Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality
Warning: This review contains major spoilers for the Avatar: The Last Airbender series and massive spoilers for The Search. If you have yet to read all three issues of The Search by Gene Yang, keep reading at your own risk.
When the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender came to an end in 2007, fans were left with a tantalizing cliffhanger–what happened to Prince Zuko’s mother, Princess Ursa? Zuko was a popular character and his missing mother played a key role in both his back story as well as in the character back story of his younger sister and rival, Princess Azula. When Dark Horse Comics bought the license for the Avatar: The Last Airbender series, they tapped acclaimed comic book author Gene Luen Yang to write several sequel series, including The Search, which reveals the mysteries behind Ursa’s disappearance.
For Zuko and the rest of the Avatar leads, The Search picks up where The Promise left off: Fire Lord Zuko is brokering an uneasy truce in Yu Dao. An Earth Kingdom minister spouts an adage that puts a lump in Zuko’s throat: “Family is, in essence, a small nation, and the nation, a large family.” It’s a theme that might as well have come straight from the mouth of Confucius–and a deliberate literary allusion from Yang, who has never hesitated to draw connections between the world of Avatar and it’s Asian Pacific (and Asian Pacific American) cultural roots.
“To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order; we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.” ― Confucius
Fire Lord Ozai never got the Confucius memo, but Fire Lord Zuko has, and it hits him that he’s institutionalized his sister, incarcerated his father, and he has no idea the whereabouts of his banished mother. After handing over the reins to his Uncle Iroh, he gathers together a family of choice–Sokka, Katara, Aang, and Azula–and follows a lead from his deposed father that brings him to the small town of Hira’a.
The Search opens with flashbacks to weave Ursa’s backstory: her life in Hira’a with loving parents, her interest in theater arts, and her fellow actor and fiancé, Ikem. We learn that after Avatar Roku’s death, his daughter Rina settled with her family on the outskirts of the Fire Nation, trying to lay low. Inspired by a Fire Sage prophecy that portends that “the pairing of the Avatar’s granddaughter with my own son will yield a bloodline of great power,” Fire Lord Azulon hunts down the family and arranges a match between Ursa and his second son, Ozai.
From then on, Ursa’s life becomes a web of calculated lies and truths, woven to protect the lives of those she cares about. Her first lie is to Ikem, to save his life when he protests the new engagement. The next is to Ozai, when she promises never to speak to her parents or townspeople again, and again when she tests him to see if he is reading her letters. She lies that Zuko is not Ozai’s son–a letter that Ozai will use as a pretense to bully Zuko–and years down the line in The Search as a resource for his favorite child Azula to undermine Zuko’s legitimacy. Ursa’s final lie is to herself –one that completely subverts trope and fan expectations for the character and why she was missing all these years.
The Search provides new insights on Zuko and Azula’s family and their parents’ relationship. We learn that Ursa was basically kidnapped from her family and forced to marry Ozai against her will. Her role was be a brood mare for future generations of genocidal Fire Lords. To Ozai, Ursa is a possession rather than a partner or a person. He completely isolates her from her family–forbidding her ever from speaking of her hometown–and even arranges to have her former fiancé killed just to spite her. Their relationship is a frightening and realistic depiction of intimate partner violence (a stark contrast to the Legend of Korra playing intimate partner violence for laughs.) This may come as a disappointment to fans who wanted to believe that Ozai and Ursa had an initially loving relationship, one that dissipated as Ozai grew power hungry. But it’s no surprise that the same man who would maim his own son would also be abusive towards his wife. It would be harder to believe that the relationship started out loving and then disintegrated.
Separated from everyone she knows and loves and forced to live her life as a palace prisoner, Ursa tries to remain true to herself and resist the abuse in small ways. In flashbacks, we see that Ursa finds small ways to undermine Ozai and remain true to herself. She commissions secretly a set of theater masks as a reminder of her old life and tries to instill a love for theatre in her children (Zuko uses a mask to hide his identity later on, and Azula definitely has a flair for the theatrical.) Ursa tries to send secret messages to her family and Ikem in Hira’a. She decides to try and raise Zuko to be nothing like his father, sometimes fantasizing that his father was actually Ikem.
These small acts of resistance backfire spectacularly when Ursa writes a letter to Ikem with an damning sentence: “My one consolation is our son, Zuko” (the letter is depicted in the comic in traditional Chinese writing with a cheesy, Times New Roman-esque font–who knew Ursa had such nice handwriting!) To Ursa, the letter is a way of expressing her pain and also to test Ozai, in case he is intercepting her letters (he is.) The word “our” is an unclear antecedent–in both the English language comic and the Chinese letter–Ursa doesn’t specify who she means by “our son.” Still, that doesn’t stop Ozai from twisting her ambiguous wording to spite her. The letter is written when Zuko is a toddler and forgotten by Ursa until years later, when Ozai decides to hire an assassin to kill Ikem. Ozai also uses the letter to justify his abuse of Zuko, declaring that he will treat Zuko as if Ursa cuckholded him after all. Many years later, after Ozai is deposed and Zuko is crowned, Ozai brings out the letter again and we see that he has been saving it all this time so it can be used as a tool to remove Zuko from power.
Knowing this, it is tempting to blame Ursa’s letter and actions as the reason why Ozai is so abusive towards Zuko. It’s certainly the logic that Ozai uses to justify treating Zuko “as the son of a traitorous dog,” even though Ozai knows Zuko is certainly his son. Push aside an abuser’s warped logic and it’s evident that Ozai uses both of the children as hostages for Ursa’s good behavior, and she has no control over how Ozai chooses to treat them.
As a character in the original series, Ozai is a mysterious, imposing figure as seen from the perspective of Aang, Zuko, and Azula. In The Search we see Firelord Ozai from the perspective of his wife, and it’s striking how much of Ozai’s banal abusiveness was hidden from his children. Ursa isn’t frightened of Ozai the same way the A:TLA heroes are, so Yang’s script emphasizes his pettiness is and Gurihuru draws him with tiny pupils and bulging eyes. When Ursa stands up to Ozai one final time, conspiring to murder Fire Lord Azulon in order to save Zuko’s life, she never breaks eye contact. Gurihuru depicts this scene with a page of diagonally placed panels–the most striking page in the entire book.
At a dinner table flashback, Ozai tells the children that he thought about casting Zuko from the palace when he was an infant. A narcissistic and possessive man, Ozai probably harbored jealousy towards Zuko from his birth, onwards. Zuko was Ursa’s sole consolation in her abusive marriage. Ursa’s affection towards Zuko would starkly contrast with her cold guardedness around Ozai. Ozai probably saw baby Zuko as a rival, not only to Ursa’s attentions, but to his throne.
For Azula, Ozai decided that there will be no bonding over shared victimhood with her mother or brother. Because Azula was a prodigy, Ozai could proudly hold her up as an extension of himself. He favoritized her while abusing her mother and brother, ensuring her loyalty to him. He encouraged her to bully her older brother. He has convinced her that her mother doesn’t love her, and Ursa’s inability to discipline or relate to Azula is a persuasive reinforcer, and her abandonment of Azula is the clincher. Through his abuse, Ozai showed Azula how powerless her mother was, to the point where Azula still obsesses over her mother’s powerlessness years later in The Search.
While Zuko had the support of his uncle during his exile and Ursa was able to suppress her memories of her abuse and live a idyllic life with Ikem, Azula has never escaped Ozai’s control. Azula spent her entire life raised by Ozai and defined by Ozai. Ozai demands perfection from Azula and his regard for her is conditional on that perfection (which is why she quickly caves under pressure when he leaves her with the huge responsibility of running the Fire Nation in the series finale.) Depowered and in prison, Ozai still smiles when he sees Azula turn on Zuko. Azula is burdened with an immense responsibility to continue to please her father.
“Even when I was an infant you saw in me something you never had! Power! That’s why you think I’m a monster. My power makes you fear me!” – Azula, in The Search
So much of Azula’s mental struggle is reconciling her belief that her own mother hates her with an inkling of internalized belief that her mother actually does love her. If she believes that her mother does love her, then she also has to challenge everything else she knows about her relationship with her father and her own identity. It’s incredibly threatening for Azula to face this, and in The Search, we see that she isn’t entirely ready to do so. She wants proof that her mother does not love her and will look anywhere to find it.
Character arcs in Avatar: The Last Airbender are defined by journeys and searches. Our heroes traveled across the world looking for ways to master all four elements. For all those years, Zuko searched for the Avatar and for his father’s approval, rather than for his missing mother. This theme is of course echoed by the story in The Search, but the actual search to find Ursa is rather short. Our heroes come up with a singular destination and head to it, and Ursa and Ikem happen to be the first people they meet when they arrive in town. Assisted by a spirit, the Mother of Faces, Ursa has chosen to forget her past life, an start anew as a completely different person, a woman named Noriko who is married to Ikem and raising a young daughter, Kiyi.
The meaning of The Search title ends up encompassing several different plot threads in the book. Zuko searches for his mother and for the truth about his parentage. When Part I of The Search was first released this letter enraged the fandom because it threatened to undermine Zuko’s role in the A:TLA series. Although the letter is kind of trope-y, it is interesting to see Zuko explore the possibility that he might have a different, kinder father, and that he was not meant to have the responsibilities of the throne. He remembers who he is, though. He’s no longer the confused boy banished from his family and on an impossible task to find the Avatar.
“Banishing me was the best thing you could’ve done for my life.”- Zuko to his father in the finale of Avatar: The Last Airbender
Azula searches for her mother’s love, buried under all of her father’s mental conditioning. Before she fled the palace, Zuko’s mother implored him to “never forget who you are.” Azula never received this lesson, and she doesn’t know who she is, even as she meets different reflections of herself on the way. Along with the others, she encounters a brave sister who unconditionally supports her brother with a maimed face. She meets Kiyi, a well adjusted, ordinary, and happy child supported by loving parents–her mother’s daughter and her half sister. In the end her path parallels Koh the Face Stealer’s: she’s the child of a many-faced mother, she is estranged and wandering, lost and wicked. She runs away, after an amnesic Noriko apologizes for “not loving her enough,” while still believing that Zuko stole her birthright.
Azula is a very compelling character and most interesting when she exists in a moral grey. One thing that frustrated me about The Search is the characters’ (and perhaps also the creators’) tendency to not see Azula as a morally complex character. The Gaang struggles to find empathy for her–understandable since she did try to kill them several times–but just like Iroh’s approach to Azula in the animated series, the Gaang in The Search frequently writes her off as “crazy.” It’s an ableist blip in an otherwise progressive franchise. The only character willing to challenge this idea of Azula as crazy and hopeless is Zuko, but this story ends unresolved with Azula taking off into the forest. She is no longer armed with the incriminating letter that could disinherit Zuko–and perhaps on a mission for her father. Her overall story line in The Search feels unresolved. The book would have benefited from spending at least as much time exploring the impact of finding Ursa it did on explaining how she came to be in Hira’a, wearing another woman’s face.
While reading The Search I realized it would be far more interesting for me to review it against the backdrop of Avatar: The Last Airbender, the Legend of Korra, and cultural depiction of motherhood in both Asian and American culture. Let’s start by establishing Avatar: The Last Airbender as a franchise that is already lightyears ahead of other products that Hollywood puts out. A:TLA tackled the topic of sexism head on in the very first episode, where the catalyst to Katara waterbending Aang’s iceberg is an argument with Sokka about his sexist attitudes. The show has also presented a diverse array of women characters, from the story’s narrator Katara to Toph to Princess Yue to antagonists like Azula, Mai, and Ty Lee, to more recent characters like Korra and Asami Sato. The franchise has successfully depicted many different forms of feminine strength. Gender remained salient all through season one of the series and continues to be an important topic within or around the franchise. For example, Zuko was initially intended to have a brother, not a sister. The production of The Legend of Korra faced skepticism from what they’ve jokingly dubbed the “sexist” department at Nickelodeon for having a woman protagonist.
At the same time, depictions of women in the world of Avatar have also been critiqued by fans, particularly recent depictions in The Legend of Korra. And the setting itself is also patriarchal–the world of Avatar is at least as sexist as ours is, if not more sexist. When the group travels around the Four Nations in the original series, all of the localities they visited are led by men–from mayors of towns like Kyoshi Island to regional Kings like Bumi of Omashu. The Order of the White Lotus is led by powerful men (the only older woman shown as in their league is Hama, but she turns out to be a villain–where are all the “good” women bending masters?) The systemic imbalance of gender in powerful positions in society is present even in the more modern setting of The Legend of Korra, where women are still outnumbered on councils, police squads, and sports teams.
Then there is the depiction of motherhood in the Avatar: The Last Airbender, which is actually quite conventional. The stereotypical depiction of mothers in Avatar: The Last Airbender works against the franchise’s otherwise relatively progressive gender politics. Over and over again, characters who are mothers are given less storytelling importance and/or less agency than characters that are not (including fathers.) Mother characters are often not given names even as character’s fathers are named. These include the mothers of Yue, Eska and Desna, Noatak and Tarrlok, Haru, Lu Ten, Mai and Tom Tom, Teo, and Asami Sato. That’s a lot of characters, and in each of these cases, we know the name or position of the character’s father but not the name of the character’s mother. The only case where this trope is inverted is with Toph and father of her daughter Lin. Why wasn’t Katara, the only other known bloodbender, present at Yakone’s trial? Why wasn’t Senna, Korra’s mother, described as a participant in determining how Korra would be raised? Why is Korra’s mentorship in Book Two a squabble between the interests of three men (Tenzin, Tonraq, and Unulaq) that fails to include Senna?
So much of our perspective on mothers and motherhood is influenced by our storytelling culture. If you’re East Asian, there’s the cultural legacy of Mencius’s mother. If you’re Christian, there’s the Madonna. More recently, popular mothers in fandom included living mothers like Joyce Summers (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Catelyn Stark (Game of Thrones) as well as “missing” mothers like Lily Evans Potter (Harry Potter) and Kya of the Southern Water Tribe (Avatar: The Last Airbender). Mothers are important catalysts for characters’ stories, and have been for a long time.
This is where the depiction of motherhood in The Search actually turns out to be both transgressive and perhaps even progressive. Unlike Sokka and Katara’s missing mother, Kya, who embodies the saintly mother who valiantly sacrificed her life for her daughter, Ursa doesn’t fall into the trope of the perfect, missing mother. Ursa goes to great lengths to save her son’s life, but she is far from a perfect parent to either Zuko or Azula. She fails to internalize the wisdom imparted to Zuko (“Never forget who you are.” “Never give up without a fight.”)
Ursa chooses to sacrifice her memories of her trapped children in order to start a new life. It was a smart decision–Ozai could still have assassinated her, or she may have attempted to rescue her children, leading to Zuko’s death. But it also removed her from the game–she wasn’t able to come to Zuko’s aid after he was scarred or banished, or able to return to advise her two children after Ozai was removed from power.
Ursa’s decision to forget about her children is drawing a lot of vitriol from fandom. After all, the character even voices aloud in the comic both before losing and after regaining her memories: What kind of “horrible” mother chooses to forget her children?
A human mother. An imperfect one.
The Search had Prince Zuko searching for (literally) a missing princess. The Zuko from Season One of Avatar would have been pissed if he’d discovered that his mother had chosen to ditch her family, memory wipe and all, to start over in Hira’a. The older, wiser, (and free) Zuko in The Search is mature enough to accept that Ursa wasn’t perfect. Despite years of searching for her, he was even willing to leave her with her new family without ever revealing the truth to her. He is able to accept that she is not a maternal ideal, but a person and an abuse survivor herself.
Will the fans be able to accept this, though? To be honest, in my idealized fan speculation for Ursa’s fate, I imagined her leading an underground resistance scheming to remove Ozai from power and rescue her two children. Maybe she was mixing her poisonous elixirs and planning on poisoning his soup when Aang took Ozai out. Maybe she had disguised herself (hello Mother of Faces) and was watching Zuko and Azula from afar. Maybe she joined the Order of the White Lotus, or maybe she was trapped in the Spirit World. The actual truth in The Search is a more realistic response made by thousands of women who have fled from violent relationships and lost their children in the process. In a action adventure setting like Avatar, it almost feels a bit too mundane–it’s difficult to swallow that Ursa would simply give up, voluntarily wipe her memory, and start over. She forgot her children, but neither of her children forgot her, and her absence greatly impacted their health and happiness.
Still, how much of my reaction as a fan is driven by my internalization of societal attitudes around who deserves to be happy and who should be happy? Should Ursa have resigned herself to long-suffering grief? Was Ursa’s choice a sign of weakness or a realistic assessment of the situation?
Though it may not be entirely intentional, the choice to resolve Ursa’s plot line in this way, after so many years of build up, poses to fans a very interesting question: Did Ursa make the right choice? The best choice? What should she have done?
The Search (Parts 1-3) is available at DarkHorse.com in Digital format and also available in Trade Paperback online and in local bookstores and comic book shops. The collected hardcover edition of The Search will be released in February 2014.
As a diasporic woman of color, there are several themes in “Avatar: the Last Airbender” that resonate strongly with me, leading me to consider how the story and its characters affirm immigrant and diasporic experiences–in other words, the inevitable upheavals of imperialism and the kinds of resilience and strength it takes to survive that. After several rewatches, I decided to write a breakdown of how immigrant and diasporic themes in each of the Four Nations/ characters form a commensurate picture.
“Air is the element of Freedom. The Air Nomads detached themselves from worldly concerns, and found peace and freedom.”
People who follow my Tumblr know how much I love Aang and the Air Nomads. As a Buddhist woman of color, Aang’s narrative is especially poignant to me because his people (a pacifist community of monks and nuns with no organized military or wealth) were destroyed by genocide, making him literally The Last Airbender. Many historical peoples have been forced into diaspora through genocide, most notably Jewish people, but also the Tamil people of Sri Lanka, the Palestinian people, and so forth. Displacement through genocide creates a traumatic dilemma: how do you survive and adapt to a new way of life where you’re the minority, while at the same time upholding and honoring the traditions that represent your history? How do you preserve that history in the face of overwhelming violence?
Eugene Ahn is an Asian American lawyer-turned-hip-hop artist. Since he quit his job in 2010, he’s released a ton of free geeky music online using the moniker Adam WarRock. Today he is launching his newest EP, Sozin’s Comet, based on the Avatar: The Last Airbender animated series! Secret tunnels, Sokka styles, and yip yips for everyone!
Adam WarRock’s released a lot of themed EPs in the past like his Battlestar Galactica, Game of Thrones, and Indiana Jones EPs. Like his past EPs, Sozin’s Comet is hosted online free for anyone to download. One of the seven songs is titled “The Last Airbender” which you can preview below!
We interviewed Adam WarRock about his latest creation and his newfound foray into Avatar fandom!
RACEBENDING.COM: Glad to see that you finally got around to watching the Avatar series! What did you think and what inspired you to create the EP?
ADAM WARROCK: I think it’s pretty obvious to say that I loved it. I’m still trying to process exactly where I put it in the pantheon of geeky things in my lifetime, but I honestly think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen. I haven’t been able to really stop thinking about it; or talking about it with friends. So of course I had to make some music about it.
RACEBENDING.COM: Water Tribe, Air Nomad, Earth Kingdom, or Fire Nation?
ADAM WARROCK: Fire Nation.
RACEBENDING.COM: Legend has it that you quit your job as a lawyer to become an independent musician full time. Now that you’re several years in, how has that experience been like for you?
ADAM WARROCK: It’s been amazing, but a lot of hard work and realigning your perspectives on the future, on what you want out of any kind of notoriety or attention, how to manage everything. The best has been getting to the point where I can start doing some good with what I do, trying to raise some awareness for good causes or working with students and younger people. For the first few years, you’re just so worried about making it and paying your bills, that I think it’s easy to lose sight of that.
RACEBENDING.COM: You’ve created a lot of geeky music about topics like Star Wars, Marvel, and even NPR’s Ira Glass, but you’ve also written some more personal songs about your experiences with geekdom (Andrew Garfield at ComicCon), defying racial stereotypes (Don Glover 4 Spider-man), and growing up Asian American (Angry Asian Man). What is your process for creating your music, particularly since you cover a huge range of subjects and moods?
ADAM WARROCK: I try to write every day, at least SOMETHING, so there always comes a point where I’m either out of geeky things to write about; or I just don’t feel like doing it anymore. So I try to write something personal, or meaningful to me, or mix it with some kind of geeky subject. But it’s that daily schedule of writing and recording, it lets you cover a broad range simply out of trying to avoid boring yourself.
RACEBENDING.COM: To use fandom parlance: Zutara or Kataang?
ADAM WARROCK: Okay, so I had no real idea about the fan culture of Avatar until recently, because I just tended to avoid it since I hadn’t seen the show. So when I watched the show, nothing was spoiled for me, I barely knew anything about it. And it’s hilarious, because my friends (who are longtime Avatar fans) were asking me about this question, and I was just like “uh, whaa?” I will say this: by far, Zuko is my favorite major character in the show. But for your specific question, I would answer Kataang.
RACEBENDING.COM: What do you hope Avatar fans get out of this EP?
ADAM WARROCK: I don’t think it’s so much that they get something out of it. I just hope that it lets people celebrate the show a little bit after the fact, and maybe make it my kind of penance/apology for taking so long to finally see it.
Racebending.com held our third annual San Diego ComicCon International Panel on Sunday July 21st in Room 23ABC: Shattering Convention in Comic Book Storytelling.
Moderated by Racebending.com’s Michael Le, a panel of comic book authors discussed their experiences writing diverse and innovative work for big franchises, indie, small press, and web comics. Brandon Thomas (Miranda Mercury), Gene Yang (Avatar: The Last Airbender), Christina Strain (Runaways), C. Spike Trotman (Smut Peddler), and Gail Simone (The Movement) discussed diversity without stereotyping, creating compelling heroes and villains, and reader advocacy.
Despite a few technical difficulties, we managed to capture full video and audio of the panel! Watch the embedded video below or click here to watch on Youtube The full panel is also transcribed below with annotated links!
She’s the greatest adventurer in this, or any other galaxy, the kind of old-fashioned, classic science-fiction heroine that can successfully defeat The Time Raiders of Xaxium, brave the wonders of The Glass Planet, survive The Perils of Yor, and battle The Infinity Class to a veritable standstill! All while facing the one enemy that perhaps even she cannot defeat, a microscopic poison rushing through her veins, courtesy of her greatest adversary, Cyrus Vega. With only one year left to live, Miranda Mercury will have her morality tested and values shaken to see her life’s mission completed…
Archaia Comics‘s The Many Adventures of Miranda Mercury: Time Runs Out was first published in August 2011 to critical acclaim. The book, written by Brandon Thomas and illustrated by Lee Ferguson, is fantastically plotted, beautifully drawn, and features a pulpy science hero who happens to also be a woman of color. The book was nominated for four Glyph Awards, made the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA)’s 25 Great Graphic Novels for Teens List, and was on the Library Journal’s list of 25 Graphic Novels for Black History Month. A 33-page preview of the book is available online at Scribd!
Graphic novelist Brandon Thomas has written comic books for several publishers, including Marvel, DC Comics, Arcade, and Dynamite. He is currently writing Voltron for Dynamite Entertainment. The Many Adventures of Miranda Mercury is his first creator-owned project. At his blog The Fiction House, he chronicles his experiences in the comic book industry and his love of writing and music. His decade-running column, Ambidextrous, which has run on SilverBulletComicBooks and Newsarama, includes 300 articles chronicling his experiences breaking into the field and his thoughts about diversifying the industry. Mr. Thomas was also a panelist at our multidisciplinary writers panel at ComicCon 2012, Creating Spaces for Diverse Characters and Representations, and this year at ComicCon 2013, he will be a panelist on our Sunday (July 14th) panel, Shattering Convention in Comic Book Storytelling!
Racebending.com interviewed Brandon Thomas about Miranda Mercury and his experience developing creator-owned comics!
RACEBENDING.COM: What was the inspiration behind Miranda Mercury (both the character and the book?)
BRANDON THOMAS: The character isn’t really based on any particular woman, but probably more an idea of women, and how they are and aren’t normally portrayed in modern comics. There are certainly some shining examples spread all over the medium, but I don’t think many would argue that we’re all doing our best in this regard as an industry.
So it was very important that Miranda Mercury not exist as the female version of another well-established character, but a complex, nuanced character in her own right that isn’t destined to become the victim in her own story. Attitude-wise, she’s probably based on all of the strong women I’ve known in my life—wife, mother, grandmother, cousin, etc.
“It was very important that Miranda Mercury not exist as the female version of another well-established character, but a complex, nuanced character in her own right that isn’t destined to become the victim in her own story.”
Far as the book and the actual stories in it, there’s a lot of the original Star Wars trilogy in there, and more than a decent helping of Saturday morning cartoons. Being obsessed with those two things as a kid is ultimately what got me on the path of wanting to be a writer in the first place, so when you combine all that with my love of comics–which came a little later– you get the initial kernel of the idea of Miranda Mercury. It’s designed to really be a very public love letter to the things that made us want to create in the first place, and really tap into those all-consuming feelings of excitement and anticipation that grabbed us by the throat as kids and still haven’t quite let us go.
RACEBENDING.COM: Miranda Mercury is unique from other superheroes in that she is a woman of color and explicitly a “science” hero. How far into development did you determine that these aspects would be a part of her character and identity?
BRANDON THOMAS: That was always the plan for Miranda, and I never thought to simply make her a superhero, because I wanted to preserve some level of real vulnerability for the character. There are superheroes in her world, (Jack [Miranda's sidekick] went out with one for a long while) but I wanted her to be the product of intense training, discipline, and intelligence. Which makes her more than a match for most superheroes that cross her path. But the humanity and the flaws within her are what makes her fun to write, and it seems that it’d be a little harder to get there if she had powers.
Plus, the series had to have ray guns and jetpacks, which are things most decent superheroes don’t require!
Seriously though, her being black and coming from a long line of black adventurers, heroes, and inventors is very intentional, and something of a repudiation of the lack of minority characters throughout a great majority of science fiction and even comics. When it seems that most times black people aren’t even allowed in space, when it comes to Miranda Mercury—well, black people pretty much run space and have achieved a degree of widespread respect and adoration from most of the universe they operate in.
“[Miranda] being black and coming from a long line of black adventurers, heroes, and inventors is very intentional, and something of a repudiation of the lack of minority characters throughout a great majority of science fiction and even comics.”
RACEBENDING.COM: Indie comics can be heartbreaking to create, publish, and promote. What challenges did you have to face when creating Miranda Mercury, and how did you overcome them to create such a polished product?
BRANDON THOMAS: Oh wow, it was an adventure, that’s for sure. First thing I think was that our publisher, Archaia, stopped putting out comics shortly before our second issue was scheduled to release. That hiatus led to some team members having to take a step back from the project, which led to finding other options: one of them proving to be someone who simply pretended for 3-4 weeks to be working on the book when they were in fact not. That was certainly interesting and unexpected. Add in everyone moving to/from new houses/apartments, some unfortunate deaths in the family, the discovery of Chinese drywall in a creator’s home that was making him and his family sick with strange, persistent headaches, nosebleeds, and respiratory infections, and what you end up with is a book with a lot of life in it.
I can just go through it and tell you exactly what was going on with every one of us in the background, and it’s kinda cool that the first volume is like this little time capsule of our lives and careers over a period of years. The benefit of all this was that being forced to take a little more time with everything ultimately made for a better book. I thought I was ready to write all of this when the book first debuted in ’08, but in hindsight I really wasn’t, and the extended production schedule allowed everyone to go off on their own, learn more and get better at their respective crafts, which was then brought back to Miranda Mercury.
Now all that said, I don’t want to make it sound like this stuff is atypical, it’s really not–name almost any creator-owned project that exists and you’ll get stories very similar to ours. Like you said, it’s just a major challenge, and after finishing Miranda, I had such a better understanding of what goes into producing some of my favorite creator-owned projects, and a deeper appreciation for that journey. A long road to be sure, but always well worth it in the end.
RACEBENDING.COM: You’ve written for big properties like Robin, The Fantastic Four, and Spider-man, based on characters created by others. What is it like writing for your own creation, Miranda Mercury? How is it different than writing for an established franchise?
BRANDON THOMAS: Well, both opportunities are great ones with their own sets of pros and cons, but writing a character that you didn’t create is like being the QB of the big team. You’re (if you’re lucky) driving the book creatively in a direction that’s been discussed with and approved by editors and other decision-makers, who are the ones that go out and assemble the rest of the team necessary to execute things. They also make sure everyone is paid, which is a very necessary element, and that the trains run on time, problems are solved (and there’s always something), and that everyone has an opportunity to do a great job. That’s shorthand of course, but that’s about how it is.
Creator-owned work means that you as the writer are responsible not only for the scripts, but everything else that must happen to create a full-fledged comic, in essence serving as QB, Head Coach, GM, and Owner, all at the same time. And every role is just as vital and important as the actual writing, which is something that will slap you in the face before too long. While it’s a lot of work producing your own work, at the end of the day, it’s your own work and there will always be something special about that. Being the last word on everything is intoxicating in a lot of ways, and having the capacity to do it will help in sustaining a career that’s always under pressure from a host of external, sometimes uncontrollable factors.
RACEBENDING.COM: Volume One of Miranda Mercury directly addresses the racism that James Mercury, Miranda’s grandfather, experienced while living in segregated America. How did you decide to incorporate this history into the Mercury family story line, and was it difficult to write?
BRANDON THOMAS: Well, I wanted that to be a really significant element on how she viewed the universe, but like many people living in a much more tolerant landscape, an outrage that was passed down and internalized by people she loved who actually did experience it. And like a lot of people, even a few generations removed, the realization that some of these same prejudices and feelings still exist (far more often than we’d like) is something that gives her an anger and rage that she’ll always struggle to control. You saw this in her response to the selective evacuations of The Glass Planet in issue #296, and though it’s not something that’s going to be referenced a ton over the life of the book, it’s there and a critical part of her character and history.
The most difficult part I’d say was looking up reference for Lee [Ferguson, the book's artist]—seeing photos of “colored” signs on bathrooms and water fountains gives the whole thing a certain kind of permanence that talking about it simply doesn’t.
RACEBENDING.COM: Although there are several creators of color and characters of color in comics, the industry is still mostly dominated by white men. What advice would you give creators of color interested in breaking into the field?
BRANDON THOMAS: Create your own comics and your own characters–then create some more–and some more after that. One of my personal regrets is that I devoted so much time and energy trying to make it into comics through the most difficult avenues possible, and though I’ve had some success at it, having the option of dictating your own fate is always going to be incredibly important in building a career as a storyteller. And that’s really what everyone is after in the end…the ability to tell stories that people are interested enough in to keep you at least marginally employed.
I am extremely proud of Miranda Mercury, but she is only one of the many concepts and characters I have taking up space in a series of those black and white composition books. I’d encourage writers to embrace the fact that it’s about more than just the writing. You also have to be an editor, publisher, talent scout, marketing person, etc. along the way. The sooner you can accept this and adapt, the more successful (and abbreviated) your journey will be. I had problems with that part of it myself, and when I started trying to force my way into comics, I approached things almost solely from the perspective of a “writer,” but it’s not nearly as simple as that. The more things you know and intimately understand about how the industry really works, and what it takes to actually get something made and out into the world, the better off you’ll be.
But the internet and digital comics have made it even easier and more economical to publish your own work and bring eyeballs to it. Focus most of your attention on that and everything else will take care of itself with the right mix of talent, patience, and overwhelming stubbornness.
“Embrace the fact that it’s about more than just the writing. You also have to be an editor, publisher, talent scout, marketing person, etc. along the way. The sooner you can accept this and adapt, the more successful (and abbreviated) your journey will be.”
RACEBENDING.COM: What can fans to do support diversity in comics and books like Miranda Mercury?
BRANDON THOMAS: Hah, you must’ve caught me on the right day, and please forgive the mini-rant here, but to put it very simply—you have to BUY IT. Buy it today, and tomorrow tell someone else you know whose tastes and sensibilities you know and understand that they should buy it too. Don’t put it on your Amazon wish list as something to buy after you’ve bought all those other books on the list you clearly want to buy more—buy it today. Right now.
Cause here’s the truth of it—people like to talk a good game and co-sign all of these articles that sprout up every February, bemoaning the lack of black and diverse voice in comics, while attacking the offending companies with red hot pokers of indignation, ignoring the fact that it’s not just the companies putting out the books. It’s all of it, which includes the fans and commentators that are saying all the right things in public, but in private, are just as much of the problem as anyone. All some people are doing is talking about the books instead of buying the books, and there could be any number of reasonable explanations for that, admittedly, but I know for a fact that the numbers of people appearing “concerned” about this whole thing far outnumbers the additional sales of any books that might benefit from this sentiment.
“All some people are doing is talking about the books instead of buying the books, and there could be any number of reasonable explanations for that, admittedly, but I know for a fact that the numbers of people appearing “concerned” about this whole thing far outnumbers the additional sales of any books that might benefit from this sentiment…Talking about it is one (very important) thing, but to really effect changes in the proliferation of both minority creators and characters throughout the industry, we have to identify and then buy the professional quality work being put out.”
Answering this question actually turned into an entire column on the subject, which is posted over at my personal blog–but that’s the magic bullet right there. Talking about it is one (very important) thing, but to really effect changes in the proliferation of both minority creators and characters throughout the industry, we have to identify and then buy the professional quality work being put out. And it is out there if you’re willing to do a little extra legwork and look. Hopefully in the next couple months, finding it will become less difficult, and I have some very specific ideas on how to help things along in that regard. So stay tuned for that, and thanks for listening.
Miranda Mercury Will Return in 2013….
For more information on Miranda Mercury, please visit http://mirandamercury.com/ and Archaia Publishing.
A preview of the graphic novel is available at at Scribd and the entire comic is available for purchase at Amazon and other comic book retailers (call your local comic book store and place an order to support local small business, small press, creator-owned comics, and diverse leads all at once!)
Racebending.com would like to thank Brandon Thomas for this interview.
If there’s one thing that most fans of Star Trek will agree on, it’s the fact that Gene Roddenberry’s vision for the show — and, more optimistically, for human society — was predicated on the idea that all life is valuable, and that the worth of a person should not be judged by their appearance. Much of this was done through the old sci-fi trope of using aliens to stand in for oppressed groups, but Star Trek didn’t rely on the metaphor; it had characters who were part of the ensemble, important and beloved members of the Enterprise crew, who were people of colour. It had background characters who were people of colour. And, here and there, it had anti-heroes and villains who were people of colour … one of whom, Khan Noonian Singh, became well-nigh iconic.
And who is now being played by white actor Benedict Cumberbatch in the new JJ Abrams reboot movie, Star Trek: Into Darkness.
We’re all cynical and jaded enough to know the standard dismissal when it comes to matters of media representation: Paramount Pictures and most film studios are not interested in diversity or visibility, they only care about the bottom dollar. Star Trek as a franchise is too much of a juggernaut to affect with boycotts. There are too many people who love it, who love those characters and that world, and will go to see the movie. And for some of these people, this devotion to the idea of a future where even South and East Asian men get to pilot a starship and love swashbuckling, where Black women make Lieutenant on the Enterprise and actually get the boy, will be trivialized and eroded and whitewashed when the most formidable and complex Star Trek baddie becomes a white man named Khan.
It wasn’t perfect in the 60s when Ricardo Montalbán was cast to play Khan (a character explicitly described in the episode script of Space Seed as being Sikh, from the Northern regions of India). But considering all of the barriers to representation that Roddenberry faced from the television networks, having a brown-skinned man play a brown character was a hard-won victory. It’s disappointing and demoralizing that with the commercial power of Star Trek in his hands, JJ Abrams chose not to honour the original spirit of the show, or the symbolic heft of the Khan character, but to wield the whitewash brush for … what? The hopes that casting Benedict Cumberbatch would draw in a few more box office returns? It’s doubly disappointing when you consider that Abrams was a creator of the television show Lost, which had so many well-rounded and beloved characters of colour in it.
Add to this the secrecy prior to release around Cumberbatch’s role in the film, and what seems like a casting move that would typically be defended by cries of “best actor for the job, not racism” becomes something more cunning, more malicious. Yes, the obfuscation creates intrigue around and interest in the role, but it also prevents advocacy groups like Racebending.com from building campaigns to protest the whitewashing. This happened with the character of the Mandarin in Iron Man 3, as well as ‘Miranda Tate’ in The Dark Knight Rises, who ended up being Talia al Ghul but played by French actress Marion Cotillard. This practice is well in effect in Hollywood; and after the negative press that was generated by angry anti-oppression activists and fans when Paramount had The Last Airbender in the works, studios are wising up. They don’t want their racist practices to be called out, pointed at, and exposed before their movies are released — Airbender proved that these protests create enough bad feeling to affect their bottom line.
So the studio has now found a way to keep it secret and underhanded. Racebending.com was there for most of the production of The Last Airbender, and were even able to correspond with Paramount Pictures about it. This time, for Star Trek: Into Darkness, their hiding and opaque practices has managed to silence media watchdogs until the movie’s premiere.
As I said, this racist whitewashing of the character of Khan won’t affect how much money this Trek movie makes. And I’m happy that the franchise is popular, still popular enough to warrant not only a big-budget reboot with fantastic actors but also a sequel with that cast. I’m happy that actors I enjoy like Zoë Saldaña and John Cho are playing characters who mean so much to me, and that they, in respect for the groundbreaking contributions by Nichelle Nichols and George Takei in these roles, have paid homage to that past.
But all of that will be marred by having my own skin edited out, rendered worthless and silent and invisible when a South Asian man is portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch up on that screen. In the original Trek, Khan, with his brown skin, was an Übermensch, intellectually and physically perfect, possessed of such charisma and drive that despite his efforts to gain control of the Enterprise, Captain Kirk (and many of the other officers) felt admiration for him.
And that’s why the role has been taken away from actors of colour and given to a white man. Racebending.com has always pointed out that villains are generally played by people with darker skin, and that’s true … unless the villain is one with intelligence, depth, complexity. One who garners sympathy from the audience, or if not sympathy, then — as from Kirk — grudging admiration. What this new Trek movie tells us, what JJ Abrams is telling us, is that no brown-skinned man can accomplish all that. That only by having Khan played by a white actor can the audience engage with and feel for him, believe that he’s smart and capable and a match for our Enterprise crew.
What an enormous and horribly ironic step backwards. For Star Trek, for media representation, and for the vision of a future where we have transcended systemic, racist erasure.
Relativity Media is remaking the cult classic film The Crow (1994). Although this iconic story is being brought back to the silver screen, the breakthrough progress made by The Crow in terms of minority representation will not be brought back.
As part of development for the film, the studio appears to be throwing upcoming (affordable) young white male actors at the project in hopes that one of them will stick. Over the past three years, the lead role has passed through Mark Wahlberg, Bradley Cooper, Channing Tatum, Ryan Gosling, James McAvoy, and Tom Hiddleston, with the latest casting rumors floating around Alexander Skarsgard.
All of these failed casting attempts point at one direction: it looks like twenty years later, The Crow will be rebooted without a lead actor of color.
The movie version of comic book character Eric Draven was originated by actor Brandon Lee (son of legendary martial artist Bruce Lee) in the 1994 film The Crow. Lee tragically died in an on-set accident before filming was completed. Draven was later portrayed by another multiethnic Asian American actor, Mark Dacascos, in the 1998 television series The Crow: Stairway to Heaven.
The character of Eric Draven was not solely, if at all defined, by the ethnicity of the actor portraying him. This was significant to actors from communities of color, who must struggle to avoid racially stereotypic roles.
“Brandon Lee’s Eric Draven was recognizably Asian American without having a particular reason for being Asian American. Then — and now — Asian American characters in cinema often seem to require some excuse written into the script to justify their ethnicity, as if the character was only made Asian American for a reason…Sometimes it’s refreshing to see an Asian American character who can just be.” – Jenn, blogger at Reappropriate.com
In addition to Draven–easily the most iconic “Crow”–several characters of color have also assumed the “Crow” persona in the franchise, including Joshua, a Native American farmer of the Crow Nation, and Mark Leung, a Chinese detective. There have also been a number of female Crows (Amy Carlisle, Iris Shaw, Hannah Foster) in the comics and also some white male Crows in direct-to-video movies and in the novels.
[It's interesting to note that one of the Crows, Jared Poe from The Crow: The Lazarus Heart, was a gay photographer who becomes the Crow after he is framed for the murder of his lover. Poe then seeks justice with help from his lover's twin, Lucrece. When the plot of novel was adapted to a movie, The Crow: Salvation, all LGBTQ elements were removed, including the Crow's sexual orientation and Lucrece's identity as a trans woman. ("Straight-washing" didn't help the film, which was unceremoniously dropped by it's theatrical distributor and had to go to direct-to-home-video.)]
“While, no, the Crow doesn’t HAVE to be Asian-American, it was one of the few, if any, American entertainment series/franchise that had Asian-Americans playing the lead. There are no shortage of roles for white actors. But for Asian-Americans — especially Asian-American men — there are pretty much zero.” – comment on Racebending.com Facebook page
The Crow is a superhero persona that has been embodied by a broad array of chracters, and there is a lot of precedence for having a unique lead when adapting this diverse franchise to the movies. A studio wanting to make a The Crow movie could make a film starring a male actor of color, a woman in an action role (still pretty rare these days), or even a action movie starring a gay anti-hero with a transgender heroine–all existing Crow characters in the books.
Understandably, changes will be made to franchises as they evolve and new creative talents will emerge to play iconic roles. But it’s hard not to view the proposed casting of white actors–who already have more opportunities than non-white actors–as a regression, particularly given the significance of Lee’s casting twenty years ago and The Crow franchise’s continued willingness to break the mold with diverse characters.
Twenty years later, The Crow remake does not seem to be going against the Hollywood mold when it comes to casting. It’s a loss of opportunity and doesn’t do justice to the franchise. If the studio is having difficulty securing a white male lead to play The Crow, it should extend the casting net to a more diverse pool of actors.
Today is the release date of Olympus Has Fallen, an action movie that unfortunately reflects the Hollywood (and American) stereotype of white nativism: the assumption that American automatically means white.
“In this country, American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” – Toni Morrison
Synopsis of the movie:
Disgraced former Presidential guard Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) finds himself trapped inside the White House in the wake of a terrorist attack; using his inside knowledge, Banning works with national security to rescue the President (Aaron Eckhart) from his kidnappers.
Pros (sort of):
Going back to the racial nativism piece though…
This is the second “yellow peril” film released within a year to feature white, non-American actors as Big ol’ American Heroes (TM) while casting [Asian] American actors as the evil, foreign invaders.
For example, Red Dawn(2012) features white Australian Chris Hemmsworth as the leader of the American resistance movement. He faces off against Will Yun Lee, an Asian American actor who plays a villainous North Korean invader.
There’s some sick irony when Hemmsworth declares to the resistance fighters he is leading–including Isabel Lucas, another white Australian actor–that Will Yun Lee’s character and the other Asian American-played North Koreans just don’t appreciate America the way they do: ”To them, [America] is just a place, but to us, this is our home,” barks Hemmsworth the Australian, describing the bad guys played by the American actors.
In the film Olympus has Fallen, white Scottish actor Gerard Butler plays the heroic ex-Secret Service agent who must save the day from Asian American actor Rick Yune’s duplicitous foreign terrorist.
By following this casting trope, Olympus has Fallen replicates the white nativist “perpetual foreigner” stereotype that “white” is default “American” while “Asian” (and by extension, Asian American) is forever foreign.
Hollywood is unconstrained in whether or not the American hero needs to be played by an American (a refreshing attitude) with the unspoken caveat that these American heroes must be white. This is why white British actor Andrew Garfield can be cast as Spider-man from Queens, New York while black American actor Donald Glover could not even score an audition. This is why, when Warner Bros. decided to “Americanize” Akira, they made a long list of prospective lead actors– some from the US but many from the UK–all of them were considered appropriate for the Americanization and all of them were white. “Americanizing” the franchise did not mean casting American (including African American, Native American, Japanese American etc.) actors.
Rick Yune was born in Washington D.C. How many Americans can boast about being born in our nation’s capital? Yet, he is playing a terrorist invader trying to destroy Washington D.C., rather than the American patriot trying to save it. The privilege of playing that American hero goes to a white actor– because Hollywood’s institutional culture posits that any white actor is still more “American patriot” than an Asian American actor.
Imagine an alternate universe version of this “Die Hard in the White House” film, starring Rick Yune as the hero:
Disgraced former Presidential guard James Kang (Rick Yune) finds himself trapped inside the White House in the wake of a terrorist attack; using his inside knowledge, [*cough* including his iffy second generation Korean language skills] Kang works with national security to rescue the President (Morgan Freeman) from his kidnappers.
What happens when a prominent adult film producer creates a homage to one of the few television shows with an Asian American character–and decides to depict that character in blatant yellowface? Guest blogger N’jaila Rhee takes on the subject of yellowface in the adult film industry.
[Age Content/NSFW Disclaimer: While the following article contains no images with nudity, it does discuss a recent high profile incident of yellowfacing in the pornography industry.]
Yellow Face isn’t okay, not on stage, not on Halloween and not in film–and yes, that includes not in porn. So if you are going to have any hand in creating a porn “parody” of smash hit show that has a fan favorite character who is Korean American, hiring a white actor taping his eyes back and smearing what looks like Cheeto dust on his face is just not going to sit well with people.
People will be upset because it’s racist mockery of Asian features–and if there’s one group that doesn’t have options when it comes to porn, it’s Asian Americans.
What’s great about free speech is you can be as tasteless you can muster, and there is no one too high or low for criticism. Pornography is not accountability free. This content doesn’t exist in a cultural vacuum.
Holly Black and Sarah Rees Brennan are two well-known, published authors in the young adult genre and proof that dedicated white fantasy authors can include characters of color in their works. Holly Black has written non-white and non-straight characters in her books since her first novel, Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale . Two of her popular book series feature biracial lead protagonists, the Modern Faerie Tale series and the Curse Workers series. Sarah Rees Brennan has been praised for her non-stereotypical depictions of characters in her The Demon’s Lexicon and Lynburn Legacy series. The protagonist of her co-authored novel Team Human is Chinese American and was prominently featured on the book’s cover.
Racebending.com’s Gabrial Canada interviewed Holly Black and Sarah Rees Brennan about their experiences as allies and authors in the young adult publishing genre! Read on for their thoughts on advocating for diverse representations and the publishing industry’s approach to diverse characters.
NOTE: The opinions espoused by the interviewees represent their viewpoints alone, and do not necessarily represent the views held by the staff of racebending.com
RACEBENDING.COM: Starting off with Holly, will we see the same level of representation that we have seen with your modern faerie stories, other works, and Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series in your new collaboration, Magisterium?
HOLLY BLACK: We’re both committed to diversity in our work, so as we figure out the details of our world and of our characters, we’re trying to be very conscious of the decisions we’re making. I don’t want to talk about the world too much, because we’re still making big decisions and doing research, but I don’t think that a world without diversity makes any sense. If fiction is about telling the truth — and I believe that ultimately it is — then that just isn’t true. We live in a big, diverse world and that should be reflected in the stories we tell.
RACEBENDING.COM: Have either of you had difficulty in displaying the diversity within your books on the covers? You both have authored books with Justine Larbalastier. Did you actively seek out publishers you felt you could trust on this issue of representation because of her experience when publishing Liar?
SARAH REES BRENNAN: The process of publishing doesn’t quite work like that: publishing houses are so vast, and the policies of different editors in the same publishing house can be so different, and it is so massively hard to know who you can trust on these issues–covers go past editors, whole marketing teams, so many people the writer may never meet. You can basically only learn how a publishing house will treat you by working with them.
But I can’t say enough good things about Harper Teen, who Justine and I published Team Human with, and our editor Anne Hoppe. Anne made a pre-empt for the book (called and said ‘Here’s my offer and it’s great, I hope you say yes to me now and other editors snooze and lose’) and one of the very first things she said to me and Justine was that of course our heroine Mel, who is Chinese-American, would be accurately portrayed. Justine and I were lucky enough to be able to attend our photoshoot and meet the gorgeous model who portrayed the main character. We never even had to ask.