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Play within a play and the doppelganger: visual application of narrative devices in two graphic novels

Karl Suhr


Watchmen and American Born Chinese are milestones in the rise of the graphic novel as a form. Watchmen was one of the first graphic novels, published at a time when the concept of just what a graphic novel was began to coalesce. American Born Chinese also achieved a first, two in fact: it was the first graphic novel nominated for a National Book Award and the first graphic novel to win the American Library Association's Printz Award. The two works also share a distinction in that they each use traditionally textual or dramatic narrative devices in an entirely visual manner. Watchmen features a visual take on the play within a play device, most famously featured in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. American Born Chinese features a doppelganger of sorts, in an adroit recast of the ‘evil twin’ narrative device employed in The Man in the Iron Mask and numerous other books, movies, and even a Simpson’s episode. American Born Chinese also features dual story lines that parallel each other, but is not so much of a play within a play as separate stories with the same moral that overlap at critical points.

Watchmen: background

Watchmen is an amazingly rich and dense graphic novel with multiple plot threads intertwining. The narrative centers on an alternate reality America where Nixon remained president into the mid 1980’s, the present time when the work was initially serialized. The main protagonists are a second generation of superheroes who don’t really have any super powers, but are like Batman in that they are talented, inventive, and take a vigilante approach to the evildoers of the world. One character, Dr. Manhattan, does have supernatural powers as a result of a nuclear fission-related accident and is nearly omnipotent. Although Dr. Manhattan’s state of being puts him beyond most normal human emotions and needs, he does place himself in the service of the United States government, thereby virtually singlehandedly ‘winning’ the Vietnam War, diminishing the effectiveness of the USSR as a superpower and establishing a de facto United States world hegemony. In spite of this, peace is not really secured and the cold war continues and teeters on the brink of mutually assured destruction with the possibility of the USSR attacking on account of wounded pride or a pre-emptive strike by the United States. Aside from Dr. Manhattan and an amoral government-serving ‘fixer’ known as The Comedian, the other superheroes have been officially banned from crime fighting activities by law and have dispersed into normal human society like celebrities past their prime. Against this background, the story begins with the murder of The Comedian. The victim in question is a fairly unsavory human being, with many plausible assailants, but as additional murders and attempted murders take place, it becomes clear that someone is seeking to eliminate the former superheroes. It eventually emerges that the antagonist is from the ranks of the heroes. Adrian Veidt, whose superhero identity is Ozymandias, is killing his former colleagues to prevent them from interfering from his ultimate goal: staging an attack upon New York City. He has created a bioengineered gigantic ‘alien’ creature whose corpse appears in the wreckage of the city following a catastrophic attack. The attack is multiphasic, involving a tachyon assault that wreaks human devastation similar to a neutron bomb and a multimedia psychic broadcast from the brain of the creature as a form of sensory overload psionic attack. The combination kills half the population and wreaks mental devastation on many of the survivors. Veidt’s intent is to unite the world against a perceived external threat, with the reasoning that a few million casualties is justified in service of the greater good of averting total nuclear war. In addition to killing and attempting to kill his former colleagues, he diverts suspicion from himself by staging his own attempted murder. Nonetheless, the surviving heroes eventually get wise to his scheme, realize he is completely off his rocker and endeavor to stop him.

Comic within a comic: mirroring the madness

In chapter three, before the plot thread delineated above even begins to coalesce, the reader is introduced to a young man at a newsstand reading a comic book. The comic is a pirate themed work entitled Tales of the Black Freighter. As a side note, pirate comics have supplanted superheroes as comic book main characters: since there are real life superheroes, pirates have more of a fantasy cache’, apparently. The story line of this comic within a comic is dispersed throughout the main work, with lengthy absences as certain subplots are developed (heretofore, I’ll refer to the comic within a comic as the pirate comic, and Watchmen proper as the main story). Sometimes the pirate comic will occupy the entire frame. Sometimes dialogue from the comic is superimposed upon frames of the main story enclosed in a scroll like dialog box to distinguish it from the customary comic word balloon containing main story dialog. Likewise, word balloons are sometimes superimposed upon frames of the pirate comic. In this way, a kind of dialog is established between the main story and the pirate comic. For example, in a pirate comic frame where a character is clinging to a mast, a main story character is saying ‘I don’t know how long we can hold on’. The development of the pirate story is loosely keyed to the development of the attack plot, often foreshadowing developments. The storyline involves a sailor who is the lone survivor of a ship attacked by the Black Freighter. He is left stranded on a deserted island, surrounded by the corpses of his shipmates and the wreckage of his vessel. He is convinced that the Black Freighter now speeds toward his home town for pillaging. Desperate to save his family, he concocts a scheme to get home. He builds a raft using palm trunks, wreckage from his ship and the bloated (but buoyant) corpses of his dead shipmates which echoes the murder of the antagonist’s former colleagues, literally pursuing one’s goals on the backs of the dead. Some of the parallels to the main story are apparently gratuitous, having no apparent relation to the plot. For example, the unfortunate sailor catches a gull and is shown gorily devouring it. In the next frame, back in the main story, one of the heroes is eating a chicken leg. Since this frame does not seem to advance or shed any light on the paralleled plot line, I can only surmise that its purpose is to further cement the progress of the pirate comic to main story. Other parallels have more heft: soon after the (fake) attempted murder of Veidt, the raft is shown being attacked by a shark. The shark nearly destroys the craft, but the sailor manages to mortally wound the shark, which becomes entangled in the strange fruit craft and lends some propulsion as it swims and dies. Eventually the sailor reaches shore, by this time fairly thoroughly unhinged. He sees a young couple on horseback coming down to the beach. Believing them to be agents of the Black Freighter, he kills them and commandeers their horses, tying the corpse of the young woman upright to the saddle of one of the horses and dressing in the man’s clothes in order to infiltrate his village. He is certain it has already been taken over by the dreaded pirates. This parallels Veidt’s assassinations of all who helped him prepare his attack. The sailor sneaks into his house and in the dark, and not recognizing his wife, nearly beats her to death. He is halted when his children wake up and he recognizes their voices crying in terror. As realization of what he has done washes over him, any remaining shreds of sanity tear away and he flees the village back to the beach. There he wades out and sees the black freighter approaching. He swims out to it and is welcomed aboard as a colleague, becoming one of the monsters he sought to protect his family and village from. It is unclear whether the Black Freighter does indeed proceed to sack the village or if this is the poor sailor’s drowning hallucination. The story, or at least that issue, ends with the sailor apparently boarding the Black Freighter and the boy who is reading the comic being annihilated by Veidt’s attack.

In addition to the narrative of the pirate comic mirroring the plot line of the attack on New York City, it also echoes Veidt’s madness. Veidt himself appears calm and rational throughout the entire comic. He does not rave or otherwise appear insane, despite his insane actions. The colors and imagery of the pirate comic are lurid and gory compared to the main story, which is itself very interestingly colored. The pirate frames strongly feature queasy greens and yellows, which appear again as the main colors of the gigantic manufactured alien creature that appears in New York as the spearhead and intended perceived perpetrator of the attack. The pirate comic serves to visually represent the sickness inside Veidt’s composed exterior. It is not apparent that Veidt is even aware the comic exists, although in the final chapter, after the attack, he implies that he has visions of swimming toward a horrible ship, presumably the Black Freighter, providing a nice solid conceptual link to the pirate comic.

American Born Chinese: background

American Born Chinese also involves parallel stories which are about accepting oneself. The first is the legend of the Monkey King who wished to be a god or at least not ‘just a monkey’. Miffed that he is denied entry to a party of the gods, he goes on a rampage to make them accept him as an equal. He is finally confronted by his maker and Supreme Being, Tze Yo Tzu, who informs him that he is a monkey because he created him as a monkey. The Monkey King defies Tze Yo Tzu, who disciplines him by imprisoning him under a rock and disabling his kung fu abilities for five hundred years. After many more trials and travails, the Monkey King comes to accept himself and realizes his lot in life is really pretty good.

The bulk of the work concerns the story of Jin, a high school-aged son of Chinese immigrants. On top of the usual adolescent anxieties, Jin has to deal with ambivalent feelings about his cultural heritage and racism from ignorant bullies who can’t even keep their insults straight (cluelessly hurling mixed epithets aimed at insulting Chinese, Japanese, Korean and, Vietnamese ethnicities) and racism from friends masquerading as concern. He himself treats a friend badly, a first generation immigrant named Wei-Chen who he derides as being a F.O.B. (Fresh Off the Boat). Jin has a desperate crush on a Amelia, a girl who is white. He finally works up the nerve to ask her out and to his astonishment, she says yes. She simply likes him for who he is. Nonetheless he is still self conscious about his heritage, which is exacerbated by his ‘friend’ Greg (who is blond and has a lamentable perm) who asks him to stop dating Amelia. Presumably this is because he is Asian, although that is never explicitly stated, just heavily implied. In his efforts to fit in, he emulates Greg’s perm, which appalls his friends, but they keep silent to spare his feelings. Eventually, through an encounter with his ‘cousin’ (reason for quotes to be revealed below) and some magical realism help from the Monkey King, Jin also learns to accept himself as he is.

Jin’s curious doppelganger

About a fourth of the way through Jin’s story, we are introduced to his ‘cousin’ Chin-Kee . Chin-Kee embodies every Asian stereotype to the point where even Mickey Rooney would blush. He has buck teeth, actual yellow skin, a long braid, a traditional wardrobe and swaps R’s for L’s and vise versa. Accompanying Jin to school, he eagerly answers every question put forth by the teachers and generally embarrasses the living daylights out of Jin. He is also accompanied by a ‘laugh track’ represented by text denoting laughter and applause running along the bottom of nearly every frame where he appears. When Chin-kee is present, Jin looks completely white and goes by Danny. It’s as if Jin’s entire cultural heritage has been sucked out of him and personified in the form of Chin-Kee, with Jin’s insecurity about his heritage as the impetus behind the egregiously blatant negative stereotypes. When Chin-Kee is absent, Jin reverts to his usual self, which reinforces the notion that Chin-Kee is Jin to some extent. This phenomenon represents the first step outside of reality in service of the story.

The second comes at the climax of the story. Jin as Danny becomes so fed up with Chin-Kee that they fight and Danny knocks Chin-Kee’s head clean off. In his place stands the Monkey King, who morphs Danny back into Jin. The Monkey King reveals that Wei-Chen is his son, sent to earth in human form as a rite of passage in service to Tze Yo Tzu. Due to Jin’s unkindness to Wei-Chin, he has soured on human kind and has strayed from service. Jin expects to be punished, but the Monkey King tells him he is there merely to spur his conscience, apparently by appearing as Chin-Kee to confront Jin with his insecurities, cloaking himself in Jin’s self loathing. He mentions that he could have saved five hundred years of being stuck under a rock by being at peace with his Monkey-ness and departs, leaving behind a card for a restaurant. When Jin’s parents ask what happened to Chin-Kee, he says he went home. Jin’s parents cannot recall which of their siblings is actually the parent of Chin-Kee, further reinforcing the notion that he was a figment. Jin goes to the restaurant, where he meets Wei-Chin and apologizes. The story concludes with a dialog free shot of the two having a pleasant conversation, with the implication that fences are being mended.


The nature and execution of these narrative devices lends credence to the legitimacy of the graphic novel as a medium in its own right by imparting a facet of a story that would be difficult if not impossible to do with text alone. Indeed, it is difficult enough to even describe them with text alone, therefore see figures 1 & 2 below for a visual taste of the subject of this paper. Similar effect could possibly be achieved in film or animation, but the interplay of printed text and images adds a dimension unique to the graphic novel. The narrative flow of each work also bears re-reading and backtracking which would not work well filmically. Perhaps what is most profound and encouraging about these novel approaches to storytelling is that people are still finding new ways to tell a story using the oldest known recorded method of human communication.

Fig. 1


Fig. 2



Moore, A. and Gibbons, D. (1987) Watchmen, New York: DC Comics Inc.

Yang, G.L. (2006) American Born Chinese, New York: First Second