Though I will not preclude myself from particular genres, I grew up, for the most part, very unfamiliar with graphic novels. It wasn’t until college that I felt I was able to read a graphic novel and actually get something out it without feeling like I was reading the Sunday comics. I attribute this mostly to the fact that I spent many class periods hunched over one panel just trying to “get it.”
My favorite graphic novel that I’ve read thus far is Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese. I was originally drawn to the story because of its multi-faceted narration– the story features three tales that are eventually woven together, all of which focus on the idea of assimilation as the result of societal standards and losing the self in the process.
I think the book, and graphic novels as a genre, are a success because authors are able to use dialogue in conjunction with other creative approaches to enhance a reader’s experience. In graphic novels, authors can design in a way that is more cinematic- using light, facial expressions, shading, and sound, even, to tell their stories. In American Born Chinese, the storyline is captivated truly and more fully in the nuances of body language and facial expression within the illustrations that would be lost in not actually seeing the expression on the page and reading something like “so and so grimaced” instead. Most representative of this in American Born Chinese is the interaction (or lack thereof) between Amelia, Jin, and an Over-Bearing Racist Friend in the hallway one day at school.
While there is literally only three sentences marked upon this page, the illustrations speak volumes. In the first panel: Jin’s clear indecisiveness about whether he should engage with the girl he likes, or listen to the O-B R F and keep his distance because she should “be careful who she hangs out with”; the clouds floating above him revealing his loss for words; the frame cutting off his body showcasing his lack of agency and how his actions are dictated not by his own thoughts and body, but through the actions and opinions of others.
In the second and third panel body language is key. Jin cannot look into the eyes of those who cannot accept him and walks away. Amelia clutches her arm and looks self-concious. Her friend in the pink does not move. It is only the O-B R F who appears to have any sort of dominance in this interaction, as his arms are folded and he looks straight ahead confidently.
The only dialogue on the entire page was given to the voice of the Jin’s bully, who strips him of his right to exist as a person with a multi-ethnic background and instead creates an environment riddled with self-conciousness and confusion for him instead. This is not without irony, however, as it is the oppressor that Jin models his hair after that the very same oppressor finds fault with– a moment so perfectly illustrated.
American Born Chinese is a really interesting look at what it means to be “other” and want to compromise the self for the sake of so-called normalcy. I heavily recommend you check out the entire book!
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