Relatively Serious Comics Reviews: American Born Chinese
Assuming this isn't your first day reading the ISB--and even if it is, considering that there's a picture of a super-hero punching a bear right above this--you've probably latched onto the fact that my main goal here is comedy--or, at the very least, comedic spotlights on comics that are totally awesome.
Still, even with all the writing I do about topics like, say Bizarro Computo and Hate-Face, there's the occasional person--like the fine, friendly people over at First Second Books--who gets the idea that people actually listen to my opinions about these things and sends me a copy, leaving me to write a Relatively Serious Review.
Fortunately, with a book like Gene Yang's American Born Chinese, spotlighting the awesome and giving a serious review are exactly the same thing.
If you share my tastes at all, you will love American Born Chinese.
It's a bold statement, I know, but trust me on this one: Gene Yang has created something incredible here. At its heart, it's a story of outsiders who desperately want to fit in, and in that respect, it excels more than any other comic I've read in years.
The story itself is divided into three plotlines, each one complementing the others perfectly in a structure that shows exactly why Yang won the Xeric Grant for his previous work.
The one that I'd originally considered the "main" plot revolves around Jin Wang--whose name is suspiciously close to his creator's--whose story starts with his arrival in a new neighborhood as a kid. That alone is rough on a lot of kids, but for Jin, who's greeted with a classmate telling everyone else in the school that he heard Chinese people eat dogs, life in his new neighborhood kicks off with being ostracized by everyone but a few mostly Asian-American friends. From there, the story follows him into middle school and his first romance, which results, as you might expect, in a poorly-chosen perm and, eventually, Jin experiencing life on both sides of a friend's betrayal.
Jin's story isn't the one that the book opens with, but it is the one that I was reading when Yang completely hooked me, with this scene:
It's not just a great punchline, but it might be the most important panel in the book; On some level, everyone in the story wants to be a Transformer.
The actual plotline that Yang leads with is a re-telling of the Chinese legend of the Monkey King--essentially detailing his "secret origin" from the first few chapters of Journey to the West and it is phenomenal. I'll be honest: I love the Monkey King, even though I'm only familiar enough with the legend to get excited whenever he shows up, and Yang's portrayal of his rage at being spurned by the gods--going so far as to master twelve mystical disciplines of Kung Fu and reject his own name in favor of being called "The Great Sage, Equal of Heaven"--is an incredibly entertaining story in its own right, and only becomes moreso in the context of the other sections.
Even on its own, though, it blows Katsuya Terada's The Monkey King (the only other book I've actually read about the character) completely out of the water as far as pure enjoyment.
I mean really, with panels like this...
..I hardly even need to make the case for it at all.
Finally, there's the last plot, which also stands out--to me at least--as the strangest: An over-the-top series of sitcom-style chapters--complete with laugh track--that revolve around average, All-American basketball playing high school student Danny, and what happens when he gets his yearly visit from his cousin, Chin-Kee, described by the book jacket as "the ultimate negative Chinese stereotype."
And brother, they're not kidding.
There are a lot of the segments with Chin-Kee that are, by design, hard to get through, if for no other reason than Yang goes out of his way to nail every single ethnic slur with the character. Within two pages of being introduced, Chin-Kee's already referenced both Confucius and foot-binding, and the next day when he accompanies Danny to school, he eats cat fried rice for lunch.
Subtle? Not in the least. But having white, blonde Danny try to make it through high school with a living embodiment of racism hovering over him all the time is a metaphor that thrives on its brutal, almost painful overtness.
But here's the thing: Those aren't three separate stories. And while the book jacket refers to the way they come together "with an unexpected twist," the actual effect of Yang bringing them together--not just thematically in the way that each story deals with someone rejecting a part of their identity--was, for me, something a lot closer to mind-blowing.
The only problem that I have with the book--and it's a minor one at that--is the incredible amount of empty space on each page. Yang's art only uses about half of the available space, leaving vast sections of unfilled page to the top and bottom, and while it's a design element that looks great and makes for a stark contrast in the brief section where the Monkey King travels to the edge of reality (a scene that I absolutely love, by the way), I can't help but thinking that so much more could've been done to fill that space.
Right now, there's a preview (and a fun little Flash Game) up on the First Second Website for you to try out, but starting in early September, you'll be able to pick it up at your local comic shop at a cover price of $18.95 (or $25 for the clothbound hardcover, if that's your thing), and on Amazon.com, you can order it in both Regular and deluxe flavors (currently on sale for less).
Regardless, I can tell you with my absolute highest reccomendation that Gene Yang's American Born Chinese worth every penny. Give it a shot.