You Brought Me The Ocean

You Brought Me The Ocean is not your average coming-of-age and coming out story. Sure, our protagonist, Jake Hyde, lives in a town too small for his aspirations. And, yes, Jake has not yet come to terms with his sexuality. And, of course, his best friend, Maria is tragically in love with him. You Brought Me The Ocean has all the makings of a generic YA novel. But this graphic novel is different for one reason alone: the universe of this story is inhabited by superheroes and villains.

Jake is not only struggling to come out as gay to his family and friends, he is also trying to come to terms with his superhuman ability to control water. Though this is an interesting, and certainly unique, concept the execution of the story falls flat. Unfortunately, You Brought Me The Ocean is not the intricate story of sexual identity wrapped up in themes of self-discovery, defining the “superhero”, and magic realism it deserves to be. Instead, it is a shallow depiction of both the coming out story and the superhero origin story. Neither plot line gets the attention it deserves and, quite frankly, the two concurrent plot lines are not the only victims of this narrative.

Aside from Jake, the characters in this book are all woefully underdeveloped. Jake’s best friend, Maria, is resigned to being identified solely by her unrequited love for Jake and the fact that, unlike Jake, she enjoys living in the desert. Similarly, Jake’s love interest, Kenny, has few defining characteristics. And, as is often a problem with underdevelopment, the dialogue throughout the story is stilted and unrealistic. Let’s look at the following lines of dialogue spoken between Jake and Maria, as they head out on a hiking trip:

Jake: Ready to journey to the ends of the Earth?
Maria: So long as we’re back by dinnertime.

The dialogue throughout the entirety of You Brought Me The Ocean carries this same tone. Namely: awkward and cliched.

The artwork is, regrettably, as disappointing as the text. Artist Julie Maroh is perhaps best known for her work on Blue is the Warmest Color; a famous French graphic novel about the tumultuous relationship between two young women. Aside from the fact that Maroh has previously published LGBTQA+-themed work, she seems an odd stylistic choice for You Brought Me The Ocean. Maroh’s often monochromatic coloring washes out pivotal scenes throughout the story. Take, for example, a scene in which Jake uses his water-bending powers to part a flash flood. Rather than bright, deep blues and a menacing, stormy sky painted with grays, the reader gets a wave of neutral colors. Maroh is clearly a talented artist, but her work here clashes too much with the story to be ignored.

Ultimately, this is a disappointing book with an incredibly promising premise. However, I hesitate to discourage adding this to your graphic novel collection entirely, given the dearth of LGBTQA+ representation in the superhero genre. Though You Brought Me The Ocean does not exactly live up to its premise, one can only hope this book is an indication of better—and more LGBTQA+ representative—superhero comics that are yet to come. For now, You Brought Me The Ocean may have to suffice.

You Brought Me The Ocean
By Alex Sanchez
Art by Julie Maroh
ISBN: 9781401290818
DC Comics, 2020

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Tween (10-13), Teen (13-16)
Character Traits: Black, Chinese-American, Gay
Creator Highlights: Latinx, Gay

Dragon Hoops

After finishing his graphic novel duology Boxers & Saints, cartoonist Gene Luen Yang is worried about finding his next story. In the halls of Bishop O’Dowd High School (where he taught computer science), Yang starts hearing about “the big game.” Bishop O’Dowd’s men’s basketball team, the Dragons, have a chance at winning the California state tournament. Sensing a story, Yang finds himself stepping outside of his comfort zone to record the Dragons’ journey to the state tournament.

Dragon Hoops is a combination of personal narrative and sports story, with a dollop of history for flavor. Yang interweaves his personal journey with those of head coach Lou Richie and the team members to build up the journey to the big game. The inclusion of Yang’s struggle to figure out his career helps tease out the story’s main themes, which include the importance of putting yourself out there and taking risks. Yang reflects on the journey with good humor and admiration for the Dragons, although he doesn’t pull punches while addressing difficult topics. The result is an engaging, dense story that pulls you in and gets you thinking.

Yang’s artwork strongly conveys the emotion behind the story and helps make the story manageable. Yang’s dynamic panels capture the characters’ athleticism and emotions, making the reader feel like they’re in the middle of the action. The strong sports action is balanced with lighter scenes that capture the camaraderie and humor in the daily lives of these athletes. The story, with its heavy detail and topics, could feel over-crowded in parts, but Yang’s artwork makes it easy to follow. The art also helps highlight the themes. One particularly powerful recurring image is a foot crossing a line to show when someone was taking a risk or making a transition.

Dragon Hoops will appeal to readers who enjoy sports stories, and it will also garner interest with those who like memoirs. First Second recommends Dragon Hoops for ages fourteen to eighteen, and this reviewer agrees with that rating as a starting point. The narrative is fairly complex and, at various points, wrestles with ethical questions, such as how to accurately report on sensitive topics (for instance, a scandal involving the basketball team’s previous head coach). With its compelling, meaty story, adult readers will also find much to enjoy here. Libraries that have Yang’s previous works or are looking to expand their nonfiction graphic novel collection will want to purchase Dragon Hoops.

Dragon Hoops
By Gene Luen Yang
ISBN: 9781626720794
First Second, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: 14-18

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)
Character Traits: Chinese, Black, South Asian
Creator Highlights: BIPOC Creator

Everything is Beautiful and I’m Not Afraid: A Baopu Collection

Everything is Beautiful and I’m Not Afraid: A Baopu Collection explores the identity, imagination, and struggle of cartoonist Yao Xiao. Baopu is a monthly, serialized comic published in Autostraddle, a online community dedicated to publishing independent, progressively feminist, queer media. Thus, Everything is Beautiful and I’m Not Afraid: A Baopu Collection allows us to enter the universe of a bisexual, Chinese-American emigrant woman, an identity not often, if ever, shown in popular media. The collection includes both never before seen comics and fan favorites.

Baopu is a Taoist word used to illuminate the importance of simplicity and the ideal of living in a simpler state. Xiao clearly exemplifies this ideal through her work. The artwork is understated and the writing is accessible. The use of simplicity in Xiao’s artwork conveys a feeling of intimacy. Every comic in this compilation seems like it could have easily come directly from Xiao’s diary. And, frankly, this makes her comics likeable. Regardless of your identity, Xiao’s artwork is relatable. Xiao portrays herself in pseudo-minimalist drawings throughout each comic. In fact, her line work is so uncomplicated that her character is often only identifiable by a triangular hat differentiating her from the characters around her. While some readers may find the lack of detailing in her work frustrating, others will find it endearing.

As for the actual writing in this collection, once again readers may find themselves divided. Some of Xiao’s writing, such as one comic highlighting her frustration to pick a—literal—box, may read as cliched and a bit saccharine. However, other comics, such as those highlighting her loneliness as an immigrant, are quite poignant. One notable comic, titled “Quiet Night Thoughts” illustrates a poem by famed 7th century Chinese poet Li Bia. Xiao beautifully applies a poem written during the Tang Dynasty to her experience as a Chinese-American in the 21st century.

Given the independent nature of this publication, no particular age group is ascribed to the book. However, this book will mostly likely be appreciated by teens and emerging adults. Another issue with the independent publishing of this book is availability. This title most likely will not be available to libraries unless purchased from the publisher, Andrews McMeel Publishing, or Amazon. And, ultimately, may not be worth the investment.

Everything is Beautiful and I’m Not Afraid: A Baopu Collection is a sweet, engaging book. However, for a comic collection, the book is short at 128 pages. The collection feels incomplete. As a reader, I found myself wanting more. Xiao is clearly a young, very promising comic artist. I would love to read a more comprehensive volume of work from her. While I cannot recommend that this particular book be added to your library’s graphic novel collection, I would highly recommend that prospective readers take a look at Xiao’s professional Instagram account (@yaoxiaoart) and published work on Autostraddle. Xiao is a competent artist and cartoonist. More is certainly to come.

Everything is Beautiful and I’m Not Afraid: A Baopu Collection
By Yao Xiao
ISBN: 9781524852450
Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: (16+)

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)
Character Traits: Chinese American Bisexual, Queer
Creator Highlights: Own Voices, BIPOC Creator, LGBTQIA+ Creator

Superman Smashes the Klan

Set in 1946, Superman Smashes the Klan is based on a radio program from the 40s where the Superman brand was used to fight against the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.

The Lee family moves into a nice neighborhood of Metropolis from the city’s Chinatown. The son, Tommy, quickly joins the neighborhood baseball team. The presence of the Lee family and Tommy’s participation in the baseball team sparks retaliation from a local chapter of the Klan of the Fiery Cross.

The Klan first demonstrates on the lawn of their home, then proceeds to target the Lee children; Tommy and Roberta (their Americanized names). Superman ends up saving the the children several times over. Roberta first notices that Superman may be holding back, and has other powers he’s not using. Superman has to come to terms with himself as an immigrant and embrace some of the abilities he has suppressed his whole life in fear of social ostracism.

The story is well-executed, especially the way Superman’s journey mirrors that of the Lee family. This title deals with racism in a faithful way that still is appropriate for younger kids. The art is simple and clean, and very reminiscent of 90s DC cartoon shows.

There is also a three-pronged afterword: Yang provides a background on the his family; including the different experiences he and his father had with racism growing up; there is a narrative about the radio program as it was originally conceived; and, there is a detailed historical perspective on how Chinese immigrants have been treated in American from the 1800s through their involvement in World War II. This backmatter provides some needed context for a story that may draw some criticism for the topic of this Superman adventure.

This is a great stand alone, but younger readers might need a reminder of how early in Superman’s timeline this story takes place.

DC’s age rating for this title is for grades 7 and up, and it is a great middle grade read. The only reason it doesn’t work as an all ages title is that elementary students might not have enough historical context for the Klan or World War II.

Superman Smashes the Klan
By Gene Luen Yang
Art by Gurihiru Smith
ISBN: 9781779504210
DC Comics, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: Grades 7+

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13), Teen (13-16)
Character Traits: Chinese American
Creator Highlights: Own Voices, BIPOC Creator
Related to…: Retelling

Tamamo the Fox Maiden and Other Asian Stories

Cautionary Fables and Fairy Tales is the umbrella title for a series of three compilations themed after a specific region of which this one is the third. The first two cover Europe and Africa while the fourth one, on Oceania tales, is in publication. All have been funded through Kickstarter efforts.

I had high hopes for this collection of Asian folktales, but was dismayed to discover that few of them have source notes or any markers for context. The geographic location is mentioned, but no background is provided for readers who may not be familiar with yokai, kitsune, demons, and other supernatural beings from Japan, China, India, Georgia, Laos, Myanmar, Turkey, Iraq and Tibet. I was very pleased, however, with the reworking of “The Ballad of Mulan” which followed the ancient tales rather than the Disney film. Aside from this tale and a few others such as the title story and “Urashima Taro,” most of the stories may not be familiar with young audiences. This is not a criticism, but it is also where source notes could have made this an outstanding addition to the ongoing reworkings of folklore in the comic book format.

The length of the stories varies as does the black and white art work in this anthology. Several of the tales have been modernized to including texting and other nods to contemporary life, but the vast majority have retained the ancient settings; particularly those by a diverse range of illustrators including Gene Luen Yang, Nina Matsumoto, and Carla Speed McNeil. Most of the other creators in this collection are known better through their webcomics and indie titles. The illustrations range from manga-like cartoon-y artwork to detailed and realistic penciling and the application of black and shadows. The mood of the stories is also as diverse as the tales themselves, with a mixture of light and dark themes. Some of the tales are excerpts from longer legends and books such as Yang’s “From the Journey of the Monkey King” from American Born Chinese. All the tales offer warnings or advice for the protagonists and the readers. Unfortunately for many of the protagonists, there is a great deal of pain in learning these lessons. They do, as the overall theme indicates, offer a cautionary edification for the reader.

I wish I could recommend this for library collections but the lack of source notes for this storyteller is truly a stumbling block. There is no need in today’s publishing world not to respect the tales and culture from where the stories originated. Very few of the entries even acknowledge that the individual tale has been adapted.

Tamamo the Fox Maiden and Other Asian Stories 
By C. Spike Trotman, ed. Kate Ashwin, ed. Kel McDonald
Art by Carla Speed McNeil, Gene Leun Yang, Nina Matsumoto, et al
ISBN: 9781945820342
Iron Circus, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: all ages
NFNT Age Recommendation: Easy Readers (5-9), Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)

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Related to…: Inspired by myth, Retelling

New Super-Man, vols. 1-3

Gene Yang is best known as an independent comics creator. His American Born Chinese was a surprise hit in 2006 and his further graphic works (The Shadow Hero, Boxers & Saints) have skillfully explored problems of Chinese and Chinese-American identity while also telling compelling, brilliantly drawn stories. He has taken over existing creative franchises in the past, in the form of his marvelous Avatar: The Last Airbender graphics, but has never before tackled a high-profile superhero title. Yang’s New Super-Man series is his first opportunity to put his mark on an existing superhero mythology and world, and he delivers brilliantly.

Yang’s hero is not the enormously familiar/enormously white Superman of Action Comics fame, but is instead a Chinese teenager named Kong Kenan, If Supes is classically known as a do-gooder and boy scout, Kong is in some ways the opposite. Introduced as a bully and a clown, over time the new Super-Man of Shanghai reveals himself as a person with a heroic but angry-and-wounded heart. The reasons for his heroism are rooted in well-delivered comic book cliches—a tragically dead mother, an emotionally distant father, conflicted feelings about new superpowers. Created by the Chinese government’s shadowy Ministry of Self-Reliance, Kenan finds himself imbued with colossal-but-unreliable power, and is forced to work with the Wonder Woman and Batman of China (!) in the newly formed Justice League of China. It is a team created as much for Chinese propaganda purposes as it is to fight the increasing number of super-villains cropping up in Chinese urban centers.

If the plot ideas are not entirely fresh—sassy teenage superhero finds himself via heroism—the details, delivery, and storytelling all start strong and grow stronger over time. For example, Kenan’s teammates could easily be portrayed as either cheap imitations, government thugs, or half-baked jokes. Instead, Kenan finds himself befriending and respecting the Chinese Batman and Wonder Woman despite their differing philosophies and maturity. For their part, they have no respect for ideals such as democracy and liberty, but instead value personal loyalty and compassion and so are willing to bend the rules for their friend. In contrast, the Justice League’s first opponents, the Freedom Fighters of China, have ideals that Western readers are more likely to identify with, but several of them have fallen off the path to super-heroism into outright terrorism. It’s details like these that Yang mines for nuance and context, allowing him to talk about mainland China’s politics and attitude towards intellectual property without becoming mired in overblown philosophical discussion. At the same time Yang creates a warm and humorous chemistry between his main characters, highlighted by the chilliness of both Kenan’s father and the Ministry of Self-Reliance’s intimidating director, Doctor Omen.

Another outstanding aspect of this series is how Yang uses super-heroic tropes to explore superhero comics’ problematic (at best) history with Asian characters—figures like The Mandarin, The Golden Claw, the bizarre racist Humpty-Dumpty Egg Fu, and DC’s own Fu-Manchu rip-off Ching Lung-—a Yellow Menace caricature who appeared on the cover of Detective Comics #1, and who makes an appearance as an apparent mastermind in early issues of New Super-Man. This is familiar territory for Yang, who has explored American caricatures of Asians with characters like American Born Chinese’s Chin Kee, but touching on elements specific to superhero comics provides Yang with a new opportunity to redeem comics’ past while not allowing superhero stories to ignore it.

Conversely, Yang also explores Chinese cultural touchstones in this series, introducing his readers to perhaps unfamiliar elements of Chinese society and storytelling. For example, the Wonder Woman of China is actually the Green Snake, a hero from one of China’s most famous folk tales, echoing the more familiar Wonder Woman’s origins in Western mythology while rooting his new character firmly in Asian traditions. Bridging the gap between these concepts is Kenan’s sifu and martial arts mentor, I Ching, who not only teaches Kenan about Chinese mystical concepts like the 8 Trigrams (from the oracular Chinese book the I-Ching) and qi (life energy), but also served a similar (if more stereotypical) role as Wonder Woman’s mentor during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Superheroes are often touted as modern myths, but Yang seems to be exploring their potential for historical and cultural exploration in ways other creators haven’t touched on. As a longtime student of Chinese martial arts, I realize I might be part of a very small target audience for some of this discussion, but this fact also lets me appreciate the fact that Yang gets the details on difficult concepts right, and explains them adroitly without getting too bogged down in exposition.

New Super-Man is a smart, fun read. While the superhero battles often have dark undertones, the characters and dialog provide a welcome sense of humor throughout, and Yang’s command of the DC Universe makes Kenan and his allies plausible additions to an already complex world. The nature of mainstream superhero comics does mean this is not the visual storytelling feast Yang is known for, but artists Viktor Bogdanovic and Billy Tan both do a good job within the the genre’s constraints. If your library collects superhero comics, this is one of the better offerings currently on the shelf. Aimed at younger teens but appropriate for children, this representation of both Chinese culture and Chinese heroes also makes this book a good candidate for school libraries. Some of Yang’s earlier works were successfully designed as earth-shakers and paradigm breakers, and if you come in expecting that you will be disappointed. However, this is a superhero series that is quietly moving the needle, treating Chinese characters and culture with respect and humor while acknowledging the Chinese government’s problematic nature.

Read it.

New Super-Man
by Gene Yang
Art by Vicktor Bogdanovic. Billy Tan
vol. 1 ISBN: 9781401270933
vol. 2 ISBN: 9781401273903
vol. 3 ISBN: 9781401280444
DC Comics, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: (Teen 13-16)

Mech Cadet Yu, vols. 1-3

Mech Cadet Yu, from writer Greg Pak and illustrator Takeshi Miyazawa, is a love letter to mecha action series. Hotshot pilots control machines of war under orders from more mature commanding officers. Gundam, Voltron, Pacific Rim, and Macross fans, take note of this series, as it is aiming for your heart. This story of four plucky teens who manage to stave off an alien invasion is collected in three trade paperbacks: Volume 1 from June 2018, Volume 2 from October 2018, and Volume 3, which is scheduled for April 2019. This review is based on the contents of the single issues.

Stanford Yu is a teenage janitor working under his mom Dolly’s supervision at Sky Corps Academy in Los Robos, Arizona. While handy with machines, he is forbidden from endangering himself in the cockpit of a robo mech. “You can still make a difference here on the ground… and you’re gonna be safe,” Dolly tells him. Robo mechs are humanoid, robotic creatures, complete with sentience and free will, though they can be piloted by those they deem worthy. Robo Mechs are used by humanity to battle the Sharg, a spiky and violent alien race. A chance encounter with a rogue robo mech leads to an unlikely friendship for Stanford, as he is haphazardly recruited into the Mech Cadets with his new iron giant he dubs Buddy.

The three arcs of Mech Cadet Yu each have their own feel. First are the chapters where the mechs and personalities are new, dynamic, and impressive. Robo mechs are frequently shown towering over the humans who bother at their feet, beholding their cool rocket-powered takeoffs and landings. Stanford acts partly as an audience stand-in as he meets and befriends his fellow mech cadets Olivia Park (ruthless overachiever), Francis Olivetti (wimpy but loyal friend who often needs bailing out), and Maya Sanchez (who has few discernible traits of her own). Together, they hold their own in a surprise encounter with a giant Sharg and build trust as a team. Captain Skip Tanaka is the grizzled but spirited team leader willing to give the mech cadets a chance to prove themselves, while Sgt. Schatz and his robo mech Bronto are a tragic example of the lasting grief felt after losing a friend.

In the second arc, the team are seemingly grounded to janitor duty just as a Sharg invasion hits their base. The action does not pale for a moment, instead taking place in corridor chases and last-second saves on a human scale. The third and final arc sees the team taking the fight to the Sharg fleet in outer space, culminating in rival last-ditch efforts that each require their own sacrifices in order to work. Throughout all of the arcs are orders from a couple of generals, consisting of Olivia’s father General Park and his co-commanding officer, General Felix. They are stern figures of authority, but their orders and treatment of the mech cadets is always grounded in utilitarian, calculated thought processes. For example, there is a Suprarobo that could take on all of the Sharg with ease, but in order to power it, the other robo mechs must sacrifice their cores. A few would die to save many. The mech cadets hold fast to their conviction that there must be another solution, one that would honor their bonds to their mechanical friends they love. Don’t these generals realize they’re in an action/adventure comic book and that the power of friendship can solve anything?

All the robo mechs are visually unique, with their own color palettes, silhouettes, and font color when pilots speak through their radio systems. Miyazawa’s designs mesh well with the coloring of Triona Farrell, Jessica Kholinne, and Raul Angulo, as well as the lettering of Simon Bowland. Sound effects are often lettered in thick fonts that fill their panels, conveying the robot-on-robot and robot-on-alien action that takes place in each arc. Indoor, outdoor, and outer space settings each have their own visual feel, almost like progressing through levels of a game. The mech cadets start out playing war games with Captain Tanaka with foam bullets, leap into the robotic fray, defend themselves with broomsticks, then take to the final frontier with all the skills they’ve learned.

“I know how much this is to ask of you. I never had to take on a mission this hard at your age. But you’re better than I ever was. You’re ready for this,” Olivia’s father tells her, and the story is always perched for her to kick the most butt. At the series climax, her stern general father has no choice but to shout into a cloud of destruction and hope his daughter is the cause rather than a casualty. Stanford’s bond with Buddy defines his piloting style, going so far as hopping out to make on-the-spot repairs. Francis is trained but clumsy, if not a little cowardly, and finds value in the story just by surviving and getting some hits in along the way. In the case of Maya, she lacks any defining scenes, always acting as a duplicate version of someone else’s motivation. If Olivia is standing up for Stanford in a fight, she’s there, too. Her red robo mech seems to get more page time than she does, appearing in group shots but not determining the path of the story. When the cadets’ parents radio in to tell them to stand down, Maya’s parents have nothing specific to relay to her other than a generic, “You have to come back! I don’t want to hear any backtalk, young woman!” In writing this review, I had to remind myself that Maya was a core character of the series, which really belongs to Stanford and Olivia, with Francis as comic relief.

If that lack of characterization sounds like a setback, it’s only because the rest of the cast feel so lived-in by comparison. Mech Cadet Yu is a blue-collar sci-fi adventure where janitors have as much to teach as engineers and generals. The only dangling thread at the story’s conclusion is when an animated series will come out of this and entrance a new generation of children with giant, colorful, Earth-saving suits of armor – with a diverse crew of black, white, Asian, and Hispanic men and women. Also, for better or worse, they get the job done without falling in love with each other. Content-wise, there is an occasional “hell” and “damn,” and aliens are violently beaten, shot, and exploded into shrapnel and green ooze, but this is still recommended for young readers and up.

Mech Cadet Yu
by Greg Pak
Art by Takeshi Miyazawa
Vol. 1 ISBN: 9781684151950
Vol. 2 ISBN: 9781684152537
Vol. 3 ISBN: 9781684153374
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12

The Shadow Hero


Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew are kind of my cartoon dream team. Though he’s been in comics for a long time, Yang has recently received great acclaim in the world of children’s literature for Boxers and Saints, a two-part series about two young people caught in the tumult of China’s Boxer Rebellion. Yang often writes about identity issues faced by young Asian-Americans in thoughtful titles such as American Born Chinese, Level Up, and The Eternal Smile. The Shadow Hero is no exception to this theme, although it takes on issues of identity from a unique angle: the obscure superhero comics of a bygone era.

In WWII-era America, a Chinese superhero called the Green Turtle was developed to propagandize American readers about Chinese resistance to the Japanese enemy. It was drawn and written with a racist, xenophobic hand—think Charlie Chan with superpowers. The series folded quickly, and the Green Turtle’s origin story was never explored. In this volume, Yang and Liew have resurrected the Green Turtle, reclaiming his reputation and giving him an interesting and entertaining backstory.

Hank Chu is a young man growing up in a vaguely San Franciscan Chinatown, working in his father’s store and unsuccessfully attempting to shake off his mother’s ambitions for him. Hank’s family struggles to meet the demands of the neighborhood Tongs, effectively the Chinese mafia. What better way to stand up to them, Hank’s mother reasons, than to become a superhero? It’s so absurd, it just might work! And oddly enough, through some life-changing tragedies, a bit of can-do attitude, and a slightly hilarious costume, it does. A lot of filial piety, some crooked cops, and a romantic plotline are thrown in for good measure.

The story is so strange that it could easily become a real mess, but Yang has a skill for tying plot threads together, telling a fresh story that incorporates a profound discussion of ethnic identity while presenting a unique perspective. He never resorts to stereotypes, assumptions, or shorthand, which is a real accomplishment when you’re drawing from source material that is rife with all of those things.

Illustrator, Sonny Liew, creates an excellent visual environment that references a bygone era in cartooning with a slightly faded color palette, strong-jawed men, and curvy femme fatales. Liew works out of Singapore and brings his own unique cultural identity to the mix; his work seamlessly combines influences from mainstream American superhero comics, artistically adventurous European cartooning, and manga-like pacing. His work is subtly skillful, a great compliment to Yang’s multilayered, yet light-hearted story.

The Shadow Hero is hard to pin down since there aren’t many comics about Chinese superheroes, let alone thoughtful homages, and it would be easy for this book to be inaccessible and self-serving. But Yang and Liew’s combined cartooning superpowers make it work, and the book leaves a lasting impression that makes me want in on more of the Green Turtle’s adventures.

The Shadow Hero
by Gene Luen Yang
Art by Sonny Liew
ISBN: 9781596436978
First Second, 2014
Publisher Age Rating: 12-18

American Born Chinese

Everyone has bad days—and when you’re growing up and discovering yourself, those bad days are magnified times a thousand. Gene Luen Yang, author and illustrator of American Born Chinese (color by Lark Pien), turns that teenage angst into a wonderful, vivid tale that both teaches and tickles the funny bone, without being heavy-handed.

Three seemingly unrelated stories are woven together, starting with the Chinese fable of the Monkey King, the lord of the monkeys that doesn’t want to be a monkey at all; a “sitcom” about Danny’s wacky cousin Chin-Kee in the style of Leave it to Beaver, complete with laugh-track, which confronts all the negative Chinese (and Asian) stereotyping; and a straightforward depiction of a child, Jin Wang, a first-generation American, who desperately wants to fit in and get the girl. These stories ultimately merge, culminating in an ending that leaves the reader feeling satisfied and refreshed. Yang deftly handles sensitive topics, namely friendship, young love, family, and, most importantly, self-assurance.

Yang’s artwork is geometrical and flat, with no shading. There aren’t many changes in perspective—most panels have all the characters in full view, without much depth. Details are reminiscent to anime and manga. Particularly lovely are the nods to Chinese papercut artwork, and modern takes on traditional Chinese artwork of flowers and landscape, particularly in the Monkey King chapters. Not only does Yang explore what it means to be of two worlds in the prose, the conflict is also apparent in the mix of “western-meets-eastern” illustration.

The phrase “American-born Chinese” can be used either as a compliment for those that are Chinese but have vast knowledge of American culture, or as an insult to those that have “lost their pride” in being Chinese—an apt title for a narrative that explores exactly that dichotomy.

Yang keeps the novel free from strong language, depicts only light violence, and hints vaguely at sex.

American Born Chinese
Author, Illustrator: Gene Luen Yang; Colorist: Lark Pien
ISBN: 9780312384487
First Second, 2008