Chinatown Noir: Talking Image’s ‘The Good Asian’ With Pornsak Pichetshote
by Tony Thornley
In early 2018, Pornsak Pichetshote made a huge splash with his breakout comics hit Infidel, illustrated by Aaron Campbell. The allegorical horror thriller delved into some of humanity’s darkest impulses while delivering a genuinely chilling ghost story. Now, his much-anticipated follow-up- The Good Asian– is on its way from Image Comics, out today.
The Good Asian is a noir mystery about Edison Hark, a haunted, self loathing Chinese American detective. When his latest case puts him on the trail of a killer, he finds himself battling the mystery as well as the ingrained racism of 1936 San Francisco.
We had a chance to sit down with him to discuss the series, its themes, the current state of the world for Asian Americans and the amazing creative team he’s working with…
Tony Thornley: So for anyone who hasn’t heard about The Good Asian yet, what’s the series about?
Pornsak Pichetshote: The Good Asian is 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. I got the idea years ago when I learned – very late in life – about the Chinese Exclusion Act and couldn’t believe as an Asian-American I didn’t know anything about it. The Chinese Exclusion Act, for people who don’t know, was a law banning all Chinese laborers from entering America (and affecting all Chinese immigrants in the process) from 1882 to 1943. From there, further research brought me to the Immigration Act of 1924 which barred all Asians and Arabs from entering America until 1965. That, coupled with my interest in the movies about the Asian crime-solvers of the 1930s – a wildly popular genre at the time that inspired the creation of detectives like Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto, and Mr. Wong – led me to want to combine that Asian detective archetype with a story that actually acknowledged Asian-American history.
TT: You call this project “Chinatown Noir”. What is Chinatown Noir? How does it differ from the Sam Spades of the world?
PP: Credit where credit is due, “Chinatown noir” was actually a term Ed Brubaker suggested when he heard about the book, and the team has picked up and ran with it with Ed’s blessing ever since. Like I said, Hark was inspired by the many Asian detectives of the 1930s, but here’s the thing: The first Asian-American detective in mainland America wasn’t until 1957. The only place you could find Asian-American detectives in the 1930s was Hawaii, so Edison Hark – like Charlie Chan – was inspired by real-life Hawaiian detective Chang Aparna, who very much policed other Chinese people. In some ways of looking at it, he might be called a race traitor. So here you have a detective who became a cop because he wanted to do the right thing only for his community to see him as a traitor – and for him to wonder if he just might be one. So I’m hoping in that, you have a detective that feels reminiscent of the jaded, hard-boiled detectives of noir, but with a very unique twist and perspective that’s very much rooted in an accurate portrayal of his Chinese-American identity. Ultimately, that’s what Chinatown noir is: noir unique and accurate to Chinese-American life.
TT: I’ve heard the term ‘good Asian’ before. What exactly does the title of the series mean?
PP: The title “The Good Asian” is an allusion not just to the model minority myth Asians deal with, but also brings up the idea of what constitutes a “good Asian?” To what degree should you show loyalty to the place you’re living in and its laws? To what degree should you show loyalty to your people or your culture or your heritage? That conflict between the place you’re living in and the culture you come from resonates deeply to me as an Asian-American, and I hope it does with other children of immigrants. I always hear Asians joke about the concept of “good Asians” and “bad Asians,” as if there’s a right amount of Asian to be. The book takes that idea and hopefully in the tradition of good genre fiction heightens it so we can look at it in new ways.
TT: So you made a huge splash in the industry with Infidel. Why the shift from horror to a mystery noir with this project?
PP: Partly, it was because people were expecting another horror book for me, and I wanted to zig where everyone thought I would zag. But the other part was my attraction to the themes and topics of The Good Asian, and this kind of gumshoe noir was really the perfect genre for it. A lot of times I pick the genre I’m writing in by the themes and subject matter I want to talk about, since different genres come with different tools and tricks. From the burned out detective to the jaded, cynical world, so much of noir was perfect for the ideas I wanted to explore with this book.
TT: You’ve talked before about how you’ve been working on a spiritual successor to Infidel. Is this that project?
PP: I love that you remember I said that, so I’m sorry to have to be coy and say yes and no… only because giving a definitive answer would spoil a future project I want to write. But I promise when I’m ready to talk about that project, I’ll come back and unpack the answer to that question.
TT: You have a stellar art team on the book. What has your collaborative process with Alex been like? What has the rest of the team brought to the story for you?
PP: My artist Alexandre Tefenkgi comes from European comics, but more recently did an ongoing book from Skybound called Outpost Zero, written by Sean McKeever. 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…. We talk almost every other week, even though I live in Los Angeles, and Alex lives in France. Although at this point, those conversations are less and less about the book and more just hanging out and talking about life. We’ve become such good friends. My scripts in general are pretty detailed, and I give him folders for all the art references I think he’ll need for each script, but Alex always does his own research from there, and he really takes over and adds his own spin to everything.
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 Lee Loughridge (who has done a ton of books but my current favorite is his work on Deadly Class) 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.
Jeff Powell handles letters, design, and production. I worked with Jeff on Infidel. He’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.
I was Dave Johnson’s editor on the Vertigo book Unknown Soldier, and we’ve hung out at so many conventions together. For the longest time, Dave’s work was the bar I hold all covers to, and his iconic covers for the Vertigo crime comic 100 Bullets push him into the realm of best crime cover artist ever in my opinion. It was my editor Will who suggested going to him for this, because I never would have believed he’d have the time for us, and the fact Dave’s on this is just a dream come true for me.
And speaking of Will, I mention him last, but I might be the only comic creator I know who recruits his editor first before getting 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 was no hands I felt this story was safer in than his.
TT: With violence against Asian Americans and the role of the police both a major part of today’s news cycle, why is now the right time to tell this story?
PP: It’s been really surreal to watch anti-Asian hate crimes skyrocket through the course of writing this book – with attacks on women and the elderly still happening, most often in broad daylight. It’s hard to say what a little comic book can do and say in the face of that, but if people are in any way educated by this book at all, I hope people see how these crimes haven’t happened in a vacuum. That America’s had a long history of anti-Asian bias baked into its laws, and I think it’s important for us to know how our current moment sits alongside the context of American history.
That said, though, I also don’t want to ignore the huge strides Asians have made in entertainment, winning awards and getting new projects greenlit. I think part of that comes from people realizing there’s a huge audience for these stories, that the Asian-American community is an influential one worth dedicating resources to court.
TT: I’m a white thirtysomething guy from the Mountain West, so I know I didn’t pick up on some of the small details here. What do you hope that someone like me would take away from The Good Asian?
PP: Probably most of all, I’d want you to feel entertained and surprised and shocked and moved – basically, all the same excitement I get when I read a good noir mystery. But going to my earlier answer, it’d be great if you also realized how much Asian-American history doesn’t get taught in schools and as a result, have been forgotten. And I hope it leads to some kind of curiosity to explore some more of it.
TT: Do you have any other projects you’d like to plug before we wrap up?
PP: I always joke that I’m not a real comic book writer because I only have one major project to plug at a time, unlike all the comic book writers I know that have seven. Hopefully, sooner than later, I’ll get to the point where I’m plugging something new and also be able to say, check out my other book that’s also on the stands. But I try to juggle TV and comics writing at the same time, and most of the time, I can’t talk about my TV work until after I’m done with it, so all that’s left is the one major comics project I’m writing.
The Good Asian #1 is available today from Image Comics in all local comic shops and wherever digital comics are sold.