Since The Millions interviewed Gene Luen Yang four years ago, he has been writing and drawing prolifically. His graphic novel Level Up portrayed a young Asian American man destined for medical school who secretly dreamed of playing video games. His next project was the epic Boxers & Saints, a diptych that follows two characters living through the Boxer Rebellion in China. The two intertwining Boxers & Saints graphic novels—they were sold as a set—string a coherent narrative from a complex period of history at the turn of the 20th century as the crumbling Qing empire tussled with European colonial powers. Yang’s clean line drawings bring order to the chaotic events, and all of the characters in the story are fallible and believable.
What unites Gene Luen Yang’s varying projects is his ambition. In many ways, Yang has taken on the task of bringing untold stories from Asian and Asian American history to readers in the U.S. And remarkably, he moves easily between literary works and popular culture, because while he was busy finishing Boxers & Saints he was also writing comic book adaptations of the popular Avatar: The Last Airbender animated cartoon. He did so not just out of love for the series but also in response to the live action movie by director M. Night Shyamalan, who cast a Caucasian boy for the leading role of Aang, and generally weakened the role of Asian culture in the story. (The movie was widely panned.) That Yang was willing to continue an extremely successful and already fully realized universe in The Avatar demonstrates his willingness to take risks and to collaborate.
Gene Luen Yang is not the only Asian American writer exploring myths and superheroes. Korean American author Chang-Rae Lee also depicted the Japanese colonization of China in his exquisitely written novel The Surrendered, in which the character Hector Brennan possesses the immortality of a god yet becomes mired in his own, very human failings. The novelist Charles Yu’s short story collection Third Class Superhero examined superpowers with humor and sensitivity, and his follow-up How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is in many ways the capstone of the genre of meta-science fiction. A walk down Artist Alley in any comicon will introduce you to numerous skillful Asian American comic book artists hocking their wares in what is slowly becoming a more diverse profession.
Gene Luen Yang’s latest effort is The Shadow Hero, a graphic novel no less ambitious in scope than his previous works. Yang came up with the story after learning about one of the first Asian American artists to work in the comic book industry, Chu Hing. Chu Hing worked during an efflorescence of comic book stories during World War II, and created a series called The Green Turtle to support the struggles of America’s ally against the Japanese—China. The Green Turtle, a super hero who fought against the nefarious Japanese with his side-kick Burma Boy, never revealed his face or his origin story in the comics. There is also little biographical information about the creator Chu Hing himself, and the series was canceled after only five issues.
Working from the original texts, Yang resurrected The Green Turtle with a fully fleshed-out origin story and adventure in The Shadow Hero. The main character Hank is now a Chinese-American boy growing up in Chinatown in the fictional coastal city of San Incendio. His parents own a dry goods shop, and he is happy working beside his father as a stockboy. Yet his mother has bigger ideas for her son. While being robbed, she is rescued by a superhero named The Anchor of Justice, and she decides that her son should grow up to be just like him. The only problem is that Hank has no super powers. After a series of comical ordeals in which she tries to inspire him, Hank only gains powers after his father is murdered by a Chinatown kingpin. It turns out his father had made a deal with a turtle spirit from mainland China, and young Hank can inherit the spirit and ask it for whatever powers he desires. Hank then sets out to avenge his father’s death, confronting gangsters, kung fu vixens, and corrupt police along the way.
In The Shadow Hero, Gene Luen Yang collaborated with Singapore-based illustrator Sonny Liew, and it becomes apparent why this was a wise choice after a few pages. Sonny Liew’s panels pop with vitality, and he has mastered the flow of sequential action with original paneling and styling. The book crackles with Yang’s slap-stick humor—so difficult to portray in comic book art—and the characters feel fully imagined. Hank’s mother in particular is a complex, flawed, and totally believable character and Sonny Liew’s drawings of her are charming.
However, certain elements which made Yang’s other works so enjoyable are less compelling in this volume. The story moves along at a nice clip, and there are glimpses of Watchmen-creator Alan Moore’s influence in Yang’s treatment of The Anchor of Justice. But it is not exactly clear what 1940s America thinks of superheroes—are they vigilantes or saviors? Also, the racist stereotypes that made Yang’s bestselling graphic novel American Born Chinese so provocative are not quite as well considered in this story. To be sure, racism against Chinese Americans abounded in the 1940s, but they could perhaps have used more elucidation in this text than they receive.
Those are minor quibbles because there is only so much you can pack into an origin story. To truly appreciate The Shadow Hero, you need to apply two more lenses. The first lens is provided in the book itself and the second lens relates to Yang’s greater oeuvre as an author. At the end of the text, the book includes an issue of the original Green Turtle as created by Chu Hing in the 1940s. It’s not an especially interesting story—the Green Turtle wins the day by firing “2,000 rounds per minute” into the “Japs”—but in several panels there is a peculiar black shadow that hovers over the superhero. Chu Hing apparently never explained what the shadow is. It’s amazing that Yang developed a credible explanation for it and created a logical structure that incorporated the other elements of the original Green Turtle. He was, in short, able to develop a new story while adhering to the limited parameters of the original, and this is nothing short of remarkable. It’s like coloring within the lines of a Jackson Pollock painting.
The second reason why The Shadow Hero is worth reading is that it has the elements of an enduring Asian American superhero story. Yang’s comic leaves enough avenues for future explanation that he could comfortably create more volumes in this series. (I wouldn’t mind if he incorporated the Green Turtle’s cool jet from the original comics.) There is still a disturbing lack of published entertainment created by ethnic minorities that feature characters driving forward the narrative with agency.
Gene Luen Yang is enabling a generation of Asian Americans—or, let’s be specific here, because the community is diverse, Chinese Americans—to imagine their own stories. And he has set a very high bar. He writes serious, contemplative works, he entertains, and he is an excellent line artist who is humble enough to put down his own pencils and to allow someone else to draw it better. He takes risks that don’t always pan out, but he shows the courage to take on widely differing projects across a variety of genres. One day perhaps, we’ll all have our own personal super heroes, and if they are as thoughtful, humorous, and principled as the Shadow Hero, there’s nothing wrong with that.
Comic books and outsider art share an unspoken kinship. Both were once reviled as the products of deranged minds, unfit for artistic recognition, but both are finally achieving legitimacy. Outsider art now generally refers to untrained artists working outside the mainstream art market, but it began as a condescending term for the art of children, the insane, and socially marginalized groups–until recently, the supposed readership of comic books. Films like The Soloist and In the Realms of the Unreal make the unhinged, destitute savant a recognizable trope, and Hollywood is discovering that the “graphic novel” end of the comics spectrum can be just as popular as the standard Marvel fare. Alan Moore’s Watchmen was crowned one of Time’s 100 Best Novels, and fine writers like Harvey Pekar, Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, and Alison Bechdel are getting their due as well.
I hope Mark Beyer’s work will find a place in the canon. His masterpiece Amy and Jordan brings the aesthetic and neurosis of outsider art to comic books. Amy and Jordan is a series of four panel strips that ran in the free paper New York Press from 1988 to 1996. Beyer published a few books, but Amy and Jordan disappeared without a trace (except perhaps for boxes of newspaper clippings saved by devotees), until Pantheon released a collection of 292 strips in 2004. The resulting book is a treasure of the comics medium.
[image source: Pantheon]
Amy and Jordan has only three recurring characters: the eponymous couple and Amy’s sickly son Ba Tilsdale, who dies of neglect but occasionally returns as an ominous statue. Amy and Jordan’s relationship is antagonistic, yet they’re resigned to being stuck with each other–somewhere between Akbar and Jeff and Vladimir and Estragon. They share a decrepit apartment (critics speculate that they live on the Lower East Side) and slog through various mediocre jobs. Each strip chronicles a mysterious or unfortunate occurrence. The minor, disheartening tribulations of urban life–navigating the subway, run-ins with weirdos, vermin–take on monstrous proportions, and the city becomes a horrific carnival of disaster. Amy and Jordan are menaced by “demons carrying carving knives” and gigantic insects, and plagued by poisoned food. Many of the strips combine ordinary annoyance with surreal violence: when Jordan goes outside to ask a crazy man to stop screaming, the man responds unexpectedly: “He’s wrapped his snakelike tongue around my body. I’m paralyzed. I can’t move! Well it’s good. Now Amy can sleep unmolested.” Beyer’s stilted, clunky dialogue makes even the most disturbing events funny, and his characters’ reactions to tragedy are gruesomely pragmatic. Upon discovering that their neighbor’s apartment is full of murdered children, Jordan equivocates: “He’s a mean, spiteful, bitter, ugly old man. When he dies nobody will care. On the other hand maybe I’m wrong. I suppose he has some endearing traits.” Amy and Jordan’s pre-Giuliani New York is full of abandoned babies, suicidal neighbors, and malevolent children. Watching the parade of downtrodden souls trudging past their window, Amy concludes, “The world is a horrible place filled with terrible people.” This is grim stuff, but Beyer’s fantastically inventive artwork keeps his world from sinking into despondence.
Beyer’s artwork pushes the comic strip format in a tradition extending back to Winsor McCay, the creator of Little Nemo in Slumberland, who distorted and destroyed the panels in his strips. While many comic strip writers simplify their characters into a few recognizable pen strokes, Amy and Jordan’s malleable forms reflect the instability of their world. His work displays many characteristics of outsider art, such as horror vacui, the need to fill every millimeter of space with detail, and obsessive repetition of shapes and patterns. His work is very similar in theme and content to that of Martín Ramírez and Madge Gill, two heavyweights in outsider art. It is also beautiful, exciting work. His bold black and white compositions and bizarre images create an indelible impression on the reader. Beyer is untrained, and can be considered a legitimate outsider artist, but he is unusual in communicating equally well in image and text. Henry Darger wrote the world’s longest book, but his images are more powerful than his text. Beyer balances the tone of his dialogue and depiction perfectly–the ultimate feat for a graphic novel. His cityscapes are oppressively whimsical, their disintegration into pattern creating a mood of menace.
Urban horror is a favorite theme of comic books. The Dark Knight captured the hatred and fear of the city that characterizes “edgy” comics like Transmetropolitan. Although I love Batman, the squalid city always struck me as a dishonest, conservative simplification. Amy and Jordan’s urban hell is free of Manichean dichotomies, and its everyday absurdity is more realistic than Gotham. Rather than battling evil or gleefully embodying it, Amy and Jordan are just as ambiguous as the city. Their moral code is constantly in flux, responding to their situations or capricious urges. Jordan bandages a bleeding stranger with his shirt, and boasts “Don’t ever let it be said that I’m not a great humanitarian!” Later, he tries to sell Amy’s crying son in a pawnshop. The protagonists’ relationship is similarly erratic. Both seethe with resentment, plot against each other, and blame each other for their degradation; yet sometimes they are almost sweet. Jordan brings Amy a teddy bear (unaware that it’s infested by termites), and Amy reassures Jordan, “I don’t think of you as dung, even if everyone else does!”
Beyer’s ghoulish visions turn what is probably crushing personal trauma into art. Most outsider art is a compulsive attempt to maintain the artist’s sanity, and this desperation is palpable in Beyer’s gallows humor and frantic crosshatching. Too many comics coast on manufactured nihilism, but Amy and Jordan feels like an act of exorcism, transmuting real anguish into entertainment. It is a testament to the the survival instinct. Amy and Jordan fly through life on irrational optimism, and it seems that creating them lets Beyer do the same.
My mildly contrarian take on the print version of Watchmen appears today at More Intelligent Life. Name-checked within the piece: Thomas Pynchon, Toni Morrison, Malcolm Lowry, Jean Rhys, Charles Dickens, Georges Eliot and Saunders, Chris Ware, Lynda Barry, Herman Hesse, Jack Kerouac, Batman, Art Spiegelman, James Wood, Kenneth Turan,and a couple of guys who worked at a little comic-book shop in North Carolina in the early 1990s.Notwithstanding this cavalcade of stars, I found Watchmen somewhat frustrating, for reasons I attribute to the term “graphic novel.” This may or may not be original and/or provocative. Still, I’m bracing for comments from Watchmen enthusiasts and Comic Book Guys of all stripes…