Sunday, April 11, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 67 (4/11) -- Prime Baby by Gene Luen Yang

Yang's last graphic novel, American Born Chinese, won the Printz Prize and was nominated for a National Book Award, catapulting him from reasonably respected cartoonist to major literary figure almost overnight. For his next project, he wrote and drew a shorter story, Prime Baby, for The New York Times Magazine's "Funny Pages" section -- Prime Baby appeared there as eighteen full-page comics pages (and is still available online in that form), and was the last of the six graphic novels serialized there over the three years of the Funny Pages' existence.

(I'm sure Yang bears no responsibility for the end of the Funny Pages; a year ago, newspapers were in horrible circumstances, which haven't really gotten better since.)

Prime Baby has re-emerged as a short book of fifty-six pages, with the Times' full pages reconfigured as three three- and four-panel strips each. With each page looking like a newspaper strip, and Prime Baby's physical format mimicking a Garfield-esque collection, Prime Baby feels like the first collection of an unlikely strip, the first of possibly many about the hijinks of would-be world conqueror and self-centered pre-teen Thaddeus K. Fong, with his toddler sister Maddie along for the required dose of cuteness.

Thaddeus hates Maddie, who steals his parents' attention -- which is rightfully all his, as is everything in the whole wide world, according to him -- and schemes to get rid of her, in a broad, comic-strip-like fashion. He's also certain that she's an alien, and continually attempts to get his parents to turn her over to science -- or do anything else that would mean getting rid of her.

Thaddeus, amusingly, is like the proverbial stopped clock -- Maddie is deeply weird, though not in the way he imagines. First Thaddeus realizes that Maddie's speech consists only of the sound "ga," delivered in ever-increasing clusters corresponding to prime numbers, and, slightly later (after yet more attempts to convince his parents of her fiendish alien nature), that she does have a connection to a race of alien slugs.

From there, Prime Baby follows the expected path, as Thaddeus gets what he wants, only to realize that he doesn't want it anymore. He doesn't entirely learn better in the end, thankfully -- he's still a ridiculously self-centered little creep -- but he does make up, in a small way, for his actions.

Prime Baby has some similarities to American Born Chinese: it's a hair too slick for its own good, has margins so wide and white they call attention to themselves, has a blandly obvious moral delivered straight, and shows a happy willingness to let its Asian-American cast be full-rounded (and often unappealing) characters rather than plaster saints. And it's quite amusing, mostly because of Thaddeus's megalomaniacal voice. But I do hope Yang will soon turn his obvious talents to telling a story that isn't obvious and fills up somewhat more of the pages of a book.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Super Furry Animals - Inaugural Trams
via FoxyTunes

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