Superman never made any money for saving the world from Solomon Grundy

Thursday, September 18, 2008

[4-color ma] Not just monkeying around

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang was published by First Second Books in 2006 and garnered all sorts of attention. I finally got around to reading it the other day.

I have a special fondness for Gene Yang, because his day job is teaching, making him a colleague of sorts. In fact, all I had read of his work prior to American Born Chinese was an academic article on using comics in the classroom (done in comics form, of course). I had heard of ABC - there was almost no way not to have, what with its being in the running for a National Book Award, and winning the Printz award, and being reviewed by the New York Times, and all that - but I hadn't read much more of it than a few acontextual panels here and there.

After devouring the entire novel, I have to say that it is every bit as good as all the hype would have one expect.

I was not aware that Yang tells three different tales - that of the Monkey King, a figure from Chinese mythology; Jin, the titular Chinese-American youth; and Danny, a white American high schooler - and pulls them together in a most surprising way. To say any more - except that these threads form a story that is emotionally compelling and artfully told - would risk ruining for others the sheer joy I felt when reading the book. Suffice it to say that he addresses the big questions of personal identity from several perspectives.

Yang's somewhat cartoony style combines with a straightforward and masterful storytelling ability to pull the reader into the narrative completely. Yang takes one big aesthetic risk: in the Danny sequence, a Chinese character is purposely drawn in a caricatured style (oddly reminiscent of Chop-Chop in early Blackhawks) that is a bit jarring, but which pays off with patience. It would be remiss not to mention the contribution of Lark Pien's colors to the book; the bright, saturated palette goes a long way to helping to create the world of ABC.

Yang also provides one wonderful exercise in formal play, which, of course, caught my attention immediately. The powerful Monkey King, on his magic cloud, is fleeing from the godlike Tze-Yo-Tzuh:

The use of panel borders to represent the "boundaries of reality" is pure genius; the following pages are completely borderless, continuing the conceit quite effectively.

Gene Yang gives us narrative and visual excellence in American Born Chinese; I can't wait for a chance to use it in class.

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