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American Born Chinese is a graphical novel that belongs to the genre of bildungsroman or coming of age story, depicting the challenges that are encountered by the young people in finding their identity and destiny and focusing on the psychological growth of the protagonist. The novel dwells on a Chinese boy who was born in America. Faced with the challenges of adopting two contrasting cultures together with the identity issues that come with teenage life, the boy is almost confused (University of Chicago 78).
Yang chose the tropes characteristic of traditional bildungsromane, such as a young protagonist, depiction of inner conflict, physical and emotional maturation of an adolescent to enhance the process of characterization. The mise-en-scene, frames, and sound effects were used by Yang to show the audience the characterization of Jin/Danny, the main protagonist of American Born Chinese, through his speech and actions for making the character believable.
Peculiarities of mise-en-scene
The mise-en-scene in American Born Chinese is used for conveying the author’s main message, focusing on the characters and their facial expressions and leaving the landscape and surroundings in the background.
Every element of mise-en-scene is aimed at focusing the readers’ attention on the development of the characters. “The mise-en-scene organizes the different parameters of the image (framing, choice of point of view, composition, ‘actions’ of the characters, lighting, etc.) in accordance with the internal dynamic of the sequence, to produce an aesthetic or dramatic effect” (Groensteen 120).
In most screens of the comics a reader can see only the characters and their voice balloons in the forefront, while the rest of the details are not emphasized, some of the lines are blurred, and the faces of the characters placed at the background are indefinite or even blank. When Jin Wang, the main protagonist, retells a legend about a mother moving with her son to diverse places because of devastating effects of the surroundings on her child, the woman’s face is left blank, while the whole figure does not resemble a human being.
This approach is helpful for distinguishing between the screens depicting the main lines and screens depicting the incorporated citations of legends and secondary stories in order not to confuse the readers. The author’s choice of perspective is predetermined with the peculiarities of both bildungsroman and comics genres.
The details of the location are optional and just complement and frame the events taking place at the forefront. However, the change of the scenes is important for depicting the course of time and accelerated development and maturation of the main character’s personality.
Designing the screens of the comics, the author paid attention to meaningful facial expressions, incorporating particular symbols into the screens with the aim of intensifying the readers’ impressions. For example, the author uses the traditional indicators for communicating a particular message to the readers. Thus, for example, the markers “less than” and “more than” were used to indicate a phrase in Chinese.
When a Chinese boy comes to the main protagonist and wants to make friends with him, starting the conversation in their native language, the boy’s confusion is expressed through the three dots at the beginning of the utterances and meaningless interjections. During the communication exchange, the boys are placed into empty boxes with a corner of the table in only one of them. This peculiarity of the mese-en-scene is aimed at concentrating the readers’ attention on the facial expressions of the characters.
The last two boxes depict only the main character’s eyes. Still, the eyes expression is enough for evaluating the boy’s attitude to the current situation. The author shifts the emphasis from the main character to another boy in order to demonstrate the changes of his mood, while Jin/Danny is reluctant to establish the rapport with his compatriot; his face is insignificant in the context of this situation.
Observing these changes in the characters’ facial expressions, the readers can follow their inner emotions and feel the atmosphere of the situation through these aspects are not reflected in the text. Another example of meaningful face expressions contributing greatly to the readers’ perception of the text is the situation when the main character is introduced to his classmates. The author managed to show the boy’s confusion and the aggression of his classmates through their facial expressions and postures.
Coupled with the voice balloons, this technique intensifies the impression from the scene making the readers sympathize with the main protagonist. The boy lowered his gaze and bit his lips, looking helpless. His classmate, on the contrary, eagerly raised his hand ready to humiliate the newcomer. The teacher’s eyes are closed in both boxes depicting the scene, and this fact is rather symbolic. The educator was reluctant to influence the children’s attitude to the Chinese boy and seem not to notice the situation in the classroom.
These are the peculiarities of mise-en-scène that make the audience focus on the development of the characters through their speech and actions, comparing and contrasting those two images as well as the image of Danny and Jin Wang as those belonging to different cultures.
Characterization through actions and speech
As opposed to movies, the genre of comics does not allow incorporating of the sounds, moving pictures and plenty of inner dialogues into the text, using specific characterization tropes and diverse sound balloons, the author managed to make his characters realistic and believable.
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Despite the fact that the screens depict the two-dimension characters, the peculiarities of the mese-en-scene coupled with diverse sound balloons, switch on the readers’ imagination. “The speech balloon in comics is effective as a ‘phonostylistic element’ because it is direct: there is no narrator acting as an intermediary between the character’s ‘voice’ and the reception of this ‘voice’ by the reader” (Varnum 159).
The author uses various techniques for revealing various emotions of the speakers, such as incorporating the text in bold, three dots at the beginning of the utterance and alliteration. A reader can easily decode these messages interpreting their meanings and deepening one’s knowledge of the situation context. Another peculiar technique used by the author is the contrast between the voice balloons and the pictures aimed at creating the comic effect.
For example, a boy tells about his so-called friend and their games, but the reader can see that the older boy just eats Jin’s sandwiches, humiliates and offenses him. The contrast between the picture and the imitated sound display the naivety of a young boy that is significant for watching the process of his following maturation.
In the frames of the bildungsroman genre, the readers follow the process of young personality’s evolution, and the author has brought out a clear fact that as children grow up into adulthood, they face certain problems. Danny has been used to display some of the challenges that a young boy goes through, especially when he starts thinking about dating and relations with the opposite sex. Teenagers have a feeling that they have all the ability to obtain anything and be what they wish to be in life (Samovar 68).
Another hidden message within the book that makes the audience support one of the characters is that each of them undergoes certain changes and finds his genuine identity after coping with a number of challenges. Often, teens are depicted as the ones that look at people around and develop their personal ideas about the good and the evil which does not always coincide with the social norms.
Generally, they dislike their peers and adults who dare to criticize their behavior and resist any kind of negativity. In this respect, the author clearly conveys the idea of imitation obtained by teens. All teens in the book try to imitate someone, and even the monkey king tries to pretend to have necessary features to be taken for the Chinese.
The main tropes used by the author of American Born Chinese, such as a focus on facial expressions, diverse sound balloons, and development of the plot lines, were predetermined with peculiarities of the comics and bildungsroman genres and aimed at enhancing the effectiveness of characterization through speech and actions. The peculiarities of mese-en-scene and sound effects contributed to creating believable characters and depicting the process of the main protagonist’s personal maturation.
Groensteen, Thierry. The System of Comics. University Press of Mississippi, 2007. Print.
University of Chicago. The American journal of sociology, Volume 81, Issues 1-3 California: University of Chicago Press., 1975.
Varnum, Robin, and Christina Gibbons. The Language of Comics: Word and Image. University Press of Mississippi, 2001. Print.
Yang, Gene & Pien, Lark. American Born Chinese. London: Lark PienEditionreprint, illustrated.
Yang, Gene. American Born Chinese (Graphic Novel). New York: San Val, Incorporated, 2009.