Out of the Gutter into the Panel

Considering the presence and representation of APAs in the American comic book

Comics have hit the mainstream in a big way. Look at highly rated The Big Bang Theory where the main characters have an unabashed love for comic culture. Movie studios have zeroed in on superhero franchises and popular graphic novels as the best bets for film adaptations with their contents’ proven marketability and built-in fan bases. Even as the publishing industry precariously negotiates how to deal with digital distribution and major booksellers disappearing off street corners, comics have maintained their strong niche in the book market, weathering through the aughts with sales remaining stable and even growing. 

Asians are no doubt huge players in the comic world due to the humongous impact and popularity of Japanese manga. Walk into any Borders. Low and behold, the fire hazard of people reading in the manga aisle. Yet, even with the proliferation of manga into the American mainstream consciousness, manga is a cultural import from Japan. What about Asian Americans? Where do they fit in?

At first glance, one wouldn’t associate the American comic scene with Asian Americans. One imagines campy action comics made for the kiddies featuring muscle-y white superheroes created by white dudes hunched over their drafting desks. If you think like this though, you are completely missing out on the richness and variety of the American comic medium. 

The forefathers of the American comic book were Jewish Americans composing narratives about special individuals that essentially must pass as “normal” human beings and hide their Other-ness. Although these characters must bear hiding their true identities, their difference is manifested through special abilities that can help mankind. The reader’s ability to relate and feel empowered speaks to the general appeal of traditional American superhero comics, but Asian Americans may particularly identify with the struggle to deal with one’s own Other-ness in society.

In conjunction with the notion that Asian culture inherently privileges the amalgamation of words and images as high art and sophisticated language, it is no wonder that there are actually tons of Asian Americans in this industry that was founded on the imaginations of social outsiders.

Bay Area native Gene Yang, author of American Born Chinese and more recently the canonical comic sequel to the Nickolodeon animated seriesAvatar: The Last Airbender, remarks, “It seems to me that there are more Asian Americans in comics than in any other American entertainment industry. It doesn’t matter what kind of comics [people] read: superhero, indie, action/adventure, young adult. Asian Americans are just all over the place. This is not true of comic book characters, however. Just creators.”

Historically, traditional American comics have perpetuated negative stereotypes of Asians/Asian Americans. Comics often manifest the sociopolitical attitudes of their time, and America certainly wasn’t always so PC. The long graphic narrative form we’ve come to know and love blossomed in the 1930s right between the World Wars, and the American comic book hit its stride during the Cold War, an era rife with international tension. Alongside patriotic propaganda, it’s really no surprise that Asians were vilified and made into grotesque caricatures, which were thoroughly documented in the 2011 NYU exhibit “Monsters and Marvels: Unmasking Asian Images in U.S. Comics, 1942-1986.” 

The 80s and 90s marked an era when new blood helped motivate the industry to push for more culturally authentic and mature representations of characters. According to Yang during a Feb. 11th lecture at Berkeley’s Fantastic Comics, the uniform bright yellow hue for all Asian characters’ skin was abandoned, and characters with distinct ethnic heritages were fleshed out and given more humanity. 

Asian Americans were indeed among the ranks of fresh talent and have remained an integral part of the American comic landscape. 

In traditional superhero comics, there are Larry Hama (G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero), Jae Lee (Inhumans), Greg Pak (The Hulk), and loads others. In more indie and alternative flavor comics, there are Jason Shiga (Fleep), Tak Toyoshima (Secret Asian Man), Adrian Tomine (Optic Nerve), and also many more. I really could go on and on as there are just so many names and works out there, but I only have so much page space. 

Also, let’s not forget all the contributors of Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology. Edited by Jeff Yang, Parry Shen, Keith Chow, and Jerry Ma, Secret Identities enlisted the talents of Asian American comic creators to craft original Asian American superhero stories to combat and comment on the lack of Asian American superheroes in comics. The stories are short, but nonetheless shed much welcome light on Asian American representation in mainstream comics. 

So, despite the muddy political incorrectness plaguing the history of the American comic book, comics remain a potent storytelling and creative outlet for Asian Americans. In the introductory essay for the Fall 2007 volume of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States Journal, Derek Parker Royal explains, “Because of its foundational reliance on character iconography, comics are well suited to dismantle those very assumptions that problematize ethnic representation, especially as they find form in visual language.” 

The comic medium may lend itself stereotyping as visual cues are important, but the medium is particularly special. The image, the narrative, the spatial configuration on the page, and the reader’s imagination are inextricably intertwined and actively engaged. Authors of graphic narratives have a unique relationship with their creations, therefore connecting with their audience on a very personal level. 

According to Yang, “Of the visual media – comics, film, TV, animation – it’s the only one that allows one person to have complete control over everything. One person can do the writing, drawing, and even oversee the production of the physical product. Many, many cartoonists are control freaks. Especially indie cartoonists. We want that control. I think this aspect—the control—makes comics a very intimate medium.”

While other entertainment venues are industries trying to get the biggest bang for their buck and are not so concerned about challenging the boundaries of innovative expression, comics provide a liberating creative space for artists and storytellers to compose graphic narratives that speak to personal experiences and the universal struggles of their audience. Comics have become the creative niche for Asian Americans. APAs have long been represented in the by-lines, but not so much in the page. As the comic scene continues to diversify and more creators like Yang continue utilizing the comic medium to tell stories with authentic APA characters, we’ll be able to see our true selves reflected more in the panels and the collective imagination of readers everywhere.

TRIVIA with Gene Yang

What is your favorite depiction of an APA character in graphic novels/comics?
I love Derek Kirk Kim’s Same Difference. Nancy and Simon are awesome characters. They feel real, like they stepped out of our lives and onto the page.

If you were to single out three graphic novels authored by APAs as recommendations or personal favorites, what would they be?
Same Difference would be one of them. Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine. One Hundred Demons by Lynda Barry. For the kiddies, Long Tail Kitty by Lark Pien and Amulet by Kazu Kibuishi.

Who is your favorite Asian/APA fictional character of all time?
I’m a comics guy. So I’ll have to give you a comics answer. Yang of the House of Yang. It’s an old 1970s comic. I love him because his name is awesome, for a tragic character. There’s Adolf in Osamu Tezuka’s Adolf. He’s a half German, half Japanese Nazi. He’s my favorite.

Since you wrote the canonical sequel to Avatar, who is your favorite character and name one particular aspect you enjoy fromAVATAR: The Last Airbender?
My favorite A:TLA character is Zuko. And honest, I love everything about A:TLA: the martial arts action, the three dimensional characters, the writing. It’s the best American cartoon series ever.

What is your current TV obsession? What is the last movie you watched in theatres and at home?
We don’t have cable. So everything we watch has to be on Netflix instant play. My wife and I have been really into Mad Men. I can’t remember the last movie I watched in the theaters! I have kids so we don’t get out much. I’m in the middle of Red Cliff at home. Pretty good so far.

If you could only read one book for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Dude. Reading the same book over and over again? Forever? That sucks. My wife wrote me a bunch of letters when we were dating. I would get those bound into a book and bring that.