The Boy Who Became a Dragon

As a kid, Jim Di Bartolo was a big fan of Black Belt Theater – martial arts films that aired on television every Saturday. That’s where he first witnessed the work of kung fu master Bruce Lee. Di Bartolo immediately became enamored and soon started training at a local dojo himself.

With the passing of a few decades, Di Bartolo turned toward another career, but never forgot the thrill that Bruce Lee and his films had provided.

Today, as a prolific Portland-based artist, Di Bartolo has created a new graphic novel that traces the arc of Lee’s remarkable bi-continental life and career.

“The Boy Who Became a Dragon” takes some liberties with incidents in Lee’s childhood but adheres to the known facts of his life.

Lee was born in San Francisco in 1940 to a Cantonese opera star and his wife.

When he was still a baby, his parents moved back to Hong Kong and raised him in a large extended family. Lee was a scrawny kid but thanks to his father’s connections, he became a child actor and appeared in several films shot in Hong Kong.

Although there are fuzzy accounts about his adolescence, there is no doubt that Lee was a lackluster student and for a time was involved in a gang that engaged in violent street fighting.

His worried parents decided that their son needed to have more structure in his life, so they enrolled him in a gung fu (kung fu) class, where they hoped he would learn discipline and channel his antagonistic impulses into a sanctioned activity.

While Bruce gained strength and excelled in martial arts and other physical competitions, his academic progress remained mediocre and his brawling continued.

At a loss for answers, his parents decided to send him back to his birth country at age 18 for a fresh start.

Lee attended the University of Washington and started his first gung fu studio in Seattle. It wasn’t long before he’d built a career that extended down the West Coast and brought him to the attention of filmmakers in Hollywood.

With his good looks and uniquely honed set of martial arts skills, Lee refused to play the type of subservient role that typically was assigned to Asian-American actors in the 1960s. Instead, he landed a starring role as Kato in the television series “The Green Hornet” and then went on to develop, direct, produce and star in film projects of his own, becoming an international star.

Di Bartolo creates dynamic illustrations to amplify the life of this active young kid who had trouble following the standard track, but nonetheless had parents and mentors who supported him in pursuing alternative ways of learning and expressing himself and, ultimately, achieving excellence.

The way Di Bartolo presents this complicated kid – without harsh judgment, but instead with understanding, some humor and action-packed scenes – may well provide other youngsters with an inspirational boost.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at

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