Mac Review: Stargazing by Jen Wang

Stargazing is story by Jen Wang about two girls meeting and becoming friends. One of the girls, Moon Lin, seems to be based (loosely) on the writer / artist’s own childhood; but the other girl (Christine) is the POV character. Minor spoilers follow.

I bought it based on a recommendation from the comic shop after mentioning my philosophy of ‘if you wouldn’t give it to an eight-year-old, I probably wouldn’t enjoy it either’. Upon reading it, I discover it was not at all spec fic (I’d tried to vet for that, but something on the blurb made me think it was spec fic), and not a comedy. Which is not to say humourless.

Yeah, it’s reality; normally I don’t touch the stuff. I probably wouldn’t have bought Stargazing if I’d known.
Which would be a pity; it’s a nice story; a sweet slice-of-life vignette. It’s very good, for all that it’s not fantastic (in the literal sense of the word).

I really enjoyed it, but as always, I had:

A Couple Of Nitpicks:

First of all, I had a hard time telling where it was set; America? Hong Kong? It was that ambiguous to me.
Some of that was on me (why would they take Chinese lessons in a private home in a Chinese-speaking city like Singapore (another of my guesses)?)

On the second read-through, I noticed more details: the school (which has an English name, I’d noticed that) has a US and a Californian flag.

Look, this might be obvious if you think to look for it, but I didn’t, okay?

They go to ‘The Observatory’; I checked, it’s the Griffith Observatory.

Griffith? I didn’t recognise you without an obvious statue of James Dean,

(Also, they’re fans of the ‘L.A. Ravens’ basketball team, but that doesn’t mean they live there – they know somebody on the team, and I’d got the impression he’d moved away to join.)

As a non-American resident, I was lucky to know what the Californian flag looks like, and the name of the Griffith Observatory.

I mentioned the Chinese lessons: I would’ve liked a bit of context or translation on them; I might’ve learned something.

Okay, but what do those words mean?

Sometimes, Stargazing makes weird writing choices. At one point, Christine Lists Moon Lin as “confident, funny, not Asian;” (why list ‘not Asian’ with what I assume are pluses?) but everything about her, from her last name to her religion to her diet to Christine’s mother being surprised she doesn’t speak Chinese at home says she is Asian.

Christine spends all her time studying and very little goofing off. I don’t know many kids who’d do that. Is this a tiger mom thing? (It’s not explored if it is.)

There are also a few too many times when we get every step of what somebody’s doing as a separate panel. It slows the story without really adding anything. I’ve seen this done before as a solution to the comics not having time, and it doesn’t work for me.

Those really are just nitpicks, though. Nothing more; they don’t make the comic in any way bad.

That all brings me to the big section:

Christian Representation:

Ulterior motive time: this is the whole reason I wanted to write this review.

When it opened in a church, I just knew it’d be one of those stories where the Christians have to learn to tolerate everyone else; this became even more obvious when I found out it was about a Christian girl meeting a new Buddhist friend. It would all lead to a happy ending where Christine loses her faith.

But it didn’t.

Christine started as a Christian (or at least a church-goer; it’s never shown that she actually believes, but it’s never show that she doesn’t; but she definitely goes with regularly her family) and ended that way; her faith was never treated as a Bad Thing, or as something she had to grow out of.

The Christians go to church and pray. The story starts with Christine’s family putting up the Lins when they’re worried about housing, because it’s the right thing to do (as the father says).

Christine does judge Moon off the bat, but it’s not any superficial ‘outsider’ thing, or because she’s from the wrong religion – it’s because of a rumour somebody spreads about her. A rumour that later turns out to be true, btw.

Stargazing touches on negative stereotypes of Christians as puritanical and legalistic, but pulls out at the last second – there are times when somebody says or does something, and one of Christine’s parents gives an Expression… and that’s the end of it.

Like when the mother hears the Lins are Buddhist:

I’m not even sure what she’s expressing, or why she wouldn’t already have known.

The father catches Christine dancing, and makes his Expression, and the reader knows this is going to be Footloose again, without the great warrior Kevin Bacon.

But it isn’t. After that expression – which could just be embarrassment at seeing his daughter acting silly – nothing comes of it.

Oh, noes! DANCING!

When Christine puts on nail polish, which she knows she’s not allowed to do (because she’s a kid, btw, not because he’s got a problem with nail polish in general), her father catches her.

Not pink! NOT the PINK!

Then he gives his reason for not liking nail polish: and it’s more feminist than Christian.

“But you know, things like clothes, makeup, and nail polish are just things to keep smart girls like you from succeeding.”

(This is the one time he does need to learn to tolerate things; later he suggests a colour. Again, it’s not harped on; it just happens.)

Shaved ice – solution to all life’s problems?

There’s a touch of relativism in Stargazing when the Dad says: “I’m glad you two are friends. But just because Moon does something doesn’t mean it’s right for you, too, okay? You’re different girls with different paths.” But that’s another thing that’s not harped on or pushed as the only way.

The Christians are never demonised, they’re never treated like a gang of terrorists or puritanical legalists (although, again, that’s touched on). They’re people, trying to do the right thing by their faith and (therefore) their neighbours.

Conclusion:

This comic, by a creator who is Buddhist (or, she was when she was six; it’s unclear if she still is), has the single most positive representation of Christians I’ve ever seen in a comic.

Stargazing is charming and very readable. I was very impressed with how it treated my people. The fact that it has no spec fic elements and isn’t a comedy means it loses some points with me, but doesn’t stop it being an enjoyable story.

I highly recommend it.

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