Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Pagemaster: Comic Book Review - Guest Post by Lawrence Maminta

There's something so great about a comic book! We are very excited to have Lawrence Maminta as a guest contributor today. Lawrence kindly shares his insights and overall recommendation of the award winning comic book: American Born Chinese. 

Gene Luen Yang's American Born Chinese is an award-winning comic book (or, “graphic novel”) that follows three characters through seemingly disparate stories.  One story is about a monkey looking to obtain status as an immortal god; another follows a boy who is the only Chinese-American student at his school. The third is presented as a low-brow television sitcom featuring a popular blue-eyed Caucasian student whose cousin, visiting from China, embarrasses him to the point of shame.

For the most part, American Born Chinese is humorous and light-hearted.  The colors in the book are bright and the characters are drawn almost like cartoons in order to appeal to young people. This approach, however, allows Yang to address the subject of racial identity without being didactic or preachy.  Although most stories about preteens and adolescents deal with subjects like identity and alienation, what separates American Born Chinese from other children's books is how it confronts racial stereotyping.

The sitcom story is perhaps the most obvious example, presenting a Chinese caricature named “Chin-kee” sporting a straw rice hat and buck teeth.  His heavily accented one-liners and exaggerated physicality elicits applause from an off-camera studio audience and in addition to mixing up his “L” and “R” sounds, Chin-kee is also an excellent student who constantly raises his hand to answer questions in every subject.

Although the 21st-century reader may cringe at this depiction, it is important to note that it is this same image that has been propagated throughout American media since the 1800s.  The Chin-kee character forces the reader to call into question the idea of whether or not there is such a thing as a “positive” stereotype since his display of academic excellence tends to fall in line with the idea of the “model minority.”  This thematic element unites all three stories and is only the clearest instance.  The subtlety in which Yang weaves these ideas throughout the book is what makes it worth reading. 

American Born Chinese is still a fun read and widely accessible. Children will likely find the mythic story of the Monkey King most entertaining while teens may relate to the struggles faced by the book's two high school students.  Earning an Eisner award and a spot on Time Magazine's “Top Ten Comics of the Year” makes American Born Chinese an easy recommendation.

Publisher:  First Second Books
Year:  2006
Writer and Artist:  Gene Luen Yang
Colorist:  Lark Pien

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