Thursday, July 16, 2009
The story of comic book superheroes is the story of American immigration. Start with the first classic superhero: Superman. A literal “alien” who leaves his homeland, which is consumed by catastrophe, arrives in America and is adopted by Americans by assimilating as Clark Kent, though he is fundamentally different. His and other early superhero stories were created by immigrants who were reflecting their own lives and hopes as new Americans.
That storyline finds fresh relevance in subsequent waves of immigrants, but the world of comics hasn’t easily made room for new interpretations.
“There are so few blacks, Asians, Latinos or women – who are not femme bots – [in comics],” says Jeff Yang, founder of the Asian-American aMagazine, and editor-in-chief of Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology. The work is a compilation, in comic book form, of dozens of Asian-American (as opposed to Asian) artists and writers recruited to create short, punchy stories and vignettes that examine the role of Asians in superhero comics and other media – from railroad building in the Wild West to Japanese World War II Nisei soldiers, Bruce Lee’s Kato in The Green Hornet to the Hernandez brothers’ Love & Rockets. Mining these stories with humor and gravity, style and substance, it’s billed as the “first-ever anthology of Asian American superhero comics.”
“We’re creating a new generation of heroes that more closely resemble the people actually reading comics,” says Yang, a day before launching the first Asian American Comic Con in New York on July 11. “If you go to a Comic Con, a quarter of the [attendees] are Asian-American.”
For the ambitious anthology, Yang partnered with actor Parry Shen (Better Luck Tomorrow), writer/poet/teacher Keith Chow, designer and Epic Proportions comics studio founder Jerry Ma, and artist/ New York Asian American International Film Festival co-director Jef Castro – a super-team of Asian-American creatives helping to usher comics and graphic novels into the 21st century.
On Friday, July 17, Yang will be joined by Walden Wong (www.waldenwong.com) – inker for Green Lantern, Spider-Man, the Eisner Award-winning Superman Red, Wonder Woman, X-Men, etc. – to host a multi-media presentation at the John Steinbeck Library, as part of the Salinas Stories Project; July is “Graphic Comics Month” at the library.
“We love library crowds,” says Yang, in the midst of his book tour. “They’re like a second home. For this presentation, I’ll open the discussion by asking questions about heroes – families, backgrounds, geographical location, how they received their powers.”
In other words, they’re going to create a superhero informed by the socio-economic realities of attendee’s lives. What they’ll look like is up to the group collective judgment; a discussion of the graphic novel Secret Identities, which addresses issues of stereotyping and identity, will follow.
“It forces people to think,” says Yang. “Most people can’t think of three Asian superheroes. Why are there so few?”
Part of the power of comics is that they spark a love of reading and/or art in kids, as Yang can attest.
“I read manga [as a kid],” he says. “My uncles and aunts would bring them to me from Taiwan for me to learn Chinese. I was born [in the States], and my parents gave me [American] comics to read to learn English. When you combine words and pictures, it’s easier to navigate a narrative.”