As someone who has spent the better part of the last two decades teaching U.S. and European history, I am more than aware of how woefully inadequate our historical education in the country is. Time constraints, political intervention, and just a general lack of supplemental materials all combine to make it very hard to cover all of the topics and issues that students really need to understand the full breadth and scope of many important social issues that plague our society today. Frequently when I hear people complaining about cancel culture or other social justice movements, they’ll point out how they have never heard anything about these issues until recently, and that makes them think that those issues were the result of recent actions by ill willing instigators, and not the end result of decade upon decade of oppression and abuse finally reaching a breaking point.
In recent months there has been increased coverage of anti-Asian hate crimes in America, and while many point to the current political climate around Covid-19 as a spark for this, those who know their history are very aware of the fact that the U.S. has a very long and very troubled history with Asian immigrants and their decedents. Some people might be aware of the plight of Chinese railroad workers and the dawn of America’s drive to the sea, and more than a few might have seen mention of the World War II interment camp at Manzanar and others like it where Japanese Americans were forcefully and unconstitutionally detained because of fears that they would side with the Japanese against the US, despite the fact that many of those interred had never even been to Japan.
Sadly, that is barely scratching the surface of the prejudice and discrimination Asian American’s have had to deal with as they have attempted to scratch out an existence and start a new life in this country. The treatment of Asian Americans is another one of those dark chapters in our troubled history with minorities that a lot of people would rather ignore than look into, and so the lessons of history are left out, and important and historic struggles get lost to time.
But Mac, I hear you ask, what does this have to do with comic books? Well, as with most things in life, the answer to all of our problems can be found in comic books!
Today’s book, The Good Asian, attempts to shine a light into the darkness a bit and give the audience a glimpse not only into a problematic era in US history, it does so through reviving a genre of story telling that many might not even know existed, the Asian Noir.
So with no further ado, let’s get into it. Here’s the blurb:
Writer PORNSAK PICHETSHOTE’s long-awaited follow-up to the critically acclaimed INFIDEL with stunning art by ALEXANDRE TEFENKGI (OUTPOST ZERO)! Following Edison Hark—a haunted, self-loathing Chinese-American detective—on the trail of a killer in 1936 Chinatown, THE GOOD ASIAN is Chinatown noir starring the first generation of Americans to come of age under an immigration ban, the Chinese, as they’re besieged by rampant murders, abusive police, and a world that seemingly never changes.
““Edison Hark immediately joins the ranks of Phillip Marlowe and Sam Spade in a smart, classic noir drenched in style and history.””—JAMES TYNION IV (DEPARTMENT OF TRUTH, Batman)
“”A gripping and authentic crime story from an Asian-American POV. This is the book I’ve been waiting for!””—CLIFF CHIANG (PAPER GIRLS)
“”A brittle story that takes place during an unfamiliar time in our history that is tragically all too familiar now in our present.””—BRIAN AZZARELLO (100 Bullets, MOONSHINE)
I don’t normally include review quotes in my reviews, but in this case, it felt important, not only because the people giving those quotes are pretty heavy hitters in the industry, but because they’re highlighting the issue at the core of this story, namely, that this is a time in our shared history that we seem to never speak about, but now, more than ever, really need to talk about.
The Good Asian takes place during the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Pornsak Pichetshote includes a note at the end of the book detailing why this is such an important part of our history:
“…between 1882 and 1943, the now mostly forgotten Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited Chinese immigrants from entering America. It was America’s first immigration ban, and by 1924, it would extend to all Asians and Arabs. By 1936, you had the first generation of Americans—the Chinese—to come of age with that immigration ban being all they knew.”
Our main character, Edison Hark, is Chinese American at a time when all Asians were not only under the microscope but specifically being singled out for prejudice and discrimination, especially along the west coast where the majority of them had settled and raised their families. Hark, a police detective, is forced to walk a very fine line here, with the police and white Americans distrusting him because he is Chinese, and Asian Americans distrusting him because he is a cop. He’s rejected by both cultures, police and Asian, yet this doesn’t make him a sympathetic character. Make no mistake, Hark is a tragic figure, but not one that is easy to sympathize with. In his pursuit of justice, he is willing to go along with the racist police brutality he sees right in front of him, and many will recognize that by being a part of that culture he is doing more to support it than he seems to be doing to change it. Hark is a pragmatic realist, and that means he has come to accept the world the way that it is, and is only interested in doing his job, not changing the system.
Pichetshote’s drew inspiration for this comic from the pulp noir stories of Charlie Chan, a hard nosed Asian American detective that was ironically a huge media hit at a time when Asian American’s were facing the previously mentioned racial and economic discrimination that makes the world of this story possible.
And make no mistake, this is a dark and brutal tale, with murder, backstabbing, conspiracy, and a noticeable lack of nobility. The honour among thieves may very well end up being the only honour in the piece beyond the very flexible moral codes of our protagonists. Fans of movies like The Maltese Falcon (a personal favourite of mine and one that everyone should watch) will get strong Sam Spade vibes from Hark, and like Bogart’s character, you’ll find yourself both fascinated and repelled by the choices our “hero” makes.
The atmosphere of The Good Asian is brilliantly illustrated by Alexandre Tefenkgi, who does a fantastic job of establishing the grimy and oppressive world this story takes place in. Several times I found myself staring at the page because of the brilliant use of colour, where entire pages would be done in a single shade of purple or red, giving them both the feel of a monochrome Noir film and an intense vibrancy that you only see in comics.
That’s why I really enjoyed this comic. It’s a history lesson that does such a good job telling the story that you’re so swept away in the atmosphere and plot that you don’t even realize you’re learning until it’s too late, something that my students know I love to try to work into class as much as possible. Call it edutainment if you must (and it upsets me to no end that that word did not get red-flagged as a misspelling, which means it is now a part of our lexicon) but this really is the best way to get people to learn about these moments in our history. Bringing them to life through gripping and interesting characters and weaving their world into an exciting narrative will do more to educate than all the dry history lectures I can write (and oh baby can I write a lecture).
In many ways, this reminds me of how the Watchmen HBO series brought awareness to the Tusla Massacre, and how it helped to open up a dialogue about America’s troubling history with anti-black racism in this nation. Good entertainment should teach and entertain, and this book fits the bill for both.
The Good Asian is an important book, not just because we are once again seeing a spike in bullshit racism and prejudice in Amercia, but because we have ALWAYS had a bullshit racism and prejudice in this country, no matter how much we might want to hide it. Buy this book, and support others like it not just because it’s well written and entertaining, but because we need to open our eyes to our history so we can learn from past mistakes. Read this book, talk about what it says, and encourage others to do so as well.
Until next, stay safe, and open your eyes.