American Born Chinese
It's hard being a Hyphen-American. Indian-American, Hispanic-American, African-American-whatever biological/geographical/historical qualifier that sets you apart from the main population in the U.S., millions of folks deal with varying degrees of existential crisis balancing the "Hyphen" with the "American" in their self-definition. And in this information age it's harder than ever because of the never-ending stream of stereotypes, misinformation, and lies that various media feed us about the Other. In his graphic novel, American Born Chinese, Gene Luen Yang addresses these issues from the perspective of a, well, Chinese-American in a manner that is knowing, sensitive, and very entertaining.
American Born Chinese is made up of three seemingly unrelated stories. First is the story of elementary-school student Jin Wang, the first generation of his family born in America, and his travels and travails through a new school as one of the very few Asian students. Secondly, Yang retells the traditional Chinese legend of the Monkey King and his efforts to transcend his place into godhood. Finally, we meet ordinary high-school student Danny, who appears to have a fairly ordinary life until his cousin Chin-Kee-the "ultimate Chinese stereotype"-shows up and causes a ruckus. Tonally, the three stories run the gambit from coming-of-age normalcy to bright fantasy to unsettling surrealism. It is a credit to Yang's storytelling ability that the three stories come together in such an organic way that the fantastic and mundane feel to have always existed side by side.
Visually, Yang's art perfectly complements the narrative. His line work is assured but soft enough to convey both the sensitivity of his story line and varying modes throughout. Whether he is depicting a wildly imaginative gathering of gods, demons, and talking animals or the small intensity of a childhood betrayal, Yang effortlessly captures his story's different moods. Likewise, his colors have a washed-out, subtle quality to them that goes along very well with his story's intimacy.
Yang obviously has been exposed to a multitude of popular Asian images and, intertwined with the overall narrative, comments on many of them. From old kung fu movies and Chinese restaurants to more recent stereotypes of the "rice boy," the fallout from William Hung's American Idol notoriety, and even the two Asian kids lip-syncing "I Want It That Way" on YouTube last year, Yang exhibits an sociological degree of specificity in his analysis of what it is that constructs today's definition of Asian-American.