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9 posts from August 2006

August 30, 2006

George O'Connor, Journey into Mohawk Country


This is the earliest group shot I could find that I drew of the three main characters in Journey into Mohawk Country. Notice that at this stage of the project I had not yet even decided on a drawing style for the graphic novel, these characters being depicted in a much more “realistic” style than in the final book. This sketch is also from before I had completed any research on how a Dutchmen might dress in 1634—these guys look more like New England Puritans from a century later (not too mention that they are a little too gung-ho looking). On the bottom of the page is a very early conception of the face of author and narrator Harmen van den Bogaert, barely recognizable compared to his final incarnation.

August 29, 2006

Gene Yang, Video Game


Check out THE MONKEY KING'S DUEL, a video game based on Gene Yang's American Born Chinese, created by one of his students!

August 28, 2006

george O'Connor, Journey into Mohawk Country



These are the style sheets I made for the three main characters of Journey into Mohawk Country as I began working on the book. The first is a “before” shot, depicting Harmen, Jeronimus and Willem at the outset of their journey. The second is an “after”, with the three Dutchmen showing all the wears and tears of their winter trek through what is now New York State. They’ve lost some things, and gained some others. These shots are the alpha and omega. Artwise, I gradually brought them from the clean cut image in the before shot to the ragged, but wiser, final image.

August 25, 2006

George O'Connor, Journey into Mohawk Country


Some sketches of time-specific Iroquois rattles. A few of these turn up in Journey into Mohawk Country. I believe this particular selection is from New York’s own American Museum of Natural History. Anytime you see an Iroquois tool or implement in Mohawk Country, there’s a pretty good chance you can see the original in a collection somewhere.

August 23, 2006

George O'Connor, Journey into Mohawk Country


Sometimes while doing research for Journey into Mohawk Country I was frustrated to find that there was simply no information that existed on a topic. A case in point was the subject of Mohawk armor.

In the journals of Harmen van den Bogaert that serve as the text for Mohawk Country, there is a major episode where the three Dutch explorers are witness to a mock battle between two groups of the Mohawk, some of whom wear the aforementioned armor. This armor, made of woven twigs and cords, was discarded by the Iroquois as a group soon after their initial encounters with Europeans (as it was unfortunately not bulletproof) and, to the best of my knowledge, no examples survive.

Furthermore, no picture or drawing of Mohawk armor exists, only a few written descriptions. The closest I could find to a depiction of Mohawk armor were two rather poorly drawn early seventeenth century woodcuts of Huron armor (my sketch of one of them accompanies this text). The Huron were the Mohawk’s neighbors (and longtime enemies) to the north, and shared many similar customs, as well as a similar language. Lacking any other source to go on, I drew the Mohawk warriors wearing Huronesque armor. Maybe it’s close to what they actually wore, maybe it’s not. It goes to show how quickly things changed for the Native Americans after first contact. No one thought to record what their armor looked like and then it was gone forever.

August 11, 2006

Gene Yang, Origins of ABC

Origins of American Born Chinese - part 3

Some folks who’ve flipped through American Born Chinese have asked about the star of the third storyline, Cousin Chin-Kee.


What would possess a self-respecting Asian-American cartoonist to draw a character like that?

Several years ago, just before my wedding, I spent an afternoon organizing things in my childhood bedroom. I came across an old notebook filled with gag cartoons I drew in second grade.

Here’s one example:


Here’s another:


I was startled. I couldn’t remember where I’d heard the joke, or if I understood that it was directed at me. I wondered if my second-grade self identified more with the Chinese caricature at the top of the page or the blonde character at the bottom. (Perhaps that question is answered by the stories I wrote in elementary school, all of which featured white protagonists.)

I’ve been told that Jeff Smith, the genius behind the cartoon epic Bone, first created Fone Bone and Company in kindergarten. In many ways, Cousin Chin-Kee is my Bone. He’s a character conceived in childhood who’s stayed with me ever since, consciously or not.

American Born Chinese is an exploration of WHY Cousin Chin-Kee is my Bone. And just as Fone Bone now looks much the way he did in Jeff Smith’s kindergarten sketches, so Chin-Kee’s current design remains consistent with that initial second grade drawing. I’ve got to stay true to the source material.

There is always the danger, of course, that by making a comic book about Cousin Chin-Kee I’m helping to perpetuate him, that readers – especially younger readers – will take his appearance in American Born Chinese at face value. I think it’s a danger I can live with. In order for us to defeat our enemy, he must first be made visible. Besides, comic book readers are some of the smartest folks I’ve ever met. They’ll figure it out.

August 09, 2006

Gene Yang, Origins of ABC

Origins of American Born Chinese - part 2

The second storyline in American Born Chinese follows the trials and tribulations of Jin Wang, a Chinese-American boy growing up in a white suburb:


Jin’s story is based on my own, but there are significant differences. First, I didn’t really look like him when I was a kid. I looked much more like one of his friends from the Chinatown apartment building:


Second, unlike Jin, I had white friends in elementary school. My best friend in third and fourth grade was white (and nothing like Jin’s “friend” Peter Garbinsky).

Finally, the true face of racism, especially in as diverse a community as the San Francisco Bay Area, is much more complex than what is portrayed in the story. For instance, my most consistent childhood tormentor was an East Indian classmate. We hurled racist insults at one another with a determined ferociousness, usually in front of a white audience.

There is one race-related grade school memory that burns with particular intensity. A Chinese immigrant boy a year younger than I began attending my school, and the teachers on yard duty kept pestering me to befriend him. “You speak the same language,” they told me. “You can really help him out.”

I didn’t want to be friends with him. I didn’t want to from the deepest parts of me, for reasons I didn’t understand at the time. He followed me around the playground for several days, and only stopped when my best friend and I threw tanbark at him.

August 08, 2006

Gene Yang, Origins of ABC

Origins of American Born Chinese - part 1

American Born Chinese, my latest graphic novel, consists of three distinct storylines. The first retells the story of the Monkey King, an ancient Chinese folk hero who is ubiquitous in Asia.

Here’s my version:


And here’s a more classic rendition:


The Monkey King first came into public consciousness as the protagonist of the fourth century novel The Journey to the West, one of four books that make up the Chinese literary canon. Since then, he’s transcended his literary roots and become a pop culture icon, something of a Chinese Mickey Mouse. There are movies, picture books, lunch boxes, T-shirts, television shows, toothbrushes, and almost any product you can imagine featuring the Monkey King. Oh, and comic books. Lots and lots of comic books.

Like most Chinese children, I first heard the Monkey King’s exploits as bedtime stories from my mom. Almost before I started drawing comics, I knew I wanted to do a comic book adaptation of the Monkey King.

But as I became more and more familiar with the character, there seemed to be less and less of a point in doing so. There were already so many Monkey King comics that he’s practically his own genre. The popular manga series Dragonball Z is a riff on The Journey to the West. Heck, even Osamu Tezuka, Japan’s God of Comics, did his own interpretation. What new insight could I possibly bring to the character?

I eventually came up with the idea to use the Monkey King as a lens through which to reflect on my own experience as an Asian-American. As I began writing the script, however, I realized that this would necessitate one drastic change to the original story.

At its heart, The Journey to the West is a Buddhist morality tale. In the original, the Monkey King raises havoc among the gods of all other traditional Chinese religions, and it is only the Buddha that is finally able to put him in his place. In American Born Chinese, I’ve replaced the story’s Buddhist underpinnings with Christian ones, drawing from my own faith.

Christianity, you see, lies at the very center of my identity as an Asian-American. I would even go so far as to say that Christianity is a vital part of “The” Asian-American experience. For proof, simply visit a Christian student group on any university campus. More likely than not, you’ll find a sea of Asian faces. By adopting this ancient Western religion that is both a part of and at odds with contemporary Western culture, we attempt to make sense of ourselves.

But is it okay for me to take an age-old Chinese folk tale and rip out its Buddhist heart? Derek Kirk Kim, one of my best friends and a decidedly non-Christian Asian-American, questioned me on this after an enthusiastic reading of my script. “How would you feel if someone took one of your stories and made it Taoist or Muslim or atheist?” he asked.

It’s a good question. And after much reflection, I’ve arrived at an answer:

I’ve read that many scholars believe the Monkey King himself was derived from Hanuman, a Hindu monkey-god. The original author (or authors – no one really knows for sure) of The Journey to the West took the Hindu source material (perhaps without knowing it) and used it for his (or their) own religious purposes. Furthermore, coincidence or not, this trickster monkey deity is echoed in religions and mythologies all over the world.

So in a very real sense, the Monkey King is universal. He’s been around a long, long time, and I think he’s sturdy enough to follow us wherever we go, to embody whatever philosophies and beliefs we arrive at.

To be honest, I’m not entirely comfortable with that answer. But I was comfortable enough with it to be able to finish American Born Chinese, and maybe that’s all that matters.

August 02, 2006

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