The Disney+ series American Born Chinese is adapted from Gene Luen Yang’s 2006 graphic novel of the same title. The graphic novel was a finalist for the National Book Award and won the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature. For an entire generation of Asian Americans, American Born Chinese was a gateway for discussing Asian American experiences, specifically a Chinese American experience, in the classroom. Now, showrunner Kelvin Yu has created an excellent adaptation of Yang’s graphic novel. The American Born Chinese series drops lots of comic book references, including a special nod to The Swamp Thing.
This show follows a Taiwanese American high schooler named Jin Wang (Ben Wang). Jin struggles to form his own identity in a largely white school. A Chinese exchange student named Wei-Chen (Jimmy Liu) arrives and is assigned to shadow Jin at school. Jin is then caught between wanting to be more assertive like Wei-Chen, while also not bringing unwanted attention to himself. He also wants to join the junior varsity soccer team and fit in with the jocks. This is to the dismay of his former best friend, Anuj (Mahi Alam).
American Born Chinese’s graphic novel engaged with American cartooning’s racist depiction of Chinese, stemming from Yellow Peril’s emergence in the nineteenth century. The first issue of Detective Comics—the series that Batman would later debut in—has a horribly racist cover featuring the face of a Fu Manchu-like character. The American Born Chinese graphic novel triumphs because of its reckoning with the historical baggage of American graphic storytelling. And its television adaptation continues this spirit, spotlighting one recent positive development in Asian American comics representation.
American Born Chinese has numerous references to different comics and manga, thanks to the nerdy interests of Jin, Wei-Chen, and Anuj. A montage in Jin’s bedroom in the first episode reveals his comics and manga collection. It includes the likes of ’90s era Superman, Spawn, Dragon Ball Z, and Naruto. This brings to life the original graphic novel’s focus on the history of comics and cartooning in a way that feels authentic to an Asian American teen today.
One moment in American Born Chinese particularly stands out as a celebration of Asian American perspectives in comics. In episode two of the series, “A Monkey On A Quest,” Jin approaches Anuj and notices that he’s reading a comic. It is Volume One of DC Comics’ The Swamp Thing by writer Ram V, artist Mike Perkins, and colorist Mike Spicer. They discuss the series, with Anuj noting that Perkins’ art redefined DC’s Guardian of the Green for a new generation. Viewers unfamiliar with comics may not have noticed the significance of the scene. However comics fans, particularly those of the Asian diaspora, certainly did.
The Swamp Thing (2021-2022), much like the original American Born Chinese graphic novel, is a groundbreaking story in American comics. It is the first solo series for DC’s newest Swamp Thing, Levi Kamei, who immigrated to the US from India as a teenager. As Swamp Thing, Levi is known as the Guardian of the Green, “the Green” being all plant life on Earth. His powers transform him into a hulking humanoid plant monster, who can manifest anywhere on Earth wherever there are plants. Levi can also tap into the sensory information of plants on a cellular level. This makes him capable of achieving a type of collective consciousness with all the plants on Earth.
Ram V’s writing on the story delved into Levi’s experience as an immigrant. It reimagined Swamp Thing’s powers as an extended metaphor for the global mindset of Asian Americans. For Levi, his powers and responsibilities to protect the Green tethers him to his homeland and family in India, even though he now lives in America. His transformation into the Swamp Thing is an expression of his state of being. He is an “Other,” in both America and India, because of his place in the diaspora. In short, Levi Kamei’s Swamp Thing is a quintessential Asian American superhero. He isn’t just an Asian American with superpowers, but a superhero whose powers are born out of being Asian American.
This scene is a nod to American Born Chinese’s graphic novel fans, many of whom are Asian American comic book readers. While the stereotypical image of a comic book reader has always been white and male, the American Born Chinese graphic novel challenged this notion. This book helped me fall in love with comics as a medium, increasing my hunger for the creative potential of Asian and Asian American stories. Years later, I began to collect each issue of Ram V, Mike Perkins, and Mike Spicer’s The Swamp Thing every month. I’ve never felt more “seen” by a show than I felt with The Swamp Thing’s inclusion in American Born Chinese.
The Swamp Thing‘s mention in American Born Chinese celebrates Asian American comic representation’s expansion since Yang’s graphic novel. While American Born Chinese is a coming-of-age story with fantasy elements, The Swamp Thing is rooted in a rich history of body horror. Including another Asian American comic from a vastly different genre about a protagonist from a different Asian culture proves that American Born Chinese isn’t interested in being seen as the definitive show about “The Asian American Experience.” Instead, it celebrates the multiplicity of being Asian American and the ever-changing canon of Asian American comics.
American Born Chinese is a refreshing adaptation of a comic book because it pays direct tribute to its original medium. In a media landscape dominated by comic book properties, American Born Chinese reigns king because of its unabashed love for sequential stories and storytellers.