Nishat Kurwa on Friday, Jul. 13th
Let’s face it: there still aren’t enough bad-ass Asian American characters surfacing within pop culture to outweigh the dominant archetype, present in most any medical drama you’ve ever loved, and in hit sitcoms from The Big Bang Theory to Outsourced: the meritocracy-affirming model minority.
That trope incenses many Asian Americans of a certain generation, mostly X and Y, who grew up yearning for a representation of themselves on mainstream film and TV that, at the very least, was unburdened by an Apu-esque accent or a post-doc. But despite the attempts by some of those Gen X Asian-Ams themselves to bring some swagger to the mix, it’s far more common to see an Asian American character written as an over-achieving, supplicant brainiac.
And the situation’s not much brighter in the comic book world. In fact, the half-black, half-Latino Spiderman, Miles Morales, is the only notable effort by publishing leviathans like DC and Marvel (and that, too, only in Marvel’s Ultimate Comics sub-imprint) to conjure even a “post-racial,” post-aughts protagonist. Asian Americans are yet too far outside the black-white binary of the Clark Kent era, it seems, to warrant anointment. Accordingly, the creators of Secret Identities, a comic book series peopled by Asian American heroes who might look like middling strivers on the surface, but possess potent back stories and superpowers, are sketching out a rebellious franchise in their little corner of the arts universe.
“It was very important to us to create some heroes…that children growing up like us could relate to,” said Jerry Ma, who is Secret Identities ‘ art director, and one of four co-editors. “So when Secret Identities came along, it presented that opportunity to allow us to tell these type of stories on a much broader scale and reach a bigger audience than just selling them at shows and to specific stores.”
The series was conceived in 2007, after Secret Identities Education and Outreach Director Keith Chow was interviewed by writer Jeff Yang for a Wall Street Journal story related to Chow’s work at Diamond Comics. The two wound up discussing the dearth of Asian American comic book characters, and then, energized by their shared indignation and creative connection, suggested that maybe they should just make one themselves. “We came up with the characters, and said, ‘This is really cool!’, ” recalled Chow, “then hung up the phone and thought, ‘This’ll probably never happen.’ ”
Two weeks later, Chow broached the idea with his friend Ma, who was also acquainted with Chang, and eventually the group decided to put out a call for entries. More than 60 creators, from traditional comic book experts to amateur artists, ultimately contributed to the book’s 26 stories, which follow caped crusaders whose everyday alter egos toil in mundane settings like a Bangalore call center, or soldier through a “shadow history” of Japanese American internment.
The editors established parameters for some of the stories, but the contributors, ranging from traditional comic book artists to actors, came up with their own characters and designs.
The series’ second book, Shattered, expands the focus beyond “men in tights” to delve into genres like noir and adventure. The Vilcek Foundation, a consortium of minority scientists and artists, funded the project, which Ma said will be populated by criminals who embody, and upend, Asian American tropes.
“The dragon lady, the perpetual foreigner, the nerd – we’ll be shattering those stereotypes in comic format. If you look at the history, Asians are typically the megalomaniacal Fu Manchu. We’re trying to tell the story from that perspective, but humanized.”
Chow said the stories in the new book will be independent, but intertwined, inhabiting the same universe. “We’re kind of dubbing it the long arc; a story throughout the book that serves as both anthology and long tail that gets at where these stereotypes came from, and how to twist them into something new.”
For those of you who managed to get tickets to the sold-out Comic Con in San Diego this week, you can meet some of the editors at Booth 1221.
They’re planning to publish Shattered by early next year.