Asian American/Canadians have made up a number of the big name comic talent in the modern era of comics. Artists like Jim Lee and Stan Sakai have had their creations enter the mainstream or in Lee’s case, define the looks of classic characters for years in the minds of their fans. They have established themselves in critically acclaimed independent projects like Gene Yang’s American Born Chinese and the ever popular Scott Pilgrim by Bryan Lee O’Malley (coming soon to a movie theater near you in a epic of epic epicness). They have been writers like Larry Hamma of GI Joe fame (among countless other projects) and Greg Pak who has become a writing superstar in the past few years.
Despite this, Asian representation in American comics, specifically what comic fans refer to as “the Big Two” is minor. They often fill the ranks of the supporting characters or second teer heroes like Marvel’s Sunfire or DC’s Katana and more often then not have their abilities centered on some “exotic” aspect of their country of origin. They’re more likely to feature prominently as a villain like the Mandarin from Marvel’s Iron Man, one of many who were created during a time when whole ethnic groups would been seen not only a ‘the other,’ but also as an enemy to the United States.
It’s often been said that publishers are more willing to introduce a new character who is blue or green then black, a thought that shows that minorities in general are less able to get a foot in the door character wise.
In 2009 that changed.
2009 saw the release of Secret Identities, a book written, drawn to tell 26 stories of six pages each intended to bring a fresh take on Asian superheroes and reach not only Asian American fans, but for anyone who loves comics. The promotion for the anthology was largely viral with the group releasing several motion comics to preview across the net. Stories like Peril and In the Beginning giving a taste of the variety of stories that would be included.
“We always wanted to have a diversity of voices because one of the things we tried to point out is that there isn’t just necessarily one Asian-American experience,…There are a multitude of Asian-American experiences.”
Keith Chow, education and outreach editor for Secret Identities
For the book, the editing team of Jeff Yang, Keith Chow, Perry Shen and Jerry Ma tapped into the rich talent pool and had a number of high profile contributers such as Larry Hamma, Cliff Chiang, Bernard Chang and Christina Strain among others which put the book on the radar for popular comic blogs such as Newsarama (check out a great interview with writer Greg Pak on his contribution Citizen), Comics Worth Reading and Graphic Novel Reporter.
The stories range from light superhero fare to tackling more serious topics such as Japanese American Internment during WWII. We see stores that range from pre Civil War and into the future and each step of the way, we’re shown a story that would most likely not make it to the origin page of a new mainstream comic book. We see that the want to be more then human, to be a hero isn’t something reserved for white readers, it’s something that we all want and can relate to.
“I am not Asian American and at the conclusion of this book I couldn’t tell you what it feels like to be Asian American. I can say that I have a deeper understanding of the struggles and the identity issues that many Asian Americans must deal with – whether it’s once in their lives or on a daily basis. This work of fiction contains not just grains of truth but deep insights into how it is to live as an Asian American. Like any good work of fiction in any genre it consistently encourages the reader to think about others, to put themselves in the position of someone else and see that the fictional other, while they have their differences, are still more similar to us than not. If that reader has gone through similar struggles in their own lives this work offers an ally in this fictional world that they can relate to their own entirely nonfictional existence. Isn’t that why we engage with all of these words and drawings in the first place? That is a powerful thing.”
Spotlight on Comics
Tour Dates for the Secret Identities educational series. Check them out or submit your own school!