I am a big fan of graphic novels. I think it is an underutilized and underappreciated literary medium. I just finished two novels back to back on Neil’s recommendation: American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang and Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine. They are two very different novels in terms of style, illustration, and the way the content is handled, but they had many common themes that makes them great complements. As a warning, there will be mild spoilers below.
American Born Chinese (ABC) is about Asian American childhood. The protagonist Jin Wang is the American born Chinese character. It explores the discomfort he feels with classmates that refuse to understand his culture and the cruelty of school children. The story of his evolution through grade school and high school is juxtaposed with two counterpoint stories: that of the Monkey King, a lesser deity who in his arrogance flouts the will of Tze-Yo-Tzu, the god of all, and also that of Danny, a white American student whose life plays out like a bad sitcom with the alarming and appallingly racist depiction of his Chinese cousin Chin-Kee. The three stories in the beginning seemingly have nothing to do with each other, but as the story continues on they interconnect in a masterful and ingenious way to relate a story of friendship and self-acceptance in an increasingly unaccepting world. The novel is a winner of the Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature.
Shortcomings also focuses on Asian American characters, but in a much harsher way. The main characters of the story are Ben Tanaka and Miko Hayashi, who are a couple that have been together for quite some time. Their relationship is destructive and overwhelmingly unhealthy. They fight all the time about petty differences. Most of the characters in the novel are not very likeable. They are fairly self absorbed. Ben is consumed by his own misery and has a very negative outlook on the world. He seems to want what he thinks he cannot have and has no sense of real conscience about his actions and how they might affect people. Miko tells a very big lie, but she also seems to just be looking for a way out from under Ben’s negativity. Women Ben interacts with are not any better. While he and Miko are on a “break,” he fools around with two white women: Autumn Phelps, a young performance artist who is a complete tease, and Sasha Lenz, who leads Ben on and doesn’t really know what she wants. The only redeeming character in the novel is Ben’s friend Alice Kim, a lesbian and immigrant from Korea, who struggles with the demands of her conventional and restrictive family. The novel is not a happy one and ends on a sad note, but is interesting to read. There is a distance within the novel that doesn’t allow you to get too close to the characters. Rather you observe them and their actions as if from a great height.
The two novels explore the idea of having a difficult time coming to terms with who you are and what you desire. In each novel, the protagonists have an interest in women from other cultures, specifically white women. Jin thinks because he is Chinese, he is too different from everyone else and the girl he likes will never be able to be with him. Meanwhile, Ben covets and overly sexualizes white women, watching Caucasian-specific pornography and chasing unavailable, absent women. In both cases, the characters end up giving up almost everything about themselves for what they think will make them happy. In the end, that happiness is false.
In ABC, the message is self acceptance, a message that is universal regardless of race, religion, creed, gender, or sexual preference. The message in Shortcomings is a little more complicated. I believe if Ben was happy with himself, he would be a less cynical person in general. But while ABC focuses on culture as the method of acceptance, Shortcomings focuses on aspects of culture, desire, self-image, ambition, and motivation. Part of Ben’s main problem is his inability to take action. He is constantly negative and complaining, but he doesn’t do anything to change his situation. He doesn’t even realize that his situation is something he wants to change. Ben is offered the opportunity for change, but repeatedly notes that everything back home is suitable enough. He settles. This has less to do with race and culture than a clouded mind and lack of will, again a message universal regardless of race and so on.
What I like about these two books, especially as complements, is the idea that even if you are unhappy with your situation, you have the power within you to find contentment if you so choose.
Of the two, I highly recommend American Born Chinese. It is incredibly well written and illustrated. The story is extremely compelling and the way the story unfolds and intertwines makes it unique. Shortcomings was also good, but it was kind of a difficult read. If you enjoy challenging characters, you will like it. But I think American Born Chinese is more easily accessible. Both are great books overall.
Until next time.