Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Review - American Born Chinese

American Born Chinese
by Gene Luen Yang
2007 Eisner Winner for Best New Graphic Album

For about eighty percent of the way through American Born Chinese I wasn't very impressed. The story about being true to yourself was trite, simplistic, and pounded over and over again. Between the three story lines there was one that I thought was pretty good, one that left me bored, and one that just left me baffled. It wasn't adding up to a great experience. Then Yang through something in that made me reevaluate the entire book and added a bit of texture to the message he was telling. So in the end I was left feeling pretty good about American Born Chinese even if I wasn't completely enamored with it.

There are three stories in American Born Chinese and each chapter rotates to a different one. The first is a retelling of the legend of the Monkey King. The version of that story here has the Monkey King attempting to be accepted by the gods by being human instead of a monkey. When this fails he lashes out against the heavens. The second story is one of Jin, a Chinese boy who finds himself isolated at school after his parents move. He seeks acceptance from the Caucasian students but his only friends are the two other Asian students at the school. As he reaches adolescence he complicates his life by pursuing a popular girl. The final story is about an all-American teen whose life is thrown into chaos by visits from a Chinese cousin. This cousin is the most horrific racist stereotypes that I've encountered in decades.

I found myself enjoying the story of the Monkey King quite a bit and not because it had monkeys punching gods (as a rule that doesn't hurt but if your book isn't about monkeys punching gods don't expect to get points for it). The Monkey King was a more interesting character than anyone else in the book. He was the one who got to be dynamic. He was the character who set a goal and worked toward it. He was the character who had a personality beyond sullen teenager or racist caricature. He might not have been introspective and wore his character flaws on his sleeve but that just made it more interesting to watch him react. I've read a lot of comic book adaptations of the Monkey King story (almost all of them manga) but this is the one that I enjoyed the most mainly because Yang infused him with a purpose beyond belligerent monkey.

In comparison the realistic chapters bored me to tears. These teenagers fumbling through relationships just weren't interesting characters. Jin treats everyone poorly throughout the book which made him hard to sympathize with. Jin has a tendency to sit around and mope rather than taking action. When he receives abuse from his fellow students he doesn't do anything more than pass it along to those he considers friends. This may be a realistic reaction but it isn't presented in a way that's interesting to read about. Jin lacks a personality and his attempt to fit in (I almost wrote "attempts" there before it occurred to me that there was only one real attempt in the book which speaks to how thin this story is) is superficial.

The parallels between these two stories is obvious but the different when reading is that the Monkey King takes action while Jin tends to sit around and lump abuse on his "friends". Even in his actions Jin is a passive character and wanting the popular girl isn't as sympathetic of goal as wanting to be accepted in general. Jin's view treats the girl as a prize to be won rather than a person to reach and while the Monkey King may be hitting them with sticks he's still trying to reach the other gods as people.

The third story was just strange. I couldn't connect the American teen with the Chinese stereotype beyond some kind of metaphor for assimilation. The conclusion of the book brings this last chapter into focus and does it in a way that ties the entire book together.

Artistically I wasn't impressed with American Born Chinese. There's nothing really wrong with it though I did find it to be a bit flat. It's just there isn't anything that made me enthusiastic. Yang uses simple designs that aren't distinct enough to call stylized and he layouts are as straightforward as they come. Basically the art didn't put me off the book but I'd never recommend it for the art either.

If I could divide up American Born Chinese smoothly I wound up disliking more than I enjoyed. On the other hand the conclusion marries the parts I disliked with those I did so smoothly that they become inseparable. This means that taken as a whole I liked it. If you have a higher tolerance for coming of age stories about author stand-in protagonists then you'll probably enjoy it a lot more than I did.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Review - Blankets

by Craig Thompson
2004 Eisner Winner for Best New Graphic Album
2004 Eisner Winner for Best Writer/Artist

It seems like every other darling of independent comics is exactly the same: a coming-of-age story that's about a guy who's almost identical to the author. They have a slightly off-beat worldview and the normal people around them treat the main character with derision. Eventually they find a lover who helps end their isolation and they have some kind epiphany about their lives but not without some tragedy on the way.

I despise this formula. It tends to come across as work by people with overblown egos as a showcase for how great they are. The life changing epiphany which accompanies the climax of the story typically is a shallow one. I wind up hating the protagonist and since there's no plot beyond the minutiae of their empty lives I wind up hating the book.

In Blankets Craig is the autobiographical protagonist is a poor boy raised in a Christian fundamentalist family (I'm using his first name for the character and the last name for the creator just to keep them a bit separate). As he approaches graduation from high school he is looking into going into the seminary. Eventually he meets a free spirited girl at Bible camp and falls in love. He travels to spend two weeks with her and her troubled family where he experiences self-discovery.

I should hate Blankets like I have the dozens of other times I've run across this exact formula. Instead I found it to be very effective and I think that's due to Thompson not holding onto any romantic notions about his adolescence. His clumsy, emotionally immature actions drive the story and there's an actual emotional arc involved. Craig not only has the appearance of change over the course of the book but goes through three distinct stages of development (perhaps even four or five I include the flashbacks and epilogues). And none of these stages are perfect; at the end of the book he just isn't as lost as he once was.

Other characters are not as dynamic. They tend to be trapped in some way but don't get to push at their boundaries. I wasn't bothered by this since Blankets is completely Craig's story and a self-centered worldview is part of that. Also the characters seemed to exist as patterns for what the future could be if Craig didn't find a way.

The rose colored glasses that Thompson avoids using on himself do look back on his relationship. Blankets is the story of a gentle first love that starts sweet and grows passionate. And yet this also comes across as part of the character arc; the idealized memories give way to the adolescent reactions. So early on it's puppy love and later it's teenagers finding their way and then it still has to change for the conclusion.

Artistically I enjoyed Blankets quite a bit. Thompson has a very fluid style that creates lively characters which are necessary to support his story. He can shift those characters from loose cartoons to idealized forms and make it feel natural. In addition Thompson has a flare for spectacular layouts which he peppers through the book. If every page had the characters fitting into the panels of a quilt, for example, it would have become annoying but Thompson uses them to play up just the right moments.

In that group of semi-autobiographical coming of age stories from independent comic creators I can safely say that Blankets is the best one I have ever read. If they were all presented this honestly then I might not be as hostile toward the genre as I am. There are other similar books that I have also enjoyed (see Stuck Rubber Baby and I think I'll follow this up with another one) but this is easily the best of them due entirely to how well Thompson can tell his story.