Friday, June 19, 2015

Recommended Reading for 6/19: American Born Chinese

It's funny how some of these pieces come together. I had originally planned to do a recommendation for The Shadow Hero, Gene Luen Yang and Sunny Liew's origin story for The Green Turtle, the first Asian American superhero, this week. I've wanted to write that book up for some time, but wanted to time it to coincide with the release of Gene Luen Yang's first issue of Superman (next Wednesday's issue 41). But last week, when I was researching Fun Home, I found out that while that book won Best Reality Based Work Eisner Award, it didn't win Best Graphic Album: New. I was curious to see what did win, and was surprised to see it was a Gene Luen Yang, American Born Chinese, which I had bought after reading The Shadow Hero and was on my shelf of "to be read soon" books. Well, with that in mind, I moved it to the head of the queue, and after reading it, decided it would be this week's piece. I'll get to Shadow Hero, don't get me wrong, but this was fresh in my mind.

American Born Chinese starts with three seemingly unrelated stories: Jin, a Chinese-American third grader, Danny, a Caucasian-American high school student, and The Monkey King, a character from a great Chinese Novel, Journey to the West. While at the beginning it seems the stories are just connected by their theme of identity, of wanting to be something that you were not before, as the book progresses, they begin to interconnect in plot as well, and by the end the fantastic world of Chinese gods and Monkey Kings meets the world of modern America head on.

Jin is a kid with not a lot of friends. He's one of very few Asian students in his school, and the white kids don't know, or care to know, the difference between, say Japanese and Chinese. But when Wei-Chen, a Taiwanese immigrant, arrives and joins his class, he and Jin become best friends. But still, Jin struggles over the next years. By seventh grade, he has a crush on Amelia, a cute little red haired girl in his class. He changes his hair, and does everything he can to ingratiate himself, but after their first date, Greg, a male friend of Amelia's, gives Jin, the nicest buzz off speech ever, saying Amelia needs to think about who she's friends with, more or less telling Jin that she shouldn't be seen with someone like him. He doesn't use any racial slurs, although many of the other kids in the class do, but there's the feeling that the more subtle racism might even be worse. But as things falls apart between Jin and Wei-Chen, the story ends with a touch of foreshadowed magic, a transformation beyond what a different hairstyle can do.

Danny's story is considerably broader and more stylized than the fairly realistic Jin story. It begins with a title card similar to that of a sitcom, and actually has a laugh and applause track running along the bottom of the panels.  Danny's story deals with a visit from his Chinese cousin, Chin-Kee. Yes, read that and/or say it out loud (in a room by yourself, not around people), and you'll see the direction this is going. Chin-Kee is every Asian stereotype rolled into one. He swaps "L" and "R" in his speech. He wears close out of a bad Boxer Rebellion History Channel special. His features are exaggerated. And when he goes to school with Danny, he embarrasses him at every turn. When I started reading the story, I imagined this was all in Danny's head, that we were seeing Chin-Kee as far worse than he actually is, that it was a statement on our own internal views of racism and the embarrassment we feel about the culture of others and ourselves. But there's an additional twist at the end, explaining how the very white Danny has the over-the-top Chinese cousin that is different than what I imagined when I started, and one that made me smile in how well plotted out the whole book is.

The final of the three stories, although it is technically the first you see in the book, is that of The Monkey King, and by it's nature is the most fantastic, unless some of you know talking, kung-fu master monkeys (and if you do, why haven't you introduced me to them?). The Monkey King wants to be taken seriously by the other gods after he is thrown out of a dinner party because he is a monkey. He learns to change his shape, and makes himself more human, but this is not enough, and the other gods laugh at him, so he beats them up. They petition Tze-Yo-Tzuh, the creator of the universe, who attempts to reason with the Monkey King, only for the King to be disrespectful again. He is trapped under a pile of rock for centuries then, and only when a monk comes to him and shows him humility and acceptance, does he revert to his normal form to escape.

Fitting in and identity are the core of this book. That's what makes it a wonderful book for teens and kids. Most every kid has been through a time where they feel left out, where they would do anything to be like everyone else. And many have faced some form of prejudice, whether it's because of race, religion, sexual identity, or simply because they look or act different. I know some people who would be uncomfortable having their kids read a book with ethnic slurs in it, but I think we need to face these kind of things head on. Words only have the power we give them, and discussing what they mean takes away that power.

The big reveals at the end of the book take everything that Yang built throughout the book and puts them in a different context. When it's revealed that Jin and Danny are one and the same, Jin somehow magically transformed into the average white kid he's wanted to be, we see that he is no different than the Monkey King at his worst, trying to be something he isn't. And when Chin-Kee turns out to be the Monkey King, there to act as Jin's conscience and make Jin realize that pretending to be someone he isn't won't make him happy. There's also one final reveal, about why the Monkey King noticed Jin, that I'm not going to talk about; I don't want to give everything away.

Yang's art is wonderful throughout the book, balancing nicely both the spectacular and the mundane. The vistas of heaven and the look of the Monkey King's home of Flower Fruit Mountain are wonderful, in the literal sense, full of wonderment. And I can think of very few artists who are working who can draw a better monkey, and I read anything I can that has monkeys. But it's in the faces Jin and his friends and family where the book moves to another level. There's an expressiveness and a truth in those looks that moved me. I am drawn to artists who draw faces that tell the story even without the words, and Yang is one of those artists. Also, when Danny and Chin-Kee have their climactic fight, it's one of the better fight sequences I've seen in recent memory; it maintains the continuity of the action while still being a humorous, cartoony fight scene.

Being yourself is one of the things that should be easiest in life, but in so many ways is one of the hardest. American Born Chinese finds a way to look at the questions of identity and culture in a way that is not only fresh, but accessible. It's charming and lovingly rendered. And in the end, what more can you ask from a book than a strong message, well wrought characters, and a monkey?

American Born Chinese, as well as Gene Luen Yang's other graphic novels including Boxers, Saints, The Shadow Hero (with artist Sunny Liew), and Dark Horse Comics continuing series of follow-ups to the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender (with artist Gurihiru), are all available in comic shops and book stores. The first issue of his new project as writer of DC's regular Superman ongoing with art by John Romita Jr. comes out this Wednesday, June 24th.

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