Sunday, March 15, 2009

China's Green Lantern Fails to Take Flight

I'm not sure precisely why I picked up Steve Bialik's Minister Jade. It fell into my possession during the total 45 minutes I spent on the floor during New York Comic Con. Maybe I was intrigued by the art, which plays with traditional Chinese woodblocks and watercolors. Maybe I was charmed by the name of the publisher, Cellar Door -- a nice nod to Tolkien. Maybe it was that it won a Young Adult Library Services Association award as one of 2009's "Great Graphic Novels for Teens" and I was itching for some good YA lit.

There are a lot of reasons why Minister Jade could have been a pretty kick-ass book. After all, it contains the following:

  • A superhero story set in 13th Century China
  • A villain who turns people into gold
  • Man-eating zombie concubines
  • A lionfish demon
  • The roguish King of Lepers, who isn't a leper at all
  • A people living under the thumb of Kublai Khan
But Minister Jade is not kick-ass, not kick-ass at all. At its best, the book is disappointing, a mere artistic failure. At its worst, it's profoundly offensive.

The story follows Wenxiu, once a government clerk in an influential Chinese family, who lost his status after the Mongol conquest of China. With his family reduced to performing on the streets and selling tea, Wenxiu dreams of regaining his former wealth and glory and of being worthy of his lady love, the brothel song girl Yuniang. After a series of misadventures, Wenxiu finds himself on the Island of Living Jade, whose resident entity gives him a mystical belt that transforms him into a Green Lantern-esque superhero. With his new-found abilities, Wenxiu finds himself in the path of the nefarious apothecary Wanyao Wang and his death cult, who seek to eradicate the scourge of humanity through biomystical warfare.

But Wenxiu has a fatal character flaw. Whereas his family is concerned with honor, familial loyalty, and overthrowing their oppressors, and Yuniang seeks only his love, Wenxiu understands his worth only in terms of his status, and will seek any means to attain it, even if it means allying himself with the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan.

Minister Jade's primary sins are artistic, mainly in its egregious breeches of storytelling's "Show, Don't Tell" rule. When our protagonist and our antagonist first appear, each disgorges his entire backstory before the audience in a way that calls to mind the wearying Japanese Noh plays I read in college, except that Noh makes no pretense to being anything other than a series of flashbacks and revelations. At the same time, characters plainly state their emotions and their motivations for acting the way they do (to quote Futurama's Robot Devil, "You can't just have your characters announce how they feel! That makes me feel angry"), and details of the story are revealed through clunkily expositional dialogue. This leaves the characters without a shred of mystery or texture, essential to lending a third dimension to a book with deliberately two dimensional art. In the end, the storyline feels akin to a porno plot, less an end in itself than a setup for the much richer action sequences.

Even Wenxiu and Wanyao fail to hit their proper emotional marks. Wenxiu's arc is a pretty simple one: he is lowly and craves power, he receives power but uses is dishonorably, and then he learns to use his power honorably. But before his redemption, we are given little to like about the fallen scholar. He is so fixated on wrong notions of value and worth, and anything positive that happens to him early on in the story comes not as a result of his own ingenuity or virtue, but from the largely unwarranted kindness of others. Consequently, I couldn't invest much concern in whether he eventually changes his status-whore ways; I was too busy thinking that the minor characters would have found more noble -- and interesting -- uses for the belt of living jade. And Wanyao Wang should have been utterly creepifying -- over a century and half old, with eyes sewn shut, an unflappable politeness, and that gas turning folks to gold. But Bialik blows Wanyao's entire wad of evil in the first few pages, so we never get the impression that the villain has any terrible surprises up his sleeve. He also fails to meditate sufficiently on the horrors of the golden plague; the action sequences focus so completely on monsters and magic that they overwhelm what should be the most unnerving aspect of the entire book.

If these were Minister Jade's sole problems, I would simply place it my mental "rough draft" file, for books that have certain promising qualities, but probably needed another pass or two before they went to press. But, upon finishing the book, I found that I was more than disappointed. I was outraged.

Minister Jade is set during the Yuan Dynasty and makes some effort toward explaining the history and culture of the era. But given that this is a fantasy story and that Bialik is writing for teens, you would think he'd give more thought to how he portrays women. I will say that he does offer us one token action chick, a no-nonesense junk owner who at first merely harumphs at Wenxiu and later reappears as a demon-slaying deus ex machina. But her character almost seems a half-hearted apology for the way Bialik treats the other women in his book. The only other prominent female character is Yuniang. Initially, she seems like an ideal Wenxiu needs to aspire to, something he can earn if he learns to accept himself. But once Wenxiu becomes the superpowered Minister Jade, he whisks Yuniang off to a palace to become his bride. As she accepts him without question -- caring not about his earlier abandonment of her or his sudden betrayal of their Chinese kinsmen -- her character becomes vestigial and Bialik occpies her with the task of decorating their home in a reportedly tacky style.

This in itself would not be so terrible -- after all, some female characters are bound to be simple -- were it not for the character Vantu. Vantu is one of Wenxiu's key allies; although he is not a warrior, he proves valuable in the defeat of Wanyao Wang. He's also a pimp. There are contexts in which casting a heroic pimp would be appropriate, but this is not one of them. Everything in this book is so simplistic and hurried that Vantu's profession is largely skated over and isn't shown critically except to suggest that it's low-class. And this problem is exponentially compounded by the pair of interchangable beauties frequently traveling with Vantu. As a reader, I might expect these women to defer to Vantu, and to feign affection for a potential client, but in an early scene they jump eagerly and earnestly upon their master, apparently delighted to find he is unharmed after a fight. Then, in the very next moment Vantu offers their services to Wenxiu as a gift, a mere trifle. I do not demand that these women be anachronistically heroic or independent, and I do realize that some characters are bound to be compliant prostitutes and happy wives, but when nearly all the female characters serve at the pleasure of men and have no visible internal lives, something has gone awry.

I've enjoyed some of the other books on the YALSA list, including Mariko and Jillian Takami's Skim and the first volume of Atomic Robo, so I'm willing to chalk the inclusion of Minister Jade up to a fluke. But I suspect the librarians on the committee were so blinded by its historical setting and culturally-inspired art that they failed to notice that it's not only sexist, but also not a particularly good book.


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