Monday, February 12, 2007

Monkey see ...

Whether "American Born Chinese" is a novel, is an adult novel, etc. ...
This is the kind of question to probably make someone's career in postmodern criticism, but does it matter? Comics, pornography and other formerly outré genres have been accepted for decades now as legitimate expressions of the human character and worthy of serious study. Of course, when it comes to awards, you need categories, and an artist-writer like Yang may feel he's been slighted by a label. More than slighted. Being categorized as child's literature may affect his book's bottom line.

I am one adult who very much liked ABC -- I enjoyed the total effect, words plus art. I grew up learning to read comic books before I read books -- I read strips in the newspaper, read (I'm ashamed to say) infantile cartoon books by Disney (Hewey, Dewey & Louie -- blechh!) and Warner Bros. (Bugs Bunny-- pptewy! ) while friends were reading Archie. I also read comicbook westerns. Some of my most abiding images of the West come from illustrated tales of lonely gunslingers and the ghosts of victims and snow in the forested mountains. And then there were Classics Illustrated, especially The Iliad and Les Miserables, great stories advanced as much by the art as by the words. (When the musical "Les Mis" was touring the country about 15 years ago, I found and bought for $10 a copy of the Classics Illustrated "Les Miserables" to see if it gave me as much pleasure as it had done many years before that. It did not.)

I have read the classic Chinese novel "Monkey," and recommend it without reserve. "Monkey" (the Arthur Waley translation is perhaps the most highly prized) is much like a comic book, one told completely in words. It's an outlandish tale, with legendary characters, mythological elements and just plain weird happenings. It's a good tonic for anyone who feels civilization is sometimes too restrictive.

I was surprised and excited when Yang's story started with elements of "Monkey" and seemed for a while to parallel its story. And at first I wasn't sure whether he was giving us a single tale or a book of individual stories. Of course, we had been told in advance it was a graphic novel, so I recognized that Yang must be unrolling his narrative rope strand by individual strand -- three discrete tales that I suspected would be wrapped together before long. With the 1st arrival of Chin-Kee -- a manic Chinese buffoon -- and with that clever way in which Yang is winking at the reader with "Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha..." or "Clap-clap-clap-clap ..." at the bottom edge of many panels, we already suspect Monkey or his spirit has journeyed from heaven to earth in Chin-Kee's form. Yang uses a lovely structure, with each tale bleeding a little bit into the others, and all beautifully realized on being tied together at the end. Truly, that's novelistic, isn't it?

Yang's theme is also novelistic, found in children's as well as adult lit: Don’t lose your soul under the pressure to conform, which for an immigrant also means the pressure to shed ethnic traits and assimilate as an American. It's not accidental that the climactic actions of ABC occur in high school. “America is high school,” said Paul Krassner. That's where the pressure to bend your character to the group will is keenest. We see Jin already feeling the pain of being an outsider while in grade school, but it's in high school that he yearns to become "Danny," a jolting turn of events. The elements of this drama -- schoolyard bullies, the unattainable girl, the pathetic and goofy attempts to be cool -- are pretty standard, but Yang turns them into material for universal sympathy and even genuine heartbreak in the adult reader. Yang is also a funny writer, and he gives us inspired silliness like the bubbles on Amelia's shoulder and he mines to great effect the rich clichés of the American portrayal of Chinese immigrants, such as the confusion of L’s and R’s and Wen's broken English, which sometimes comes across like poetry ("Again is a chance for your lifetime!")

Other graphic novels and stories --
Both of the following online comix feature top-rank art. The quality of the stories doesn’t match that of the graphics which are outstanding, but the narratives are enough to keep your interest while you lap up the illustration.

Sam Noir: Samurai Detective #1 (find the link under “Online Comics”) is the first of an apparently serialized installment, a somewhat typical noir parody with the distinction that our hero is Japanese and skilled in the arts of the Bushido code. If you love noir, you’ll enjoy it and the obvious tongue-in-cheek relish in the form taken by writers Eric A. Anderson and Manny Trembly.

The Jain’s Death gives us a Buddhist philosophy (at least I think it’s Buddhist) tested by the laws of the jungle (literally). That’s the first half. In the second half, the All-One is applied to a pessimistic environmentalism, to Earth’s catastrophic future. There’s a unity to the story, but it’s altogether too not-of-this-earth for me. But who cares? It’s good enough, and the drawings are superb. … Warning: “The Jain’s Death” took a lot longer to load in mid-day than at midnight.

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