Historically in comics, infamous villains, including Fu Manchu and the Yellow Claw, have possessed stereotypical, yellowed physical features and unnervingly flat personalities. These characters joined the rogues’ gallery of one-dimensional Asian caricatures in popular culture.
“That is what Asian Americans had to face for generations,” Yang says to Comic Riffs. “What we don’t want to say is, ‘You can’t have Asian bad guys.’ We love Asian bad guys, just like we love Asian good guys in comics. We want to be shown as people, as beings with three dimensions, complicated histories and real motivations. We want to see what’s inside [these character’s] heads, and not what just happens when they’re rubbing their palms together and grinning maniacally.”
Last winter, the four editors holed up in a New York City hotel to work our their approach to “Shattered.” They homed in on the anthology’s theme. They penned “The Sacrifice” as the prologue, and divvied up each chapter according to their representation of five malevolent “demons” that they saw as Asian archetypes”: the Brute, the Temptress, the Brain, the Alien and the Manipulator.
“The reality we have as Asian Americans is shaped by the perceptions that others have of us,” Yang tells ‘Riffs. “It’s the stereotypes that persist across time and history that daunt us and continue to challenge us today. …
“A section of the book [deals] with images and stories that subvert, upend or otherwise twist, reinvent and renew, in some cases, those stereotypes in ways to what people usually think.”
“Shattered” includes contributions by such industry heavyweights asGene Yang (“American Born Chinese”), Larry Hama (G.I. Joe) andTakeshi Miyazawa (Runaways), as well as creators from other disciplines, like rapper Adam WarRock, slam poet Bao Phi and authorJamie Ford. And the stories run the gamut from the everyday to the historic, from realism to fantasy and horror; they include snapshots of an internment camp, a supernatural romance, a lousy day at school.
As a kid (and still today), I was fascinated by superheroes and their stories. I was a fan of Superman, Batman, and the X-men. Although some of it was basic glee at following the tales of men and women fighting crime in brightly-coloured tights, I think part of my fascination with comic books was my identification with the superheroes in their pages. To me, that is the strength of the comic book medium: they aren’t just childish fantasy. Comic books tell stories of characters that serve as archetypes of human emotion and experience, and when comic books are considered in that context, one can find them capable of highly nuanced, fascinating, and overwhelmingly mature commentary on humanity and human nature.
Thus, I think the best comic book characters are those that speak to universal experiences. Superman isn’t just a Man of Steel; he is an immigrant whom I find most compelling as Clark Kent, an adopted alien trying to fit in among men. Batman isn’t merely a man dressed in a giant Bat-suit; his story speaks to the fragility of life, the relationship between grief and madness, and how the human mind can (or cannot) walk the tightrope between sanity and sociopathy. The X-men are, and were conceived as, a commentary on the civil rights movement. While most comic book characters maintain their popularity because of some ill-defined “cool factor” that render them little more than “good guys in tights”, the most enduring characters are those who have transcended to become a symbol that speaks to particular facets of the human experience.
The one weakness of comic books is that, for so long, they have been written by White men for predominantly White male readers, and thus there is a lack a diversity in characters that speak to the experiences of non-White, non-male readers. Many female characters suffer from what feminist writer Laura Mulvey coined as “to-be-looked-at-ness”; that is, they are primarily written in a voyeuristic, rather than a narrative or humanized, light. Female characters are rarely written in a manner that encourages the reader to identify with them, or to perceive the story through their eyes; instead female superheroes (particularly those in the Golden and Silver Age of comics) are typically mere props to satisfy the male gaze — and often stereotypical ones, at that.
A similar problem (though without a catchy air-quote term) occurs with characters of colour: when Black, Latino, Native or Asian American characters are included at all, they are typically written from a superficial, foreign, almost tokenized place that rarely feels authentic to the actual experiences of the community they purport to represent. That is why, I think, that the few characters that do manage to, even marginally, “get it right” become noticeably popular in communities of colour: for example, Jubilee who was among the first purely Asian-American female character to be incorporated as a head-lining superhero; or John Stewart, the “Black Green Lantern” whose recent repopularization (credited in large part to the efforts by Dwayne McDuffy on the Justice League Unlimited cartoon show) as a multi-faceted African American superhero transcends his earlier roots as a stand-in for 1970’s urban America. We — comic book readers of colour — identify with these characters because they both symbolize (and thereby acknowledge), as well as contribute to, the collective discussion of our unique experiences as minorities in America. And even in these cases, these characters often still feel strangely inauthentic because they are typically (at least in the case of characters like Jubilee) still written from the perspective of White writers with limited experience.
Several years ago, I had a chance to think more carefully on this subject when I wrote about DC’s decision to have Korean American character Ryan Choi, assume the mantle of The Atom. At the time, this was a remarkable move because this was the first time in recent memory that a bonafide Asian American character was assuming such a high-profile (Justice League affiliated) superhero identity, and receiving his own dedicated title, to boot.
I reviewed the first issue of “All-New Atom” which introduced Ryan Choi and a cast of secondary characters, but noted that the book (which was written by the prolific Gail Simone) suffered from the same cultural inauthenticity that plagued other Asian American superhero characters. There was something off about Ryan Choi — the way he spoke about his Asian-ness in tokenism rather than from a place of membership, the way his speech was too conspicuously peppered with Asian cultural references that fail to represent how most Asian Americans actually relate with our racial and cultural identity — that resulted in Choi falling far short of the iconic mark he could have set for Asian American fanboys and fangirls. I remember, in particular, one joke that Ryan Choi made about fortune cookies in his inaugural issue that almost screamed “I look Asian American, yet I speaks words that were not written by an Asian American”. In the end, I felt Ryan Choi was more caricature than character, albeit unintentionally.
To my surprise, Gail Simone came to my blog in defense of her writing of Ryan Choi. After a busy (and heated) public exchange in my blog’s comments section, Simone later contacted me privately, asking me to collaborate with her by email to conceive of an authentic-feeling Asian American female character and colleague for Ryan, who might serve as a professional rival and maybe eventually as a love interest.
As you can expect, I was excited and floored by the offer. Simone and I exchanged some very brief ideas about an Asian American female character that Simone might bring to life in the world of Ryan Choi’s Ivy University. In the meanwhile, I was asked not to say anything publicly (for obvious reasons). However, shortly thereafter, Simone contacted me to let me know that there wasn’t going to be a future for the All-New Atom title, and anyways, she was moving on to Secret Six; and so, any possibility of fleshing out Ryan Choi as more Asian American, and to include a multi-dimensional Asian American female pro-/antagonist fell by the wayside.
Nonetheless, this brief experience was enough to get my mental gears whirring on ideas for how to write comic books from an Asian American perspective, and I was more than ever disappointed that there weren’t more opportunities for people of colour to translate our experiences into the pages of comic books in the form of compelling, and interesting, superheroes of colour.
And then, enter Secret Identities.
Unfortunately, I missed the submission deadline to participate in the first volume of Secret Identities. However, when I got a chance to interview the editors — the unstoppable force that is Jeff Yang, Keith Chow, Parry Shen and, Jerry Ma — I confessed that I was already putting together my submission package for volume two (and that there had better be a sequel!). A couple of years later, when the editors were able to finalize the magic that is involved in getting a book like this greenlit (and by “magic”, I mean “indescribable headache, heartache, and grief”), I was probably one of the first story pitch submissions that they received for volume 2 of Secret Identities, now minimalist-ly named “SHATTERED” — a book that delves into the Asian American experience specifically as it relates to the comic book supervillain.
The story I’ve written for SHATTERED is called “Push”. It documents the events following the arrest of Leland Hei, a former college student whose rage has twisted him into a brilliant and manipulative villain who has pitted himself against the popular, musclebound superhero, the Standard.
In truth, Leland — or more specifically, his superpower — was an idea I’d been playing with since my e-mail exchanges with Gail Simone. I had even originally envisioned adapting Leland as my superhero submission for the first volume of Secret Identities. I thought he might make a pretty cool superhero. However, as I further developed the character around what I felt his superpower really symbolized, I realized that Leland could really only be a supervillain. More specifically, I realized that Leland was a character who might (I hoped) personify some of the anger and bitterness that I think might reside deep down in many of us (albeit far better controlled), but which has bubbled to the surface in this character. Writing Leland was interesting for me, because as much as he is a villain, I felt like I deeply identified with him and his motivations.
I can’t, and don’t want to, give away more about Leland and the story “Push”. But, it was a particular thrill when Leland, who had been little more than an idea kicking around in my head for the last several years, was brought to life by the incredible, breathtaking pencils of Ace Continuado.
In short, the experience of writing for “SHATTERED” has been incredibly gratifying for me. Already a diehard fangirl, I’ve developed a new appreciation for comic book writers and for the artform that is comic books. Writing for the comic book page is not easy. In fact, it’s almost completely foreign relative to the prose-writing most of us are used to (in comics, you have to think about the visuals in storyboard form as you are writing). Further, I came to realize that comic book writers are at their best when coupled with a good editor (which, to his credit, Jeff Yang performed beautifully as for all of the stories collected together in this gigantic anthology); comics must convey dense story-telling in what amounts to a very tiny amount of space shared by both art and dialogue, and an editor’s red pen is almost essential to accomplish this. But I think going through this experience really helped solidify my appreciation for this genre and what it’s capable of.
As I said above, the early draft of “SHATTERED” that I was privileged to take a peek at was breath-taking in both the quality of its writing and its art. I’m almost loathe to say it (because I don’t want it taken the wrong way) but this book is head and shoulders above volume 1 of Secret Identities in terms of ambition, execution and sophistication. I can basically summarize my experience participating in this book with the following sentiment: I am deeply honoured and thankful to have had the opportunity to be involved. There are so many Asian American stories that have already been told through the Secret Identities anthologies, and yet, I think there are still so many that are still waiting to be told.
Even if you’re not Asian American, or a fanboy/fangirl of the comic book medium, I think “SHATTERED” is going to be a worthy addition to your bookcase. And I don’t just say that because I’m in it; I say it despite the fact that I’m in it.
The book drops November 6th in a bookstore or comic book store near you. Be there or be Aquaman.
In preparation for SHATTERED‘s (volume 2 of Secret Identities) big day on November 6th, when the book will be available in book stores and comic book stores around the nation, the editors of the anthology have organized a blog carnival from some of the book’s contributors. Here’s what’s been published so far:
Adam Warrock: Shattered — Secret Identities & some news updates: “There’s definitely a need for multicultural perspectives in all artforms, but there’s no question that comics lack the kind of diversity for all races and ethnicities. And in a medium that’s so often read by younger kids, there’s a need to seeing all kinds of people being able to anchor stories, to be heroes, and to be strong role models for children growing up.”
Koji Steven (8Asians): Why Shattered: The Asian American Comics Anthology (Secret Identities) is Important: “I’m glad my son has been born at a time when books like this can come out. As Asian Americans it is important that we support these kinds of projects. And when I say support, I mean buy it, like it, post it, and tell your friends about it. And I’m not just saying that because I’m in it (I don’t make any money off the book sales).”
Angry Girl Comics (who pinch-hitted for me today when I lost power due to the hurricane):
Reappropriate: Secret Identities, Shattered: My Relationship with Comic Books and the Genesis of PUSH: “I can basically summarize my experience participating in this book with the following sentiment: I am deeply honoured and thankful to have had the opportunity to be involved. There are so many Asian American stories that have already been told through the Secret Identities anthologies, and yet, I think there are still so many that are still waiting to be told.”
Angry Asian Man: my very own superhero in SHATTERED: “I had the great privilege of contributing a short piece for Shattered’s character gallery, with the visuals supplied by the artist/editor Jerry Ma. My character:Angry Asian Man, of course. I actually have to thank Jerry, who had been bugging me since the first anthology to contribute a character. So I relented and went with the obvious, drawing a few traits from my own life and throwing a wink at what I do here. The trick was to create a compelling superhero out of a dude who basically sits in front of a computer all day. Yup, that’s me.”
NerdyGal: SHATTERED: Working with Larry Hama on “The Date”: “Larry started talking about something that sparked an idea in my mind. His parents had been incarcerated in the infamous Japanese American internment camps in California during World War II. I knew SHATTERED would be distributed to schools and public libraries and that this subject should be in the Anthology somehow. It was perfect. I quickly rewrote the story and emailed Larry to thank him for the inspiration. His response was pretty short and immediate: Who’s drawing it? My heart stopped a little reading that. I’m not sure of the last time anyone has seen Larry pencil a story. I immediately sent him the script and held my breath. His next email said he thought he might me able to do it in collaboration with Craig. Craig has inked quite a bit including Runaways for Marvel. And with Janice Chiang on board to do the lettering, it worked out perfectly. Craig ended up doing the pencils for my original story which became the title story for my own first short story anthology Girls Night Out through Alpha Girl Comics. And Larry was the easiest guy ever to work with – even offering to redo any panels if I wanted.”
Bao Phi: Asian American Comic Book Anthology “SHATTERED” In Stores this Week: “The good news: fine fellows Keith Chow and Jerry Ma contacted me and asked me to submit a character concept for their new Asian American comic book superhero anthology, Shattered. Even better: they paired me up with G.B. Tran, the artist and author of a book I deeply love and respect, Vietnamerica. Imagine you’re me: a spoken word poet raised in the hood who grew up addicted to Chris Claremont’s run of X-men, grew up wanting to see more substantial Asian American characters in comics, then I get to be included in an anthology – *and* my concept is illustrated by G.B. Tran? It’s a dream come true.”
Secret Asian Man: Shattered: Behind the Scenes by Tak Toyoshima: “My story, Occupy the Ethnic Food Aisle, is the touching story of a jar of Ah-So Chinese barbeque sauce struggling with its segregation from the rest of the “normal” food in the supermarket. As it questions why it can’t be shelved next to other sauces and condiments like ketchup and mustard, it is challenged by the manipulative and opportunistic Nissin Cup-o-Noodles who holds a secret to Ah-So’s past that … well, you’ll just have to pick up a copy of Shattered to find out.”
Natalie Kim: Chinese female pirate story I wrote is OFFICIALLY PUBLISHED: “Most stories presented to girls are not very good ones. There are no stories of matriarchal societies, Athena or the Amazon Warrior Women. They have been replaced by Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and Cinderella. The results can be silently devastating. The above mentioned fairy tales are banned in our house. I decided that the stories I want to present to my four year old daughter are the ones that will lift her up. The stories and archetypes that remind her that she can do whatever she sets her mind to, not what society dictates her to. She can be a leader, she can be fierce, she can be independent.”
Kai Mai (on the Secret Identities blog): Tempest: “Her name is Tempest—and no, the moniker has nothing to do with Hurricane Sandy. The name, rather, is a nod to the storm that occurred the night she was kidnapped from her bedroom as a child. She’s a 13-year-old assassin, trained and raised by a covert organization that shaped her into a merciless killer. She’s also the character I created, with artist Eric Kim, forShattered,the Secret Identities comics anthology that dropped November 6.”
Yellow Zen Master: Walking with Master Hare — Behind the Scenes with Shattered: “I was absolutely elated when I read through the preview copy of Shattered that we creators were sent. This anthology is exactly what I had been looking for. Rather than spending time trying to shame the White Man for years of oppression, this collection concentrates on telling good stories that feature Asian leads. This is a comic I would be proud to share with absolutely everyone I know. It’s a much more subtle statement than the first collection. It’s not trying to shame you for ignoring the plight of Asians in America. It’s telling good stories that are universal in relate-ability and proving that you can do so while featuring minority leads. It’s a powerful statement and one of the reasons I think this is such an important work.