Behind the panel

Pub date April 12, 2011

CAREERS AND ED Graphic novelist Gene Yang has a theory about how the comic industry came to be home to more Asian American artists than probably any other North American media form. “American comics have always been an outsider’s medium,” he wrote in a recent e-mail correspondence with the Guardian. “Most of the American comic book icons — Superman, Batman, the Hulk, Captain America — were created by poor Jewish boys living in the ghettos of New York. All you needed was a pencil, some paper, and a tiny bit of talent. Asian Americans took advantage of the same dynamic.”

Suppositions aside, Yang’s point is this: these days, Asian Americans are at the top of the comic book game. Yang has published many comic titles that creatively explore what it was like for him and his siblings growing up in the Bay Area (he was born in Alameda). American Born Chinese pits a high schooler against a monkey king from Chinese folklore who compels him to face his discomfort with his family’s heritage. Level Up looks at a video game fanatic’s transition to med school, a journey undertaken by Yang’s brother in real life.

Yang is by no means the only Asian American excelling in the comic industry. Jim Lee, a Korean American who was named copublisher of DC Comics last year, is often regarded as the modern era’s quintessential comic artist. And many of the genre’s biggest names — including the man behind DC’s Supergirl series; Bernard Chang, creator of the syndicated strip Liberty Meadows Frank Cho; and Human Target illustrator Cliff Chiang (all interviewed via e-mail for this article) — are first- or second-generation Asian Americans.

“If you were to ask any comic book fan who their favorite artists are, odds are there will be an Asian American creator — or two, or three, if not four — on that list,” Chang says.

This wasn’t always the case. When most of today’s comic book artists were growing up, there were few stories being told about Asian Americans in popular entertainment. Chang moved to Miami from Taiwan as a child, and apart from comic books sent to him by relatives overseas, saw very little in the mass media that could relate to his own experience. “For the most part, you had the Bruce Lee kung fu movies that played on the secondary television stations on the weekends,” he says.

“Everything seemed to be about people in Asia or recent immigrants,” remembers American-born Chiang. “I didn’t go out of my way to seek out those stories. What I did respond to was art and animation created by Asians in the form of cartoons like Speed Racer or Battle of the Planets.”

He wasn’t the only one who turned to cartoons as a child. Yang fondly remembers the commonalities he found in superhero comics, even going as far as attributing his and other Asian American boys’ attraction to Superman to a subconscious recognition of a kindred soul. It was a connection he copped from Jeff Yang, editor of Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology, a collection that assembled some of today’s top comic art talent in creating an illustrated shadow history of the United States.

To wit: “Here’s a guy with two identities, one American and the other foreign — Kryptonian. He has two names, one American — Clark — and the other foreign with a hyphen in the middle, Kal-El. He came to America at a young age. He’s black haired, mild-mannered, and wears glasses. All of his superpowers derive from the fact that he’s a foreigner.”

And there’s the art form itself, Yang continues: words and pictures side by side, typically avoided in Western art save in children’s books and advertising but embraced in Asian tradition. “You could have the best brush-painted image in the world,” Yang says, “but if the poem paired with it sucked, the whole piece sucked.”



But if so many of the genre’s artists are Asian American, why are so few of its protagonists? Despite the prevalence of minority fans at comic conventions and the ever-diversifying profile of the people who create comics, their characters — with the important exception of those in manga — are mainly Caucasian.

And the big publishing houses in comics appear to sticking with this monotone. For a time, Marvel and DC experimented with retiring their big name heroes, replacing them — in the words of Yang — with “younger, hipper, often ethnic versions.” As an example, he offers the saga of the Atom, originally a white guy named Ray Palmer. Palmer was made to disappear mysteriously, and in the logic of the comic universe, was replaced by his
Chinese protégé, Ryan Choi.

But “the young ones just weren’t selling,” says Yang. Ryan Choi got a blade to the chest and Ray Palmer got his job back.

Most of the widely-known artists we spoke to think diversifying the superhero world wasn’t something that could happen overnight. Most fans, they said, are attracted to comics out of a sense of nostalgia that doesn’t hold up well with change, especially one as drastic as switching up a character’s race.

“Supergirl is an established character with years of history and story lines,” Chang says. “I can’t simply come in and change her to be an Asian girl, that wouldn’t make sense. But I make an effort to draw new supporting characters with different ethnicities, not just Asians but blacks, Latinos, and others.”

Cho thinks the reason Asians have thrived in the comics industry is the genre’s relative anonymity. “You have to understand there’s a strong and subtle undercurrent of racism in America. But comics are color-blind. It’s the ideas, art, and stories that matter — not how you look or who you are.” And he wants to keep it that way. “I don’t want to read any Asian-centric stories, or any black stories. I just want to read a good story.”



Of course, not everyone shares his views. Hellen Jo is a SF comic artist who draws because she considers comics “a beautiful narrative medium with boundless potential.”

“Despite the ‘enlightened’ age we live in, I still can’t find many Asian American narratives that resonate with me personally,” Jo says. So she makes her own gorgeous comic strips and books that tell stories that fall far outside the standard comic canon, distinct even from the genre’s occasional tries at depicting Asian women.

“We don’t often see Asian American women shown as brash, plain, ugly, dirty, and without ambition — and it certainly isn’t because those types of API [Asian Pacific Islander] women don’t exist,” Jo says. “I identify as a gross, stupid, ugly Asian American girl and I demand some representation!”

But she’s not waiting for Marvel to release Gross, Stupid, Ugly API No. 1. Jo is taking the bull by the horns — just like Yang, who draws his own works, and the many mainstream artists we spoke with who contribute to books like Secret Identities and have side projects that speak more directly to the API experience. Sure, these books don’t sell as much as the blockbuster Batman and Avengers titles — but at least they exist now.

As do more and more Asian Americans and other minorities among the genre’s most talented creators. It’s hard not to believe that Ryan Choi will rise again, in his own series this time, with a decidedly unambitious API girl at his side.