Thursday, February 08, 2007

INSTANT YANG v.35: HEROES, SUPERHEROES, AND "SECRET IDENTITIES"; GENE YANG AND "ABC"; MO' MONKEY KING; NO WANNABE; JODI GOES SURFING

Hi all,

Well, for a change, both the column and this newsletter are early.at least in a relative sense. It's been a nice couple of weeks for Asian Pop, at least defined as the intersection between Asian, Asian American, and Asian-inspired phenomena with the mainstream of American, or even global, society. Lost is back, for all of you who've been experiencing withdrawal. The Asian American contestants on Survivor (anyone still watching that?) are methodically kicking ass and taking numbers, though they unsurprisingly booted eccentric Vietnamese American hippie Cao Boi off the island last week.

And the NBC program Heroes has established itself as a going-away hit, with Japanese American actor Masa Oki's time-stopping sarariman emerging as a breakout character--though some people, such as reader Sharline Chiang, express concerns about the fact that the Asian characters in the show all are depicted speaking with accents; obviously, that relates to the fact that they're not American natives, so it's not something I have a real issue with--so long as the accents aren't a source of "velly funny"-type humor. Still, it wouldn't suck to have, say, a fourth-generation Chinese American skater kid in the mix, now, would it? Just as a curveball?

Maybe that's a nice segue to give y'all an update on a project that had its roots right here in this column is starting to move toward reality. That project, you may remember, was the idea of an Asian American superhero anthology -- a graphic novel exploring the modern mythology of mutants, marvels and masked mystery men from the Asian American perspective.

Well, comics education specialist Keith Chow, indie comics artist Jerry Ma and I have been working on the idea ever since and have come out of stealth (sort of) with a MySpace site, www.myspace.com/secretidentities. Not much up there yet (other than a totally cool cover mockup), but we've gotten some interest from a few publishers and hope to have some announcements soon. Still, visit the site, give us ideas or contacts, if you're a comics artist or writer or just think the project's interesting, and give us some "friend" love. (Those of you who've already expressed interest, don't worry, we haven't forgotten you, we're just trying to get our capes untangled before we leap out of the phone booth officially, so to speak.)

But the big Asian American comic-book news is the subject of this week's column: The nomination of Gene Yang (no relation! as far as we know!) and his incredible graphic novel American Born Chinese for the National Book Award, making it the first comic book ever so honored in the prize's 57-year history.

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ASIAN POP
SEE YOU IN THE FUNNY PAGES

By Jeff Yang, Special to SF Gate
Wednesday, October 25, 2006

It may come as a surprise to you that one of the most powerful and entertaining works of literature to be published this year is a comic book. But it shouldn't. Jeff Yang talks to Gene Yang, creator of "American Born Chinese," the first comic book to be nominated for the greatest honor in American literature.

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I realize I didn't talk much about Gene Yang's background or his personal life in this piece, which is all to the good, because one of my Chron colleagues did a nice profile-oriented piece on Monday:

National Book Award finalist fills in the blanks with identity-driven graphic novel
By Edward Guthmann, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, October 23, 2006

(But, hey, guys, stay out of my sandbox! Just kidding -- the more coverage we can get on people like Yang in this publication, the better.)

I also didn't go into details about the book's story. That's because it's so neatly constructed that telling too much blows the wonderful twists that roll out in the book's conclusion. What I'm basically saying is, read it for yourself -- you won't regret it.

One thing I can say is that Yang winds in an interesting revisionist version of the Monkey King legend into the mix. It's true to the spirit of the myth but has a different set of players. I'll leave it to you to sort out the details of what he's doing.

On the topic of the spirit of the Monkey King: During our convo, Yang and I realized that there's kind of a Monkey King mania afoot right now. A musical adaptation of "Journey to the West" was staged as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival in September of this year. Steven Spielberg was at one point attached to a cinematic adaptation of the legend (different from The Lost Empire, the made-for-TV Monkey King tale written by David Henry Hwang back in 2001); while that project lingers in development hell, the long-rumored pair-up between Jet Li and Jackie Chan, set for release in 2008, is apparently going to incorporate the Monkey King into its plot. "Plus, the Gorillaz, you know, their next big deal is a pop opera production of the Monkey King featuring Chinese acrobats, that sort of thing," adds Yang. "It's crazy. He's everywhere."

Interestingly, Yang envisions the Monkey King as more than just a classic Chinese character -- he sees him as the patron spirit of Asian America, which is a thought I've had myself. After all, his epic is a tale of a journey westward, and the character of Monkey, plus his quest for identity and wisdom (and, yeah, maybe a little humility), all feel somehow familiar, like a half-remembered childhood song. Plus, the year some people name as the date of the first public usage of the term "Asian American," 1968, was the Year of the Monkey. I know, because that also happens to be the year I was born. (Okay, so I've got some skin in the game here.)

Now, over in the mea culpa department, I want to clarify something I wrote a while back, which -- due to multiple rewrites -- ended up inadvertently upsetting the family of a talented veteran of martial arts cinema. Here's a quote from my August 31, 2006, column, "A Hero Gets the Call":

"As I vaguely recall, the film was The Three Avengers, a better-forgotten swatch of celluloid featuring one of the more interesting Bruce Lee clones, Taiwanese actor Ho Chung-tao (a.k.a. Bruce Li), alongside Jackie Chan wannabe Chin Yuet Sang and token white dude Michael Winston."

Ho Chung-tao wouldn't deny his status as a Bruce Lee clone, and Michael Winston in "Three Avengers" is unquestionably as token a white dude as ever tokened. But calling Chin Yuet Sang a "Jackie Chan wannabe" was glib and unfair. Though, in this particular film, he sported a Jackie Chan-style 'do and was tasked with performing eminently Jackie-esque stunts, comic mugging and martial arts pratfalls, that description hardly sums up his long and stalwart career in the Hong Kong movie industry, which includes graduating from Madame Fan Fok-Fa's opera school, directing the films "Hocus Pocus" and "The Spooky Family," and serving as action director on or actor in dozens of other productions.

So, apologies to Chin and his family. If you believe in karma, I guess this pretty much dooms me to someday be called a "Gene Yang wannabe." Hey, I'll cop to that!

And, speaking of genes, for those of you traveling down South in the next few weeks, the illustrious Jodi Long's one-woman show, "Surfing DNA," is going into previews Saturday, Oct. 28 at L.A.'s East West Players and then running Nov. 1-19 at the company's David Henry Hwang Theater. Jodi takes a look at her parents' life in show biz -- both were early vaudeville-circuit vets -- to explore just how much her own stardust dreams are rooted in heredity. It promises to be, like its creator, fun and interesting and witty. (Call 213/625-7000 for tickets, or visit Seatadvisor.com. More info here.) I hope to get more on Jodi's new joint to you next column...

And that's it for this week! Added to the Blogroll below are a whole bevy of Asian American/Asian Canadian indie comics creators...check 'em out, they rock...

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