Before Jeremy Arambulo’s A Challenge, I didn’t know anything about Bruce Lee’s fight with Wong Man Jack, and from what I’ve read since, that’s a giant red flag to me not knowing much about Bruce Lee.
Lee makes his first appearance in Arambulo’s graphic novel reacting juvenilely to a demonstration that doesn’t go his way. The crowd turns against him and he knocks over a mic on his way off the stage. Coming from only knowing Lee for the legend of his martial arts skills and untimely death, it’s an incredible introduction for me, and far from the only incredible thing about Arambulo’s storytelling.
This particular incident happened at Sun Sing Theatre, but the facts around Wong and Lee’s fight (which took place at Lee’s martial arts school in October 1964) have been argued over ever since, and A Challenge is ultimately a work of fiction inspired by true events.
Our main characters are Jack Wong, his roommate, Frank, and Nancy, an aspiring actress and new hire at the restaurant where they work. All three are attended to by Arambulo’s story and have a chance to shine individually, in pairs, and as a trio. ‘Paired off’ isn’t something you always see with trios, since there’s usually one person the narrative weighs towards, or who acts as the crux, but both Jack and Frank, Frank and Nancy, and Nancy and Jack have interactions outside the ones they have as a group.
This also prevents a dichotomy from forming between Jack and Bruce. Because they are each other’s opposite in many ways, from their styles of kung fu, to their craving for attention (there’s also the competition for students at their respective kung fu schools), they could easily settle into hero and villain roles, but this isn’t Jack’s story alone. When Nancy or Frank is the POV character, they offer different perspectives on Bruce and different personal concerns.
Arambulo has a wonderful handle on orienting panels to convey the most information. Right from the opening scene, you know you’re in for an engaging read from all that can be picked up about Jack and Frank in these early pages. When we first meet Frank, the lighting’s on him, though his back is to us and the foreground’s in shadow. An early taste of his overconfidence, Frank isn’t aware Jack doesn’t drink, so you realize they haven’t been friends long, while the cramped quarters of their apartment are driven across later by Arambulo rotating around the room.
Nancy’s budding career provides an opportunity to discuss Asian representation in cinema, and one of my favorite scenes has Frank being surprised at her critical eye, when the film they see isn’t the female vehicle it claims to be (and again, when she corrects him from laying blame on the actress, when it’s the script, not her performance, that lets her and the film down). That this commentary is targeted at a real film (Pan Jin Lian, starring Diana Chang) adds to the historical specificity.
Nancy is a dancer, and I love that Arambulo puts the skills required for dance on the same level as kung fu. Scenes between Jack and Nancy are filled with lovely, romantic touches (like the background slipping away, so they have to be jolted back into being at work) but nothing is better than seeing them show each other their crafts. Nancy twirls off the page, while Jack forgets for a moment anyone’s watching, and if there’s any challenge to reading A Challenge it’s that it eventually comes to an end.