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:
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.