Monday, June 21, 2010

Growing Up Chinese in America

I first encountered Gene Yang's "American Born Chinese" as a webcomic several years ago on Modern Tales -- although even then it was clear that he was posting pages of a specific project that would be a book, not just doing a comic for the web that might or might not be collected.

Since then, it has not only been published in book form but has received much acclaim, including being a finalist for the National Book Award in the category of young people's literature. It was the first graphic novel to be honored by the National Book Foundation that sponsors the Natonal Book Award, and the following year became the first graphic novel to win the Michael L. Printz Award for Young Adult literature given out by the American Library

It's easy to see why the literary establishment that has come only late and grudgingly to an appreciation of works in comics form embraced this particular effort. It has a sensitive treatment of an ethnic issue, an intricate narrative structure, and an uplifting moral theme, combined with a deceptively simple surface and an excellent sense of design that draws the reader in effortlessly.

The book opens with three chapters of what seem to be three very different and completely unrelated stories. First, we meet the Monkey King, who tries to attend a dinner party in Heaven, but is denied entrance because he's a monkee and doesn't wear shoes. Next, we meet Jin Wang, an ethnic Chinese boy born in the U.S. who moves to a new town, where the teacher mispronounces his name and the kids make fun of him. The third story is presented in the format of a TV sitcom, complete with laugh track. It follows a character named Danny, who is drawn without any Asian features, whose life is disrupted by the annual visit of his cousin, Chin-kee. Chin-kee is presented as a blatant racial stereotype, with buck teeth, pigtails and pale yellow skin. His behavior, indeed his very existence, is a terrible embarrasment to Danny.

It would be spoiling a good deal of a first-time reader's enjoyment of the book to explain how these three stories become one story, but they do come together in an ingenious and satisfying way

The Monkey King segments are based on an authentic Chinese folk tale. Chin-kee is obviously modeled on generations of racist cartoons Yang would have been exposed to as a fan of the medium. And it's hard not to assume that the similarity of "Gene Yang" and "Jin Wang" is not accidental. A very personal work then, apparently, and as strongly told as it was no doubt felt.

Five of five stars - promises to be a classic

By Gene Luen Yang
Color by Lark Pien
First Second, 238 pages, $16.95 TPB

Originally published 2006

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Friday, June 04, 2010

Gaiman and Zulli Craft Unconventional Fantasy

The story begins at the end - or after the end, actually. Three friends, one of whom is our narrator, are eating sushi. A woman they call Miss Finch - though that is *not* her name - has disappeared. They all agree that the circumstances of her disappearance make it unlikely that anyone would believe them if they reported it, so they decide they have not choice but to let it go.

Anyone familiar with Neil Gaiman's work will expect that the story of Miss Finch's "departure" (as the title puts it) will be strange and wondrous. And of course it is. But up until the climactic moment things all the strange and wondrous atmosphere is consistently undercut and we are assured that this is just ordinary, mundane reality we're dealing with. Until it isn't.

The story is adapted from a short story that was originally written for a convention program book and appeared in a previous collection of short stories (though which one depends on which side of the Atlantic you're on - "Smoke and Mirrors" in the UK, "Fragile Things" in the US). Like several of Gaiman's shorter works, it features a narrator who seems to be Gaiman himself. He's an expat Brit living in the US, visiting London incognito to hole up in a hotel and write a film script. Despite his supposed anonymity, a couple of old friends manage to track him down and invite him out for dinner and a show to alleviate their own discomfort with a person they've been saddled with. Enhancing the identification with the author, the characters later make jokes alluding to specific works by Gaiman.

The person the friends are saddled with is Miss Finch. Or rather, she is not Miss Finch. That is not her name, but that is what the friends call her. Jonathan keeps referring to her as Jane's friend, but Jane insists that she is not her friend. Who exactly Miss Finch is and why they are "lumbered" with her (as Jane puts it) is never explained.

The play they were going to see has been canceled, so Jane decides they should go to a new unusual circus. Miss Finch disapproves of circuses, but agrees to go when she is told this one doesn't feature animals. The circus members try to evoke an air of magic and wonder, but the narrator consistently undercuts it by observing the ordinary nature of things around him and their poor attempts to make it seem outre.

I won't give away what happens. It's a light little story, but it has a definite chill of the strange about it. And of course anytime you're given the opportunity of reading a comic drawn by Michael Zulli, you should take it. One of his previous collaborations with Gaiman, "Men of Good Fortune," an early issue in the Sandman run, is my favorite single issue from that entire series (yes, even more than "A Midsummer Night's Dream"). His art is itself a wondrous thing, as usual.

Four stars out of five.

The Facts in the Case of the Departure of
Story by Neil Gaiman
Art by Michael Zulli
Lettering and Script Adaptation by Todd Klein
Dark Horse, 56 pp., $13.95 hardcover
originally published January 2008