Writer Pornsak Pichetshote sat down with MFR to talk about this new series The Good Asian, as well as his previous hit series Infidel, and some of the inspiration behind both works.
The Good Asian #1 is out on May 5th from Image Comics, and it already has a lot of people talking about it (you can read our advance review of the debut here). The series is a mystery featuring a Chinese-American detective at a time when a travel ban targeting Asians was in effect. Pichotshote works on the comic alongside artist Alexandre Tefenkgi, colorist Lee Loughridge, and letterer Jeff Powell.
Read on for our full interview with Pichotshote:
Monkeys Fighting Robots: You mention that Asian American Noir characters like Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto inspired this work. Which character in this genre was most influential for this series?
Pichetshote: When it comes to Asian Detectives, Charlie Chan is the most famous. The thing I found fascinating is there’s a generation now who has forgotten Charlie Chan, especially a generation of Asian Americans who have forgotten Charlie Chan, which I was shocked by and I hadn’t realized it had gone out of vogue. That was the one [character] I stumbled upon and was enamored by. It’s a weird thing too because the first actor was an Asian American actor but then they had a white actor doing “yellowface” for the series when it took off.
The popularity of that character endured so much, and looking back I didn’t realize it was a worldwide phenomenon and other countries had their own actors playing Charlie Chan. It had comic strips, board games, lunch boxes, and all that kind of stuff. I couldn’t tell you which actual movie I saw first, thanks to commercial breaks and stuff it was hard to tell which specific film you were watching, but that’s how I stumbled upon it. Since I started this book, I went back and watched some of the films.
MFR: The use of the red boxes to show Edison’s focus and highlight important details in the story, was that your or artist Alexandre Tefenkgi’s idea?
Pichetshote: Mine. That was in the script. The idea was we see so many TV shows use film language and film grammar to show how a detective thinks and how they conclude. It’s funny, even though there are a lot of comic book detectives, Batman being the most obvious, there isn’t as many who use this approach in comics. A lot of this book, what I was trying to do — like with my previous book Infidel — a lot of it was like watching and encapsulating a horror movie. So I thought, “How could I use the tools of grammar in comics to evoke the same feeling of reading those old pulp novels and seeing them detect the clues?”
The fun I found with the comic was figuring out what the comic version is of the detective coming up with whether the theory is false or the theory is right and making it visual. Writing this book, you realize how crime writers — Bendis, Frank Miller, and Darwin Cooke — are so experimental in form because the genre lends itself to prose. It’s a lot of people interviewing each other and talking for ten pages straight and part of the fun is trying to use all those techniques and adding them to the genre.
MFR: With Infidel and The Good Asian, you make it a point to address the evil of racism. What do you think is the ideal way to address such a stain on society?
Pichetshote: (sighs) That’s a big question. A way to handle it, or the way I’ve chosen to handle it is to address it and be as honest with all the different facets it affects. For both of these books, research was a big part of the process. It’s the research of going to books and blogs, but other times it’s in terms of talking with people whose experiences are like mine or are not like mine. To get a sense of it.
With Infidel, I made a lot of friends talking about the themes of the book. With The Good Asian, I didn’t want to take it for granted that because I’m Asian I have a handle on everything. You don’t know what you don’t know. I had a lot of conversations with friends and other people I respect on different things. That’s how I decided to tackle it. We are all blind men trying to tell you what an elephant is. And trying to get as many blind men together to get a consensus of what the elephant is has been my strategy.
MFR: The Chinese Exclusion Act plays heavily into The Good Asian and is an element of history many people seem to forget. What made you want to tackle such an issue?
Pichetshote: You just answered it. I felt kinda ashamed as an Asian American, I didn’t know about the Chinese Exclusion Act. It’s funny, I’m ethnically Chinese, but I self-identify as Thai American and the reason is that, growing up, my mom and dad would argue about politics. This would be in Thailand, my dad would always end with “That’s the problem with Thai people, they blah blah” and my mom would just be like, “You’re Thai.” He’d be like “I’m Chinese.” My mom would say “You don’t speak Chinese, you’ve never been to China, don’t give me all that Chinese crap. You and me, we are both Thai.” His parents immigrated from China and he grew up in Thailand his whole life. He passed away a few years ago and I think part of dealing with his loss was me trying to get back to my Chinese roots.
So I took a trip to China and that sort of stuff. Typically, how that story goes, someone finds something about China or Chinese Mythology that speaks to them, and for whatever reason — partly because of my interests being what they were — I ended up gravitating more towards Chinese American History than Chinese History. That’s when I learned about the Chinese Exclusion Act and The Immigration Act of 1924 that limited the number of Asians and Arabs that could enter the country until 1965. I was shocked. I was shocked I didn’t know anything about it.
That’s where the seed… and I don’t know at what point in the process, somewhere along the line that memory collided with Charlie Chan and being like “Oh Wow, here’s this Detective who was the rage in the 30s at a time where technically America didn’t let in Chinese people, unless you were in certain categories of people, but an average Chinese person couldn’t get into the country.” That felt like a way to re-examine both of these things and honestly, it led to me discovering a lot of Asian American History that I realized we have forgotten that I realize we don’t teach and we don’t explore.
The tricky thing when talking about Asian American themes and Asian Americans is like if you talk about Latin, Hispanic Themes, Latin American Themes you are talking about a large group of people from many different countries but at least they are all connected by language. But for Asian Americans, we don’t even have a language that connects us. So how do you talk about all these different groups as one thing? Now having said that though, I feel there is something from the Chinese American experience from the Chinese Exclusion Act and how the country dealt with them, you can connect the dots between that and Asian American culture in general whatever that is given the Asian American identity you can connect it. I decided to talk about this specific Chinese Exclusion. How it affected Chinese Americans at the time and I think it talks about Asian Americans today.
MFR: Easier question, what inspired you to be a writer?
Pichetshote: I think I do remember this. I went to High School in Thailand, at that time it was journal writing or some creative stuff. It might have not been more ambitious than a Dungeon and Dragons campaign, I don’t actually know. I was in college and took a writing class and I knew I was going to enjoy the writing but I thought, “This is an interesting phase I’m in, enjoying writing.” The next year, I did it again, I enjoyed it, and thought, “This is an interesting phase I’m in.” I remember going home for summer break and I happened upon those old journals that I kept in high school. It was the same thing with “I am really enjoying this writing phase I’m going through.” I realize this writing phase had lasted seven to ten years probably at this point and maybe it’s more than just a phase and I should think about doing it.
It would take me a while to get around to writing my own stories. I always had the intention of writing my own stories and then I ended up at Vertigo editing comics and honestly, I so enjoyed that, there is a world that if I didn’t move out to L.A. I’d be editing comics. Since I worked at Vertigo, I had the best writers in the industry sending scripts and I was like “I can’t do anything like this.” It wasn’t until I got away from editing comics and missing that creative urge and not being intimidated by scripts that are greater than anything I could come up with that I started doing it myself.
MFR: You have writing credits for comics, movies, and TV, including an episode of “Cloak and Dagger.” What media do you prefer to write for?
Pichetshote: I like all the media and the chance to dabble in all the media. Comics I see as the girl who brought me to the dance; it’s my first love. Part of that is because I’ve lived in comics more than I lived in the world of TV. So comics is where I feel the most comfortable pushing boundaries in terms of where my perspective and the craft and the business can go.
TV I look at, I have been at for a much smaller amount of time so I feel like I’m still learning and still trying to pick up lessons. It’s enormously fun, on one hand, I can learn, and on the other, I can be bold and say, “You know the big companies are doing it wrong but these two guys out in Montana are doing this and they are smarter than everyone else.” So it’s fun to switch between those two.
MFR: You have credits as both a producer and director. Do you plan to return to more films in the future or have you decided to focus on more comic-based projects moving forward?
Pichetshote: I’m definitely more focused on comics and television now. I’m never gonna turn down a future. I’m not really courting features and I’m not courting directing. I feel like I’m managing to just juggle comic writing and TV writing simultaneously. So eventually, I might try my hat into a new media but for now, I feel like my bandwidth is very full with just the two.
MFR: If you could be in a buddy cop movie who would be your partner and why?
Pichetshote: Can they be fictional? Can they be real? I think the first person comes to mind, it would be interesting, but the first person who comes to mind is my friend Joshua Dysart, who’s a comic book writer. Just because I feel like we would be inept at everything. I feel like, you have two people you put their skills together and they are the sum of their parts. I feel if you put our two skills together, there is less of us there. I feel every strength we have would cancel each other out and we would get so little accomplished. So that is the first thing that comes to mind.
Check out Pornsak Pichetshote’s new book, The Good Asian when it releases on May 5th, 2021.