American Born Chinese
By Gene Luen Yang (First Second, 2006; $16.95)
When I first heard about American Born Chinese back in July, I pegged it as the highlight of First Second’s second wave of releases purely based on a few preview images and its solicitation copy. After doing so, I crossed my fingers that it would actually live up to my lofty expectations, as Deogratias had set the bar pretty high. It took me a while to finally pick up a copy, and before I did, it was named as a finalist for this year’s National Book Award in Young People’s Literature, which honestly made me cringe a little bit. Prestigious awards have a way of subtly changing my perception of a book (or movie, TV show, etc…), rarely for the better, and the hubbub around a graphic novel being nominated for the first time made me think it’s acclaim might be agenda-driven, similar to the overly praised Pride of Baghdad.
My concerns were unfounded, though, as Gene Luen Yang’s insightful and incisive look at racism and self-acceptance is fully deserving of the accolades it has received and is a legitimate candidate for best graphic novel of the year. Yang deftly weaves three seemingly unnconnected stories — the fabled Monkey King who wants to be a god; Jin Wang, the only Chinese-American student at his school, and his attempts to fit in; and Chin-Kee, the jaw-dropping Asian stereotype (complete with his own laugh track), who shows up every summer to embarass his white American cousin, Danny — into a powerful, modern parable that’s accessible to all ages and cultures.
On the surface, it’s an empowering spin on the classic tale of the ugly duckling, with an emphasis on self-acceptance over finding one’s place in society. Underneath, though, it’s a surprisingly subversive indictment of the concept of cultural assimilation, aka the “melting pot”.
The Monkey King’s efforts to become a god and Chin-Kee’s appalling adventures in humiliation seem, at first, to fit awkwardly in the midst of Jin Wang’s more straightforward coming of age tale, as Yang alternates between each one a few times, never tipping his hand as to how they intersect until the very end. His visual presentation holds the three stories together, with clean, crisp and colorful images, while his square layouts — revealing its webcomic roots — only take up 2/3rds of a page but never feel compressed. (Or decompressed, for that matter.)
When it does all come together, it has the same effect as when a magician successfully pulls off “the prestige”* to the sheer delight of the audience.
My copy of American Born Chinese sports a nice silver “National Book Award Finalist” sticker on its cover, a unique and distinctive honor in the comics field, one Yang should be incredibly proud of receiving, and the rest of the industry should be aspiring to. For First Second, it’s nothing less than the crown jewel in a first year of publishing that has been remarkable by any measure.
* In his novel The Prestige, author Christopher Priest coined the term “the prestige” — a reference to the final stage of a magic trick where the effect of the illusion is produced — when he “noticed its closeness to the magicians’ word ‘prestidigitation’ (sleight of hand) [and] realized it would make a perfect title for the book [he] was then planning.”