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American Born Chinese , by Gene Luen Yang. Color by Lark Pien.  First Second Books, 2006.

A significant milestone in the history of comics was reached this month.  American Born Chinese, a graphic novel by San Francisco’s own Gene Luen Yang, a former Xeric Grant winner, was named a National Book Award Finalist, the first work of sequential art ever to receive this honor. The winners will be announced in a ceremony on November 15.

It could not have happened to a more deserving book.  Yang uses the medium to its fullest, employing diverse styles and layouts, and toying with graphic conventions, as well as invoking the literary tropes of memoir, metaphor, and myth. 

American Born Chinese tells three tales that entwine both thematically and, in the end, dramatically, to illustrate the complex process of a young Chinese American boy finding his identity in an alienating culture.  The central narrative comprises the memoir-like account of Jin Wang, a young Asian boy trying to fit in at his new, primarily Caucasian school.   

A second recurring story features Danny, a popular, athletic Caucasian student whose life is ruined each time his cousin comes to town.  Danny’s cousin, “Chin-Kee,” is presented as a broad Asian stereotype, representing all Danny’s fears that he will be associated with otherness and inferiority.  Further emphasizing the broad public acceptance of such harmful stereotypes is the framing device for these sequences, an imagined sitcom called “Everyone Ruvs Chin-Kee,” complete with a “laugh track” at the base of each panel, suggesting that an audience can be prodded to respond positively even to blatantly offensive images.

And finally, Yang retells the myth of the Monkey King, a diminutive simian who masters Kung Fu in a desperate effort to assume the form of a man, and to take his place among the gods, only to find that accepting his fate as a monkey opens him to even greater possibilities.

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Each of Yang’s subplots illustrates a separate aspect of acknowledging and embracing an Asian/American identity, or, more generally, of accepting and embracing one’s sense of difference.  Jin, the normative character, must learn to be comfortable with who he is, both in his “Asian” self and his “American” self.  (The book’s title sums up this dichotomy, as Jin’s self-identification as a Chinese person, despite his birth in America, marks his feelings of  alienation, of being a stranger in a familiar land.)

The tale of Danny and Chin-Kee is obviously a reflection on the anxiety of an Asian American of being simply reduced to a stereotype.  Only when Danny confronts this otherness, rather than trying to flee from it, does he realize his true self.

And finally, the Monkey King tale is a broader fable of self-acceptance, and the high price of assuming another identity.

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Yang draws the Jin and “Chin-Kee” sequences in a spare, simple manner, yet with great attention to detail in the figures and backgrounds.  Chin-Kee himself is an exact replica of racist images from the first half of the twentieth century, complete with yellow skin, buck teeth, and squinting eyes, with a pony tail and stereotyped robe and cap.

In contrast with the realism of the down-to-earth, human-centered episodes, Yang illustrates his Monkey King myth in broad cartoon strokes, reminiscent of the designs of Genndy Tartakovsky (Samurai Jack, Power Puff Girls ), who was in turn inspired by the exaggerated features of anime characters.

Yang proves adept at presenting quiet sequences, such as when Jin takes a girl out on their first date.   But he is equally comfortable with action sequences, as when Danny finally confronts Chin-Kee in a knockdown, drag-out battle – facing his fear and hostility toward this imagined self-image in a metaphorical physical contest.

An accomplished cartoonist, Yang offers a surprising variety of layouts within the narrow frame surrounding each set of panels.  And in one striking sequence, in which the Monkey King reaches the edge of the universe, the author cleverly allows his protagonist to break through the boundaries of the panels, into the plain white space of the page.

As striking as Yang’s illustrations is the design of the book. The bright yellow cover, with fold-over flyleaves, presents an image subtly merging the novel’s three subplots.  And the attention to stylistic detail extends to the design of each page, featuring a squared-off set of panels slightly descended from the center, with a Chinese calligraphic character atop the page to delineate the separate chapters. 

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Each of the narratives in American Born Chinese stands on its own, presenting a humorous and evocative account of a hero’s journey.  But a broader meaning for the novel’s interrelated, figurative images is suggested in the book’s concluding chapters, as the paths of all of the major characters cross.  In these final sequences, Jin Wang finally comes to understand what a wise fortune teller previously told him: that if he wishes to become something or someone else, to transform like the robot toys of his childhood, he need only want it badly enough.  And be willing to sacrifice his soul in the process.

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Jeff Loew has been named a finalist in the "Be A Visionary" contest sponsored by Visionary Comics Studio and Markosia Enterprises.  His story,"I Married Ghost Girl," appears in the Arcana anthology, Dark Horrors, listed in Previews (SEP06 3063) and available soon in fine comic shops everywhere. Find out more about Jeff's work at his website, www.movingpanels.com.

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