The Asian American Experience,
Through Graphic Novels: Mini Reviews
I’m currently taking a graphic novel and cultural theory class at my university, and we are focusing on the study of the Asian American experience. Today, I thought I would share with you three of the novels we have read so far, and review them. There are six graphic novels in total we are reading this term, so this will be Part 1 of 2 in a small series of mini reviews.
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Let me first start out by saying that I am majoring in English at university (graduating spring 2017). However, I have hardly studied graphic novels in all this time. Second, while I minored in East Asian art history, I am not myself an Asian American. Nor do I pretend to know everything about either of these subjects just because I have studied them.
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
Title: American Born Chinese
Author: Gene Luen Yang
Genre: YA, Graphic Novel, Fiction, Fantasy
Published: September 5th, 2006 by First Second
All Jin Wang wants is to fit in. When his family moves to a new neighborhood, he suddenly finds that he’s the only Chinese American student at his school. Jocks and bullies pick on him constantly, and he has hardly any friends. Then, to make matters worse, he falls in love with an all-American girl…
Born to rule over all the monkeys in the world, the story of the Monkey King is one of the oldest and greatest Chinese fables. Adored by his subjects, master of the arts of kung-fu, he is the most powerful monkey on earth. But the Monkey King doesn’t want to be a monkey. He wants to be hailed as a god…
Chin-Kee is the ultimate negative Chinese stereotype, and he’s ruining his cousin Danny’s life. Danny’s a popular kid at school, but every year Chin-Kee comes to visit, and every year Danny has to transfer to a new school to escape the shame. This year, though, things quickly go from bad to worse…
These three apparently unrelated tales come together with an unexpected twist, in a modern fable that is hilarious, poignant and action-packed. American Born Chinese is an amazing rise, all the way up to the astonishing climax–and confirms what a growing number of readers already know: Gene Yang is a major talent.
I thought this story was great. So far, it has been one of the most fictionalized graphic novels we have read in this class. As the description suggests, there are three plot lines throughout the novel. While they seem unconnected at first, readers see near the end that they are actually one and the same story. I thought this was a really interesting technique, though at times a little bit far-fetched or a bit too convenient.
Personally, I really felt horrible for Jin Wang throughout the story. He has such a strong desire to dissociate himself from not only his own culture, but “Asian-ness” altogether. He’s an isolated figure for most of his life, and goes to great lengths to appear more “white”.
However, I thought that the message throughout this novel was interesting. It’s all about adaptation to your environment vs. adapting your environment to your needs. At the end, it isn’t quite clear which path is the best to take. But the characters’ journeys throughout this story provide insight into both ways of living. I gave this book 4/5 stars on Goodreads.
The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
Title: The Shadow Hero
Genre: YA, Graphic Novel, Fiction, Superheroes
Published: July 15th, 2014 by First Second
A VIBRANT HOMAGE TO A CLASSIC COMIC FROM TWO MASTERS OF THE MODERN GRAPHIC NOVEL.
The Shadow Hero is based on golden-age comic series The Green Turtle, whose hero solved crimes and fought injustice just like any other comics hero. But this mysterious masked crusader was hiding more than your run-of-the-mill secret identity…The Green Turtle was the first Asian American superhero.
Now, exactly seventy years later, New York Times-bestselling author Gene Luen Yang has revived this nearly forgotten, pioneering character in a new graphic novel that creates an origin story for the golden-age Green Turtle.
With artwork by the unmatched Sonny Liew, this hilarious and insightful graphic novel about heroism and heritage is also a loving tribute to the long, rich tradition of American superhero comics.
I’ve never read a superhero comic/graphic novel before so this was a really fun introduction for me. I’m not familiar with the tropes, but through watching cartoons as a kid I could kind of guess where the story was going. From this perspective, it was a really fun tale. Hank has no aspirations for greatness (and only wants to be a grocer like his father!), but his mother has other plans for him.
While Hank himself has no problem with his Asian heritage, it’s clear that his mother wants to distance her family from that. This was in high contrast to American Born Chinese, in which the protagonists were running from their backgrounds. Hank’s mother’s solution for their situation? Train Hank to be a superhero, like the one who saved her from a hit-and-run robbery!
What I thought was really amazing about this graphic novel was the intention of the authors throughout. In the Goodreads description, it is stated that The Shadow Hero was based on The Green Turtle, the “first Asian American superhero”. But that actually isn’t right. Yang and Liew, in their re-imagining of The Green Turtle, actually made the conscious decision to make Hank (as The Green Turtle) the first Asian American superhero.
At the end of The Shadow Hero, there is a section dedicated to the authors’ intentions in writing this graphic novel, and their inspiration (pages 154-158). It states that:
“In 1944, right in the middle of that frenzied decade, an unknown publisher named Rural Home asked an unknown cartoonist named Chu Hing to create a lead feature for their series Blazing Comics…
Hing was among the first Asian Americans working in the American comic book industry. This was decades before the Asian American movement, though, so he wouldn’t have self-identified as such…” (154)
“Supposedly, Hing wanted his character to be Chinese.
… his publisher didn’t think a Chinese superhero would sell and told Hing to make his character white.
Supposedly, Hing rebelled right there on the page. Throughout the Green Turtle’s adventures, we almost never get to see his face.” (155)
And that’s where Yang and Liew come in. In the 1940s, there were no Asian American superheroes. But they decided they wanted to re-imagine history. While it can never be confirmed if the original Green Turtle from The Green Turtle was actually Asian American (or white), Hing created a space where the imagination could believe what it wanted. Yang and Liew wanted to make it fact.
Now, I’m a sucker for retellings in general. But I think this was an amazing way to look back, appreciate, and change history. I was impressed with Yang’s work in American Born Chinese (plus he drew the Avatar comics!), but this one was amazing to me as well. I gave this book 4/5 stars on Goodreads, knocking off some points because the plot itself was a little easy for me.
Vietnamerica: A Family’s Journey by G.B. Tran
Title: Vietnamerica: A Family’s Journey
Author: G.B. Tran
Genre: Graphic Novel, Memoir
Published: January 25, 2011 by Villard
GB Tran is a young Vietnamese American artist who grew up distant from (and largely indifferent to) his family’s history. Born and raised in South Carolina as a son of immigrants, he knew that his parents had fled Vietnam during the fall of Saigon. But even as they struggled to adapt to life in America, they preferred to forget the past—and to focus on their children’s future. It was only in his late twenties that GB began to learn their extraordinary story. When his last surviving grandparents die within months of each other, GB visits Vietnam for the first time and begins to learn the tragic history of his family, and of the homeland they left behind.
In this family saga played out in the shadow of history, GB uncovers the root of his father’s remoteness and why his mother had remained in an often fractious marriage; why his grandfather had abandoned his own family to fight for the Viet Cong; why his grandmother had had an affair with a French soldier. GB learns that his parents had taken harrowing flight from Saigon during the final hours of the war not because they thought America was better but because they were afraid of what would happen if they stayed. They entered America—a foreign land they couldn’t even imagine—where family connections dissolved and shared history was lost within a span of a single generation.
In telling his family’s story, GB finds his own place in this saga of hardship and heroism. Vietnamerica is a visually stunning portrait of survival, escape, and reinvention—and of the gift of the American immigrants’ dream, passed on to their children. Vietnamerica is an unforgettable story of family revelation and reconnection—and a new graphic-memoir classic.
In my course, our readings have shifted from the Individual’s experience, into the Family’s experience. G.B. Tran’s Vietnamerica explores his family’s history and struggles through the eyes of both GB as an uninterested teen, and a grown man. The novel is full of flashbacks to his family’s stories. It also has flashbacks of G.B.’s life, as his family tries to tell him about their history. Only as an adult does he properly see the value in these stories, and decides to share them with the world.
Vietnamerica is both one family’s journey, and representative of many family’s journeys. That’s what I loved about this book. The specific struggles that this family goes through are unique to them, but at the same time they’re representative of what hundreds or thousands of immigrants and refugees experienced through the Vietnam War.
One thing that I thought was really amazing about this novel was that Tran included some family photos in the story. While you couldn’t necessarily connect each character drawing with their photographic counterpart, it was still amazing to be able to see the faces of his family. I also gave this book 4/5 stars on Goodreads.
Let’s talk about it
Do you read graphic novels? Have you studied Asian American literature? Have you read any of these graphic novels? What do you think about the representation of Asian Americans through this literature? Please leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments.