Dragon Hoops by Gene Luen Yang
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Gene Luen Yang's newest graphic novel, Dragon Hoops , is magic - pure and simple. As someone with little interest in sports and limited patience for graphic novels, I debated picking up this behemoth of a book. After all, the 400+ pages collected herein make for an opponent more intimidating than LeBron James. In the end, though, I'm grateful that I took the time to read Yang's clever comic masterpiece.
Dragon Hoops is an autobiographical journey into high school athletics, as told through the lens of a high school math/computer science teacher - who also happens to be an award-winning writer/artist. Over the course of the graphic novel (which takes place during the 2014-2015 school year), Yang plunges into the world of sports and embraces the multitudinous madness of varsity basketball. There are plenty of comical "fish out of water" elements, as the decidedly unathletic Yang delves deeper and deeper into the history, hysteria, and histrionics of sports teams; however, Yang's nascent interest in b-ball slowly evolves into a mild obsession, forcing him out of his comic-book comfort zone into more ambiguous, athletic territory.
Part of what I found so captivating about Dragon Hoops is its deviation from traditional sports-hero tropes. After all, as Yang himself admits in the opening pages, he's about as athletic as Superman wearing a Kryptonite necklace. Fortunately, Yang went against his better judgment and threw himself headfirst into the world of high school athletics. His individual profiles of the student-athletes on the team, coupled with intermittent examinations of sports history, provide a fascinating perspective that will engage even non-obsessives (like yours truly). What I personally found most engaging wasn't the victories that Bishop O'Dowd's Dragons accrue on their path to the state championship: it's the honest glimpses into Yang's personal life, including his creative process and his relationship with his family. I know I'm in the minority here, but I would much rather spend an afternoon interviewing Gene Luen Yang than Shaquille O'Neal.
As a fellow high school teacher, I appreciate Yang's nods to the subtleties of working on a secondary school campus. Dragon Hoops addresses big issues, including work-life balance, overt racism, and campus-wide scandals; Yang also artfully addresses the surreal inanities of his job, like student-created nicknames for teachers, the inability to properly fist-bump a colleague, and a limited understanding of high school sports culture. Dragon Hoops earnestly elucidates the stories of Yang's community, as well as his own internal struggles as he decides whether or not he should quit teaching and pursue a full-time career in the comic book industry. It might not be as flashy as a game-winning three-point shot, but it's just as powerful from my perspective.
That being said, Dragon Hoops has its finest moments when Yang breaks free from the traditional tropes and limitations of graphic novels. In a series of fourth-wall-breaking panels, Yang agonizes over his obligation to truthful, perfectly accurate history - versus the imperfect, inaccurate aspects of storytelling that he must embrace for a cohesive narrator. It's a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a master artist, and the audience is in for quite a treat as Yang recounts his personal - and professional - experiences.
Fans of basketball, comic books, and non-fiction can all find something to celebrate in this masterpiece of a graphic novel. To put it simply, Dragon Hoops is a slam dunk.
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Mild-mannered librarian by day… and a mild-mannered rock & roller by night.