It's a wet and overcast Saturday at my sister's place, and my son Hudson and his cousin Evan are taking advantage of the afternoon indoors to play their favorite game, which, if it had a title, would be something like "Superheroes Against the Cranky but Not Actually That Dangerous Robots." As usual, the two kids have taken on the role of that dynamic crime-fighting duo, Superman and Yet Another Superman.
"Superman, robots coming."
Despite feeling tired just looking at them, I'm eventually pressed into service as an actual walking, beeping robot -- my protests are overcome when the kids give me new batteries, a ploy for which there is no adequate counter. And so, as the rain comes down gently outside, I stalk, arms stiffly outstretched, after the maniacally giggling Last Sons of Krypton: "Beep-beep, robot coming!"
How can I resist? I still remember my own days as a caped crusader, triumphing over the forces of crankiness and evil. Like Hudson and Evan, I'd always chosen Superman as my heroic alter ego, until the arrival of elementary school and innocent ethnic stereotyping: "You can't be Superman, you're the Karate Kid."
It went without saying that an Asian kid couldn't be any of the name-brand heroes, even if the racial logic collapsed under the fact that the Karate Kid -- the one played by eternally pubescent Ralph Macchio in the movies -- was Caucasian.
Things have changed since the days I was forced to lamely crane-kick my way through villains wielding plasma blasters and adamantium armor. Today, you could even say that we're in the midst of a kind of Asian American super-renaissance, with a host of new heroes sporting APA identities and appearance -- from Marvel mutants Karma, Jubilee, Surge and Nico "Sister Grimm" Minoru, to DC strongwoman Grace (maybe the most awesome super-name ever!), blademistress Katana and Wildstorm's winged wonder Swift.
Old super-types have been Asianized, too: In 1999, the mask of Batgirl was bestowed upon mute hapa assassin Cassandra Cain; Dr. Light, formerly a white male villain, is now a Japanese female hero; the reinvented Marvel "Ultimates" version of tiny titaness Wasp is Asian American; and, in perhaps the biggest milestone yet, this July the blue-and-red tights of DC's microscopic man hunter The Atom will be passed on to Ryan Choi, "hotshot young professor at Ivy University" who, according to editor Mike Carlin, is "oblivious to his obvious charms amongst the clearly smitten female student body." Extra, extra -- the Atom's Asian and, like, he's a stud! (Minor beef: What's with every superhero with size-reducing powers suddenly becoming Asian? Is shrinking the new martial art?)
For hard-core Asian American fanboys, the Asianization of the comics is long overdue.
"Some people complain that the industry is trying to be politically correct and, frankly, I don't care," says Loren Javier, blogger behind such sites as the Asian Pacific American Toy Chest and Adventures of a Gay Geek, and self-proclaimed "giant comics fan" with over 15,000 bagged-and-boarded books in his collection.
"I want to see images of myself in comics! In the '70s, we saw an influx of black characters -- Black Lightning, Black Goliath, Power Man, etc. Then, in the '80s and '90s, we saw more Latino characters. It's about time that Asian Americans were represented more prominently in comic books."
Though some people might find under-representation in comic books a silly issue to be concerned about, the reality is that comics have a deep and abiding impact on our culture. The icons of the comic world have extended their reach far beyond their books' flimsy four-color pages, stamping our collective unconscious with heroic archetypes that are arguably as influential today as those of Greek mythology and the Old Testament. (If you want proof, grab a random kid and ask him to pick a favorite legendary strongman from the following trio: Hercules, Samson and Superman. See?)
"That's the thing about superheroes -- they're so ingrained into popular culture that when a Superman or Spiderman or X-Men movie comes out, a lot of people who've never read a comic book in their lives are familiar with them," says Keith Chow, education specialist for industry giant Diamond Comic Distributors, and an admitted "$40 a week" comics geek. "These aren't just cartoon characters -- they're modern American mythology."
As a result, diversifying the ranks of superheroes isn't just about pop-cultural social justice -- it's about providing minority kids with a narrative around which to shape their identities and build a sense of self-worth, even if they feel excluded, different or disconnected.
"Comics have always been a refuge for kids who are shy or socially unconfident," says Chow. "The storylines of many titles, like 'Spiderman,' are all about outcasts who are also heroes. For many Asian Americans, the parallels with a title like 'X-Men' are really strong: You grow up in an all-white neighborhood, you feel like an outsider, and then when you go away to school, you meet other people like yourself, you discover your secret heritage, this thing inside you that makes you special. Even if you can't shoot lasers out of your eyes. And I think that's why so much of the fan base is Asian American kids -- go to a comic-book convention, a quarter of the kids are Asian."
But there was a time not long ago when the number of Asians at a con could be counted on one finger. Back in the '80s, when comics elder statesman Larry Hama got his big break, he was virtually unique -- the first Asian American given rein to create and write his own title. "Many companies were still coloring Asians bright yellow," says Hama. "In the '40s and '50s, the character Chop Chop in the 'Blackhawks' had big buck teeth, a long pigtail and lots of cleavers. It wasn't until sometime in the '60s that he evolved into a short slim guy who was a jaundiced shade of orange."
This wasn't because of racism, he notes -- indeed, most of the founding fathers of the modern comics industry were themselves immigrants or the children of immigrants. "They were doing it because they always had. I've never been in an industry that was so incredibly color blind," says Hama. "The guys that do this stuff don't care if you're black, white, yellow or purple -- if you could draw or write, that's all that counted."
That, and who you knew. Hama got his start in the business after working at the studio of comics pioneer Neal Adams, who kindly introduced him to the powers that be at DC Comics, which led to his first real work.
"Half the time, it was people's relatives who were getting brought into the biz," says Hama. "Editors would hire their wives, their cousins. It led to a very strange, almost compartmentalized situation -- for example, most of the artists were Italian, and most of the writers were Jews. And people don't realize, but back then, an incredible percentage of all lettering in comic strips was done by Asians: Ben Oda, Irving Watanabe, all these niseis -- it's like how Korean grocery stores proliferated. One guy gets a foot in the door, says, 'Hey, this is a pretty good racket -- I've got a cousin in San Jose, he's got good penmanship -- let's call him over.'"
Lettering was one thing; actually writing a comic and being granted the right to build worlds and craft icons -- well, that was another. Hama worked on an eclectic range of mostly low-profile projects, before snagging a consistent if unspectacular gig editing Crazy, Marvel's third-tier attempt to pirate the success of Mad magazine. When Hama finally got his big chance to join the lofty ranks of "creators," it was only because everyone else in the Marvel bull pen had passed on it.
"It sounded like a raw deal," he says. "It was a toy-based comic, and a toy-licensed book had never turned into a top seller. Toy-based comics were pariah-land."
Nevertheless, it sounded better than what Hama was doing at the time. He took the project, and subsequently became the writer who more or less single-handedly created the complex mythos behind the Real American Hero, G.I. Joe.
It was Hama who conceived of the idea of the Joes as an elite covert operations team, adapting an idea he'd previously pitched to Marvel under the name "Fury Force." And while Hasbro dictated the names and general appearance of the characters -- the series was based on a line of toys, after all -- it was Hama who developed the personalities, quirks and detailed histories that turned a bunch of action figures into real people.
He wove the story of the mysterious ninja-trained operative Snake Eyes into a dense and engrossing tale of brotherhood, betrayal, love and sacrifice. He turned a generic COBRA ninja into Snake Eyes' former training brother and nemesis, the masked Japanese American ninja Storm Shadow -- giving the duo a vivid backstory that many people who grew up with the Joes still cherish as one of the most memorable comic-book storylines of its era. And he gave an identity to one of the first overtly Asian American comic-book heroes, the martial arts specialist known as Quick Kick. Though Hasbro created the figurine, it was Hama who turned him into MacArthur Ito, half-Korean, half-Japanese movie stuntman turned infiltration specialist.
For a lot of us, Quick Kick was the first and only Asian American action figure we'd ever seen -- and Hama's humanized take on the character (he was born in L.A.! no silly accent!) made him a hero we could identify with. Sort of.
"I get this character, and I'm like, 'OK, how come he's bare chested? What's with the stupid haircut?'" remembers Hama. "As far as I was concerned, if you're going to have a guy who's unmasked and Asian, he should be cooler than that. I wrote the dossier on Quick Kick under duress -- I never liked him. That's why he had to die." And die he did -- heroically, and in a fashion oddly resonant with today's headlines: ambushed and gunned down while fleeing a failed anti-terrorist mission in the Middle East
Dead or not, Q.K. remains a powerful symbolic figure for a generation of Asian American guys who grew up with far too few heroic options -- resonant enough that Phil Yu, proprietor of the essential Asian American Web site Angry Asian Man, chose him as the site's tongue-in-cheek mascot.
"I feel like he's emblematic of the kinds of issues I like to raise on my site, an intersection of American pop culture, stereotypes and lots and lots of questions," says Yu. "I get so many questions about Quick Kick. Some people think he's supposed to be Bruce Lee. Some people take offense to what they perceive as the figure's Japanese nationalism. I just think it's funny that this character, the Joe team's martial arts expert, wears no shirt and no shoes. Seems to me that's pretty impractical when going into battle. I swear, I saw an episode where the Joes went into the mountains, and Quick Kick had to fight in the snow. Wasn't he cold? That said, I did really like the fact that G.I. Joes even had an Asian American character."
Hama's days of holding the Asian American comics fort solo are long gone. Over the last decade, a huge number of Asian American creators have come into the industry. Many of them, like Wildstorm founder and "Batman" auteur Jim Lee, artists Jae Lee ("Batman: Jekyll and Hyde"), Kevin Lau ("Vampi"), Whilce Portacio ("X-Men," "Punisher"), Sean Chen ("Iron Man"), Ron Lim ("The Silver Surfer") and Gene Ha ("The Authority"), are among the biggest names in comics.
Chicken lays egg, egg grows into chicken: Hama and his peers created comic books that resonated with Asian American adolescents and turned them into fans -- doodlers and noodlers who filled their physics textbooks with fantastic heroes, imagining themselves behind the mask. The fans have since become professionals. And now, increasingly, the professionals are putting the Asian American heroes of their dreams on the sequential-art charts -- just as comic books have skyrocketed to unprecedented heights of social acceptance and influence.
We live in a world where comic fandom has, so to speak, come out of the closet. Celebrities flaunt their fanboy status: Nicholas Cage even took his stage name in homage to '70s soul-brother superhero Luke Cage, Power Man. Best-selling authors like Brad Meltzer moonlight as comic-book scribes. And filmmakers like Bryan Singer and Ang Lee bring their indie cred to blockbuster adaptations of comics like "Superman" and "The Hulk."
Superman has always appealed to Asian Americans. He has dark hair, his public identity is a meek guy with glasses, he's from a faraway place -- why not? ("Sure there are parallels," says Hama. "But remember he was created by [Jerry] Siegel and [Joe] Shuster. He's a Jewish immigrant fantasy." Jewish, Asian -- same difference.)
But The Hulk plays to a different, and perhaps darker side of the Asian American personality: What Ang Lee calls a "subcurrent of repression." "My Taiwanese upbringing makes my interest in such stories very personal," Lee has said. "Growing up, my artistic leanings were always repressed -- there was always pressure to do something 'useful,' like being a doctor."
The passive-aggressive streak runs deep among Asian Americans -- especially those who have entered creative careers, often against their parents' wishes. That's why it may not be surprising that Marvel's flagship "Jolly Green Giant" is currently in the hands of another Asian American cinematic talent -- indie filmmaker turned turned comic book scribe Greg Pak.
Pak, a longtime director of funny and wrenching short films (as well as the 2003 cult-hit feature "Robot Stories"), jumped the fence into comic-book writing in 2004 after Marvel read his "Robot Stories" screenplay and offered him the chance to re-imagine their cult hero Warlock. The critical and commercial success of that first outing led Marvel to make a decision that made fanboys sick with envy -- giving Pak the pen for the miniseries "Phoenix: Endsong," a kind of coda to one of the most storied legends in comics, the tale of paramount psychic turned cosmic destroyer, Jean Grey. If fans were green before, the emerald shade only deepened when Pak was given the reins of "The Hulk" shortly thereafter.
While Pak enjoys playing with established legends, he's unafraid to admit he has a bigger set of ambitions in mind. "My whole goal, in movies and now in comic books, has been to figure out a way to take genre storytelling, and to use that pop engine to do emotionally compelling stories featuring real human characters -- who just happen to come from different backgrounds. I especially want to tell stories involving Asian Americans. Because it's really through these accessible art forms that Asian American stories can reach a wide audience."
Pak came out shooting, so to speak: The protagonist of his debut title "Warlock" is art student Janie Chin -- an ordinary Asian American girl (with an Asian American boyfriend, even! whom she totally kisses!) swept up in a tide of weird cosmic events. Ordinary, but not bland or boring -- Pak has no patience for people who set out to create idealized role models. "We need to be creating compelling real characters, who are flawed and crazy and screwed up -- and heroic," he says. "Or villainous. Or whatever. Not perfect images."
To Marvel's credit, when Pak submitted his story treatment, no one even blinked. "That's the great thing about working with the folks here -- I never had any resistance. No questions like, 'Uh, Greg, why is this character Asian?'"
Nor did his Marvel masters flinch when Pak turned in his installment for the company's "Amazing Fantasy" anthology -- "Mastermind Excello," a tale about Amadeus Cho, a super-genius kid on the run.
"I had this idea of doing a story about an insanely smart kid, but one who wasn't a reject or dork or geek," says Pak. "It was a way of turning that whole Asian brainiac stereotype on its head. One way to do it is to go against type, to create Asian American characters that are jocks or stoners or thugs or whatever. But another way is to not run away from the stereotype -- to embrace it, but present a character like that as having an incredible level of confidence, having just this verve, this lack of self-consciousness."
Comics reviewers raved about "Mastermind Excello" -- and when they did, more often than not they barely even mentioned that the lead character was Asian. And that, to Pak, is the point.
"Honestly, I have a bunch of different characters I want to create, and I have no problem with making them all Asian, if that feels right," he says. "Why the heck not? The more the better, as far as I'm concerned. If there were a million other images of Asian Americans out there, no one would get hung up and angry about stupid stereotypes of chopsocky martial artists. But the fact that that's the only way we're depicted? That's what becomes so annoying."
So expect a lot more where that came from -- not just from Pak but from his peers as well, who are increasingly including Asian American characters because being Asian is normal. In San Francisco, one out of every four people walking around on the streets is Asian American. Is it that strange to imagine an entire pantheon of Asian American superheroes?
Pak laughingly recalls a character he created for a weekly comic strip he used to write and draw for the English-language edition of the Korea Times: Captain Asian America, the "Superhero Who Just Happens to Be Asian."
Kevin Chow shares his dream of someday bringing a superhero he's created to comic-book life: Nathan Wong, the son of a Chinese American weapons scientist unjustly jailed for espionage. Determined to get to the root of the false accusations against his dad, Wong uses the very project his father was working on -- a suit of highly advanced battle armor -- to become Peril, a costumed vigilante hunting down the members of the real ring of traitors. "The whole thing is inspired by the story of Dr. Wen Ho Lee -- unfortunately, I can't draw worth crap," laughs Chow. "I'm just looking for someone to do the artwork for me."
And as for me: After long afternoons playing robot with the kids, I'll admit I've lain awake at night thinking of ways of adding to the Asian American pantheon, too. My own brainstorm is about a rogue division of the U.S. military that has been secretly creating super-soldiers designed for covert operations against "America's enemies within and without." Led by a pair of "rehabilitated" World War II war criminals -- a Nazi scientist and a Japanese researcher known to have conducted human experiments in China -- the program has isolated an "Exotik metagene," which they've managed to embed in the chromosomal structure of military volunteers using retroviral agents. While subjects infected with the gene complex are endowed with superhuman powers, if not given regular injections of a suppressor compound, they rapidly develop cancer and die.
Upon discovering this deadly secret, the onetime volunteers -- Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and Chinese, reflecting the fact that a majority of America's 20th century wars have been fought against Asian foes -- rebel against the program, steal as much of the suppressor drug as possible and escape.
But the comic, which I've dubbed "Exotika," isn't about that doomed first generation: It's about their second-generation kids, who bear the double-edged genetic gift as an inherited but latent aspect of their chromosomal structure.
What happens to them? How does the Exotik complex express itself in the second generation? Maybe someday we'll find out.
If the robots don't get us first.
After our formal interview finished, Keith Chow and I ended up talking for a while about wanting to someday put together an Asian American superhero anthology. I think it's an awesome idea, but one that requires a little momentum to make happen. If any of you out there have superheroid story ideas of your own and want to share them -- or, for that matter, if any of you have the kind of artistic skills required to turn said visions into some kind of pulp reality -- feel free to drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. Who knows? Stranger things have happened!
If this column whetted your appetite for Asian hero action, get ready for the arrival of a bumper crop. In addition to continuing to pen the adventures of the gamma-irradiated gargantuan known as The Hulk, Greg Pak is lending his skills to the comic-book version of the new "Battlestar Galactica" TV series, which as you may remember features Korean American Grace Park as cyber-hybrid Cylon plant Lt. Sharon "Boomer" Valerii. Pak won't reveal deets, but says that interesting things await Boomer in the pages of his adaptation -- issue zero should be in stores now.
Also heading to comic-shop shelves next week: Larry Hama's welcome return to the G.I. Joe front, "G.I. Joe: Declassified," a three-issue miniseries that tells some previously secret stories of the origins of the Joe team; issue No. 1 is out from Devil's Due Publishing next week, June 7. Any story Hama tells is worth reading, so pick it up if you can, even if you aren't a hard-core JoeYo.
Meanwhile, in theaters now, you have "X-Men 3: The Last Stand," which features Kea Wong as ever-lovin' Chinese American fire-starter Jubilee, Mei Melancon as "psychic ninja" Psylocke and Ken Leung as the villainous, thorn-skinned Kid Omega. "Superman Returns" doesn't feature our Asian dream pairing of Dean Cain as Supes and Kristin Kreuk as Lana Lang, but it does have the increasingly ubiquitous Kal Penn as one of Lex Luthor's main minions.
On the small screen, the Disney Channel -- already the home of animated ass-kicker "Jake Long, American Dragon" -- has a new original movie, "Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior," debuting June 16 and starring Brenda Song as reincarnated warrior-slash-would-be-homecoming queen Wendy Wu, with Shin Koyamada as the teenaged "undercover Buddhist monk" assigned to train her to fight the evil being known as Yan Lo. Our very own real-life superhero, Angry Asian Man, thinks the whole thing is a guaranteed disaster, but it looks to me like a tweenified "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" redub, which couldn't be all bad. (I've been wrong before.) I'll wait to watch it before coming to any conclusions.
The real joy, however, may come in the fall, when NBC debuts its new sci-fi-esque thriller "Heroes," about a bunch of normal folk who discover that they have paranormal powers. Japanese office worker Hiro Nakamura, played by Masi Oka, is a member of the super-ized select, while Sendhil Ramamurthy plays Mohinder Suresh, the researcher who uncovers the secret of the hidden talents among us. Wow, two Asian American males in a 10-person ensemble cast -- the success of "Lost" is really revamping the television landscape.
Before I sign off, just a reminder that having heroes of our own onscreen is very much a matter of getting people to write, shoot and direct the stuff they want to see. The early deadline to enter the Asian American Film Lab's third annual 72 Hour Film Shootout is June 2, which is to say, tomorrow. Meanwhile, Korean American filmmakers may have just missed the deadline for the first-ever Korean Film Council Filmmakers Development Lab, which seeks to develop young Korean American talent and encourage them to create films with bicultural audience appeal. Then again, they might not have missed their chance -- veteran Hollywood producer and project director Roger Garcia says that the deadline might be extended. Check the Web site for details.
And that's all for this week's column. Until next time: Excelsior! By Jeff Yang, Special to SF Gate
Thursday, June 1, 2006