American Born Chinese (graphic novel) - A study

I didn't study in an art school. Instead, I studied Mass Communication and Business Administration at an American university for 4 years. After that, I wanted to enter the advertising industry as a creative, so I took an evening part-time graphic design course at NAFA for 2 years. Apart from that, I got most of my art education from hanging out at comic stores and devouring comics. I'd buy comics I wanted to learn from, go home, study them, break them down, and figure out the principles that made them so appealing. Then I try to apply those principles to my own illustrations and comics.

As a professional illustrator today, I'm still making a conscious effort to learn from things I read and see. Recently, I read American Born Chinese, by Gene Lien Yang and coloured by Lark Pien. The graphic novel was a National Book Award finalist, as well as the winner of the Printz Award and an Eisner Award. This was my second time reading it after several years and this is what I learned this round.

I describe comics as a combination of story and art. So let's start with the story. (spoiler alert: you may not want to read further if you have not read the book)


What is the one message of the entire story? 

As I've noticed in comics as well as my time in the advertising industry, one message is usually what any reader can handle. Have two or more and you lose them. So I looked for that one message.

This story had three stories told in parts. There is a Chinese boy named Jin Wang who wants to fit in with American society. He is picked on by the American kids. He feels ashamed of being Chinese and wants to be Caucasian. Then, there is a Caucasian boy named Danny who is ashamed of his Chinese relative who comes to visit. Lastly, there is the monkey king who feels discriminated against because he is a monkey. He wants to be more than a monkey and transforms himself into something more than a monkey using Kungfu. But Tze-yo-Tzuh (God) says that "A monkey I intended you to be, a monkey you are." He rebels and God imprisons him. 

He finally learns that he can free himself if he transforms back into a monkey and be who he was meant to be.

Later we learn that the 3 stories are actually one story, which is such a cool device because I didn't see that coming and it kept me guessing. The Chinese kid, Jin Wang, actually manages to transform into the Caucasian boy, Danny. They were the same person! And the relative is actually the monkey king in disguise who visits Danny(who is Jin Wang) to persuade him to be who he was originally made to be - Chinese.

So bringing it all together, as a reader, I get that the message is " Be who you were made to be." The 3 stories were all designed to demonstrate this one message.

Story structure

I've been learning story writing by trying to break down stories using different story structures devised by various screenplay teachers online. Each one teaches it differently but they all seem to be saying the same things overall. I find it helpful to learn from all of them. I used to avoid story structures, but now I'm finding they do help me piece together and plan longer stories, as a guide.

The ones I find most useful, at present are Blake Snyder's save the cat and Jule Selbo's 11 step structure

I'll use Jule Selbo's structure here. A simple way to explain this structure is - The character wants something and goes for it, logically. He fails but tries again, logically. Then finally he hits a wall where he must believe something different so he can take the illogical route and get to his end goal. I'll admit I'm no expert on this, but I'll try my best to break down American Born Chinese using this structure, and I'm going to learn as I write this!

Jule Selbo's 11 steps

1. Character’s Overall Want:

 Jin Wang wants to be Caucasian so he can fit in and get the Caucasian girl.

2. Character Logically Goes for his/her want:

To get the girl he wants, he logically tries to get the same hairdo as a popular Caucasian boy in class.

3. Character is Denied:

Things seem to go his way. He gets to hang out with the girl but his advances are ruined by the popular Caucasian boy. 

4. Character Gets a Second Opportunity to Achieve the Overall Want: 

Jin Wang gets a second opportunity when he gets his wish and magically transforms into Danny, a Caucasian boy.

5. There are Conflicts About Going after the Second Opportunity: 

In the process, he rejects his Chinese friend as he goes down this path.

6. The Character Goes for it Anyway: 

He embraces his role as a real Caucasian boy, Danny. A logical step. It will get him what he wants.

7. All Goes Well: 

As Caucasian Danny, he gets to spend more time with the girl he likes.

8.  All Falls Apart:

Then his Chinese relative, Chin-Kee, visits his home and school and ruins his chances of fitting in in school and getting closer to the girl. Everything is messed up.

9. Crisis: 

Danny logically attacks his Chin-Kee to get rid of the problem.

10. Climax: 

His Chinese relative attacks back and overcomes him. The Chinese relative is actually the monkey king in disguise. The monkey king persuades Danny to return to his true form, and tells him the lesson that the monkey king himself learned before. It's good to be a monkey, or rather, it's good to be who you were made to be. Caucasian Danny transforms back to Jin Wang, the Chinese boy. With his new perspective/belief, he can take on a new illogical route.

11. The Truth Comes Out to Make Things Right:

Jin Wang goes to a Chinese cafe and reconciles with the Chinese friend he rejected. His friend, after being rejected has become westernised. After reconciling, it seems they now embrace their being Chinese by talking about milk tea.

The end!


1. Gene Yang jumbles the sequence of his story so it seems like three stories. If he told it straight forward like how I laid it out in the 11 steps, it might seem almost predictable. In the jumbled form, it kept me guessing until the end. Something we can learn here!

2. I found it interesting was how he combined Tze-yo-Tzu with the monkey king story. As a Chinese myself, I'm not sure what that name spells exactly. But it does sound like 只有主 Zhǐ yǒu Zhǔ, meaning "Only Lord". And Tze-you-Tze speaks like the Judeo-Christian God in the Bible.

There are references from Psalm 139:1-6

You have searched me, Lord,
    and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
    you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
    you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
    you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
    and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
    too lofty for me to attain.

 and Psalm 139:13-14

 For you created my inmost being;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
    your works are wonderful,
    I know that full well.

There is also a visual reference to Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus. And are those the wise men?

Perhaps he was bringing in the idea of East meets West and having that all work together, much like an Asian integrating himself with the West. This takes some clever weaving.

3. I like how the ending is subtle. I had to guess what the conclusions in the characters' minds were, just by what they said and did. They didn't just blab out the conclusion. It makes me, as the reader, come up with the conclusion myself.


Now to break down the art in this book.

1. Lines- Digital black lines with some rough edging. Has some minor line variation and tapering at the tips.

2. Colouring- Flat digital colours. No gradients (except for some scenes where really necessary). Within a page, the flat colours sometimes change shades even though it is the same background. This does add make the page look more interesting. Lark Pien also seems to be using a limited colour palette- just using those 15-20 colours over and over again. This gives the book a cohesive look.

3. Tonal values - Each page or panel has a good mix of tonal values. Always - White, light mid-tones, dark mid-tones and solid black. 

4. Shadows - For shadows, solid blacks are used for dark areas. And a darker shade of colour for areas that are just darker but not too dark.

The solid blacks on each page help to simplify the details of the scenes and also lets the colours stand out clearer. This style works for brighter scenes as well as more dark scenes. In brighter, more scenes, a character might be wearing a solid black shirt, or have solid black hair. In darker scenes, the black shadows merge with each other with no separations between objects. I tend to refer to this style of inking as a "Film noir" style. I've noticed this in Powers too. I do like this style but it will probably work for stories for adults and older kids as it does give the scenes a more dramatic look. I've tried it out in my own comics.

There are shadows under the characters' feet. I tend to assume this can make the characters look floaty, but in this book, it works!

5. Texturing- Textures like concrete or an old wall are implied with just some small black marks. Simple and effective.


1. The comic panelling is actually in a square but it is put within a vertical rectangle page with a red Chinese chop on top of each one. The Chinese chops are way cool. These resemble name chops that can be made in Chinatown. It has to do with identity. And since this book is about being fine with who you were made to be, the chops fit nicely with the overall theme of identity. That's a really nice touch. There were several different chops featured throughout the book. In the credits, the chops were specially made by a Guo Ming Chen. A professional chop maker? 

Images in this post are Copyright © 2006 by Gene Yang


Through reading this again and doing this study, I have a new appreciation for how Gene put the story together and how the art was planned out. After identifying the main message, I could see how everything was crafted carefully to bring that across in the clearest and most interesting way. I realise the movie is coming out! It will be interesting to see how they craft the movie.

American Born Chinese is available on and

By the way, Gene has also written several other comics. I particularly enjoyed these two:

Superman Smashes the Klan

Dragon Hoops