I’d argue that seeing your friends succeed is probably sweeter than your own success—it’s less fleeting, and purer in a way. Writers tend to speed past the good times and focus on the bad. Maybe that’s what makes us who we are? But when it’s something good happening to someone else, to someone we care about, it lasts longer.
This is a circuitous way of saying I was so happy to see the success my friend Pornsak Pichetshote’s had with his creator-owned comic book series, THE GOOD ASIAN, in tandem with artist Alexandre Tefenkgi. A love letter to the PI genre told through the eyes of flawed, conflicted detective Edison Hark, who is hunting a killer on the streets of 1936 Chinatown. THE GOOD ASIAN is a rare book—a strong mix of historical fiction, seething noir, that still manages to feel of the moment and timeless all at once. Colorist Lee Loughridge’s work converges with Tefenkgi’s stunning linework to create something ever-present and compulsive. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say THE GOOD ASIAN is one of the best crime comics in recent memory—and people will be talking about it for quite some time.
Pichetshote and I worked together for years at DC Comics—he as an editor in DC’s (now sadly shuttered) Vertigo office, and me as a mid-level publicist promoting superhero comics. We’d often talk about our own writing aspirations—the books we were reading, the stories that got us jazzed to make our own. Like most things, not being in close proximity meant we didn’t chat as much once I left DC and they moved out west, but we managed to reach out to one another when we’d have our respective publishing victories. Now, fifteen or so years later, it’s nice to see those dreams realized, for both of us.
It was really an honor to sit and chat with him about THE GOOD ASIAN, what inspired the comic, and what readers can expect to get from the masterful series, which is released in graphic novel form in September from Image Comics.
ALEX SEGURA: Pornsak, can you zoom out and give us a general sense of the book? The concept and characters, mainly? The big ingredients?
PORNSAK PICHETSHOTE: THE GOOD ASIAN is a genre we’re calling Chinatown noir—a 1936 detective story featuring the first generation of Americans to grow up beneath an immigration ban of their own people—the Chinese. The first volume collects the first 4 issues of the 10-issue series and is in stores at the end of September.
For context, the Chinese Exclusion Act was an 1882 law banning all Chinese laborers from entering America—which in turn ended up affecting all Chinese immigrants. Later, the Immigration Act of 1924 banned all Asians and Arabs from entering the country. I’m kind of embarrassed by how late in life I learned about both. That embarrassment coupled with my interest in the movies about the Asian crimesolvers of the 1930s—Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto, and Mr. Wong—led me to want to combine those two things and tell a story about an Asian detective that acknowledged the racial reality of the time.
That Asian detective—Edison Hark—is one of the first Asian-American detectives in America. He’s very much inspired by the real-life inspiration of Charlie Chan—Chang Apana—America’s very first Asian-American detective. Unlike Chang Apana, though, he’s working a case outside of Hawaii when his surrogate brother calls him to San Francisco to find a missing girl.
I’d love to hear what inspired you to write this now. It feels so relevant, but is also a strong dose of historical noir. Did you expect it to be so timely when you started writing it?
Honestly, the timeliness of the book has been kind of surreal. Originally, I thought its timeliness would come through its focus on an immigration ban. What interested me coming off of the heels of the Muslim ban was to look at this entire generation of Americans who came of age with an immigration ban being all they knew. How did they come to their self of self? Community? Identity? Given the backwards way our society was threatening to drift into, it was meant to be a period piece that could also act as speculative fiction.
Plus, it gave me the chance to talk about all this Asian-American history we’ve pretty much forgotten, which I thought was important to remember. But then as I was writing the book, the number of anti-Asian hate crimes began skyrocketing across the country and the idea of acknowledging Asian-American history—both its good and bad facets—got more important and vital.
I’d love to hear more about how the team came together. Did you have a shortlist of people to work with, or was it something more organic? How did you collect these all-stars?
It’s funny. I might be the only comic creator I know who recruits his editor first and then gets the rest of their creative team. But having Will Dennis edit this book was a no-brainer on so many levels. First, and probably most importantly, he’s one of my best friends in this industry and actually recommended my first Chandler novel to me, so in many ways, this is all his fault. Then, of course on top of that, he’s edited all my favorite crime comics from Brian Azzarello & Eduardo Risso’s 100 Bullets to Jason Aaron & R. M. Guera’s Scalped. Then, on top of that, he’s become the editor of choice for all the biggest IMAGE writers. It’s almost an embarrassment of riches, so there were no hands I felt this story was safer in than his.
From there, Will and I are both friends with Cliff Chiang who recommended Alexandre Tefenkgi to draw the book. And Cliff’s such an immense talent with spectacular taste that when he recommends you someone, we were almost like, do we even need to look at his stuff before making him an offer? But of course, we did, and the stunning results speak for themselves on every page of the book. Alex has such a clean, precise, yet still emotive line. He’s just an incredible draftsman, and then you add his storytelling skills, the acting of his characters, his sense of collaboration…. It’s been amazing working with him. Alex comes from European comics, but he’s probably known here in America for working on a Skybound book called Outpost Zero, written by Sean McKeever.
The thing is, Alex can actually be a hard person to color, because his work is so complete in black and white. A lot of colorists don’t know what to do with that, adding colors and effects to make the page overly complicated. But our colorist Lee Loughridge is a genius. Even with art as complete as Alex’s, he’s able to add a tangible sense of mood and atmosphere. Plus, his color choices are so bold and clever—with colors you’d never think to see in a noir, but that nonetheless work so organically and perfectly.
Rounding out the team is Jeff Powell, who handles letters, design, and production. I worked with Jeff on my last comic series INFIDEL. Jeff’s got such a great design sense, and like everyone else on the team, he’s all about storytelling, so all of his choices are about integrating with the art and leading to a smooth reading experience. That said, he also just gives 150% on everything he does. Every book we’ve done, he letters a sound effect so perfectly I adjust my dialogue to call more attention to it.
Like we talked about, though THE GOOD ASIAN is historical, the themes are not alien to people today, sadly. Can you talk about balancing historical accuracy with retaining that modern sensibility?
So much research went into this book. Seriously—SO much research. I mean, if you’re looking at Chinese-Americans in the 1930s and the generational impact of how the Chinese Exclusion Act affected them, you’re not going to find many books about it. So I had to Tetris together research from a few different sources—some that focused on immigration, some that focused on Asian-Americans in the 1930s, some that focused on their relationship to the police and composite a picture together. I’ve always believed that one of the reasons people come to fiction is because they’re looking for the truth between the facts, and that’s really what I strove for here.
That said, one of the things I found while writing this book and looking at the escalating news of anti-Asian hate crimes that were occurring as I was writing and marketing it is that even after almost a hundred years, we still don’t really talk about working-class Asians in this country. So in that way, there wasn’t as much shifting as you might think talking about blue-collar Asians then and now.
Perhaps the most modern aspect of the storytelling was—for me—using the language of comics to get you in the mind of our detective. We see so much of it in TV and film, but there’s been less experimentation in that way in comics, so part of the fun was using all the tricks we have as comic book creators to portray that stuff.
I love that Will handed you your first Chandler, because he’s a big reason I got into crime fiction, too. He handed me Chandler, Thompson, and so many more. What crime fiction inspired THE GOOD ASIAN, or influenced it?
There were so many non-fiction Asian-American history books that inspired THE GOOD ASIAN, part of the fun was balancing that with great detective fiction. And honestly, there are days I think I choose my projects by what gives me the easiest excuse to procrastinate under the guise of “research.” Definitely all the early detective stories from The Maltese Falcon to Hammett’s Continenal Op stories and novels—“Dead Yellow Letters” obviously a stand-out there; Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe books; Ross McDonald’s Lew Archer mysteries, Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins novels, and of course, the original Charlie Chan books—The House without a Key and The Chinese Parrot spring to mind. But then there were contemporary Asian-American detective fiction like Henry Chang’s Detective Jack Yu books or Leonard Chang’s Allen Choice trilogy that also influenced me.
One thing you quickly notice when you read those books, though, is how prose really is the best medium for these kinds of gumshoe mysteries. So many of them live in that space of a detective going up and talking to different people or describing his perspective on a scene or the 10-page chapter of exposition at the end revealing the answer to the mystery. So part of the challenge—but also the fun—of doing it as a comic is how to keep faithful to that spirit but make it work for our medium.
What made Image Comics the best place for this book?
I published my first series INFIDEL through Image, so it was pretty much a no-brainer to do my second one there. And while I don’t want to say IMAGE was the only place that would publish a book like this—that doesn’t give enough credit to the other comics publishers out there—I do have a hard time imagining any other publisher putting as much energy behind launching it as they have. They made it the very first book you saw in PREVIEWS (the telephone book listing every month’s comics available to order) and at every turn, the staff at IMAGE has been relentless in working to make sure people notice the book. It’s been really gratifying and inspiring, honestly.
And while I’m always paranoid of jinxing things, the book’s initial monthly sales have been strong enough for me to think about the possibilities of a future volume—even though I’m too superstitious to commit to anything until the final numbers come in. That said, this volume of THE GOOD ASIAN is slated to run 10 issues – and 2 volumes — and I definitely have an idea on where to go from here. Time (and more accurately sales) will ultimately tell what we do, though!