Gene Luen Yang’s Prime Baby (First Second) has two unusual factors going for it, beyond the obvious fact that it’s a new-ish comics work from Gene Luen Yang.
First, its protagonist is an extremely unlikable (and thus, somewhat lovable) jerk whom one is more likely to root against instead of for. And second, the narrative takes an inventive twist or two, to avoid the predictable ending—it’s happy, and there’s closure, but it’s not the obvious, path-of-least-resistance conclusion.
Prime Baby began as Yang’s contribution to the funny pages section of the New York Times Magazine, and its collected format reflects its one time strip nature.
The thin volume is a horizontal rectangle, about six inches tall and eight inches wide, with a three-to-four-panel comic strip set in the center of each page, surrounded by white space. While it looks like a comic strip collection, it reads like a graphic novel. Rather than stopping and starting on each page, climaxing at the end of each strip and retreading what came before in the first panels of each new one, Prime Baby simply continues, the effect more like a long, continuous graphic novel scrolling sideways through the horizontal space, or, perhaps, a single comic strip with the length of a novella instead of a single joke.
Our “hero” is Thaddeus K. Fong, a comically selfish and shallow grade-schooler who idolizes Fu Manchu. Not only was Fu Manchu ambitious—“Who doesn’t want to take over the world?”—and gutsy, they even named a moustache after him.
Thaddeus is pretty miffed when his baby sister Maddie is born, and his parents’ undivided attention is suddenly divided, and he studies her in order to find her weak spot. The title comes from the fact that Maddie speaks exclusively in prime numbers of gas, which Thaddeus thinks proves she has something to do with an alien invasion.
And he’s right!
The aliens turn out to be much more helpful than evil, which frustrates Thaddeus, and when the authorities finally take his sister away and he realizes that he actually kind of misses her, he takes unusual steps to resolve his new problem in an unusual manner.
Yang’s always been somewhat chameleonic in his art style, and here it’s exaggerated, kid-friendly designs that are flat and full of space, allowing room for plenty of bright colors. It’s strong, simple, highly communicative art, telling the story without drawing attention to itself.
The story is an all-ages friendly one, with more comedy than drama, although there’s certainly some grabs made at the readers’ heartstrings. It’s not really Yang’s best work, but it is his most accessible and low-stakes work. If American Born Chinese and Eternal Smile were works of literature, Prime Baby is more of a lark.