Elevate Difference

The Story of Lee (Volume 1)

The Story of Lee is a graphic novel written by Seán Michael Wilson, the editor of AX: Alternative Manga. Wilson writes mainly for a mature international manga audience, and like most other Japanese style comics, it is serialized: I had the pleasure of reading just the beginning of a larger story arc. Part of its appeal, I admit, was in its being a short and satisfying read that nonetheless offers the promise of continuation in subsequent volumes.

The engaging story, which is set in Hong Kong, advances considerably in less than 160 pages, and the story-telling accomplished through drawings rather than text is a welcome change of pace. One of my favorite “scenes” was an entire page of just moments in a movie theatre, where the deepening of the sweet and touching romance between our heroine, Lee Chan (age twenty-four), and Mathew Macdonald (twenty-seven) was illustrated with a quiet sensitivity that captured the emotions perfectly. Lee ultimately learns much about Western culture as well as her own Chinese culture, by looking at both through the eyes of Mathew, a poetry-writing English teacher from Scotland.

The heart of the story is that over-arching cultural ties between Lee and Mathew (i.e., The Clientele and other popular British music, poetry, and Hong Kong sunsets, to name a few) outweigh their cultural differences (such as Lee’s more hesitant approach to sex). In the background, we have Wang, the suitor that Lee’s father prefers for her, who tries but fails to compete for Lee’s affections. Of course, suspicion from her father and jealousy from Wang make her Chinese culture all the more unattractive to Lee.

Although it follows a somewhat predictable narrative (thus far), The Story of Lee nonetheless does a nice job of illuminating and confronting the xenophobic views of Wang, of Lee’s father Mr. Chan, and of Lee herself. As well, hints of progressive commentary on issues like sexism and women’s rights appear in the first volume, and thus more generous treatment of these issues in future volumes is likely. If The Story of Lee remains true to its form, it will continue to feature love and coming-of-age variety self-realization as its major themes, from a culturally sensitive and understated, yet decidedly feminist, point of view.

This point of view is best represented in Volume 1 by Lee’s paternal grandmother. She embodies the passing along of a “tradition” that somehow trumps the father’s rigid, xenophobic tradition. Without disrespecting her son, Lee’s grandmother expresses a very different life credo that comes across as: “Live! Love! Learn!” but also, "work toward your individual goals and love your family and where you come from." The grandmother’s wisdom redefines the father’s "work relentlessly and unhappily, and obey your family" worldview, and eventually helps inspire reconciliation between Lee and the family regarding Mathew and Lee’s future. In fact, Mr. Chan chooses to support his daughter’s decision to enroll in school at Edinburgh University, which is where the volume ends.

I surmise that The Story of Lee may be considered manga “light” by aficionados. It was printed in New York, not Japan. It reads front to back, rather than back to front. But it is set in a universe peopled with exaggerated eyes and other stylized features common to manga, and it engages with the same familiar themes. So for me, reading this graphic novel about characters in China exploring the difficulties and benefits of intercultural love and relationships, often by sharing various treasured memes with each other (in addition to music and film references, there were haikus by Matsuo and snippets from Rilke, Proust, Borges, and Tolstoy), was a very post-something, contemporary kind of pleasure. And one that I recommend trying.

Written by: Julie Ann, March 22nd 2011

Seems like a good read for someone like myself who's never even read "manga 'light'"...I'm especially intrigued by the commentary on the interplay of cultural memes.