Ah, representation - how unproblematic!
If you’ve never had the joy of seeing your marginalized community constantly misrepresented in the media and throughout pop culture, well, let me tell you, it’s a real treat! But when bad representation is all you have it can be hard to wrestle with wanting to see more of an imperfect vehicle. The Good Asian begins from that point of departure - as if to hammer home the point, the very first words on writer Pornsak Pichetshote’s text page are “Charlie Chan, Mr. Wong, Mr. Moto.” Terrible representation by any measure, no likely candidates for any manner of revival. As Pichetshote says “the stories weren’t just racist but . . . kind of boring.” However, there was in that archetype still the seed of something else. In Pichetshote’s words, he “saw what they had the potential to be.”
Those are the stakes. Pichetshote is a Thai-American fan of crime fiction, current TV writer, and former Vertigo editor. He talks up Stray Bullets quite a bit, to give you an idea of his gold standard. The Good Asian introduces Edison Hark, a Chinese-American police detective from Hawaii. The story hinges on the Chinese Exclusion act, passed in 1882, expanded in 1924, and not repealed until 1943. Chinese immigrants, as the story relates, were the first group to come of age in this country under such restrictions. Chinese people wouldn’t be allowed to join the police force for a long time, but Hark is from Hawaii, where things were slightly different. He arrives in San Francisco with a badge, but more connections to his lily-white adopted family than anyone in the Asian community.
As hooks go, it’s pretty strong. Hark is loosely based on real-life detective Chang Aparna of the Honolulu Police Department, who was in turn the loose basis for the aforementioned Charlie Chan. Hark, like Aparna, dedicates himself to the advancement of his community by fighting crime within that community, albeit from a position outside. From the title itself you could probably guess that The Good Asian takes aim at America’s harmful “model minority” myth. The idea that marginalized communities can advance by joining the police force and presenting a model of good behavior has come in for criticism in recent years, after all. Hark’s decision to join the police in the 1930s is therefore at once principled, misguided, compromised, and dripping in historical irony - sounds like an absolutely smashing premise for a noir, if you ask me.
There’s a great deal of research on display. Apparently sources for what San Francisco's Chinatown looked like during the period are thin on the ground. Pichetshote had to dig for that, and pretty much everything else related. Like a lot of immigrant groups there weren’t always a lot of official or even informal records. Perhaps there will be an index in the collected edition, this seems like the kind of comic book that could use an index. I appreciate the verisimilitude, as I am generally a pedant about such things. It also marks the story as something of a passion project. I’m generally skeptical about high-concept Image launches from Hollywood or Hollywood-adjacent creatives, as such things are often wont to be elaborate pitches. While I’m not saying this couldn’t be a pitch - or that Detective Hark might not actually be a good candidate for such an adaption, because he is - this is nevertheless clearly a labor of love, originating from a place of both personal and historical significance. Quite a bit of meat on these bones.
The artist is new to me, a French fellow by name of Alexandre Tefenkgi with a real eye for composition. The book is at his best when he breaks up the flow of panels for effect, such as with diagonal panel borders to emphasize action, or by using multiple small panels in close proximity to create the impression of flashes of memory. The mooks are slouchy and the frails are curvy, everything looks like as it should. Much of the first issue is devoted to establishing premise and setting, and it can be hard to avoid the staginess endemic to all beginnings. He gets looser as the story commences.
If I have one quibble it is with the color. Matter of fact I think the colors let the book down a bit. I don’t blame the colorist. Lee Loughridge is a solid vet with over a decades’ worth of credits, including at Vertigo during Pichetshote’s tenure. The problem is, in a word, brown - that is, ye olde Vertigo brown. I wouldn’t have brought it up if these guys weren’t seasoned pros, with actual Vertigo experience, no less. That seems the likely explanation, it’s a familiar mode and a familiar palette, dominated by dark brown and maroon. The great problem with subtle dark shades however is that contrast is vital to pulling the eye forward in a color comic book. Without at least some interplay between light and dark the eye flounders. I recognize it’s a challenge, coloring dark scenes with high contrast. It stands as a conservative mistake made from experience, easily overcome.
Hopefully it shall be, as there’s a lot of potential here in the evidence of the creators’ hard work. The book is at its best when Loughridge and Tefenkgi both get to stretch their legs - there’s a page late in the book with that stand out as striking, splashes of hot pink intercut with glimpses of gorgeous dames. This is a first issue so its easy to see the places where things are stiff and don’t quite come together, but by that token the series’ strengths are also plain.
I’m not a big mystery person, truth be told, and therefore my litmus for the genre is pretty simple - am I interested enough to keep going, do I care to stick around to find out whodunnit? Well, Pichetshote spends a lot of time setting up the premise, and there isn’t an actual murder until almost the end - but it’s a pretty spectacular murder. Someone’s up to no good, killing people with an axe. The locals don’t trust the (white) police, but they might open up a little bit more to someone who shares their complexion. The Tongs might be involved. Bodies are starting to pile up. It’s a real pickle. Let’s see what happens.