Tuesday, June 06, 2023

The Good Asian, Graphic Novel

Asian detectives like Charlie Chan. Mr. Moto, and James Lee Wong were popular in the 1930s, but they have become controversial in retrospect, because they were portrayed by European actors (except Mr. Wong, played by Boris Karloff, who was of Indian heritage). Edison Hark is a Honolulu cop like Chan, but he is definitely cut from a different cloth, reflecting more contemporary sensibilities. His latest investigation takes him to San Francisco, but it hits really close to home for Hark in Pornsak Pichetshote’s graphic novel the Good Asian, with art by Alexandre Tefenkgi and Lee Loughridge, which releases today in a deluxe hardcover bind-up.

Hark did not really want to come to San Francisco, but his wealthy white adopted father Mason Carroway has fallen ill and may never recover. As a desperate final gesture, Hark’s adoptive brother Frankie requested his help finding their father’s possible lost love, Ivy Chen. She had a rather complicated history with the Carroway family. In addition to her ambiguous relationship with their father, Frankie might have also carried a torch for her too, but not Hark. He had a thing for Frankie’s sister, Victoria. She was usually away at boarding schools and rarely at home during their youth, so it wasn’t so weird—at least that is what they told themselves.

Hark deliberately references Chang Apana, the Honolulu cop who was the real-life inspiration for Charlie Chan. However, the hardboiled family dynamics have more of a
Big Sleep vibe, with the search for Ivy Chen replacing that for Sean Regan. Yet, the attitude towards just about all forms of American authority in 1936 is more in keeping with Polanski’s Chinatown, but with a far greater understanding of the real Chinatown.

Pichetshote’s narrative is thoroughly grounded in the history and culture of the early Twentieth Century Asian immigrant experience, including the Angel Island Immigration Center, the Chinese nightclub circuit, and the notorious Massie trial that scandalized Hawaii. However, there are times when Pichetshote lets the story get a little too bogged down protesting past injustices, at the expense of the murky, start-and-stop mystery.

Still, there is a lot of cool noir atmosphere and Pichetshote puts Hark into some extreme situations that will surprise readers. Tefenkgi, Loughridge, and the contributing cover artists stylishly evoke the sophisticated look of the era and the dark, nocturnal ambiance of the nightclubs and back alleys frequented by the characters. It is smart and visually dynamic, but the editing could have been a little tighter. Still easily recommended for fans of 1930s detective fiction,
The Good Asian deluxe hardcover edition is now on-sale, wherever books and comics are sold.