There is something great about doing a comic book blog. More so than movies and television, in which timeliness is a necessity, I have the ability to talk about older stuff. I can bring up what is coming up, what is coming out, but I can also head back in time and talk about some of my favorite books from times past. Case in point, a book I just put down and wanted to write about immediately. That book is “American Born Chinese” written and drawn by Gene Luen Yang.
This blog may look totally biased for comics, since the post are only about books that I love, but I’ve found that there is no reason in life to write about anything you aren’t passionate about (in either an extremely positive way or negative way). So I only write about books that I respond to in a big way and this is one of those books
My goodness, this is a great book. “ABC” is a story, first and foremost, about identity. Hiding from it, denying yourself of your true one, and ultimately accepting it. Discovering ourselves is something that we all will have to go through, so even though Yang is telling the story through the lens of a Chinese upbringing and Chinese culture and folklore, the topics that he is dealing with are basically universal.
This is a book of three stories. The first one is about The Monkey King. This is one of the oldest Chinese legends, but westerners, in the past decade or so, have been exposed to it with the little seen “Forbidden Kingdom” starring Jet Li and Jackie Chan, as well as the anime series “Dragonball,” which initially started out as an interpretation of the Monkey King and his Journey to the West. The Monkey King begins the story not content with his role as merely the “king of the monkeys” and wishes to be a god, feeling that he has earned the right to be one. The gods don’t feel the same way and the Monkey King’s entire motivation for life is to prove that he is correct in his desire for godhood.
The second one is about the “American-born Chinese” in question, Jin Wang, a second generation Chinese who moves from Chinatown to the suburbs of white America, which proves to be a challenge for Jin, that is until he meets Wei Chen, who becomes his best friend because of their shared interest in a Transformers knock-off. Because of his difficulty with the move, the idea of the Transformer is quite appealing to Jin.
The third story is about a white kid named Danny, who has his own exposure to Chinese culture with a visit his stereotypical cousin, Chin-Kee. And by stereotypical, I mean that Yang took any and all racist jokes about the Chinese and personified them as one tangible person. Danny’s experience with Chin-Kee has proven to be so awful that every time he has visited, Danny has had to change schools because of the damage done by Chin-Kee.
Yang is a strong writer. I was so engaged with the story that I got through it in one quick sitting, which speaks to his ability because I have a hard time going through a story in one day, let alone one sitting. At 233 pages, it is not the shortest graphic novel out there, but Yang’s use of language, which mixes proper language of ancient times with the contemporary words of today, is very engaging. Each bit of dialogue feels like it has a purpose. Nothing is unnecessary, even during a scene where the Monkey King relieves himself on five golden pillars at the edge of existence.
Yang’s art is also very striking. It isn’t the most detailed work out there, but for the story, it fits perfectly and adds to the written story like all good art should, especially in creator-owned work which can occasionally feel out of place or self-serving as opposed to working with the story. His character work feels authentic, even though it is very cartoonish. It is reminiscent of Charles Schulz in that through a few strategic lines in an otherwise simple drawing, Yang conveys plenty of emotion in his characters. That is a sign of skill and confidence in art.
This is a great book. That’s all I can say about it. I feel that any further exposition on it will just diminish its magic. “American Born Chinese” is a moving and excellent story that will be around for a long time.
All artwork copyright Gene Luen Yang and First Second Books