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Spring 2003
Volume 39, No. 3
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Sarah Dolinar

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Firecracker

Comic book artist Matthew Harrison '01 takes his readers to China on a real and metaphorical quest for identity.

In one of the crooked little hutongs, the back alleys that worm through Beijing, Matthew Harrison and his friend Jenny happen upon three girls who claim to be art students and offer to take them to an art show.

“Starting down that narrow alley is my last clear memory of what happened that day,” says Harrison. Before long he is lost and alone, half a world from home. A visitor in China searching for greater self-awareness, he is now a prisoner of forces beyond his control or understanding. He is tortured for no apparent reason. Streams of blood flow from his nose, and a black rivulet trickles out of the corner of his mouth. He doesn’t understand. Why is this happening?



Sun-bleached Hemet, California, where Matthew Harrison ’01 grew up, is a marvel of irrigation in the desert about an hour’s drive southeast of Riverside. The small, fast-growing city has not yet been absorbed by the sprawl edging inland from metropolitan Los Angeles and San Diego. Hemet, known as a center for aerobatic pilot training, is predominantly white and conservative, with a large and influential population core of retirees, many from military and aviation circles.

In Hemet, Harrison was very nearly one of a kind.

His father, Robert, a schoolteacher at Hemet High for 35 years, is of Swedish ancestry. His mother, Penny, a school administrator who now lives in northern California, is Chinese American. People of Asian or Pacific islands ancestry make up less than 1 percent of Hemet’s population, according to the 2000 Census.

Although he did not always fit in, only occasionally did he experience overt racial animus, Harrison says. Once, “Some kids said that Chinese people get their names by throwing a spoon down the stairs and naming their kids whatever sound it makes. So then they pushed me down the stairs at school because they didn’t think ‘Matt’ was a Chinese-enough name.” He also remembers “kids saying things to me like, ‘It’s a little nippy out here, don’t you chink?’”

He recognizes that such remarks were usually delivered as a form of goading humor, but Harrison also understands that he was being subtly cast as a member of an outgroup. “I accepted the teasing and playground harassment as my own fault, for being different,” he says.

In high school, he demonstrated a flair for art, and he considered going to art school. But “my parents encouraged me to go to a liberal arts school where I could pursue other interests,” he says. His father’s sister was a Pomona graduate and the family had Claremont ties, so Harrison came to Pomona, majoring in studio art.



The College was a great place to learn, Harrison says, but socially, he still sometimes felt adrift between two cultures. His half-Chinese ethnicity seemed to set him apart in subtle ways. “I was always on the outside” of Asian-American social groups, Harrison says. He even sensed some group differentiation between Asian students who were born outside the country, and the American-born sons and daughters of first-generation immigrants. His own mother had been born in San Francisco; only one of his two Chinese American grandparents was born in China.

A Taiwan-born student in Harrison’s residence hall urged him to study Mandarin, and Harrison thought that it might be a good way to explore and discover something about his own sense of self. “I went in there knowing nothing at all,” Harrison says. “I was overwhelmed. I got a D on my first test. I had just gotten to college and I felt, ‘I’ve got to be able to do better than this.’ At Pomona, I often had classes with only about six students in them, so that helped and was an impetus to work hard and get engaged with the class.”

As he studied the abstract and intellectual aspects of art, he felt increasingly drawn to his childhood interest in comic books. A visiting professor, Stas Orlovski, “helped me to see that there’s nothing wrong with making art with comics,” Harrison says, especially if he could develop ideas that “would be different and could challenge the medium.”

His classes in Chinese piqued his interest in exploring the Asian part of his heritage, and he spent five weeks in the summer after his freshman year visiting Beijing and traveling to other parts of China. As a junior, he spent the fall semester in Taiwan under Pomona’s Study Abroad program. After graduation, with the help of advice from Samuel Yamashita, Henry E. Sheffield Professor of History, Harrison won a highly competitive Freeman Foundation fellowship to travel and study art in East Asia. He spent a month in Taiwan, three months in Japan, and six months in mainland China.
His experiences in China were not what he had envisioned.

“It seemed so foreign to me,” he says. “I had unrealistic expectations and Orientalized stereotypes about what China would be like.” On the other hand, “There are McDonald’s and KFCs throughout Beijing, even right outside of the Forbidden City, and at first it felt like a bit of a disappointment, because I thought, where is all the culture going?”

He was drawn to China in part for personal reasons, in search of self affirmation and a feeling of belonging, he says. “On some level I expected that people in China would be more receptive to me, being half-Chinese, than people in America, because I hadn’t necessarily been accepted by my peers growing up,” he says.

What he learned, about himself and about China, is etched in black and white in a comic book he created called Firecracker. In the story, which he says is a blend of autobiographical, fictional and metaphorical experiences, a Pomona student named Matthew Harrison travels to China in a “search for answers—for identity...in hopes of discovering something about myself that I feel like I should have known all along.”

Accosted by street vendors, struggling with the language, spurned by the local girls as “not Chinese enough, or white enough,” he confides his angst to a white buddy, Kurt, and to his Chinese American girlfriend, Jenny, but their responses do not assuage the tension he feels. Then he wanders into the fateful alley, and nothing will ever be the same again.

The “methods of ancient Chinese punishment and torture” that the character graphically suffers are a metaphorical representation of his actual thoughts and experiences, Harrison says.

The “torture” scenes mark a critical turning point in the story, and Harrison says he thought a great deal about the possibility that his depiction could reinforce a deeply ingrained stereotype that links the Chinese in particular with especially diabolical forms of abuse. After his character regains consciousness, he is nursed back to health by a young Chinese woman, Xin. “I wanted to show both sides, pain and healing, and I tried to make the healing seem more real, through Xin’s character, so as not to convey a negative stereotype, but to create a positive image of Chinese people as well,” Harrison says.

The comic character emerges from his travails with a new understanding of himself and his place in the world: “A sense of calm came over me: a feeling that seemed to justify all I had been through...I had a realization of self-acceptance: that I had no other choice than to be who I am.”

The art of drawing comes more easily to him than the construction of a story, Harrison says. “When I was younger I liked the superhero comic books. They were cool-looking, and I always wanted to draw like that. Now, I’m more interested in the storytelling aspects. Trying to do a story that’s challenging and that can engage the reader on an intellectual level in the medium of comics is what I’m after.”

The first six pages of Firecracker are posted on Harrison’s Web site, www.firecrackercomix.com, where copies of the book can be ordered. He plans two more issues that will extend the story line as his character returns to this country and reacclimates to life in the United States.

Harrison teaches at Opportunities for Learning, a public charter school that serves Newhall and Valencia, California, and offers an alternative form of study for junior high and high school students who are behind in credits. He expects to go on to study art in graduate school in a year or two. He also plans to keep drawing comics that tap elements of his life as a multiracial American.

The work of comics artists Art Spiegelman (Maus) and Dan Clowes (Eightball and Ghost World) helped inspire him, Harrison says. With his own comics, his hope is to “have people read them, and of course possibly buy them, and to become established enough as an artist that I could make comics regularly.”

“One of the most challenging things that I see for myself, and for most people who are trying to do independent or underground comics, is that the fan base is one that you have to create,” he says. “I’m hoping to connect with people who are interested in and excited about China on some level, and people who are interested in comics too. I hope that my work can offer something to those people. What has kept me going and kept me motivated with this comic the whole time has been the personal story. I’m hoping that even though it’s not the most common thing for a reader to relate to—someone being a half-Chinese and half-white American—that other people who have questions about their self-identity will be able to draw something from it as well.”

—Michael Balchunas is a free-lance journalist
living in Claremont.