Trains of Thought on Asian American Representation in Comics

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Then.

A couple weeks ago, I did a tour along the West Coast. I started in Los Angeles to spend time with my maternal aunts and my cousins, and then slowly worked my way up North. I took a bus from LA to the Bay Area, where I read a series of tweets about a “transracial” Filipino straight out of that episode of Atlanta, and I was just sad as the bus marched on.

After aforementioned stay in the Bay, the next leg of the trip included an overnight train from Northern California to Oregon, where I struggled to watch the then latest episode of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow on my phone due to spotty cell signal. The episode, Welcome to the Jungle, is set during the Vietnam War, and the most prominent Vietnamese character is a thrall for the villain until the last minutes of the episodes. Given that I was essentially in the mountains, my phone failed to load the video right before the denouncement and I decided to check the less data intensive apps to pass the time. I noticed a text message from a friend. It was a link to an article Marvel Editor-in-Chief Admits He Used Japanese Pseudonym to Circumvent Company Policy.

And my first thought was “weeaboo.”

And my second thought, why does keep happening?

Even before finishing the article, I was already thinking about how in 2015, Michael Derrick Hudson (a white man) gained notoriety after it was revealed a piece of his was published in Best American Poetry under his “pen name” Yi-Fien Chung (ostensibly, a Chinese woman). And then I finished reading how C.B. Cebulski, already on staff at Marvel at the time, created “Akira Yoshida” and wrote a slew of stories that had a strong Japanese influence and developed an elaborate backstory for the persona. Leave it to a white man to think he could write stories about Japan like he was born there. Leave it to heroes like Iron Fist and Dr. Strange to white savior to convince him that was the case.

Now.

It is one thing to see someone who looks like you on the silver screen. It is another thing for that person to exist beyond the common tropes and stereotypes. And it is an entirely different thing for that person to be written by people who had that same lived experiences.

On December 14th, Marvel announces IRON MAN: HONG KONG HEROES, a team-up between Iron Man and Dr. Strange to save Hong Kong from Baron Mordo and Armin Zola. To their credit, bringing in Howard Wong and Justice Wong, as writer and artist respectively, from Hong Kong to do this one-shot is a commendable decision and one I hope inspires similar ones in the future. To my chagrin, Tony Stark is a character I was introduced to in 2009 when he was a straight up arms dealer and whose closest connection to China is a villain called The Mandarin; and Stephen Strange is the latest example of “this white man is a prodigy at this mystical art.” It’s an easy line to draw, that maybe Marvel is trying to prove that it’s cool with the Asian American community after its Editor-in-Chief used a Japanese pseudonym. But it feels kind of off. Just a little. Okay, a lot.

Contrast that with DC Comics, who last year launched New Super-Man, helmed by Gene Luen Yang of American Born Chinese fame, a story that effortlessly weaves together Chinese culture with the Superman mythos. It was the number #1 title I was looking forward to from the DC Rebirth line after I read an article where Yang detailed exactly how they came up with Kenan Kong’s name. It’s those types of details and considerations that endear a reader. That is the type of representation that I really needed growing up. At least in part. A Chinese author writing a new Chinese character. Who would have thought that would have resonated?

Then.

Back on a train, this time a four-hour jaunt from Portland to Seattle, I’m scrolling through Instagram. Vincent Rodriguez III, the male lead of CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and one of the handful of Filipino actors that I am aware of, is posting about how one of his dreams is playing Nightwing, or any superhero in a major motion picture, and how superheroes were the inspiration behind his current workout regime. Instantly, I want Rodriguez to play Nightwing. Dick Grayson’s signature escrima sticks have their origins from the Filipino Martial Arts, Arnis (also called Kali). There is no logical reason why Dick Grayson could not be Asian. There are plenty of fanboys who would be yelling “that’s not how it was in the comics though” very loudly if that would happen. Hell, even the executives would probably veto the decision if history is any indication.

I thought about #AAIronfist. I remember the tweets and articles about how cool it would be if we could just avoid one more example of the white savior. I remember the disappointment when Finn Jones was cast. I remember the agony when it became obvious dude could not fight. I remember the anger when I saw Lewis Tan’s demo reel and how he wanted to the titular role and how he was regulated to one of the seven watchable scenes in the Netflix limited series. It’s hard not to be, when there seem to be so few opportunities for Asian Americans to take center stage, particularly when it comes to superheroics.


We could have had it all…

Way Back When.

I started 2017 looking up authors and artists in DC’s employ, trying to learn more about the creative teams of the comics I enjoyed. I had been a fan of Jim Lee’s art and Gene Luen Yang’s writing for a while, but I discovered that Francis Manapul was a Filipino-Canadian artist behind Trinity and suddenly I understood why I really vibed with his art. For once Superman looked like me, and it was the smallest details, made possible because someone who looked like me was drawing him. It was subtle, and maybe that’s projection, but isn’t that purpose of pop culture? To find inspiration and ourselves in our heroes.

Art from Francis Manapul, IG: @francis_manapul

I watched Powerless on NBC through its short-lived lifespan, and while it was not great series, Vanessa Hudgens’ character acknowledged her Filipino heritage on screen and that was more than I could ever hope for growing up. I watched Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and I saw Daisy and Melinda May be kick ass on television and Chloe Bennet being kick ass off screen as she described her troubles finding work due to the systemic racism in Hollywood. I saw ninjas as the bad guys of Arrow, Iron Fist, and the Defenders and that wasn’t as cool.

Although, the hardest moment for me was watching Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2. Mantis struck me as a weird character, a strange amalgamation of stereotypes that didn’t quite sit with me. Her servitude to the all-powerful white man, equally distressing. But the worst parts were all the times Drax called her ugly or otherwise derided her. It felt wrong in a lot of ways, compounded by the fact that Drax was played by David Bautista, one of the few other Filipino actors that I was aware of.

But just last week, Ryan Choi as the Atom was added to the Injustice 2 roster as part of their Fighter Pack 3 DLC and I had such a great time messing with him. The Atom’s inclusion in the roster had been telegraphed for a while, but with the prominence of Ray Palmer in Legends of Tomorrow, Ryan Choi’s reveal felt like a gift.

I’m lucky that I now have characters like Ryan Choi and Kenan Kong and Cassandra Cain now (and Amadeus Cho, but I’m going to level with you, I’m a DC through and through). But representation isn’t merely about having these characters. It’s about investing in these characters. It’s about creating more of them. It’s about having people who actually lived those experience sharing those experiences. It’s about unpacking Asian Americans and recognizing that the Chinese American experience is not the Japanese American one is not the Vietnamese American is not the Filipino American is not the Korean American is not the Indian American is not the Pakistani American and so on and so forth.

Above all else, I honestly think it’s just about recognizing not everyone is white and white people aren’t the only ones that can tell a goddamn story.

Then.

After I concluded my west coast tour, I visited Denver for a couple days to visit a friend. We watched the latest episode of Supergirl, and we talked about how the series has been very good with the myth gags. Martian Manhunter’s voice actor from the animated series now plays the live action version. Kara’s biological mom was recast as Erica Durance, formerly of Smallville. Kara’s adoptive dad was played by Dean Cain, formerly Clark in The Adventures of Louis and Clark, a show I never watched because I thought it was about the trailblazers who went out west and established my city as the Gateway to the West and not the iconic superhero couple. I tell my friend that Dean Cain is actually Japanese American. My friend doesn’t believe me until I bring up the Wikipedia page. She was honestly shocked that an earlier version of America accepted a mixed-race Superman. I was shocked it took me so long to figure out there was a mixed-raced Superman in the first place.

Now.

After reading about IRON MAN: HONG KONG HEROES, I prepare to consume a different piece of Disney-own media, Star Wars: The Last Jedi. As I wait in line, I see a tweet reminding me that Kelly Marie Tran is the first Asian American woman to be prominently featured in a Star Wars movie. I show my friend the trailer to Batman Ninja and I continue ask why is this so lit? I talk about how excited I am for Pacific Rim: Uprising, a sequel to a movie I absolutely adored that exists predominantly due to the Chinese cinema market. I talk about the latest issue of Greg Pak’s Mech Cadet Yu. I talk and I’m just excited to have all of these things.

After watching the film, I go back home and play some Destiny 2, a game where a fair number of the fabled heroes are people of color, and my character has armaments crafted by the legendary Titans, Liu Fang and Wei Ning.

I think about the weird relationship that exists between being an Asian American, a Filipino American, and being half-white. I think about how weird it is to be prompted to write by a white man, who once used a Japanese pseudonym after his company announces a story set in Hong Kong by Hong Kong writers, where the “Hong Kong Heroes” are Iron Man and Dr. Strange.

I then think about train tracks and their history. What was buried so white folk could cross a continent. I think about how it’s all connected and complicated and how it’s better now but that’s still not good enough.

But I mostly think about how representation is like the homecooked Filipino meal I had a couple weeks ago. How I didn’t realize how much I meant until someone said “here. This is for you. This is your history that you get to consume surrounded by people who look like you. This is yours.”

Well, maybe not that exactly that, but you get the idea.

End of Line.

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  • Mikkel Snyder is a technical writer by day and pop culture curator and critic all other times.

  • Show Comments

  • JzaDragon

    AGREE. Filipino American myself. Had no idea about Dean Cain!

  • ObsidianVendetta

    That was a fantastic article. Representation is important. Inclusion is critical. As a 90s kid, my first foray into the comic world was through X-Men: TAS. And I’ll never forget when I first saw Jubilee and Storm… then Bishop or Forge. It was a great awakening and I’ve never looked back. (On a side note, I’m balls deep in Black Panther and Sam Wilson).
    We need more POC behind the scenes!! Carry on man!
    I never knew about Dean Cain!

  • Bigg Russ

    America didn’t accept a mixed-race Superman in Dean Cain because they didn’t realize he was Japanese-American. If his name was Dean Tanaka, he probably wouldn’t have gotten the role.

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