Gene Luen Yang is one of my favorite cartoonists. He’s one of those writers who reflects the potential of the medium in every one of his books. With his work, I never ask “Why would anyone tell this story as a comic?” Instead, I ask, “Why has no one ever done this before?”
Yang’s work often varies in subject matter and presentation, but one interesting through line that appears in all of his work is the use of duality as a method of exploring a character’s (or characters’) identity. In each of his books, there are central instances of narrative parallels that reveal and highlight the interior lives of his characters— characters who reflect each other or split into two, stories that overlap and then deviate, drawing our attention to how and why they’re different.
The first book of Yang’s that I read was his breakout book, American Born Chinese. I was bowled over by it. While I had read plenty of books by Chinese American writers in the US, I had never seen anyone talk about the childhood experience of being an Asian American at a primarily white school. It was an experience that I had when I was a child, and it was almost overwhelming to see that part of my life reflected on paper.
In American Born Chinese, the parallel identities that appear seem external but are really internal. Protagonist Jin Wang moves from Chinatown to a mostly white suburb and subsequently faces a new kind of racism from people at school. He makes a couple friends, but much of his experience is dictated by how others treat him as different. It keeps him from making certain friends. It cuts short his dating life. In frustration with how his life is turning out, Jin Wang wishes that he was white, a wish that I remember having when I was a child.
In a parallel narrative, we follow the story of a white boy named Danny who faces social mortification when his cousin “Chin-Kee” (the physical manifestation of every bad stereotype of Asian behavior) comes to town. The story is structured so that when Chin-Kee does something outrageous, it’s perfectly reasonable that people are disgusted by his behavior. Danny’s social life is constantly ruined by Chin-Kee, to the point that he has to move schools, that he loses his own identity and friends wherever he is. Of course, it turns out that Danny is not Danny at all, but Jin Wang himself, with his wish of becoming white granted.
It’s an interesting twist, one that shows how racism actually works but also how we tend to think of it. When Jin Wang is himself, he always has to face what people think of him as an Asian American. Danny gets to live the life that Jin Wang wants to live, but it all stops anyway when Chin-Kee comes along.
When it comes to Danny’s experience, the negative reactions that follow Chin-Kee are explainable. Race, in Danny’s case, is something exterior, something event-based. Nothing as mundane as the everyday racism and prejudice that Jin Wang experiences. In the Danny narrative, the onus of bad behavior is not placed on those who perpetuate racist behavior but on those who do not fit in with the majority.
When Danny reverts back into Jin Wang, Yang breaks the binary, but he also exposes it. The different shades of identity that connect the images of these two boys remind us that identity is complex, that no one is one thing or another. Because we see what Danny’s life is separate to how we see Jin Wang’s life, we learn that even the fantasy of being Danny is corrupted because it doesn’t actually solve the issues that Jin Wang faces. The issues of racism continue to resurface in Danny’s life, even though he is “white.” Racism is still there, whether or not you’re on the receiving end of it Would the world actually be better if Jin Wang was Danny? Or would Jin Wang just be in another part of a still-racist society? What are the three versions of the boys pictured in between Jin Wang and Danny?
The presentation of Danny’s life as a narrative option for Jin Wang illustrates a harsh truth that he must face about himself and the insidiousness of how a culture of racism blames its victims to the point that even the victims blame themselves for their poor treatment. The fact that Jin Wang can’t continue to live as Danny, or even that being Danny doesn’t erase the problem of racism, just highlights what Jin Wang learns about himself and about how his peers are determined to see him over the course of the book.
In Boxers & Saints, the divide between the parallel characters is even more stratified, as the book is literally split in two. Each volume follows the story of one of the two central characters. The covers (and spines) of the book (one red with blue accents and one blue with red accents) feature one side of the faces of each of the protagonists. When the books are placed together, the two halves make up one face.
The protagonists of Boxers & Saints live parallel lives in very similar places, even crossing paths when they are children. Their traumas and saviors come from different directions, setting them on paths that diverge and then meet. However, their meeting is not quite joyful, as the events that have shaped these two young peoples’ lives have put them at opposing sides of the Boxer Rebellion.
The effect that these parallel stories create is the effect of two truths. When I first read the volumes, I read the Boxers one and then the Saints, but when I realized how the stories worked, I wondered what it would be like if I had read them the other way around. Was I biased towards one side (Little Bao’s) because I had read his story first? Probably a little. But because Yang walks the reader through the most important parts of both Little Bao and Vibiana’s life, their stories feel equally complex, their visions of the world equally justified.
The two stories illustrate the tragedy of the situation. Vibiana is a girl whose first brush with kindness comes through Christianity and Christian missionaries, while Little Bao’s first real brush with cruelty and wanton destruction comes from the very same people. This leads to both characters experiencing tragedy that cements their own beliefs in what is right. Because we have seen each instance define their perception of the world, their actions and choices feel justified, but that parallel is exactly what makes the story so tragic when Little Bao and Vibiana finally meet on the opposite sides of a conflict that is impossible to ignore.
In presenting these stories side by side, Yang demonstrates with acuity the construction of an impossible situation in which everyone is right but everyone is also wrong. Because of this, the individual volumes “Boxers” and “Saints” each tell complete stories but do not have their full effect until they are read together. It’s through knowing both strands of the story that the overall point comes through.
Earlier on in Yang’s career, he wove two stories together in a similar way. One of Yang’s earliest works, Gordon Yamamoto and the King of the Geeks was presented as a single, fairly straightforward, short story about a bully and an experience that makes him think about his behavior in a different light. However, the story was later continued and then collected alongside Loyola Chin and the San Peligran Order. It’s in the collected version, Animal Crackers: A Gene Luen Yang Collection, where Yang’s use of duality is brought to the story’s forefront.
Though the book is subtitled “A Gene Luen Yang Collection,” there are really only two main stories. They follow two characters who live in the same town, go to the same school, but live fairly separate and different lives until their stories intersect. These stories are strange and bizarre, the plot’s stakes are universal, but the stories themselves feel small and local. The central characters Loyola and Gordon couldn’t be less similar. They want different things, think in different ways, and value different aspects of their worlds. It’s only through the bizarre experiences they live through that they are emotionally capable of meeting each other on the same level when their stories do intersect.
In a lot of ways, Animal Crackers is about loneliness and how people are disconnected and kept apart. But then, these two disconnected lonely people connect. Though both stories include aliens and strange happenings, at the core of the story is regular life and the worries and challenges of regular people. The plot matters only because of the way that it shapes the characters, the circumstances changing only how Gordon and Loyola see the world and how that affects what they choose to do.
Both Loyola and Gordon have specific images of themselves at the beginning of the story. Gordon loves to bully people and doesn’t really care about presenting himself in any special way, until he gains access to all of the memories of a boy that he bullies. Loyola wants the extraordinary and special and won’t settle for anything less, until she sees the consequences of worshiping and only valuing what she considers the extraordinary.
While I was first reading the collection, the lives of Loyola and Gordon didn’t feel all that related. It was only once I reached the end and learned that Gordon and Loyola would end up married that I began to make connections backwards into the text. In a way, it’s their separate experiences, the facing the extremities of their actions and beliefs, that scare them into being a match for each other. The complexities of their stories lie, not just in each plot, but in how the journeys relate to each other.
Similar to Boxers & Saints, Animal Crackers puts the reader into the role of witness. It’s the reader who has to make the connections and hold the two contrasting stories in their minds. No one in the story is ever capable of seeing the similarities between the stories that the reader is allowed to see, nor do they really acknowledge their similar pasts. This works a little differently in Yang’s recent Superman Smashes the Klan, where the experiences that the characters have influence each other.
In Superman Smashes the Klan (Yang and Guruhiru), Yang puts Clark Kent and his alien-ness on a parallel path with a young girl named Roberta who has just moved from Chinatown to a primarily white suburb (not unlike Jin Wang’s experience in American Born Chinese). It’s a charming story, one that is deceptively complex under its good-old-fashioned veneer. As we read, we learn fairly quickly that Roberta lives in a world that tells her to hide certain parts of who she is to fit in and to avoid the actions of those who wish that she doesn’t exist. She is told by her father to get rid of her old jacket because it’s “old-fashioned” (read Asian) and is urged to speak only English, even when she and her family are at home.
Clark Kent, on the other hand, is a pretty well adjusted and happy adult, except for the fact that he’s plagued by alien ghosts who claim to be his parents. We as readers quickly realize that he isn’t quite the Superman that we know. He doesn’t fly, for one, and doesn’t use his X-Ray vision. He doesn’t even know who his birth parents are. As certain events shake Clark’s emotional foundation, he begins to flashback to earlier parts of his life that tell him to hide what makes him different.
Roberta and Clark’s experiences echo each other, sometimes to the point of using the same dialogue. We see how Clark’s history with his own identity stays with him. At the beginning of the story, Superman mysteriously runs everywhere instead of flying. Later, we learn that doesn’t fly because the last time he flew, he was called a demon. But while Clark is looking back at his past and remembering the events that shaped him, Roberta is currently living through these experiences. And, more importantly, she’s still deciding what to do in response to them. Later, her eventual choice to stand her ground inspires Clark to become a different type of Superman than he had been.
Superman Smashes the Klan seems, on the surface, so similar American Born Chinese, but it deviates in the way that it presents how the characters respond to the racism that they endure. In American Born Chinese, Jin Wang is just a regular guy trying to make it through life. Roberta, on the other hand, is a fighter and a hero. She knows herself and she will stand up for what’s right. In this way and through the narrative parallels, she’s tied to Superman’s story. She sees what Superman goes through and sees herself in the same experience. But she chooses to act differently in response to fear and hatred. She herself becomes a hero, not because she has not bowed down to racism, but also because of who she remains within a culture of racism. It’s an aspirational story as well as a slightly prescriptive one.
Yang tackles another big Superman identity question in his New Super-Man (2017) series. But this time, Kong Kenan (the titular “new Super-Man”) isn’t facing another version of himself or another person going through a similar circumstance (though one could argue that there’s a huge contrast already built in when it comes to giving a brash, unkind young man the title “Superman”). Instead, he is trying to find himself through the binaries already sketched out in front of him.
Kong has a rough start as a superhero. He can’t control his powers. He loses his temper. Even when Kong begins to find some stable ground in his new role, he is constantly being knocked out of balance. In New Super-Man and the Justice League of China (Issue 20 from Yang, Brent Peeples, and Matt Santorelli), Kong does his best to meditate on duality, “Super. Man. Order. Chaos. Heaven. Earth. Yang. Yin.” but when it comes to his behavior, he swings one way and then another—both with disastrous consequences.
This is an interesting topic for Yang to explore, as Kong’s problem is not about following one path or another but about engaging with the complexities of both. Kong is so eager to surrender to emotion and then later surrender to a life without dependence on emotion, almost like he’s trying to relinquish responsibility and the burden of having to make the hard choice each time. Kong, with his fully troubled life and harsh personality, is different from most of Yang’s characters. But he still represents the idea of multiple truths and complexity that Yang instills in all of his writing.
In New Super-Man, duality doesn’t appear as a storytelling tool so much as the central struggle of the story. Kong doesn’t need to define himself against anyone (even Clark Kent) so much as he needs to find himself inside of the boundaries in between opposites. It’s an interesting development in Yang’s writing, as it laser focuses the complexity of a character not in contrast with others but in contrast. It’s almost the direct opposite structure to how he later tells a story in Dragon Hoops.
Dragon Hoops is probably Gene Luen Yang’s most complex work, both in its scope and in its form. In my opinion, I think it’s his masterpiece. The graphic memoir/history documents a high school basketball team’s journey to the California State Championship in 2015. While the book does focus on the road to the State Championship, Yang also delves into the backgrounds of the players, the coach, his own role at the school and career, and even people who were instrumental to the history of the game.
In a lot of ways, reading Dragon Hoops felt like reading an epic. When starting the book, I knew what the probable outcome was, but through reading the book, my understanding and experience of the outcome was changed by the details and events along the way. My understanding of what the book covered had been informed by all of the little pieces that made up the larger story, little pieces that I would not have considered before as part of or even relevant to the story. All of this information could be easily overwhelming, but Yang creates a sort of narrative system which simplifies each individual story and history into something that adds to the overall story but also slots into its structure. Instead of simplifying the narrative to make for a straightforward read, Yang found the connections, the parallels, unifying traits between what others would not have seen there at all.
In the book, Yang describes the systematic rituals in basketball, “much of what happens is determined by ritual. National anthem at the beginning, like an opening hymn. Sermon-like pep talk in the middle. And handshakes—offerings of peace—at the end” (249). In the same way, Yang creates a ritual sort of structure for each individual story he tells. By the second “tangent,” we can already see the patterns forming and how the stories (even the ones that seem most unconnected) are connected.
One major motif in Dragon Hoops is the visualization of each character taking a step that will ultimately change their lives. This is reflected by a panel that shows a literal step over a line. It’s this type of moment that Yang focuses on and draws attention to throughout the story. In doing so, he unifies aspects on a specific theme, one taking risks, that later even plays into his own story. These steps unite the narrative, tying each story together in a way that transcends plot and instead is built into the very structure of the graphic memoir.
While the parallels in Dragon Hoops are not set in tension against each other (like they are in New-Superman or even in Boxers & Saints), they weave together into something extraordinary, functioning as a history as well as a thematic exploration into a sport that has bored the writer up until writing the book. Because so many moving parts go into the telling of what seems to be a straightforward story, it becomes anything but.
It’s easy to believe that using direct parallels would simplify a story, but the way that Yang uses them only adds detail and complexity to each character and situation. Whether that’s through creating contrasting truths or through finding similarities to strengthen a point, Yang’s use of repetition and sometimes surface-level similarities between his central narratives has allowed him to delineate and define around and through his characters the thematic depth that might otherwise be left out for efficiency’s sake.
Perhaps the most exciting part of Gene Luen Yang’s work is that it always surprises. In his deceptively straightforward narratives with all of the parallels and reflections and pairs, what he chooses to reveal as the little differences of human experience, creating characters that are unparalleled.