I have to preface this post by saying that I have not been collecting comics lately. Thankfully, a friend of mine, who still keeps his finger to the pulse of the comic world, tipped me off to a major development in the world of comic books that has ramifications for the Asian American community.
Four years ago, after the presumed death of Ray Palmer, DC Comics introduced a new Atom, remarkable because he quickly ascended to being one of the foremost Asian American superheroes in comic-dom. He was one of the few Asian American superheroes to receive their own comic book title — All-New Atom — which was penned by Gail Simone. Simone developed Atom, and his alter ego Ryan Choi, as an Asian-American in virtually every sense of the word; although he was born and raised in Hong Kong, Ryan lived and worked as a professor in an American university. Part of his personal evolution involved struggles between his more Americanized identity with the expectations of his strict, overbearing father.
Now, when Atom first launched, I heavily criticized the book for its persistent dependence on stereotypical Asian/Asian American tropes. Choi was still one-dimensional and his book contained inappropriate racially-charged jokes that seemed out-of-place in a book that should’ve been a landmark for Asian American comic fans. Despite being set in at an academic institution, the series suffered from a bizarre absence of Asian American female characters. To me, All-New Atom was jarring — Ryan Choi had none of the ease in his Asian-American identity that Asian American characters written by Asian American writers do. Unlike the characters of Gene Yang’s American Born Chinese, or even the writing of Greg Pak’s Amadeus Cho in World War Hulk, Gail Simone’s Ryan Choi felt like a character forced into an Asian American skin. His relationship with his Asian-ness seemed fake and inauthentic. All-New Atom felt like a book about Asian Americans written by a non-Asian.
Interestingly, when I wrote about my disappointment in All-New Atom, Simone came to this blog defending her writing. She addressed concerns about the inauthenticity of Ryan Choi. Simone even emailed me a little bit to exchange ideas about adding a female Asian American character to All-New Atom‘s cast.
Sadly, soon after these exchanges took place, All-New Atom was canceled after just 25 issues. Ryan Choi went on to help find the lost Ray Palmer, Choi’s predecessor in the Atom mantle. Palmer and Choi worked together as members of Checkmate, but suprisingly, Choi was virtually absent in the major cross-over events that subsequently swept the D.C. Universe (e.g. Final Crisis, Sinestro Wars, Blackest Night). In fact, Electroman tells me that Choi appeared in only one panel in Final Crisis.
Last week, not content to allow Ryan Choi fade into obscurity, D.C. Comics made a decision to bring the All-New Atom back… in a gory death scene. In the first issue of Titans: Villains for Hire, a title contained under the year-long Brightest Day story arc currently sweeping the D.C. Universe, Deathstroke assembles a team of mercenary villains. As one of his first acts as leader of the new, evil Titans, Deathstroke breaks into Ryan Choi’s house in Ivy Town. After a brief battle, Ryan Choi is fatally impaled on Deathstroke’s sword.
Now, as Blackest Night has hammered home (and by “hammered home”, I actually mean, beaten like a “dead, dead, really really dead horse”), dead characters in the D.C. Universe rarely stay dead for long. If nothing else, comic book writers are very good at coming up with wonderfully creative ret-cons to undo a character’s death. Even Jason Todd, the second Robin, who was supposed to be the only character in D.C. Comics whom editors swore would never come back from the dead, was resurrected and now fights crime as the homicidal Red Hood.
So, it’s quite possible that Ryan Choi will be back.
But for now, Ryan Choi is dead.
And beyond merely being dead, Ryan Choi is pointlessly dead. It seems as if Choi died only to demonstrate how Badass(tm) Deathstroke and his new Titans are. And, as Justin Slotman commented about the recent deaths of Jin and Sun on Lost, “killing off beloved characters to prove that Bad Guy is Really Really Serious is the laziest kind of writing.” Some fans have argued that Choi’s death is racially motivated because D.C. Comics was uncomfortable with an Asian American wearing the mantle of the Atom; with Choi bumped off, Ray Palmer would be free to reclaim his superhero identity. Would a prominent non-Asian superhero have died so meaningless a death?
While I think the phrase “racially motivated” is rather charged, I tend to agree with the notion that D.C. Comics sets a dangerous precedent for so casually eliminating one of the few prominent Asian American superheroes when he appears no longer necessary. D.C. editors seemed apathetic to persistent cries to have Ryan Choi treated better in the pages of his title, and, now, they seem callously unconcerned about killing the character off. Ryan Choi barely had the chance to become a “beloved” character — of Asian Americans or fanboys at large — before he was tossed aside in a gruesome and unnecessary death. In life, and in death, Choi served as a placeholder — first for Ray Palmer’s Atom, and now for Deathstroke’s evil plan. Choi never really manages to come into his own as an Asian American character and as a superhero — throughout his four year run, he stood perpetually in the shadow of Whiter, more well-known characters.
So, rest in peace, Ryan Choi. Too bad you never became what you could have been.
Update: Yikes. Don’t write a blog post while simultaneously watching the penultimate episode of Lost, kids! This post has been edited for grammar and clarity.