American Born Chinese

By | Friday, December 08, 2006 Leave a Comment
I finally got a chance to pick up and read American Born Chinese by Gene Yang. I had actually heard about this right around the time it came out, and it looked quite interesting, but none of the local comic shops seemed to pick up a copy and it took me a while to get out to the Barnes and Noble to grab one there.

I originally stumbled across the book when I was looking for information about Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. I had seen a statue of the character on eBay, and his visual alone was so striking and so intriguing that I began trying to track down something about the character. This, as you may know, eventually led me to include him in my Propaganda of the Deed story -- which I'm still looking for an artist for, by the way!

In any event, American Born Chinese is Yang providing an at least somewhat fictionalized account of his childhood in America and trying to deal with a sort of dual identity -- trying to be a "typical" American child, while often being excluded because of his Asian-ness. There are three stories running throughout the book: the relatively straight-forward tale of his growing up, the adventures of the Monkey King, and a bad sit-com featuring an every-bad-Asian-stereotype character in a modern American high school. While the stories are quite disparate at first, Yang melds them together quite wonderfully towards the end as one fo the narrative pay-offs.

The art is very stylistic. Simplified, but deceptively so. There's actually quite a lot going on visually, and Yang uses a minimum of linework to express exactly what he needs. (I'm reminded of a hallmark of the old Ernie Bushmiller Nancy strips: the three rocks. If you want to show "some rocks" it should always be three. One rock is simply one rock or a rock. Two rocks is clearly a pair of rocks. But three rocks goes from a definite number to a collection. Any more than three is unnecessary because four or five or six... would still just be recognized as "some rocks." And in cartooning, the idea is to minimize the number of actual elements you use to get your point across. So... "three rocks." While Yang doesn't go to quite that extreme, he gets his points across in a similar manner.

Likewise, the storytelling is well done. He keeps a square format for each page, but plays a fair amount with the panels within that square. He plays with panel formats and page layouts to good effect -- especially in the Monkey King story -- and I don't think ever loses sight of the overall story in favor of just a neat image. The page designs serve the storytelling in a manner that I think more comic artists could stand to emulate.

Now, being a caucasian male raised in middle-class America, I can't say that I was able to identify too readily with the trapped-between-two-cultures notion that a lot the book is about. However, that is more of a superficial element, it seems, to the overall message of trying to fit in and belong, while being true to oneself. Yang IS an American with Chinese ancestory, and that shapes who he is, as we see in the story. I can't react to that per se, but I can react to the notions of isolation and lonliness that run under everything. That is where the connection is made with, at least, this reader.

I think the biggest thing working against Yang here is that the book has the superficiality of being for Chinese-Americans. It's not. It's a book for everyone and has many things to relate to regardless of your ancestory. It's very well done, and I would recommend it for most people. Especially at only sixteen bucks, it's not all that far-fetched when it comes to price ranges, I think. Go buy a copy for yourself and another one to put in someone's Christmas stocking.
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