Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese was such an award-winning success that it’s no surprise that his earlier works would be brought back into print. Animal Crackers collects Gordon Yamamoto and the King of the Geeks and Loyola Chin and the San Peligran Order.
I’m not a fan of Yang’s work that I’ve tried. I was uncomfortable seeing so strong a reliance on stereotypes in American Born Chinese, even though they were used for the purpose of saying “stereotyping is bad”, and I find his moral lessons obvious. Storytelling takes a far second place to teaching the young reader, which can result in didactic, shallow work.
That’s true of the first half of this book, especially since Yamamoto was first published in serial format over 12 years ago. It’s his first comic. Gordon is a bully, a big kid who beats up and terrorizes his classmate. He’s also having weird dreams about his nose, that it’s pregnant or that he has an alien stuck in it. The first chapter is, like American Born Chinese, a non-subtle fable about tolerance where Gordon learns to sympathize with those he would otherwise make fun of and abuse.
The geeky classmate has to cope with a father who hates and doesn’t understand him. The best part of the book is how he gets help at one point from possessed animal crackers. That’s Yang’s strength — since he’s working in comics, he feels free to use magicial or unrealistic events to make his points. The art is chunky and simple, often standard figure shots. It gets the work done, but it’s rarely outstanding, although it advances by leaps and bounds over the book.
I found the second half, Loyola Chin and the San Peligran Order, a stronger, much more enjoyable story. That’s because the plot has as much role as the lesson, with an interesting lead and greater chance for reader involvement in caring about the events. Loyola is a classmate of Gordon’s who eats weird things in order to create and enter vivid dreams. She meets Saint Danger on a mountaintop and learns more about his secret society and their plans and inventions. Meanwhile, Gordon’s got a crush on her, aided by her friend Maggie, contrasting the practical alternative with the imaginative ideal.
Eventually, she’s given a difficult choice: give up Saint Danger, whom she’s fallen in love with, or acquiesce to his plan to improve the world by weeding out the weaklings. It’s a much more gripping moral choice than in the previous story (which revolved around whether the geek kid should feel remorse for trying to blow up his dad — well, of course he should) provided in more compelling fashion, due to the romantic underpinnings.
Loyola’s more sympathetic from the get-go and more three-dimensional as well. Her growing connection with and sympathy for Danger is realistically developed as just one step beyond the usual teenage crush. The pages and panels are more creatively laid out, with a fuller sense of the world and other settings. Danger’s theories will make sense to many readers, making him a more seductive “villain”, if that word even applies. He’s not a bad guy, just misguided, working to make things better but in the wrong ways. Plus, Loyola ends up relying on her faith, which is refreshing to see in comics.
There’s also a new story by Yang in this volume, 12 pages explaining how he made these comics. That kind of instructional material is well-suited to his approach and comic strengths. He addresses the reader directly with lots of narration, telling us his journey from comic fan to creator, adding the lessons he’s learned since making this book, and encouraging us to try it ourselves. It’s a nice coda to the early work presented here.
Although I found the first half underwhelming, I enjoyed the second story and the extra enough to make my overall recommendation on this book a positive one. (The publisher provided a review copy.)