Frame and Twist: Prime Baby

Posted by on April 12th, 2010 at 5:53 AM

Rob reviews the collected version of Gene Luen Yang’s New York Times strip, PRIME BABY (First Second).

Gene Luen Yang, with his third major release from First Second in PRIME BABY, has established himself as a modern, comics version of O.Henry.  Take one part elegant structure, one part broad characterization, one part plot twist and one part sentimentality, and you’ve broken down Yang’s formula in all of his books.  There’s also usually an underlying layer of social critique (often centering around race) and/or religious content in his books, but that wasn’t quite as present in PRIME BABY, which can best be described as a comics novella.

This story is told through the first-person narration of young Thaddeus K. Fong, an abrasive kid who theorizes that his toddler sister is actually an alien, acting as a harbinger of invasion.  The more the slightly megalomaniacal kid pushes his theory, the more his nature as a social outcast is revealed.  The twist in this book is considerably more gentle than in books like AMERICAN BORN CHINESE or THE ETERNAL SMILE, as Thaddeus learns that he’s sort of right.  He finds his sister spitting out alien pods and confronts them, only to learn that they are on earth to “bring smiles and happy feelings”.

The second part of the twist was particularly clever, as poor Thaddeus was stuck with a secret he didn’t want.  He came up with a scheme to finally prove to everyone that Maddie was spitting out aliens, a decision that moved the story in a slightly darker direction as the government locked her away.  The huge dollop of sentiment entered into the story when Thaddeus copped to his own loneliness and realized that the only person who really wanted to be around him was his sister.

To his credit, Yang doesn’t try to spin the plot so as to effect a rescue.  Instead, he finds a way to wind up in captivity with her, and that’s where the story ends.  Yang telegraphs nearly every significant emotional beat of the story.  It’s clear that Thaddeus is a social outcast, and it’s obvious that breaking his sister’s heart was going to penetrate his veneer of indifference.  The story’s main virtue was the humor Yang mined from the would-be world conqueror Thaddeus, who lived a sort of diabolical Walter Mitty-esque fantasy life.

This book is a trifle, though a breezy and pleasant one.  Yang’s art is no-frills and functional, working on a three-panel grid per page.  The design is simple and unpretentious, while Derek Kirk Kim’s coloring job is as understated as the rest of the book.  One almost gets the sense that everyone involved knew that this was a minor work, but a story still worth telling.  It’s a perfectly fine young-adult work, falling short of sophistication or nuance but still providing skillfully-executed entertainment.  It may not be the most memorable of stories, but I certainly had no regrets in reading it.  My one wish with regard to Yang is to see him really take on his religious beliefs in story form, and to do so in a manner that breaks out of his formula.

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One Response to “Frame and Twist: Prime Baby

  1. […] the sense that everyone involved knew that this was a minor work, but a story still worth telling": Rob Clough reviews Gene Luen Yang's Prime […]