a large can of worms to open in such a symbol-rich space, and the book simply never addresses the implications. Hey, maybe the character is actually acting for himself for the first time, eager to rip down boundaries of how he’s expected to act. With questions as potent as those raised by this book, it often seems unsatisfying to not be given many answers. The fine line between leaving it up to the reader to ponder, and merely refusing to follow through on issues raised. I don’t think American Born Chinese errs too much toward the latter, but I do feel the book grows unwieldy as it goes on, eventually escaping the author’s control, just as escapes are made in the book itself.

As I’ve said before, however, the flaws of a book such as this have a way of reinforcing the ambition behind the whole. How could such a big topic not threaten to escape the author's grasp? It would have been nice if it had been more manageable, but I think the book is still worth checking out. It has a lot of good in it, a lot of needed challenge, and strong desire. And as a catalog of icons and symbols, filtered through an individual's able vision, it's often very fine. An appeal for everyone.