Many people first encountered Gene Luen Yang with his Printz award-winning title American Born Chinese. Now we have the opportunity to read his earlier works in a collection titled Animal Crackers. Combining three titles, Gordon Yamamoto and the King of the Geeks, Sammy Baker and the M.A.C., and Loyola Chin and the San Peligran Order, Animal Crackers is like a peek into a formative process that would emerge full-blown in Yang’s later works.
In Gordon Yamamoto and the King of the Geeks, the titular character is, to put it bluntly, a bully. He’s a tall, overweight ox of a teen and knows he’s not the brightest kid on his block. His friend Devon gets him to do most of the heavy-lifting in the pranks they play on the geeks of their school, choosing one freshman and proclaiming him King of the Geeks. But that’s not the first thing we see. Instead on the opening page we’re greeted an odd caption in Gordon’s words: “A couple of nights ago, I had a dream that my nose was pregnant.” along with an accompanying splash page of Gordon with a definite bulge in his nose. This surreal touch sets the tone for the entire book.
Eventually Gordon’s nightmare becomes reality and there’s that bulge in Gordon’s nose as he wakes up one Sunday. A voice from his nose tells him that there’s no cause to worry and to find out what’s going on all he has to do is to plug the coaxial cable from his TV into his nostril. (Do NOT try this at home!) Then he finds out from a little robot in the teeny ship inside his nose that he’s one of many unknowing people who are used to gather data in order to save the human race. The solution to Gordon’s problem? Simple. He just has to connect his nose with another data-collector. And who else would it be but the newly-crowned Geek King, Miles Tanner. The data transfer doesn’t go as expected, and suddenly the memories and feelings of Miles are implanted in Gordon. The effects change his whole attitude and launch both Gordon and Miles on a journey of self-discovery.
The second story featuring Sammy Baker highlights an incident referred to in the first story with a silly tale about bakery products gone bad, but the payoff would be in the last tale in the volume. Again the main character, Loyola, finds herself dreaming odd dreams. These dreams lead her to a mystery man who calls himself Saint Danger. He is the leader of the San Peligran Order, the very same secret society that Gordon found out is trying to save humanity. In Saint Danger, Loyola finds someone with an ideal, a vision for humanity that’s very attractive to her. Especially when contrasted with the rest of her life where Gordon, the big lug, is sweet on her.
All through these stories there are ridiculous situations that both hide and pose serious questions. Aimed at a teen audience, Yang’s black and white artwork is deceptively simple and lend a lightheartedness to these tales. At times the book seems slightly forced and over-the-top, reminding us that this is the author’s early work. But the kernels of self-exploration and growth are there, themes that Yang brings together deftly his later titles.
Another thing that will be of interest is the bonus material at the back of the book, including early sketches as well as a short comic that tells how Yang put the story together and got it published. For those looking to make their own graphic novels, it’s a great look into the process. All in all Animal Crackers will appeal both to fans of Yang’s other titles as well as teens who want to read something that’s easy to get through and still make you think.