American Born Chinese was one of the major critical successes of the comic book world in 2006. Within comic circles, itís rightly famous. But the nature of comics - or, for those seeking social approval, graphic novels - is that even the most famous works can be completely unknown to the majority of the reading public. Sometimes thatís fair, but here itís a dirty cheat, both to the work and the lost readers themselves.
On the surface, American Born Chinese is a collection of stories united
around the search for identity. One, a fantasy epic in a land of gods and magic, retells the history of the Monkey King as he struggles to first join and then conquer the godly society that spurns him. Another, set in the real world of the 1980s, follows a Chinese- American boy named Jin as he tries to negotiate the conflicting messages of his family and his very mainstream town. The final and most bizarre tale is set in a nightmarish sitcom world, where all-American high school hero Danny struggles to maintain his cool despite the presence of Chin-Kee, his grotesque stereotype of a Chinese cousin. Telling three stories in one small graphic novel is a neat trick. But what makes American Born Chinese extraordinary is the finale, when the three stories reveal their single nature with a trick as good as any magicianís act.
Yangís artwork has the clean lines of a woodblock print and the bright colors of a Saturday morning cartoon. That apparent simplicity may cause some prospective readers to dismiss American Born Chinese; if so, the loss is all theirs. Yangís imagery is clean and easy to follow, elegant instead of complicated. He uses the tricks of the graphic medium to achieve storytelling as complex as any dense-typed novel. His pictures are worth more than their thousand wordsí share, and much more memorable.
American Born Chinese may be more graphic than the usual Great American novel, but it has as every right to the title. American Born Chinese studies the matters that try the soul; the struggle between pleasing the world and being true to the self; the true scope of the universe; and magical kung fu monkeys.