Welcome back to Art in the Roots. I apologize for the extended absence–what I intended to be a short summer break got a bit longer than planned. I suppose if we can’t rush good art, I shouldn’t rush my mediocre ruminations on art either, right? RIGHT?!
Anyway, I learned to read with comics and have been a lifelong comics reader, so I was thrilled to hear they are making a TV series of the graphic novel American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang. It’s a tremendous book about a child of Chinese immigrants coming of age in contemporary America.
Then, a moment later, I paused. WHY was I thrilled they were making a phenomenal book into a Disney+ series? The book is incredible on its own. There is no way it could be improved upon, and changing its medium may only detract from the excellent storytelling. Yang’s cartooning is masterful, and the story’s narrative structure is unique, taking full advantage of the graphic novel format’s abilities. Without giving away too much–because I hope you seek out the book, and our wonderful local library has copies–Yang threads the protagonist’s realistic life with mythical fantasy sequences and along the way makes thoughtful use of the comics page to convey a story about how we change to fit in and the costs of being untrue to ourselves along the way.
So, WHY was I thrilled? Not for the TV show of a story I already know. It was because a favorite story was getting hyped.
We don’t need cross-medium remakes of great artworks–we need robust systems to support the arts we have. This isn’t a revolutionary point. Anyone involved in the arts knows everything except a blockbuster movie with explosions is underfunded. My epiphany was ultimately about hype and the realization that big-budget movies are the only art that gets decent promotion. American Born Chinese needs a hype machine to get people to read the book more than it needs to be remade as a TV series. It needs attention to the original story in the first place.
What if, while watching Abbott Elementary, we got advertisements to go buy American Born Chinese instead of Doritos? What if during the news we got headlines of Yang’s next book instead of (or at least in addition to) Tom Cruise’s next vehicle? I want ads on podcasts for books, not just mail-order mattresses. I want art gallery openings pitched alongside F-150 ads. I wish I knew as many sculptors’ names as I do hard seltzer brands due to advertising. I’ve never had a Truly, but I cherish the mug I bought at Art on the Grand a few years ago handmade by a guy from Tennessee.
Of course, this would take investing in arts, and that’s a conversation our society seems unwilling to have. A guy can dream, though. In the meantime, let’s use the free networks we have. Bypass the usual small talk and recommend books to friends, co-workers, or even just people waiting in line at our new coffee shops.
And to be clear, I would also love to see an American Born Chinese spinoff TV show, or, better yet, one inspired by the book, one that goes somewhere new. We need TV shows telling Asian-American stories too, and I still want to see that cast make magic. We can tell new stories, and we should also promote the beautiful ones we already have.