The next time someone tells you that you need to do something with your life and stop reading comics, you may need to respectfully inform them about the literary merits of comics, manga and graphic novels. It might not hurt, too, to mention that a comic artist, Gene Luen Yang, was named a fellow of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (aka "genius grant" recipient), for which he'll receive $625,000 over the next five years.
According to a recent interview with Dave Itzkoff of the New York Times Magazine, Yang had to "sneak" trips to the comic book store and reading comics, which his parents didn't consider this a quality use of his time. Thank goodness he did that sneaking, because it ultimately resulted in him finding inspiration to create some noteworthy graphic novels exploring happiness and fantasy—a couple of which I've highlighted below.
If you've ever had such a bad day that you wanted to escape into an imaginary fantasy world, then The Eternal Smile might be right up your alley. In three different illustrated stories by Yang and Derek Kirk, you'll meet Duncan, who defeats an evil giant in order to marry a princess and become king. There's also a greedy frog looking to cash in on what could be a miracle and, finally, a woman named Janet who receives a special request from a Nigerian prince.
In American Born Chinese, Yang weaves three stories of the Monkey King, Jin and Danny/Chin-Kee, exploring the ethnic American experience today and throughout history. Chin-Kee is a painful reminder of negative racial stereotypes and a lack of cultural competency, including intolerance for his speech/pronunciation, exaggerated buck teeth and obsession with foot binding and the color yellow.
Yang's most epic work to date is a two-book set about the horrifically violent Boxer Rebellion in China—a rebellion against all foreigners in China, but also those who had been "poisoned" by foreign religion, customs and pleasures. Each book presents perspectives of the Boxers and the Christian converts from the point of view of two teens, Little Bao and Four-Girl.
In Boxers, Bao lusts after righteousness and strength, but is abandoned by the two men he admires most—his father and a stranger named Red Lantern. So Bao turns to the ancient Chinese gods instead, becoming invincible to create an army to fight for the glory of China. It's gruesome, but historically accurate, according to Yang.
In Saints, you'll get to know Four-Girl (also known as Vibiana), who is an unloved and rejected fourth daughter who was born on a “bad day” and considered bad luck. She communicates with Joan of Arc, and eventually finds friends and acceptance among Christians, choosing the name Vibiana as her Christian name after becoming baptized.
While there aren't exactly happy endings in any of these books, I wish you all happy reading of Gene Luen Yang, an artist and storyteller to know and look for... especially over the next five years!