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January 22, 2016

A Super Afternoon with Gene Luen Yang

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Dore’ Ripley, a lecturer at California State University, East Bay (CSUEB), had a better afternoon than most on January 20th. Why? Gene Luen Yang --- the recently named National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and author of BOXERS & SAINTS, THE SHADOW HERO, AMERICAN BORN CHINESE and more came to visit! The CSUEB alum had a lot to say about Asian representation in comics, both today and throughout history. Dore’ recounts some of the most interesting parts of his talk, below, so read on --- your comics knowledge is about to get a lot more nuanced!

A fortress of solitude lies on a Bay Area hilltop inside the campus of California State University, East Bay…wait, a fortress of solitude? Is this the opening for a Superman comic?

Not exactly, but that would be fitting for a blog post about Gene Luen Yang, the current writer of DC’s man from Krypton who spent many hours creating his two-volume epic BOXERS & SAINTS (2013) in this fortress…er, library.

Yang, a CSUEB alumnus, visited the campus this January and spoke about ethnicity in comics to students taking The Graphic Novel: Form and Meaning in Comics, East Bay Comic Club alums and friends.

Before the talk, CSUEB’s President Leroy Morishita welcomed Yang and congratulated him on his recent success, which is much deserved. His 2006 graphic novel AMERICAN BORN CHINESE won an Eisner Award and the only graphic novel to be nominated for a National Book Award, and just last month, the Library of Congress named him the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. He’s also written numerous works that are fan favorites at CSUEB, including the 2011 graphic novel LEVEL UP, about a boy who wants to become a video game designer but whose parents want him to be a doctor; THE SHADOW HERO (2011); about a mild-mannered Asian American man growing up in the golden age of comics; and “Avatar: The Last Airbender” (2005-8).  

In his talk, Yang discussed the “Asian invasion” taking place in comics today, pointing out that “comics represent Asian Americans more than any other medium.” In addition to the many Asian American artists and creators, there is Jim Lee, arguably “the most powerful person in comics today.” Lee is the co-Publisher of DC Entertainment and the winner of many Fan Awards, especially for his work on Batman.

Before the current “Asian invasion,” there was the traditional portrayal of the Chinese “yellow terror” prevalent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This perceived invasion resulted in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The political cartoons of the day stereotyped the “yellow peril villain,” which manifested on many comic covers including DC’s first issue starring Ching Lung, a “Fu Manchu knock off.”

But not all early comics displayed Asian Americans as villains. Yang mentioned Fun Chang from Pep Comics (1939), who was an international detective living in San Francisco without any real superpowers, except when he donned Chinese clothing. Then he could control some magic chessman, oh, and his “skin changed from pink to yellow whenever he put on Asian clothing.”

During the 1970s, Kung Fu comics were all the rage, in part, because of Bruce Lee. At Marvel there was Shang-Chi “the Master of Kung Fu.” But Yang is a child of the 1980s and loved the G.I. Joe franchise. When Hasbro hired Marvel to redevelop the property, both Cobra and Joe had Asian characters fighting on their teams. But how did G.I. Joe end up with so many Asian characters? According to Yang, that can be traced to Marvel’s Larry Hama, who did a lot of writing for the property. When Hama got to Marvel he strolled over to coloring and asked “Why do you color all Asian Americans bright yellow?” Answer: “That’s the way we’ve always done it.” Hama’s response, “Maybe we should stop.” And so they did.

Marvel’s X-Men have always been a “bastion of diversity” and some of Yang’s favorites are Sunfire (Shiro Yoshida) who can shoot super heated plasma from his fists, Jubilee (Jubilation Lee), a high school student from southern California --- Yang has a bit of a crush --- and Psylocke (Elizabeth “Betsy” Braddock), a Brit who was kidnapped by Ninjas.

Yang has often wondered why there are so many Asian Americans in comics today, and he and a few friends came up with some theories: 

Theory No. 1: The structure of comics. Yang says that in the European world, text and pictures are separated and when combined, they are often seen as “vulgar” advertisements, “childish” picture books or “immature” comics. In traditional Asian culture however, “images are always paired with words --- there is no bias against words and pictures.”

Theory No. 2:  The immigrant’s story. The golden age comic books of the 1930s were created by children of immigrants (usually poor and Jewish) and those immigrant children had a hard time finding work in other established art fields. When they got into comics, they wrote their stories. Look at Superman, says Yang; it’s a “sci-fi Moses story” where a baby is “put in a basket” and set adrift, in Superman’s case, in outer space. Yang believes this “outsiderlyness” resonated with Jewish immigrants and Asian immigrants alike. In fact, Yang jokes, “You could think of Superman as Asian American. He wears glasses, is mild-mannered and has two names.”

Theory No. 3: American cultural trends. Japanese pop culture is especially popular today. Like Yang, if you have been to a library or bookstore recently, you have tripped over the “manga hobos” reading in the aisles. Once comics were exported all over the world, they “grew up differently.” In Japan, they developed a whole series of emotion lines that “took on symbolic meaning.” Yang asserts that today’s comic readers expect that “amalgamated” form in comics.

When researching THE SHADOW HERO, Yang came across the original “Green Turtle” (1944), a 5-issue golden age comic published by Blaze Comics and written by Chu Hing, an Asian American. It is rumored that Blaze insisted that the Green Turtle be drawn as a white man (hence his pink skin), while Chu Hing felt that the character should be Asian. Yang thinks this is why “Hing never provided any backstory for the Green Turtle and never drew his face.” Is this Hing’s way of undermining the race issue? The Green Turtle is often drawn from a back view, or his face is covered by his cape, or even a fist. Yang collected the first edition and reprinted it in THE SHADOW HERO.

Yang decided to write the Green Turtle’s backstory in THE SHADOW HERO, which follows Hank Chu as he grows up in San Incendio’s Chinatown. He is pushed by his mother to become a superhero, but adores his mild-manner father, a grocer. After his father is murdered, Hank takes on the superhero role (no spoilers here). Yang gives a nod to the yellow skin/pink skin controversy of another age, dipping Hank into a chemical bath that makes him turn pink when wet. In the end, the story reinforces the idea that all Americans are aliens and we are who we make ourselves. “Maybe being a superhero would make me a part of them. Maybe it wouldn’t. Either way, it didn’t matter, because the Green Turtle had already become a part of me.”