|Jan/Feb 2007 Book Reviews|
First Second is quickly emerging as a force to be reckoned with in the comic industry. Home to an impressive catalog, three of its fall 2006 books stand out in the way that they examine how culture, ethnic heritage, and place converge, combine, and sometimes collide in an individual's formation of identity.
Leland Myrick's Missouri Boy is a series of autobiographical vignettes that chronicle his coming of age in the rural United States. Beginning with his birth as a twin and the concurrent death of his grandmother, Myrick takes the reader through his experiences; each firmly grounded in a place of personal importance. From locations as aptly titled as the firecracker tree or the underwear pond, to a courtroom and a five story parking garage; each setting is lovingly and evocatively portrayed.
Myrick's semi-realistic art style is uncluttered by the unimportant; in the dreamlike state of memory everything drawn takes on a special significance and pulls the reader into the experience. As teenaged Myrick hangs off a ledge to impress a girl, you can almost feel the cold scraping of the concrete under his fingers and the wind pulling at his coat; as he is buried in a pile of leaves the thick, warm smell emanates from the page.
Drawn in the same style, Myrick's family and friends are not the idealized caricatures of other books, but feature a uniqueness of appearance that makes them recognizable as individuals. Subtle details, like Myrick's father's large hands or his mother's perpetually sad eyes, further set them apart.
It is these places and this family that make Myrick who he is, and as he ages in each successive vignette, his sense of self emerges and solidifies. He travels across the country in the last pages, explaining that as he drives he feels the "presence of my local gods waning," but he remembers the experiences of his past, and knows that they have created the young man driving toward his future.
Leland Myrick and South Asian cartoonist LAT grew up quite literally across the world from each other, yet the similarities in the experiences set forth in their work serve to highlight both the universality of childhood and the essential role that culture and location play in growing up.
Mat, the young narrator of LAT's Kampung Boy, is a Muslim child living in rural Malaysia. Beginning with his birth, he lays out the story of his youth in a kampung, (the Malay word for village) that sits at the edge of a rubber plantation. Every aspect of his life is affected by his surroundings; from the river that provides recreation and distraction as well as the useful skill of fishing, to the banana tree trunk that serves as the site of his circumcision. The rubber plantation is the source of most of the kampung's employment, and takes on even greater importance to Mat when his father informs him that it will be his when he comes of age and passes his schooling. This schooling is just one of the ways that Mat's ethnic and religious heritage influence him; he not only describes his Koran reading class, but also the various ceremonies and rituals that make up the life of a practicing Muslim.
While Mat's narrative voice is distinct and defining, LAT's art style is a vital element in the reader's understanding and embracing of the kampung. Varying from simple spot illustrations on heavily texted pages to full page, intricately detailed images, each representation is carefully chosen to impart the information and emotion required. Koran reading teacher Tuan Syed Ahmad is intimidating as he fills one page, glaring over his curved moustache; on another, Mat and his sister howl in laughter as their father tries to retrieve his swimming outfit out of a tree before the village women see him. For readers who have never visited Malaysia, LAT's artwork offers a loving window into his country.
In their respective books, both Myrick and LAT simply and beautifully illustrate the life of a young boy growing into a man without thesis or judgment. Both function as true slice-of-life books, laying out one person's experience through childhood and into early adulthood.
Continuing in this vein, Gene Luen Yang's American Born Chinese also concerns itself with a young boy growing up, albeit with more internal conflict than either Myrick or Mat. Told in three intercut and seemingly disparate tales, American Born Chinese tells the stories of Jin Wang, a young Chinese-American boy in a new school; Danny, a popular basketball-playing high school student who is ashamed of his Chinese cousin; and the Monkey King, a monkey who rises to great skill and stature but hates his monkey nature. In turns poignant and funny, each of the stories takes a look at what it means to grapple with, and come to terms with, the whole of your cultural identity.
The book begins with the fable of the monkey king, a deity who rules his monkey people with a kind hand. During a visit to heaven, he is refused entry because he is a monkey, and his embarrassment leads him to go to extreme measures to purge himself and his people of their monkey qualities. This quest attracts the attention of Tze-yo-Tzuh, creator of all gods, and leads to the monkey king's entrapment. It is only through his acceptance of who he truly is that he is able to free himself and reach his fullest potential.
Jin has Chinese ancestry and was born in America, but discovers that the distinction makes little difference to the kids at his new school who tease him for eating dumplings and call him "buck tooth." When Taiwan-born Wei-Chen moves into the school, Jin reluctantly becomes his friend. As they grow older, Jin develops a crush on his classmate Amelia, all the while envying the hair and style of her friend, the blond, popular Greg. Jin patterns himself after Greg, and Amelia returns his affection, until a thoughtless insult turns things upside down, affecting not only Jin and Amelia, but Wei-Chin and his girlfriend Suzy.
Danny, the basketball player, is popular and happy, and has a crush on the beautiful Melanie. Just as he's about to admit his attraction, his cousin Chin-Kee arrives from China. Embodying every negative stereotype of Chinese culture, Chin-Kee is broad faced and buck toothed, with squinty eyes and a mandarin suit. A long ponytail and a thick accent finish off the caricature, and Danny is humiliated as he is required to bring his cousin to school and be associated with him. It's soon revealed that Chin-Kee visits every year, and each year Danny is so embarrassed that he switches schools.
Danny's frustration leads to a confrontation wherein the three storylines converge, in an unexpected, fanciful, and touching way. Without preaching, Yang illustrates the identity issues that arise when one's heritage is different from one's home; what does it mean to be Chinese and never have lived in China?
Yang's art is clean and engaging, transitioning easily from the real world feel of Jin's story, through the animal filled monkey king's fable, to the exaggerated caricature of Danny's experience.
While each of these three books focuses on life in a different place, the common thread that connects them is an obvious affection for the culture and heritage that those places foster. Reading them is like reading love letters to home.
by Leland Myrick
First Second 2006
First Second 2006
American Born Chinese
by Gene Luen Yang
First Second 2006