Animal Crackers: Even stupid fat Japanese-American jocks need love sometimes
I believe I have mentioned in previous reviews that i loved Gene Luen Yang's graphic novel "American Born Chinese", which skillfully blended the classic Chinese epic "Journey to the West" with the experience of growing up Chinese-American. It was based on my love of "American Born Chinese" that I decided to try out this book, a compilation of two of Yang's earlier comics, "Gordon Yamamoto and the King of the Geeks" and "Loyola Chin and the San Peligran Order," to see if it would show off the same Yang charm.
Although these two comics (particularly "Gordon Yamamoto") are significantly less focused and complex than "American Born Chinese" (which makes sense, as Yang was just getting started when he did them), they still capture the humor and energy that I remember liking so much about Yang's previous work.
"Gordon Yamamoto" is made up of several disparate stories featuring the two titular characters, the large and stupid jock Gordon and the nerdy and angry Miles Tanner. Gordon is a thuggish but not malicious bully who basically just goes along with his jerkass friend Devon's tormenting of others without really thinking of the consequences. One of their torments involves crowning a nerdy-looking freshman to be the "King of the Geeks," gluing Gordon's jockstrap to his head and dumping him in a trash can. As the story opens, their latest victim is Miles, whose torments at school and contemptuous father at home have driven him into a barely contained homocidal rage (he makes bombs to feel better, for instance). However, when a strange growth inside his nose reveals itself to be a tiny malfunctioning spaceship housing a robot (part of a mysterious organization known as the San Peligran Order which apparently hides spaceships within people's noses frequently in order to use their unused brain space to store information), the plan to fix it results in Gordon gaining all of Miles' memories by accident, making him realize that perhaps picking on nerds is not such a great idea. After defending Miles from Devon, the story shifts to the two boys building up a sort of friendship between the two, as they try to remove Miles' memories from Gordon's head and fight off a band of ferocious animal crackers, which have been imbued by Miles' hatred of his father (long story). it is interesting to see Gordon go from being a passive jerk (i.e. he doesn't resist Devon's cruel plans, but doesn't go along with them out of any particular source of hatred for his victims) to being an half-way decent guy. The story is also full of plenty of odd little tidbits, such as a cupcake which turns into a rhinoceros and a donut that houses an interdimensional portal in which to trap the marauding animal crackers. It is a crazy and random, shallow but lot of fun.
"Loyola Chin," the sequel to "Gordon Yamamoto," has a bit more of a concrete story. Loyola is a classmate of Gordon's, who has a mad crush on her but whom she completely ignores. She has also discovered that eating strange foods before she sleeps gives her strange dreams, something that she relishes. After eating plain cornbread, she meets a strange man who looks rather like Doctor Manhattan in her dreams who calls himself Saint Danger and claims to have created the mysterious San Peligran Order that made a cameo appearance in the previous story, who Danger claims exists to prepare humanity for a coming alien invasion. He shows her his hidden base inside an abandoned Mayan temple, and Loyola is smitten. Meanwhile, Loyola's friend Mags is trying to coach poor Gordon to not be such a fat slob so he might have a chance with Loyola.
Everything's going ducky, until Loyola discovers what Danger's plan to save humanity is, and the terrible cost that will come with it. Then she has to choose, whether Danger is right or insane, and what to do about it.
The Loyola/danger storyline is obviously the main focus here, and it's an interesting character story. Loyola is rather cut off after her mother's death from cancer, and obsessed with finding the perfect man. This blinds her to Danger's flaws until it's almost too late. Danger, for his part, plays the role of the Well Intentioned Extremist to the hilt, willing to commit an atrocity because he believes with essentially no evidence that it will improve the stock of humanity. he is charismatic while being utterly wrong. The way these two play off each other is great fun and very interesting.
Unfortunately, the Mags/Gordon storyline suffers. It's nice to see Gordon again, and he's his lovably goofy self, but he just seems like a distraction. Mags is very undeveloped, and we never really understand her motives. There is one panel that implies that she is falling in love with Gordon, but this is never followed up on. The whole thing seemed a distraction from the main story. But Yang is able to keep the strange off the wall humor intact, and both Gordon and Loyola (and even Mags to a certain extent) are fun characters to follow.
All in all, this obviously a first work. the plots are sometimes uneven, things happen that aren't explained, and there are characters and events that seem extraneous to the plot and don't add anything new to the story. However, both the writing and the artwork captures the humorous and weird tone that Yang uses so well in "American Born Chinese," which makes it (especially the first story) worth reading to other Yang fans