When I was a kid, I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of mainstream Asian American superheroes within my comic books. Most of these characters were reductive stereotypes — ninjas, mystics, or martial artists — and even so, I gravitated to them. I yearned for stories that might add fuel to the fires of my own childhood imagination wherein someone like me might play the role of the superhero. Frustratingly, few of the comic books on my shelves reflected the inner superhero of my fantasies.
This is an experience shared by many nerds of colour, including across the spectrum of the Asian American fandom. Among modern Asian American comic fans, the exasperating dearth of meaningful Asian American comic book characters we experienced during our childhood has forged a shared love-hate relationship with contemporary comics: many of us share a love for the few Asian American characters of our youth (like Jubilee) while we continue to challenge contemporary comics to do better when it comes to diversifying our comic book superheroes.
Thankfully, one comic writer has risen to that challenge. This Wednesday, Totally Awesome Hulk #15 drops. In it, writer Greg Pak (whom I’ve been a fan of since before his mainstream comic writing days when he made the award-winning independent film, Robot Stories) pulls together what seems to be the world’s first (and largest) Asian American superhero team-up in mainstream comic book history.
And, I gotta say: childhood Jenn is all kinds of loving it!
Spoilers ahead! Grab a copy of Totally Awesome Hulk #15 and read it before continuing on!
First of all, one of the most notable things about Totally Awesome Hulk #15 is that there are now enough active Asian American superheroes in the Marvel universe that Pak can even pull off an all-Asian American superhero team. Gone are the days when the only Asian American character to grace a comic book page would be that third ninja from the left who yells “hiyaa” before getting a knee to the face from the comic’s White male protagonist. That Pak can assemble not just an all-Asian American team, but one that feels totally balanced — with regard to both personality and powerset — is remarkable; moreso because Pak doesn’t need to scrape the bottom of the superhero barrel in order to do it. In the last few years, Marvel has rolled out several new Asian American superhero characters in piecemeal fashion; Pak himself is the creator of the comic’s titular character, Amadeus Cho. But, only when all of these new and rebooted Asian American characters were all collected together in a single comic issue could I appreciate how much the Marvel superhero landscape has changed.
Totally Awesome Hulk #15 frames the (unnamed) Asian American team-up through the eyes of title protagonist Amadeus Cho, a young Asian American prodigy who recently inherited the mantle of the Hulk from Bruce Banner. Cho is summoned by Jimmy Woo — a secret agent first introduced in Marvel Comics in the 1950’s and who is currently the head of the Agents of Atlas — to join a group of other currently popular young Asian American superheroes: Ms. Marvel (Kamala Khan), S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Jake Oh, Shang-Chi and Silk (Cindy Moon).
The pretext for bringing the group together is a little narratively silly (if politically important): Jimmy Woo has gathered the five younger Asian American superheroes for a public appearance at an Asian American bone marrow donor registration drive. The book doesn’t bother answering why the head of the Agents of Atlas would be working public relations for such an event, nor whether his public appearance entertaining the Asian American masses might conflict with his job description as a secret agent, nor why a secret agent would be treated like a celebrity by throngs of Asian American fans. Nonetheless, I applaud Pak’s decision to use his platform to highlight the critical need for more Asian Americans to register as bone marrow donors (in fact, more here on this important public health issue in the AAPI community, as well as for links to register as a bone marrow donor).
In the writing, Pak himself seems to acknowledge that the reason why these five Asian American superheroes might come together are less relevant than the fact that in this book they do. The meat of Totally Awesome Hulk #15 is focused on the ensuing conversation between the six superheroes as they unwind after their public appearance over some Korean BBQ and Karaoke. It’s here that the book roots itself within an Asian American experience that will be deeply familiar to many of its younger Asian American readers: the six characters bond over the many experiences that unite them as Asian Americans while also discovering the many ways in which they each defy Asian American stereotypes. One character doesn’t know what kalbi is, while another Korean American character confesses that he’s a vegetarian. Another character comes out as gay. A character asks about the high expectations of overly-doting Asian parents while others point out that their parents are criminals. Or dead.
In fact, the truly historic thing about Totally Awesome Hulk #15 is that its Asian American characters are introduced as regular people. Not tropes or cliches, just people — fun-loving, good-natured, interesting people. I was refreshed to see Asian Americans portrayed in comics as normal humans with complex personalities, unique interpersonal relationships, backstories and senses of humour; that reaction tells us something about how flatly Asian Americans have been portrayed in comic in all the decades before this book.
And so, Greg Pak’s point becomes unmistakable: the problem with stereotypes — as they have been perpetuated by popular media including, historically, comics — is that they overlook the incredible distinctiveness of individual Asian Americans. The Asian American community is defined by the rich diversity of our differences, and it is that distinctiveness that makes us who we are; and it is also what allows some of us to shine as heroes.
Totally Awesome Hulk #15 suggests that true heroism is to live one’s life courageously and unapologetically with regard to the stereotypes that would erase away the richness of who we are. By refusing to let stereotypes define us, we dismantle them for future generations. Each of the six characters in Totally Awesome Hulk #15 rejects stereotypes in their own way, and so become heroes for the children who look up to them — both within the Marvel universe and beyond the pages of comics. Each character presents a facet of the Asian American experience that challenges the Model Minority Myth’s narrow assertion that there is only one right way to be Asian American. In fact, by assembling the first all-Asian American team in comic book history, Totally Awesome Hulk #15 reminds us that each character embodies a totally different and yet equally legitimate way to be an Asian American superhero.
In the end, Totally Awesome Hulk #15 is a teaser for the team-up we’ve all been waiting for. By spending the first issue setting the identity politics stage for the historic team-up, there’s little time for any down-and-dirty superheroic action. But, even the construction of this team — two powerhouse metas, two super-powered agility-based heroes, and two baseline humans — is objectively good, and promises interesting action in the books to come in the arc. And, the book ends with a cliffhanger suggesting there’s much more fisticuffs to come.
Whether you’re a regular comics fan or someone just getting into the fandom, Totally Awesome Hulk #15 is the fun and accessible comic book I wish I’d had as a young Asian American teen. If you’re not already reading Totally Awesome Hulk, you should definitely swing by your local comic book shop tomorrow and pick up Totally Awesome Hulk #15!
The all-Asian American superhero team’s arc will run from issues #15-#18 of Totally Awesome Hulk.