By Gene Luen Yang
64 pages, color
Published by First Second Books
I do wonder what the readers of the New York Times Magazine must have thought when Gene Luen Yang’s Prime Baby first started its serialization in its pages. I guess if they’d read American Born Chinese or The Eternal Smile that they might’ve had at least the glimmering of an idea that it was bound to be a little odd. I’ll go a step further, though; not since first encountering Yang’s Gordon Yamato and the King of the Geeks have I seen such a strange book from Yang. Not that I’m complaining. But it’s definitely one of Yang’s more eccentric works.
Prime Baby starts with a simple enough premise, that eight-year-old Thaddeus Fong is less than impressed with his baby sister Maddie. She’s eighteen months old now and the only sound she ever makes is, "Ga," over and over again. But when Thaddeus realizes that she’s making the sound in counts of incremental prime numbers, well, that’s when things get odd. And odder. And then odder still. Prime Baby reminds me of a twisty path where every turn has something so strange that you’ll forget about everything you’ve seen up until that point. What starts as a story about jealousy, and a superiority complex turns into something radically different. with all sorts of new obstacles and weird moments. As a reader, you need to just roll with the punches, accept that you aren’t sure what Yang is going to throw at you next, and brace yourself for the inevitable.
Here’s the thing about Prime Baby, though. Even though the book ends in a very different place than it first began, in terms of setting, Prime Baby is a book that travels full circle. Those earliest emotions of jealousy and superiority come back around again, and manage to tie the entire book together. Without that last bit, I suspect I’d have been at least slightly annoyed by Prime Baby; a rambling, what’s-coming-next? sort of story isn’t easy to pull off, and there needs to be a reason for that winding road. I think Yang gives it to us at the conclusion, and it makes it all work.
Yang’s art is cute as always. Thaddeus manages to have one of the most diabolical smiles you’ll see in comics, no small feat. It’s funny, because Yang writes his protagonist as a scheming little mastermind, but it’s the way that Thaddeus smiles that sold him to me than his actual actions or dialogue. There are some fun little details along the way, too; not just Thaddeus’s designer facial hair, but items like the salt shakers worn on a string around each slug’s neck. (Think of it as the slug version of Christians wearing a cross around their neck and it’ll suddenly fall into place.) Speaking of whom, the slugs are the visual stars of Prime Baby. I could probably look at strips with them distributing bag lunches or knitting socks for hours. Yang takes the absurd and makes it work, here.
Prime Baby is in some ways a bit of a throwaway story; at just 64 pages and only several panels per page, it’s by no means a new major work by Yang. But it’s inexpensively priced, it’s funny, and at the end of the book I felt like I’d spent my time well by reading it. I’m looking forward to Yang’s next full-length book, but until then, it’s nice to have Prime Baby collected into one place. It’s silly, but it’s the good kind of silly.