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A month after the release of Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology, the editors reflect on the project thus far, and hints at heroic (and villainous) works to come.
Like most of my classmates, I grew up spending way too much time reading and collecting comic books. We'd exchange X-Men trading cards during recess, go to the nearby comic book store after school, and then watch the latest episode of Batman the Animated Series when we got home. Eventually I grew out of it, partially because I couldn't really relate to my favorite, larger-than-life iconic superheroes like Spider-Man and Batman. The only Asian superheroes I recalled from then were Jubilation "Jubilee" Lee and Sunfire from the X-Men. Jubilee is a teenage mallrat turn X-Men that just happens to be Chinese American. She's a fairly well-developed character, but was mostly regulated to the sidelines and often found herself in need of rescuing. Then there was Sunfire, a Japanese hero that had the ability to fly and shoot fire, but I always thought his hokey design and temperamental personality were really lame.
Years later, after the emergence of comic book film adaptations captured the mainstream, I was playing the Marvel Ultimate Alliance on PlayStation 2 with some friends one night. After the others picked the usual popular heroes like Spider Man, Iron Man, and Wolverine, I noticed there wasn't a single Asian superhero on the playable roster. I wondered aloud "why" and the response was "because there aren't any good Asian superheroes in American comics." It was very telling that in this video game of the who's who of Marvel greats that there weren't any playable Asian characters. I guess Jubilee and Sunfire weren't going to hack it. But by then, I was resigned to the idea that there'd probably never be a great Asian American superhero I could be proud of, much less use in a video game or see in a blockbuster superhero flick.
Why are there so few well-developed Asian American comic characters when Asian Americans make up a good portion of the fan base? Some of the top artists in the industry are Asian American, like Jim Lee (X-Men), Jae Lee (inhumans), and Sean Chen (Iron Man). This conundrum lead to the idea of a comic anthology devoted to Asian American superheroes during an interview between San Francisco Chronicle "Asian Pop" columnist Jeff Yang and former English teacher and Diamond Comic Distributors Education Specialist Keith Chow. Then they invited illustrator and graphic artist Jerry Ma and recruited actor Parry Shen, best known for his lead role in Justin Lin's Better Luck Tomorrow, to join the project.
They placed a press release requesting submissions from Asian American artists and writers. They'd go on to recruit a slew of notable Asian Americans talent, including Greg Pak (The Incredible Hulk) and Gene Yang (American Born Chinese). They also received contributions from notable Asian American actors and directors like Keiko Agena (Gilmore Girls), Kelly Hu (X-Men United), Dustin Nguyen (21 Jump Street), Sung Kang (The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift), Leonardo Nam (Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants), and Mike Kang (West 32nd). By the time the book was complete, the four editors had collected more than 30 stories and over 50 characters. They weren't just popcorn action stories, but were layered with meaning and history. From the discrimination faced by Chinese railroad workers in the 19th century, to the struggle for recognition by Japanese American soldiers during World World II, to the slaying of Vincent Chin, Secret Identities doesn't shy away from exploring and recognizing key moments in Asian American history.
I had the chance to interview each editor individually during their book tour presentation at the Japanese National American Museum in downtown Los Angeles on May 30th. Here's how the responded to my questions:
Keith Chow: All kinds of surprises, actually. We've gotten praise from people we didn't expect praise from -- like people that weren't comic book fans, but heard about the concept of the book and went out to buy it. While we are trying to reach out to distinct audiences like Asian Americans and comic book fanboys who love superhero stories. We don't want people to think "you have to be Asian to buy this."
We were just at the library in Torrance and spoke to three English teachers. They told us how using comics can be a tool to educate. I was also an English teacher for a while and I used to work for Diamond Comics Distributors, essentially the engine that drives the comic book industry. While I was there I managed their educational marketing website, so we targeted librarians and teachers. Our role was to encourage people to use comics and graphic novels as teaching tools. Using comics to teach isn't foreign to teachers. Gene Yang, the creator of American Born Chinese, calls comic books the first true, lo-fi multi-media because it's not just pictures or words, but the combination of both.
Parry Shen: It was a relief that we got some negative criticism because it helps gives us a better idea of what to do next time. We tried to get more than just East Asian characters and creators, but a lot of people that turned us down were South Asian. A lot of people see the "The" in "The Asian American Super Hero Anthology" and think it should be all-encompassing. We tried our best, took 2 1/2 years to find the right people and stories. We had all this critical acclaim and then got called out on for not being as diverse and encompassing all of Asia. Someone is going to get left out if you do a pan-Asian anthology.
Jerry Ma: I'm surprised and happy how well it has gone. It's been an honor to be a part of this. We tried our hardest to get as many different submissions as possible. I don't think people realize how hard it is to sort through them all and give readers what they want. With an anthology, it's our responsibility to fulfill those needs. People need to be patient while we work on the next one.
Jeff Yang: It has been phenomenal. The reaction has been divided by people that say "wow, I've never thought of this before" and "I've always hoped for this but never thought it would actually happen." We've tapped into this untapped vein of yearning for heroes in our community. Not to say there aren't real-life Asian American heroes, but we were growing up surrounded by a pop culture in which we are invisible, rendered null and void. We're pushed to the edges or given distorted images that are unrecognizable to us. Comic books and super heroes give you a vent, a place where you can imagine that behind that mask is a face with features that look like us. At the same time, once that moment of revelation occurs when you pull of that mask, you realize the hero isn't like you. That moment of recognition and disappointment that the person behind the mask is another white male, another person of privilege, another person we couldn't recognize or personally connect with in a way we fantasize about.
Keith Chow: No, it happened organically, actually. When Jeff, Jerry, and myself first made a press release calling for stories, we had all sorts of crazy submissions. We had three criteria: protagonists had to be Asian American, it had to be a superhero story with super powers and the super hero archetype, and it had to be good. It's all very vague; what does it mean to be an Asian American, what does it mean to be a superhero, and what is a good superhero story? So we had submissions that ran the gamut. One interesting story that we received from a prominent Asian American academic who has been published several times (I don't want to mention his name) was so off-the-wall weird and crazy...but not in a good way. We thought we had maybe taken the wrong approach to this.
But then we got this one story from Jonathan Tsuei, who wrote the story "9066" for the anthology. It's about a Japanese American hero who was interned during World War II in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. Once we read that script and then saw Jerry's art for it, we found the tone we wanted for the book, to illuminate Asian American issues and history using superhero metaphors. We didn't tell any one "You have to write about World War II," it just happened. Our job was to organize the stories by content; that's how the anthology's distinctive stories, like the immigrant stories and the effects of war of Asian Americans, came about.
Parry Shen: The only thing we told our contributors was to make it an Asian American story. We asked them to ask themselves "why this anthology?" Someone submitted this story about a girl that's a school student by day, but by night is a spy for the government and she just happens to be Asian. We thought that it would be too easy to have someone change their ethnicity. People can talk about anybody, as long as it's a good story from an Asian American perspective.
Jerry Ma: We opened up submissions to everybody and were receiving all sorts of unique submissions. We get offers all the time from people, so it's really hard to take anyone seriously unless they have something to show you. Everyone's got a great idea and at the time, we were the guys with great ideas. I asked my friend Jonathan Tsuei, writer for "9066," to hook us up with a great story, something I can draw quickly to show people that we were for real. That's how our first legit story came about.
Jeff Yang: We like to say that we guided, but didn't coerce. As an example, we showed our contributors "9066." We wanted to have this sense of being rooted in reality, to bring out the stories from within that related to what they were passionate about. From that, people started sharing stories that fit on a timeline. We got stories about the legacy of Vietnam, stories ripped from the headlines, Dr. Wen Ho Lee, Vincent Chin, and smaller events like the death of CNET editor James Kim who tried to save his family by walking 16 miles in the wilderness. Then we had stories about conditions and lifestyles, parts of the lives of the people submitting them that were rich and relevant in their own accord.
I wrote a "Day at Costume Co," an homage to my own upbringing in the suburbs. I remember every school season my mom would take me to go buy school supplies and clothes. We always wound up going to K-Mart instead of the mall, getting all this cheap stuff while my friends had all the brand-name goods. After becoming a parent myself, I realize what a juggle it is to manage kids, their budgets, their schedules -- how much of a superhuman you have to be to be a parent. This story wound up being about a literal supermom and her superhero kids. They are a lot of stories that like this that personally resonate with our contributors.
Keith Chow: That's one of the motives. Comic books are the seeds of popular culture. If you turn on your TV, you'll find shows like Lost and Heroes that are influenced by comic books. Likewise for blockbuster films like Iron Man and The Dark Knight. In a way, by making an Asian American comic book anthology with 52 original characters, we are trying to inject them into the mainstream culture and say that superhero icons can be Asian American, too. If that means these get adapted into television shows, movies, or ongoing comic series, that would fulfill one of our goals. "The Citizen" by Greg Pak and Bernard Chang would be perfect as an ongoing series. It'd be easy to pitch. It's a buddy cop movie with Obama and an Asian American superhero. It's awesome.
Parry Shen: That's definitely the plan: for production companies to pick one or two of these stories to adapt into full length feature films or ongoing comic series with a comic publisher.
Jerry Ma: I think "The Citizen" is already being talked about as an ongoing series at Marvel Comics. Since all these stories are creator-owned, I hope the artists would pursue that, too. We can help them with pitches and push them in the right direction, but it's really up to the individual creators.
Jeff Yang: The main reason why we did this book was to release these stories out there. We're looking for ways to take some of these stories and develop them into other media. We're potentially looking into a second volume. We feel that the stories are individual seeds, not trees. At some point there'll be an opportunity to build these stories into something that goes beyond.
Keith Chow: That was brought up at our panel at the New York Comic Con. One of the audience members said that writing about heroes is easy, and that we should write about villains. That definitely piqued our interest. I won't say that Volume 2 will definitely be about villains, since we're still discussing where we want to go with it, but the whole notion of exploring Asian American villainy as well as Asian American heroism is important to us. On the one hand, when you think about Asians in comic history, we complain we never see Asian/Asian American heroes. You did see Asian villains and they were crazy stereotypes like Fu Manchu. There's Eggfu from Wonderman, who's like a giant oriental egg. It's really whacked stuff. So deconstructing all this is very intriguing to us.
The Asian American villain has taken on a new meaning post-Seung-Hui Cho. It wasn't just him -- you had a series of disturbed Asian American males who kind of lashed out. For a while that became a new stereotype, like the Asian American guy who goes around shooting 20 people. That's sort of an extension of the inscrutable Asian villain, but with a new face to it. There are so many angles to go with super villains. The biggest point is that we want to see Asian Americans in popular culture be three dimensional, flaws and all. We don't want to say there is no such thing as Asian American villains because there are. Being Asian does not preclude you from being evil.
Parry Shen: That'll probably be Volume 2. When you get a book out, the first challenge is to sell it. Right now we're trying to get people to know about Secret Identities before we start Volume 2. It might be up to us, but so far no one has submitted a story about the Virginia Tech shooting. There are so many things happening with Asian Americans. "The Citizen" touches upon what's going on right now with soldiers of conscience saying "no, I'm not going to fight in the Iraq War," like Ehren Watada. That's something that's easier to make into a superhero story because it has to do with war.
Maybe some out-of-the-box thinker can make a story incorporating the topic of the Virginia Tech shooting. Perhaps maybe someone was at the university and had powers, but decided not to use it. Or froze up because they were too nervous and got wracked with guilt, like when Peter Parker didn't stop the robber that eventually killed his uncle. Tragedies like this that fuel a desire to help people. That's how these stories start.
Jerry Ma: We're toying with the idea of doing tales about villains. They are a little more intricate than the heroes. It's a little too early to be talking about this. Regarding Cho, that's actually one of the "reasons" for the villains book, but it's still too early to elaborate.
Jeff Yang: I don't know what shape this would take, but it wouldn't necessary make people sympathetic to villains. Asian Americans have been forced to play villainous roles for so long. If we did an anthology like this, it'd be illuminating the three dimensionality behind evil. Not always in a serious vein, either. There are stories to be told about what it's really like to try to dominate the world and the trials and tribulations therein. Most likely before we start the next volume we're going to try to do something more with the stories we have here first and use that as a bridge to Volume 2.
Keith Chow: I've always wanted this even before Heroes became big: the ability to freeze time, Hiro-style without the squinting. I'm not a fan of that or the buffoonery that Hiro Nakamura is guilty of sometimes.
Parry Shen: Super speed, so I can go to places and multi-task like I'm doing right now. Wish I could do interviews and set up at the same time.
Jerry Ma: The power of persuasion. It would come in handy at the bar with the ladies, haha.
Jeff Yang: As a parent, you have this need to do everything at once. The ability to respond to any situation -- like perfect adaptation. Whatever life throws at you, being able to instantly have the tool or power or resource to respond to that. That'll be the ultimate super power to me. Essentially high-speed evolution!
Keith Chow: On every panel we're at this comes up. It's not unrelated because it goes back to our original point of why we wanted to do Secret Identities. The whole notion of trans-racializing the whole cast. For example, if they wanted to do a movie of "9066." Imagine if Paramount calls us and tells us "that story is amazing, we want to make a movie of it. But can we cast Tom Cruise as the lead? You know, he was the Last Samurai. Can he be the last superhero internee?" That's why it was important for us to make these characters organically Asian.
The excuse the studios used for Avatar is that it's a fantasy world, it's an American cartoon, it's not really Asia, it's not Earth. If you used that logic with Lord of the Rings for example, if you were to cast Denzel Washington and Tracy Morgan in that, there would be an uproar, even though it's not really Earth. It's clear that Tolkein based it on Anglo-Saxon, European culture. To trans-racialize Gandalf, Legolas, and Aragorn -- there'd be an uproar. This is why there's uproar with Avatar. The interesting thing about that is it wasn't exclusively Asian Americans complaining. Like if you go to the site Ang Ain't White -- it's a multi-ethnic uproar. What they're protesting isn't necessarily "we want more Asians" (though that's part of it), but "we want authenticity." These characters are clearly based on Asian indigenous cultures. They want that reflected in the adaptation, so I find that encouraging.
Seriously, what's the excuse for white-washing people of color in movies? Hollywood is like "we don't see black, white, yellow, or brown, we see only green." That's code for we think white people will only go see white people in movies. If I were Caucasian, I'd be super offended by that. That's just so patronizing to assume that white audiences can't relate to anyone that's not white, so let's make everybody white. You're starting to see that turn on its head with globalism. Kids are growing up with manga, Japanese anime like Miyazaki's films, and video games. The notion that white kids, African American kids can't identify with Asian characters is becoming antiquated because they already do. It's not like when we were growing up and didn't see any Asians on TV and in the media. The whole notion of making the leads white to make money has already been disproved.
Look at Dragon Ball Evolution. They cast almost everybody Asian except the main character and the movie bombed. It bombed because it wasn't authentic and true to the original. That's the biggest gripe with any comic book adaptations -- the fans don't care what you get right or wrong, they just want you to be true to the story. That's why Iron Man and the Dark Knight did so well. They captured what the original source material was all about. For Avatar, the Asian culture is a big part of the appeal of the show. Although the creators and voice actors are white, there's something to be said about the visual representation, too.
Parry Shen: As an actor, I see it all the time. It's about business. They can do what they want to do, it's their movie, and they bought the rights. But at the same time they lost such a great opportunity with these characters that were originally inspired by Asian characters. Like The Departed is a remake of a Hong Kong film called Infernal Affairs that got a lot of acclaim because of its cast, yet none of the original actors were invited back. Same with 21, which was about Asian Americans counting cards in Vegas. They can do what they want, but it's a lost opportunity for characters that were successful because they were Asian/Asian Americans.
Jerry Ma: I think the public will answer that for us. I'm positive it's going to tank, just like Dragon Ball Evolution. They were wrong. I almost don't want to answer that, but you'll see what happens. People aren't stupid. They know what they are getting into.
Jeff Yang: This is one of the reasons why we embedded this notion of wanting the stories in the book to not just be about heroes that happen to be Asian American, but heroes that organically evolve out of an Asian American foundation. We wanted to avoid as much as possible the 21 effect where even real-life Asian American stories become stories that, because of perceptions of commercial value or fear of an Asian planet, get replaced with white actors.
Date Posted: 6/5/2009