The Good Asian is a casserole of a comic — it appears, on the surface, to be a simple detective-noir story, but upon reading it you are given a history lesson as well; like sneaking medicine to a fussy patient, Pornsak Pichetshote has wrapped stark and powerful facts within a beautiful shell (with equal credit going to the perfectly stylized artwork of Alexandre Tefenkgi), and delivered to you, the reader, an engrossing story and an education.
The comic itself is the story of Edison Hark, a Chinese-American detective working the Chinatown beat in San Francisco, delicately yet desperately trying to have an identity of his own while constantly being stereotyped by everyone he meets. He’s a cop, but he’s Asian. He’s Asian, but he’s also wealthy. He’s wealthy, but he’s also a working man. In the end, who is he, really? He’s The Good Asian.
I recently had the pleasure to sit down with Pornsak and chat about the book, the noir genre, institutionalized racism in America, representation in media…like all the best conversations, it wound around and twisted and turned to cover a lot of ground — all of it worthwhile, and all of it wonderful.
BS: First off, thank you so much for being here — I’ve been reading The Good Asian since the first issue and loved every single one.
PP: Thank you!
I really wanted to get to know more about it because there are so many fascinating aspects to it, and, starting from the top, when people ask me about The Good Asian I often get raised eyebrows regarding the title…
…so I have my explanation that I’ve come up with, but I’d like to hear it directly from you to see if I’m right in my interpretation: So why The Good Asian? What does the title mean, how does it tie into the book and the characters… what is The Good Asian really about?
It’s a few different things, but what I think, primarily - and what I’ve found is that most Asians get this immediately - it’s a reference to the model minority myth. It’s a reference to the idea that there are “good Asians” and there are “bad Asians” and that “good Asians” are allowed to be American, and, especially in the 1930’s, “bad Asians” weren’t allowed into the country. But beyond that, there’s this idea that the term, which we didn’t have at the time but we have now - it’s the idea of respectability politics. That if you perform in a certain way that’s deemed “good,” and “good” is determined by the society at the time, which is a majority-white society, that if you behave in a way that the white majority approves of, you will be considered an American. And that thinking is what led to the model minority myth - that Asians, for many many generations, still, are pushing against. And so, to me, that was the big aspect of The Good Asian.
And there’s another aspect to it, as well; one of the things that I find interesting about being Asian-American is that you’re straddling both worlds, and there’s this flip side of it, too. You know, when Asians say “I’m a good Asian” or “I’m a bad Asian,” when they joke about it, they use the term to measure how Asian they are - as if there’s a sense of if you don’t act Asian enough, or if you don’t have enough “Asian” to you, you’re no longer considered Asian American. So there’s that aspect where you’re measuring yourself on both ends of the spectrum by being Asian-American, so the term has connotations on both ends of that spectrum.
Wow, I’ll admit, I hadn’t thought that deeply about it outside of the context of the comic, so I’m glad I asked the question. And it’s interesting to hear you talk about the model minority myth because there’s an episode of Adam Ruins Everything where he speaks to the idea of “good Asians” and the stereotype of who’s a “good Asian” and a “bad Asian,” so it’s fascinating to hear you go into such detail.
May I share with you the explanation I give people when they ask?
Please! I’m very interested to hear it!
So when I tell people I’m reading The Good Asian and I get the raised eyebrows, I explain that it’s a play on the main character, who is a Chinese-American police detective in San Francisco, working the Chinatown beat, and it’s a play on words where he’s a cop AND he’s Asian, but because he’s a cop, the other cops have basically adopted him as a mascot or pet, and they pat him on the head and say “Oh no, he’s the good Asian, he’s one of ours that we send into Chinatown because he can speak the language.” And so he wrestles with a crossed identity where he’s Chinese American AND he’s a cop, AND he comes from wealth because he was adopted by a sugar magnate, so he’s straddling all of these different social structures and trying to keep his own identity and figure out who he really is while also navigating this incredibly racist society - which is America.
Yeah! No, I think that’s accurate - I think that, y’know, you’re not using the historical language that I use when you explain it, but I think that you’ve got it and you’ve hit the nail on the head that that is what’s happening.
Sweet! Thank you for confirming that so I don’t feel like I’m misrepresenting you or the book!
I will also say, too, that The Good Asian…when I was looking for a title, I wanted a title that evoked a classic noir feeling, and ever since seeing The Good German, then The Good Asian felt like it rang true enough to feel like a noir title.
Absolutely! Which leads perfectly into my next question: I love noir, I’ve been a fan of since before I knew what noir was, because I remember just loving detective stories and before I ever learned the term noir, I knew that I loved the voiceover narration, and the dark imagery, and the classic characters talking to the camera, so what drew you into it? What is the appeal of noir for you, and, building off of that, The Good Asian takes place in 1935, correct?
1936, thank you. So what drew you into noir, what do you love about the genre, and why did you set The Good Asian in 1936 specifically? Was there a historical event that happened around that time which you wanted to tap into? Because most of the noir films and stories that I’m used to are all set post World War II, so by setting The Good Asian in 1936 goes against that concept by being before World War II. Can you tell me more about that?
So, for me, what it was is that I discovered the Chinese Exclusion Act late in my life - I did not know it existed, I was kind of fascinated by its history and the Immigration Act of 1924, and because - and I felt kind of embarrassed, as an Asian-American, that I didn’t know it existed - and because I have this pop-culture addled brain, when I learned about it, one of the first things that came to me was the thought of “Oh my god, during a time when Asians weren’t allowed into the country, the Asian crime-solver was a very popular genre!” With Charlie Chan and Mister Moto and Mister Wong, Detective — and Charlie Chan was especially popular, he was huge for decades! So it was fascinating to me that that character was so popular at a time when Asians weren’t.
And so that — and I should also say, too, that when I became an editor over at Veritgo, which, you know, is the mature readers imprint over at DC comics, I’m just a fan of the genre in general, and when you’re a comic book editor, you’re kind of like a jack of all trades and a master of none. You know all the genres, you like all the genres, but part of what made me become a writer was thinking “Okay, these are the genres I want to do deep dives into.” And I’d always loved the detective mystery sort of genre, so I thought “Wouldn’t it be interesting to take a Charlie Chan archetype and then apply the actual racial history and what we know about racial politics onto that?” So from then on it was “Okay, so let’s take the 1930’s and make it noir.”
And you’re right - most noir takes place in the 1940’s, and there’s some noir that takes place in the 30’s, and most of the stuff that exists harkens back to the old gumshoe-detective stories of Hammett and Chandler and their novels. So what I wanted to do, then, was to take it and make it as accurate as possible — let’s use the novels as my source material and riff off of them and, setting it in the 30’s, it’s an early-noir. Like you said, film-noir started in the 40’s, but pulp-noir started in the late 20’s and ran through the 30’s, so let’s do that pulp-noir style from the 30’s. And how I landed on 1936 was that I wanted to run as close as possible to the classic noir as I could, but by 1937 the Nanjing Massacre had happened, and if I were to set this story at any time after the Nanjing Massacre, that would be what everyone in Chinatown was talking about. So all the stuff I wanted to explore, and the resonance of Chinatown at the time, and America right now, would be lost, so 1936 was the latest that I could set it in order to balance all of those things.
Forgive my lack of education here, but what exactly was the Nanjing Massacre?
The Nanjing Massacre was sort of a prelude to the escalating conflict between Japan and China which would culminate in Japan being seen as such a threat in World War II, and what happened was Japan invaded and then massacred or slaughtered the people of Nanjing China. It’s also commonly known as “The Rape of Nanjing,” and it was sort of seen as — this was such a bloody massacre from the Japanese towards the Chinese, and I realized that at that time, that’s all that people in Chinatown would have been talking about. It really polarized the conversation in only one direction that, while I think it’s interesting, it really wasn’t resonant to where we are now. I was really interested in using all of the aspects of the book to sort of reflect where we are right now with America and with the Asian-American experience in America.
Ah! I have to admit, I’ve only ever seen it written as “NanKING” instead of “Nanjing,” so that must be the Americanized/Anglicized version of Nanjing, which makes sense that, here in the US where we whiten everything, that’s how we would have seen it and learned about it.
I think with a lot of Asian words that are translated into English, there are often multiple spellings, so “Nanking” may be an accurate way to pronounce and spell it, and it’s possible that I’ve just seen it the other way, so you should not feel guilty for only knowing it the one way.
Thank you! Now, earlier you had mentioned a little bit about anti-Asian sentiment in America and how all of that is still going on today, so I wanted to talk a bit more about that. Issue number one dropped at a really perfect time because I remember hearing about all of the recent attacks against Asian-Americans happening all over the country because of the racist associations to Covid and people being paranoid and stupid about it, and then The Good Asian comes out with its wonderful history lessons which educate the readers on exactly how racist we’ve been, as a country, towards Asians and Asian-Americans, for our whole history. So was the timing on that release intentional in any way? Or was it just a strange coincidence that you pitched the book to Image, they approved it, you wrote it, and it just happens to drop within a month of the Atlanta attack?
Not only that, but I remember when the book was announced it was the same week that — I think it was NBC — one of the first major news stories concerning the rise of hate crimes against Asian-Americans happened the same week we announced the book, which was a very very surreal experience for me.
But it was not intentional — we originally pitched this book in 2019, and it was supposed to come out in 2020 but Covid slowed everything down. And so it wasn’t intentional, but it was funny because my last book, Infidel, which is kind of a haunted-house story that talks about racism and xenophobia, ended up being a timely book as well. And for both books the impetus was the same — that there were things that were relevant that we weren’t talking about, and so I wanted to write these books. And then, in a weird stroke of luck or confluence of circumstances, the books ended up being very relevant by the time they came out, which I’m still trying to process as to what that means. And if it happens a third time, I’m going to have to really step back and look at my process and see if it’s no longer a coincidence, and maybe I’m tapping into something.
But no, there wasn’t — for me, at the time, when I was writing it, it was a book that was post Crazy Rich Asians. And with that movie, people were starting to really embrace Asian protagonists, so I wanted to use that as an opportunity to talk about stuff about Asian America, and to talk about this history that we really don’t know, so that was really my impetus for it. And then I was very lucky that things happened in our culture which made the book very relevant in relation to what’s happening.
Absolutely! And I’m glad you mentioned Crazy Rich Asians because recently — I don’t know if you’ve been following this in the news, but it makes me think of what happened to Kim’s Convenience.
Yeah! Yeah, totally!
And with Simu Liu coming out in Shang-Chi, there’s been a big spotlight that has been shone on Asian-American culture in entertainment. You mentioned Crazy Rich Asians, and there’s also Kim’s Convenience and Shang-Chi, and Simu Liu is doing such a wonderful job of advocating for Asian-Americans, so all the news about how there were no Asian Americans in the writer’s room for Kim’s Convenience, and while I loved the show, knowing what I know now I have to wonder how they did so well in so many episodes, and then get season four so wrong and make so many missteps when you’ve got a whole cast of people you can lean on and tap for ideas? And it was really disappointing to hear that there were no women in the writer’s room, and no Asians in the writer’s room, and just — it’s wild to think about people who produce such great, representational pieces like these, and I think it’s very evident as to which pieces use the appropriate talent to provide that representation, and which ones are written by white people - typically white men - sitting around saying “I think this is what Asians are like, so I’m gonna write the Asians like this.”
Laughs Yeah, I can think of a couple of shows where — it’s always fascinating to me how often those elements coincide; no Asians, no women, or no Asians and one woman, and it overlaps more often than it doesn’t, unfortunately.
So my next question, to bring it back around to the comic, I’d like to expand a little more on what you said about when pitched this comic back in 2019 — I’d love to hear more about that. It’s being published by Image right now, so did you pitch it to several companies and they were the first one to bite? Or they simply made the best offer? Also, have you been working with Alexandre Tefengke from the start? Or did you and he meet after it had been picked up by Image and they connected you with him? Tell me a bit more about how you got the book made.
Image was the first company I approached because I had a really good relationship with them, coming off of Infidel, and so it made going back to them with my next book a no-brainer. And I want to say we had Alex on board before we pitched it to Image — I think Infidel went well enough that, and maybe this is arrogance on my part, I just assumed that they would take my second book. Also, I like pitching books with an artist already involved so the publisher knows what the look and feel of the book will be. I think that sometimes writers, especially in other mediums, underestimate… Well, I don’t want to say that writers underestimate the value an artist brings to a final book, but I think that some writers underestimate how much publishers look at artists when deciding whether or not to publish a book. I think there are some writers who have such a brand that when they’re writing, they’re always working with good artists, so the publishers trust the writer’s taste in artists. But I think that for newer writers — I’ve heard of people and books being rejected, and some people can be lucky, sometimes, and hear “We like the book but not the artist, so can you find another artist?”
And I get it. I get that some people think that a good story wins over everything, which I think, normally, is true, but comics are such a graphic medium. So one thing I always say is that I’ve read and enjoyed comics with fantastic art and mediocre writing, but it’s harder for me to enjoy a story with fantastic writing and mediocre art. And that is largely because it’s a visual medium — it’s a medium more for the artists, and we, as writers, have to write for the artists. Comics work less when the artists have to work themselves around writers.
I’m glad to hear you talk about that because, recently, there’s been some talk around the internet that writers think that they’re above artists, or think that they’re better than them, and that the artist wouldn’t have a job without the writer — but that’s been the opposite of my own experience.
And as a writer, myself, looking to get published, the artist is absolutely essential to the process because you can’t just send a script to a publisher and hope to get it read.
And I think, too, that if you look at the psychology of comic book buying, whether publishers are aware of it or not, what they’re doing is — if I’ve never heard of your book before, the only chance I’m going to have to find it is seeing it at my local comic book store and having the cover catch my eye. So then, if the cover catches my eye, I’ll pick that book up off the shelves and flip through it a little bit, and then, if the art catches my eye, I will probably buy it and bring it home. I don’t think anybody is reading a comic with art that’s unappealing just to see if it’s something that would appeal to them. So when you think about it that way, a writer’s contribution is actually the last thing a new consumer consumes when they are picking up a comic that they’ve never seen and don’t know anything about. So in a lot of ways, every artist on your roster is contributing to the sale of your first issue, and, as a writer, you’re really only contributing to the sale of your second issue. Or, I should say, as a writer, your story is only contributing to the sale of your second issue, and that’s the measure of your success. The only thing that you’re contributing to that first issue is how well you’re showcasing your artist and letting them show off, but the writing has actually very little to do with sales of a first issue — it has very little to do with your story, and has more to do with where you plant your tent to give your artist room to succeed.
I can’t help but notice that every issue, on the cover, it says “An Edison Hark Mystery.” So I’m hopeful…does that mean we’re going to get more Edison Hark mysteries after The Good Asian?
I very, very much want to, and, if anything, it’s all going to depend on sales. And because I’m very neurotic, I never count my chickens before they hatch so I’m constantly looking at the numbers to see, one: How good the sales of our first book are doing. And thankfully (knock on wood), they seem to be doing very well! But then, also, number two: How well are we maintaining interest? That interest will let me gauge if we do a book two, how long book two will be, the format of it… So right now it is the goal to do more Edison Hark mysteries, but it’s more about gauging the data that comes in from this series to see if there are more to come, and how many more there will be.
Well I’m hopeful, because reviews are pouring in in and everybody seems to be loving it, which is very positive for me as a fan of the genre because the better noir comics do, then the more noir comics there will be in the future, and then I can read more good stories to fuel my own passions.
That’s good! I’m glad — I’m happy, I’m very happy about that. And it’s funny, because I feel like everyone has that question of how to break into comics, but breaking into comics is easy, it’s finding an artist that’s hard. Like, the secret to breaking into comics is to find an artist, and then the real challenge is “How do I afford an artist?” And to some people that’s not a challenge, and to other people that very much is a challenge. So then the question becomes “How do I afford an artist on a budget?” And that’s the trip.
We talked a little earlier about the noir genre, and the popularity of the genre, so I wanted to hear your thoughts on why, even though noir is always popular and well-received, it’s not a very popular genre and there aren’t very many books written in the style, especially in comics. Off the top of my head, aside from The Good Asian, I can only think of maybe three; Stumptown, which is modern-day noir; Sin City, which is just a classic and a category all its own; and then I would even go so far as to include Nailbiter, even though it straddles the line between horror and noir. So, knowing that noir is popular and that the books tend to do well and the stories are well-received, why do you think the genre is not more explored in the world of comics?
I would say that noir falls under…there’s a lot of sub-categories of noir, and I know what category of noir that I work in, which is the detective-slash-gumshoe type of noir, but that’s only one slice of the pie chart, and there’s a lot more to the genre. So one of the things that I can tell you about this category, the detective-gumshoe noir, is that when you’re analyzing it, it’s not the best medium in which to set a story. And the reason for that, pulling from my own experiences here, is that the influences — in my case the 1930’s noir and the antecedents of that — that stuff really lives in prose, the best place for it is prose, because so much of it is simply observation and dialogue.
So much of those early Hammett novels, if you look at the “action” of those novels, it’s all just people coming into rooms and people talking within those rooms. And one of the things I realized very quickly is that you can do dramatic finding of clues, you can solve a thing or find a thing, but if you lean on it too much, noir turns into Batman very quickly. So part of it being noir and not — so the most exaggerated aspects of noir have already been incorporated into and cannibalized by superhero comics, and it becomes vigilante stories, and Batman. So to keep it truly noir you have to keep it grounded, but keeping it grounded then means that you have a guy who walks into a room and talks to a person. Then he walks into another room and talks to another person. Goes into another room and talks to another person. And that works in prose, that works in the early movies of the 1940’s where they were on sets and, for all intents and purposes, they were just shooting dialogue because so much of the action was implied action, but it’s not the most exciting comics.
If you look at the history of noir in comics, and you look at, say, Frank Miller, and Cooke, and Bendis, and Brubaker, one of the things you’ll notice is — and I think this is the reason why the noir that gets out there is so good — all those guys are people who know the comics medium so intimately that they experiment with it, with the comics medium. And even someone like Brubaker, who is a master of it, his stuff is very realistic so it’s easy to think that he’s not doing any formal experimentation in his comics, but he very much is — he just keeps it hidden from you. And everyone who works in noir, and this is something that I’ve certainly found, is that they’re very much people who have to use the language of comics very well, and very experimentally. If you look at their work in comics, so many of them start off in crime comics because the genre forces you to innovate, because if you don’t then it’s just pages of talking heads. And I think that’s the reason why you don’t see a lot of crime comics, because a lot of times it doesn’t give an artist anything interesting — you have to work, as an artist, to have something interesting to draw. If there’s too many big explosions, it turns into an action comic, so there’s no special-effects-y kinds of things.
That’s one of the reasons why I feel very lucky working with Alexandre, because he’s all about the acting. He’s all about the character. But he’s also got this clean line and this great design sense so we can play with the page a little bit, so the goal is to never make it boring — to never make two people talking in a room, or two people thinking, boring, because that’s so much of the genre.
I’m glad you brought that up, because issue number four in particular — the scenes with Edison and his brother in the car — the panel layouts, and the way it was placed on the page was really beautifully laid out. And you’re right, it’s just two people talking, but the way it was shown to us on the page was, in and of itself, artistic. So the words are there and the conversation is important to have, but Alexandre captured that conversation and showed it to us amazingly well. And that’s a common thread throughout all the comics - it’s beautifully laid out on the page, and I love the mechanic you and Alexandre have created to show us when Edison finds a clue, the “red box,” where you see the clue in a red box and you see Edison’s eye in a red box, and when I’m reading and I see that, I always think to myself “That’s his Psych face.”
Laughs Yeah! Totally! I totally know what you’re talking about! And a lot of that came from the idea that the detective genre isn’t seen as much in comics, and so the grammar and language of comics hasn’t been developed in such a way to show how a detective’s mind works the way you see it in television. One of the reasons why you see so many detective shows is because TV is a great medium for two people talking in a room; they’ve found different cinematic flourishes to show how a detective thinks. But since they haven’t come up with that many ways to show it in comics, we had to come up with our own way to use comics’ grammar to adapt pulp novels from the 30’s, and, hopefully, you get the sense that even though you’re reading a comic, you’ll also feel like you’re reading a pulp novel from the 30’s.
I’m dying to know, when you were writing this, did you come up with the panel layouts and the breakdowns yourself? Or did Alexandre come up with them? Did you work on them together? Or was it a Neil Gaiman kind of arrangement where you just wrote the scripts and handed them to the artist to work out how they’re going to put it on the page?
It’s always a conversation between me and Alex. This is how I like to work with artists — when I start, I have an idea of what I want, and that idea serves as a foundation or springboard for me to tell the artist “If you don’t have any ideas, at least let me give you this.” And I’m fortunate that the artists I work with always have ideas, so they take that springboard and use it to jump a little higher. But sometimes it will start with me simply saying “Let’s do a nine-panel grid,” and the artist says “I don’t wanna do a nine-panel grid, how about we do this instead?”
And there are certain aesthetic choices that I wanted the book to have — dense panel layouts and all that — so we talked a lot about how many tiers we wanted to have on a page and we worked out our “rules,” and by rules I mean the style that the book would be framed in, and then Alex takes that and runs with it.
We only have a couple of minutes left and I’ve been dying to ask you something…I really appreciate your time and it’s been a really wonderful conversation, so I’d love to know if you’re familiar with Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books at all?
I’m not, actually! It’s on my to-read list!
If I may suggest, as a fan of noir, I would suggest the books that deal with the City Watch. They’re very much noir, but in a fantasy setting, so you’ve got cops walking around trying to solve mysteries and it’s hugely satirical — Sir Terry Pratchett was an absolute genius — but given the conversation we’ve had today about noir, I think you’ll really appreciate and enjoy the police books from the Discworld series.
Good to know! That’s great — what’s a good novel to start with?
I’m gonna say Guards! Guards! It’s one of his earlier books, so it’s not as funny as his middle work, but it’s amazing and it sets up the characters for the City Watch. And Sir Terry was a brilliant satirist who held up a crystal-clear mirror to society and spoke about all kinds of social issues, which makes them truly great because they’re subtle enough to not be heavy-handed, but they’ve very clear on what topics they’re addressing. Much like the X-Men comics and how they were all about civil rights, but they never come right out and say “We’re a metaphor for Black Americans fighting for civil rights and equality!” And I mention all of this because, again, The Good Asian does such a wonderful job of bringing inequality to the forefront and shining that light on a very real social issue that’s still prevalent today.
That’s so interesting! Thank you for letting me know! I’ll definitely check it out!
Thank you so much, once again, I really appreciate your time and letting me chat with you, and I hope that someday I can meet you in person at either Rose City Comic Con or Emerald City Comic Con and get your autograph, shake your hand, and thank you in person!
For more interesting interviews, check out Lais Reid's "Interview with a Gamer."