Interview / February 2011 (Issue 13)

Breaking Stereotypes in North American Graphic Novels and Manga

by Elaine Woo


Chloe Chan and Aliena Shoemaker, Ten Thousand Flags, 2010, ongoing web comic.
Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, Red: A Haida Manga, Douglas & McIntyre, 2009. 108 pgs.
Gene Luen Yang, American Born Chinese, Square Fish, 2006. 233 pgs.

Canadian-Aboriginal author Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas of Red: A Haida Manga, Gene Luen Yang of American Born Chinese renown and Vancouverite Chloe Chan, illustrator of Ten Thousand Flags (which is written by Aliena Shoemaker) transform stereotypes in their respective graphic novels and manga. All three authors are North American-born and have created works which push the boundaries of the genre and warrant examination as serious literature and art. In this vein of examining their work, I conducted interviews with all three of them about graphic novels, racial stereotypes, religion, politics and morality. The results of these interviews are included in the following piece, in which I take a look at how each of these talented artists breaks psychological, spiritual and political barriers in their work.


Micheal Nicoll Yahgulanaas is a self-described "hybrid"—of part Haida and of part Canadian "settler ancestry" who "negotiated issues of jurisdiction, Title and Rights, and contested neo-colonialist acts of environmental exploitation" in the 80s and 90s before turning to art. This early activism informs his vision, especially global movements to preserve the environment and nurture cross-cultural bonds. His early artwork was "politically-informed satirical and humorous cartoons."

Red is a perfect example of Yahgulanaas's attempt to bridge cultures. It is a fast-paced, colourful retelling of a Haida traditional tale in Yahgulanaas' unique hybrid manga form. Yahgulanaas said in a National Post interview, "Red becomes a real test of whether there is an interest, I think, in Canada, to explore the mythology of what is the Indian, in a populist form." The work centres around Red, an orphaned Haida leader and takes place on the west coast of Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands). After pirates kidnap Red's sister Jaada, he becomes vengeful during his search for her. The tale ends in tragedy.

I met Michael Yahgulanaas after he fielded questions at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada—rather than delivering a formal talk, the middle-aged, white-haired artist prefers to interact directly with his audience. He told me, "My processes are always a search for the new twist." He brought a similar desire to explore new ways of doing things to our interview. When I approached Yahgulanaas, he showed his enormous creativity: "Not to be problematic but wishing to be more creatively disruptive than the classic interview approach, would you consider reversing the discussions[?] What do you see as the prime psychological and spiritual themes in Red?"

In reply to Michael, I see Red as epitomizing spirituality through rejection of revenge as a solution to past wrongs, a principle found in a number of religions. It could, for example, be seen as related to the Christian principle of turning the other cheek or to the Buddhist concept of "right thinking." In Red's rejection of revenge, I think that Yahgulanaas is suggesting that true spiritual and psychological enlightenment and understanding cannot come from violence, instead it must come from good works and from making amends for our own shortcomings and moral failures. For the artist, this idea is not only applicable on a personal level, but also a larger political and social scale. Indeed, the psychological, spiritual, and political elements in Yahgulanaas's message can be extrapolated to historical events:

Red was trapped by his inability to release himself from a false world view. Salvation was provided by his female relative who worked with communities weary of violence. Imagine if George Bush had apologized for whatever wrong that lead to 9/11 instead of calling for more anger. Would the world be a different place? Like Red, Bush lacked the internal strength to free himself and finally all of us from our own weakness. The prime weakness was an inability to say I am wrong. 

Indeed, how many wars or conflicts might have been prevented if revenge were factored out?

Yahgulanaas' tactic of turning things upside down is his way of looking for new solutions and opportunities. One can see from his psychological outlook that although no one can foresee the future, he trusts in the healing and reparation process for both the aboriginal peoples whose land was taken over by European settlers, and for the settlers themselves:

I trust process and understand that even if it is an injury (and wounds are also vessels of change, are not always injuries) the wound will heal with some gentle assistance. I am not essential. I am not competent to know the answer. The end of the path is hidden in the fog of not knowing. I see my feet, my last footstep and trust my foot will press down against the path again. It is trust that allows me to lift the foot and place it down again. Trust is my map.

The healing process is as much or even more in some sense needed for the settler population. Understanding the injury of Indigenous Peoples requires a very vigilant mind. It is actually dangerous to see Indigenous Peoples as the injured—that repeats the colonial mantra that the other is always lesser than.

The psychological, spiritual and political are also evident in Yaghulanaas's artwork. The Haida artist has trained with master craftsmen, including the Chinese brush painter, Cai Ben Kwon. In Red the characters are not duplicated in an easily recognizable way from panel to panel, instead they undergo noticeable alterations, which highlight changes in their feelings and relationships to one another. This is similar to Japanese manga artist Inoue's (of Vagabond fame) focus on expressing the emotions of his characters.

Nor do the characters or words in Yaghulanaas's work always stay confined to their panels. They frequently reach out and extend into other frames just as individual moments in time are connected in real life. The panels themselves flow from one to the next in irregular shapes framed by a formline (characteristically ovoids, U-forms and S-forms), breaking the tyranny of the rectangular panels that typify traditional Western comics. In the artist's own words, "Haida-Manga operates as a hybrid idiom or creative creole that invigorates Haida art."

My interview with the Haida artist, or perhaps it was his interview with me, ended by his asking me, "How has manga changed as a result of my Haida intervention?" To this I would reply that Yahgulanaas has taken manga beyond paper. His manga is found in media as diverse as recycled car hoods, sculptures and in short pieces of animation. His characters, animals and settings are typically round in their geometry and thus as friendly, approachable and human as the artist himself. Finally, Red is illustrated in beautiful, vivid colours that give the artwork a vitality well-beyond that offered by the typical black and white of traditional manga.

Yahgulanaas's Red, with its thematic concentration on the emotional and on relationships, provides us with a means from which to break free of conventional thinking, feelings and relationships. He truly writes from the heart and soul: a valuable exemplar for the whole world.


The second work I'd like to discuss is American Born Chinese (ABC) by Gene Luen Yang, a Chinese American Berkeley graduate, who teaches computer science at a Catholic high school. ABC won the prestigious Eisner Award for Best Graphic Album--New as well as the American Library Association's Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in American literature in 2007. It was also a 2006 National Book Award Finalist.

In ABC the young protagonist Jin Wang, the son of Chinese immigrants, yearns to be white when he becomes interested in a Caucasian girl, Amelia. During Jin's pursuit of her, he rejects his best friend, immigrant Wei Chen. In the end, however, it is only by acknowledging his Chinese roots that Jin is able to overcome alienation from his ethnicity. This central story is cleverly interwoven with two others, including a reworking of the traditional Chinese fairytale of the Monkey King and that of a popular Caucasian boy Danny and his relationship to his stereotypically Chinese cousin, Chin-Kee. In all three of these stories, Yang uses stereotypes about Chineseness as a powerful pedagogical tool, reworking them as a means of investigating our preconceptions about identity, race and culture.

In our interview, I asked Yang how the concept of ABC began. He replied, "Because my own cultural heritage plays such an important part of how I understand my place in the world, I wanted to do a project that focused on that."

I wondered if there was someone Yang knew who inspired the characters of Jin Wang and Wei Chen. He responded that he based the story on two groups of Asian American boys at his junior high school. One group, the one to which he belonged, consisted of American-born boys or boys who had immigrated at a young age. Typically this group was "comfortable speaking in English and [keeping] up with American pop culture." The other group, labeled the FOBs [fresh off the boats], had immigrated to the U.S. much later. In Yang's words, "They spoke with accents and wore clothes with misspelled English words." He wanted to capture the strange dynamic that existed between the two groups with his two protagonists. "We were friendly with each other, but my group made sure that people knew we were two separate groups. We made fun of them behind their backs."

I found one of Yang's other observations to be particularly useful for explaining the political and psychological dynamic within ABC: "Minority groups can sometimes develop superiority complexes in relation to other minorities as a way of coping with their own feelings of inferiority. At least we're better than THOSE people." Such feelings of superiority often surface in rival groups, whether they are among school children, nationalities or races. Superiority implies a power differential, yet can also prove emotionally and culturally damaging. The more integrated Jin thus "hurts his own heritage" by rejecting Wei Chen. However, the novel offers Jin redemption; his true morality is revealed in his seeking forgiveness and reconciliation with his friend and in doing so owning his racial identity.

In its focus on forgiveness and reconciliation, for me, ABC demonstrates a Christian spiritual bent. This Christian focus is also evident in The Monkey King's journey to the west, which ends with the birth of Christ. I also saw in The Monkey King and his son Wei Chen an analogous relationship to that of God and Jesus. Yang's take is that the story can be read that way but was not his intention. According to him, "the parent-sending-extraordinary-child-among-mortals motif is all over American comics" as found in Superman and his dad, Thor and his dad, Wonder Woman and her mom, and Astroboy and his dad/inventor." Of course, it is arguable that the ultimate origin of this motif is the relationship between Jesus and God, suggesting that Christian themes are prevalent throughout comics, even if not overtly.

Regardless, Yang does consider himself to be religious. As he said in one interview, "religion does play a part in my life…in my personal experience as an Asian American and what attracted me to Christianity, there is an idea with Christianity of intention behind your identity, that there is this outside agency that actually attended you to be who you are. Asian Americans tend to be caught in a place where we don't fit into our culture of origin and we don't fit into the culture we find ourselves in."

Perhaps ABC is his attempt to fit into both.


Last but not least, I'd like to look at the work of the 22-year-old Vancouverite, illustrator Chloe Chan. Chan collaborates with Aliena Shoemaker to produce the on-line manga Ten Thousand Flags, which is available here. Apart from working on this ongoing project, Chan also recently taught a graphic novel/manga course for the first time at the creative writing program at the University of British Columbia. According to her, she brought a lifetime of experience reading manga to both of these endeavours. Chan said, "[Reading manga was] an attempt by my mother for me to cultivate my Chinese skills." Her artistic techniques, on the other hand, were honed in the illustration and design program at Capilano University in North Vancouver.

Chapter 1 of Ten Thousand Flags opens with an image of Yul, third son of the Shimla of Samsia. The reader sees a man with androgynous features; feminine Asiatic eyes and plucked eyebrows wearing a headdress of roses and beads. Apart from his ambiguous gender, Yul's racial background is also unclear. Despite his eyes, he cannot be clearly categorized as Asian—his sharply defined nose and pointy chin give him a Caucasian look.

When I first met Chan, she explained that her characters tend to be raceless as well as genderless. What better way to challenge stereotypes, to psychologically break free of the boundaries of race and gender? But Yul's look is also based on pure aesthetics. The young artist told me she loves beautiful things. And as one reads on through the subsequent pages, one sees that Yul is not only a beauty to behold, but that his physical appearance is important to his character and the plot. Yul is part of a peace offering for a ruler, the Sahl of Lhaksa. As the Sahl states, Yul is "not hard on the eyes" and the son of Shimla is sent to the rival kingdom because the Sahl jokingly "fancied having the most attractive person in Shimla's palace." Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a sexual subtext in their relationship. When the Sahl and Yul first meet, there is a distinctly homoerotic tension between them, possibly indicative of Chan's liberal political views on same-sex marriage.

The blurring of gender and race is also evident in the way the two protagonists dress. Their garb is clearly Asiatic, perhaps Indian or Afghan, but to Western eyes may appear feminine as it consists of dress-like robes with flat ballet-like slippers. Finally, both Yul and the Sahl wear their hair long, particularly Yul.

The exchanges between the two men, although political, are highly civil. For example, the Sahl requests that Yul duel him at chess, and he designates Yul as a guest and not a prisoner. At another point, upon leaving to attend to a business matter, the Sahl gives his high profile guest a reed instrument. This scene has been described as a very "soft" approach to relations. Chan told me, "My works are a lot more about the person." And largely the story has unfolded much like a character study, as opposed to a political or social work.

Ten Thousand Flags does not have as clear a focus on spiritual and moral issues as the other works discussed here. The illustrator attended a Catholic school when young but said, "Even growing up in a Christian environment hadn't converted me. I would call myself an atheist first, but if I were to be spiritual or religious, it would probably be Buddhism." This Buddhist bent may be reflected in the compassion evident in Sahl's interactions with his "prisoner/guest." Yet as the on-line saga is still unfolding, one wonders about the potential darkness in the narrative and where it will lead the characters. Both Red and ABC delve into the dark side of human nature before the characters finally surface in the light. Perhaps a hint of what is to come in Flags can be seen on the last posted entry (as of the writing of this piece), which features a letter that describes a large group of bandits besetting traveling merchants. If and how this will involve Yul and the Sahl in darker endeavours remains to be seen.


Yahgulanaas, Yang and Chan all merit serious attention for their willingness to confront stereotypes and to address issues of morality. All three speak truths that bear repeating.

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