‘The Good Asian’ Writer Pornsak Pichetshote: The Conskipper Interview

Pornsak Pichetshote’s 2018 Image Comic Infidel (along with artist Aaron Campbell) quickly impressed readers and critics alike, creating great anticipation for his next project.

Pichetshote’s follow-up to Infidel explores the noir crime genre in a unique and contemporary way, without losing any elements of the detective stories of the past. In this exclusive interview with the writer, we discussed the origins of the project, the historical elements, and why crime comics have experienced a new life in recent years.

In preparation of writing The Good Asian, what are some storytelling traits and tropes you studied from the classic noir masterpieces in order to pin down this style? Which of these stories would you say most inspired your work on The Good Asian?

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. The Chinese Exclusion Act – an 1882 law which banned all Chinese laborers (and ending up affecting all Chinese immigrants) as well as the Immigration Act of 1924 which barred Asians and Arabs from entering America was something I discovered late in life, and I couldn’t believe I didn’t know anything about it. It combined with my interest in movies about the Asian crime solvers of the 1930s – Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto, and Mr. Wong – and made me want to combine those two things, telling a story about an Asian detective that actually acknowledged Asian-American history in all of its facets.

So while the spark of the idea probably came from those movies, the execution came from a ton of classic crime novels. From Hammett’s Continental Op stories and novels – “Dead Yellow Letters” is definitely a stand-out there; Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels – my favorite being Farewell, My Lovely; Ross McDonald’s Lew Archer books; Walter Mosely’s Easy Rawlins novels; and of course, the original Charlie Chan books – The House Without a Key and The Chinese Parrot. The Good Asian became this wonderful excuse to re-read and re-absorb all these books I loved and learn from them whatever I could.

I tried to play extra-close attention to the language in those books in order to find the right balance for The Good Asian. Too much of that era’s patois, and you get into self-parody, so you need to sprinkle just the right amount to make it feel authentic.

As a fan of the noir genre, what are some of its traits and tropes you had to unlearn in order to tell an authentic story about the experience of an Asian American protagonist in a genre which was historically often written, directed by, and/or starring white filmmakers?

Pichetshote: Honestly, the biggest trap I tried to not fall into was the way women were portrayed. On the one hand, noir was a great place to find a strong powerful woman, but on the other, you can fall into the Madonna-whore trap if you’re not careful. So I tried really hard to create female characters that were three-dimensional independent of their relationship with the male characters. It’s funny. While there’s of course a lot of problematic depictions of people of color throughout those old books, the place we positioned our story actually made it really easy to treat them as three-dimensional people as well and avoid those traps.

From there, it was a lot of trying to figure out how to translate what I loved about those old books into comics. Because when you’re reading them, you realize very quickly that prose is the best medium for those stories. So much of the action is people talking to one another in rooms, and if you add too much spectacle, it feels less like noir and more like Batman. So part of the fun is trying to figure out a visually engaging way to tell the same kind of story while still being faithful to the genre.

In your opinion, what is it about 1930’s Chinatown that makes it such an enduring setting for engaging storytelling? What is it about this time and place that stirs the imagination of storytellers? 

Pichetshote: I have to assume Dashiel Hammett was a big part of that for noir, but also, there was a time when Chinatown was a dangerous place to be and was filled with gang violence. And for a while, that violence was almost a tourist attraction for the neighborhood. The problem, though, was long after that violence had settled down, it still became known as a place of exotic danger. Roman Polanski’s Chinatown is the best example of how after time it became synonymous with lawlessness and exoticism whether or not that actually reflected the community living there.

How did you and Alexandre Tefenkgi get together for the project and what does Alex’s art style bring to the script?

Pichetshote: My editor Will Dennis and I are both friends with superstar artist Cliff Chiang who draws Paper Girls for Image. Cliff recommended Alexandre Tefenkgi 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. 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 and has done a ton of European books, but more recently did an ongoing book from Skybound called Outpost Zero, written by Sean McKeever. 

Like most hard-boiled detectives, Edison Hark has a troubled past, but also one based in historical fact.  How did you insure that the history was accurate and also enlightening?

Pichetshote: Oh, there was so much research involved in making this book. SO MUCH RESEARCH. 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. So what I had to do was Tetris together research from different sources – some that focused on immigration, some that focused on Asian-American lifestyle 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. Then, as my last line of defense, I have my historical consultant Grant Din read every script and proof to make sure I’m as accurate as I can be to the history. Having him on board has really proved invaluable to this whole process. As for the enlightening part, I find all of this so enlightening, so that piece of it is my own personal radar, I suppose, and I just hope the readers find some of this history as fascinating and in some cases as shocking as I do.

Crime comics were one of the original staples of the medium.  Why do you think they have had a renaissance over the past few decades? 

Pichetshote: I think it’s because comics have such an overlap with old pulp crime books that the creators who like one are also fans of the other. Plus, early noir movies were filled with so much experimentation and such a punk rock DIY sensibility for its era that energy spoke to a lot of comic book creators putting together their own books – which in turn led to some of comic books’ greatest creators doing their spins on the genre from Frank Miller to Darwyn Cooke to Ed Brubaker to Brian Bendis to Brian Azzarello… I mean, the list is endless.

Any updates on Infidel’s film status?

Pichetshote: The rights are still with Tristar / Sony Pictures with Michael Sugar (who won the Oscar for Spotlight) producing and Hany Abu-Assad (whose films Paradise Now and Omar were both nominated for Oscars) attached to direct. Sony actually just renewed the option, so they still very much want to be in the Infidel business. After that, it’s all just a game of wait and see.

Teases about future issues of The Good Asian?

Pichetshote: FOC for issue 2 is 5/17, so I hope everyone who liked issue 1 makes sure their store know so they don’t miss out. There’s just too much I’m excited about on this series, but for some brief glimpses: issue 2 has Alex drawing the coolest fight scene with a piece of Chinese-American history I don’t know I’ve ever seen spotlighted in pop culture before; issue 3 has the introduction to a new character that’s become a favorite of the entire Good Asian team; also, I hope people get a kick out of the historical notes in issues 2 & 3, they’re a lot of work on my end, but I ended up feeling pretty pleased with them; and issue 4… oh my god, I can’t wait for people to read issue 4. I can’t say a word about it other than that I’m very, very proud of it.

The Good Asian #1 is currently available in finer comic shops everywhere. If you’d like to read our previous interviews with Pichetshote concering Infidel, check them out right here and here.

{John Evans contributed to this interview.}

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