It is a tricky thing to make a collaborative comic book—and an even trickier thing to make one that is appealing and memorable to anyone beyond the immediate circle of those who collaborated on it. Add to the mix the fact that the collaborators are a parcel of undergraduate college students, and you’ve got a real crapshoot. However, I am happy to report that American Heathen, the latest creation by the Stanford Graphic Novel Project course, is a memorable and meaningful work, well-researched, thoughtfully recounted, and competently and clearly illustrated. Do not let its amateur pedigree scare you off. It is absolutely worth a read.
American Heathen tells the story of Wong Chin Foo, a Chinese immigrant, activist, sometimes huckster, and constant rabble-rouser who bravely campaigned for Chinese immigrants’ rights in late nineteenth century, challenged the Chinese tongs (gangs who controlled Chinese businesses and trafficked young women into the U.S. for prostitution), and urged Chinese immigrants to take pride in their heritage while at the same time working to become, and act like, American citizens.
Wong feels these great struggles in his private life as well. As a young man in China, he and his father are taken in and supported by Baptist missionaries, but this upbringing makes him feel separated from his Chinese identity and makes him critical of Western influences which have introduced the seemingly hypocritical combination of Christian religion and society-destroying opium to China. Upon arrival in the United States, however, he seeks to both evangelize the American people on the superior philosophies and customs of the Chinese people he felt so separated from as a child, and also to push for assimilation and integration for Chinese in America. He fights tooth and nail to acquire citizenship, allow Chinese citizens the right to vote, and demands respect and fair treatment from police and the government. His success is limited, but his voice and his internal conflict paint a powerful picture of an important episode in the history of the Chinese in America.
At one point early in the book, Wong makes the choice to cut off his queue, the long braided ponytail that most Chinese men wore at the time, and to dress in Western clothes. It is symbolic of his choice to separate himself from his Chinese heritage. However, he points out that it is not a pure symbol—the queue is not technically a Chinese hairstyle, but a Manchurian one. The boundaries of national and cultural identity are ever-shifting and they have as much meaning as we as a society and individuals assign them. Wong Chin Foo’s story is a great example of those identities being negotiated and determined both by individuals and by societal forces.
American Heathen is well-crafted enough that it is almost hard to tell that it is such a collaborative effort. The wisest choice that the Stanford Graphic Novel Project made was to stick to a single, fairly simple illustration style, with groups of students preparing mock-ups, final drawings, inking and touch-ups as teams. If the style had been fanciful or switched around to celebrate great illustrators in the group, it could have potentially distracted from the flow of the narrative. As it is, this collaborative group is able to illustrate intimate personal moments, as well as scenes of large crowds in a dynamic and thoughtful way. It feels like a style in progress, but a defined and effective style nonetheless.
The other aspect of American Heathen that feels very collaborative, for better or for worse, is the episodic storytelling that travels back and forth along the timeline of Wong Chin Foo’s life. By taking snapshots from various moments in his life, collaborators are able to focus in on different aspects of Wong’s experience, which is great for getting a sense of this multi-faceted and deeply conflicted man. However, there’s one aspect of this device that felt like a misstep to me. In attempting to give a dynamic and unique arc to the story, each consecutive episode jumps backwards and forwards in the timeline of Wong’s life. It’s a bit difficult to understand why this was necessary—it adds little to the narrative, and just telling his story using these snapshots from beginning to end would be equally, if not more, satisfying in learning about his work and his impact.
That questionable collaborative decision aside, American Heathen is a strong, well-researched, and satisfying read. I’m sure it doesn’t hurt things that the talented, precise, and thoughtful cartoon journalist, Andy Warner, served as art director and one of the guiding hands for this group. The work feels like it reaches for standards that he might have set for himself in his own extensively researched work. Although it may not be the easiest to obtain, American Heathen is available as a free e-book on the Stanford Graphic Novel Project course’s website. The physical form is just as satisfying, too, and, in whatever form one may find it, it belongs on the shelf next to other great graphic novels of the turn-of-the-century Chinese experience like Boxers and Saints and The Shadow Hero, both by Gene Luen Yang. American Heathen is a very good use of the collaborative form to examine one facet of a complex, evolving cultural story.