Bring on the Spam Musubi: The State of Asian Representation in Comics [Roundtable]
May is Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and to kick it off Keith Chow of The Nerds of Color, comedian Margaret Cho, and author and We Need Diverse Books campaign founder Ellen Oh introduced the hashtag #whitewashedOUT on Twitter. They encouraged people of Asian background to tell their stories about how the lack of Asian representation in mainstream entertainment has affected them.
Comic books --- both in their original form and in their film adaptations -- have had their own problems with Asian characters. Historically, they've been scarce as leads, especially in superhero comics, often appearing in support or villain roles, as stereotypical mystics, ninjas, and dragon ladies.
That is changing, however, with Asian main characters taking top billing in new series that have artists and writers of Asian background at the helm. From Marvel there’s Ms. Marvel, Totally Awesome Hulk, and Silk, while DC is launching New Super-Man.
For ComicsAlliance, journalist and editor Jennifer de Guzman convened some up-and-coming Asian-American writers for a roundtable discussion about the state of Asian representation in comics. Amy Chu is the current writer on Poison Ivy, a former writer on Sensation Comics, and the co-creator of her own self-publishing imprint Alpha Girl Comics. Sarah Kuhn’s novel trilogy about Asian-American superheroes, Heroine Complex will be released by DAW Books in July. She’s also written for Rosy Press’s Fresh Romance and is currently writing a series of Barbie comics. Jonathan Tsuei is the co-creator with Eric Canete of RunLoveKill, published by Image Comics.
Jennifer de Guzman: Let’s get straight to it! What do you think of the current state of Asian representation in comics? What do you think Asian creators brings to a title starring an Asian character, like Marvel’s Silk?
Jonathan Tsuei: It's great to see that Robbie Thompson and Stacey [Lee] are getting a chance to work on an Asian character, because that happens so rarely. With that happening on Silk, and Greg Pak and Frank Cho over on [Totally Awesome] Hulk, it makes me feel like we're moving in the right direction.
For me, as I'm sure it is for all of you, it's important to see people of Asian descent work on these characters because it moves us beyond simply "diversity" for the sake of, but inclusion in the storytelling process. It's not just seeing characters who might share physical features with us, but it's really an example that our voices and our perspectives are worth supporting.
Sarah Kuhn: I think it’s important that we get to tell our own stories --- seeing Asian-American creators take control of the narrative of an Asian-American superhero will never not be exciting to me. It makes me feel like our voices are finally getting out there, like we can bring our own experiences and pride in our identities to the page of something very iconic.
I think there's a certain level of authenticity in the specificities of a story that an Asian creator can bring to an Asian character --- whenever I spot one of those, I get this thrill of recognition, like there’s a little piece of my experience reflected on the page. I’m so used to not seeing much of me reflected back at all. Like, there’s this whole thing I put in Heroine Complex about spam musubi --- it’s not a big thing, it’s just something that’s part of the characters’ lives. I did a reading last year and this Asian-American lady came up to me after and was like, “I did not think I would ever see spam musubi referenced in a fantasy novel.” And she had that look, like maybe there was a little piece of her experience reflected back at her. As a reader, I’m always looking for those specificities, and so excited when I find them.
JdG: Sarah is so right about those little details. In the Jessica Hagedorn novel The Gangster of Love there’s a description of a character making adobo, and I thought, "What, no bay leaf?" and on the next page the character says, "Ay! I forgot the bay leaf!" I don't think I've ever had an experience like that reading comics. I've had to accept that they're not going to reflect my experiences at that micro cultural level.
Have any of you read something like that in comics, or included a reference to something cultural in your own work?
JT: I haven't seen much of it in the superhero space, but I did read Nanjing: The Burning City by Ethan Young, which is a brilliant comic that came out last year through Dark Horse. It didn't speak to my experiences specifically, since it's set in WWII, but the story spoke specifically to what happened in China in a time that my grandparents lived through. It literally brought me to tears. I really can't recommend that book enough.
As for my own work, I have a pitch out right now that deals with Chinese American gangsters in San Francisco, which is reflective of my childhood.
SK: I’ve been thinking about Jen’s questions in the broader context of seeing yourself in comics and what I look for in terms of a mirror: where do I find connection and a reflection of myself? I always love seeing Asian and Asian-American superheroes, of course, and some of those characters --- Jubilee, Colleen Wing, Cassandra Cain — remain very important to me to this day.
But something else I really love seeing — and something that makes me very emotional, actually --- is Asian characters getting to do seemingly mundane everyday things: have fun, have angst, fall in love. One comic I remember connecting to on a very visceral level is Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki, which is about a mixed race Japanese-Canadian girl and her experiences feeling alienated from almost everyone else at her high school. I love the way they captured that feeling of teenage girl disaffection, the complicated emotions in small moments --- and the visual of her being Asian, as well as some specific references they weave in, made me feel like I finally had my own Angela Chase or something. I still think about lines or images from that comic and get chills of recognition.
In my own comics work, I guess one thing in this vein is that --- well, I always enjoy making people fall in love and kiss and stuff, but I had a very big desire to show two Asian characters falling in love. You know, in that fun, fizzy, rom-com way that white characters always get to. So I made both halves of the couple in The Ruby Equation, my Fresh Romance story with artist Sally Jane Thompson, Asian American. (Well…one of them is technically a supernatural being from another dimension, but the human form she’s chosen is a grouchy Asian American barista. Because I don’t buy that supernatural beings from other dimensions would always default to choosing the form of a white person, even though that seems to happen a lot in stories!)
Anyway, one of our covers was by Kevin [Wada], and he depicted the two characters holding hands and looking at each other very swoonily, and of course since Kevin drew it, it’s absolutely beautiful --- but seeing that image made me very emotional. Like, look, Asian people! Falling in love and being cute and awwww! A seemingly mundane action, but again, it gave me that feeling of seeing a mirror I’m not used to.
Amy Chu: Isn't Kevin's work beautiful?
I'm still waiting for that moment in the mainstream when we move from tokenization to representation. I do believe a lot of the new generation of readers are way ahead of the publishers. We're in an unprecedented time where consumers can choose very specific content. And as US demographics shift, that will drive change. Maybe not as fast as we would like, but things are changing.
Here's the problem --- as a writer I feel like I should be able to write any character, Asian, non-Asian, female, male, nerd, non-nerd. What this translates to, apparently, [is] why can't established creators take a crack at all the characters? Well technically maybe they can, but that doesn't mean they should, and then you're not talking about increasing representation and diversity in the industry anymore, and how is that a good thing? Okay, it's 4 a.m. and I'm ranting... What was the question again?!
Hell yeah, if I'm writing a Chinese-American female I think I bring some special insight to the table, but I choose not to go that way. It's like cosplaying, I'd rather write anyone but anything close to myself. That's me, at least me now. I spent the first part of my career working for Asian-American nonprofits. Had I started writing then I'm pretty sure my writing would be completely different, maybe more introspective?
JdG: Amy brings up a good point about pigeonholing. There's a delicate balance between saying "Asian creators should write/draw Asian characters" and implying that only Asian people can understand other Asian people. That's part of the problem of whitewashing, right? Asian people are Other, so let's recast this character as something more "relatable." Do you feel that pressure --- that you have to establish yourself as a creator who can write about or draw non-Asian characters?
Kevin Wada’s drawing of Marko from Saga and the accompanying statement is an example of what I was referring to before, though --- seeing something that you've not seen before, and it being an artist of Asian background depicting this strong, sexy Asian man. Could an artist who doesn't have Fiona Staples' ethnic background have conceived the same kind of character? I don't know. But they haven't yet!
For background, though I'm sure you all know --- Brian K. Vaughan didn't come up with the idea of Marko and Alana being non-white; that was Fiona Staples’ idea, and just another example of how who is on a creative team can make more than just a cosmetic difference.
SK: Damn, that first Saga cover gave me chills! I was like, “Am I really seeing this?!” I still just kind of gaze upon it lovingly from time to time.
To be honest, it took me so long to realize that I could write Asian-American protagonists, that I could center someone who looked like me and so many of my friends in the narrative…that now I kind of never want to stop. It feels like I was depriving myself of that for so long — because, I don’t know, people told me it wouldn’t sell or whatever — and now I can’t get enough. I get so much joy and excitement out of writing awesome Asian ladies, I am totally up for doing that forever if that’s what “pigeonholing” means.
Of course there are plenty of non-Asian characters I’d love to write --- I’m writing some Barbie comics right now and she is just a crazy amount of fun --- but I see writing a lot of Asian protagonists less as pigeonholing and more as an opportunity to finally write the characters I’ve been hungry for as both a reader and writer. I respect that not every creator feels that way, of course, and hope there’s a wide range of opportunities for Asian and Asian-American writers and artists on the horizon.
JT: Shout out to Fiona, she's awesome.
I think I fall somewhere between Amy and Sarah. I really get a lot of joy writing characters who share cultural and physical attributes with me, but I do also fear that I may not get the opportunity to write the icons I grew up reading. I look to what Greg Pak is doing with Totally Awesome] Hulk and Gene Yang with New Super-Man and I think it's great. I hope to one day be able to contribute in such a way. I also really respect what Marjorie Liu is doing with Monstress in the creator-owned space.
I guess I'm saying, I don't know, haha. I don't want to be known as that guy who made those Ghost in the Shell tweets. I want to be known as a writer who tells great stories, whether they feature Asian characters or not, but at the same time I want to do right by my community and my own personal convictions. I think maybe we're all trying to find that balance.
AC: I don't want to sound like I don't write Asian-American characters... One of my first stories was about two girls in a Japanese American internment camp in the anthology Shattered, and then I did the story of the Chin family for the New York Historical Society. But then you look at mainstream comics and you can see how writers do get pigeonholed quickly. I'm almost always asked to pitch for the female character, not the male, which is why I was keen to do the DMC book.
JT: Sorry if it sounded like I thought you didn't write Asian-American characters, Amy! That wasn't my intent. I meant my concerns about being pigeonholed lie somewhere between yours and Sarah's.
CA: How do you see the future shaping up? Do you think we're reaching a breaking point in how much longer audiences are going to tolerate Asian erasure in movies and under-representation in comics? Do you think Psylocke and Jubilee in X-Men: Apocalypse will make a difference? (Two Asian women in one superhero movie? Are we dreaming?)
AC: I'm optimistic about the future. Not wildly — for every two steps forward we get moved back one, or maybe both sometimes, but I think technology and social media enables so many more people to tell their own stories.
Of course I'd be happy to see Psylocke and Jubilee, but when we see Amadeus Cho hit the big screen, then I'm breaking out the champagne….
SK: Like Amy, I’m cautiously optimistic. It does seem like more voices are being heard, like there’s more pushback against things like whitewashed casting, and like more Asian and Asian American creators are coming up. I greatly admire everyone in this conversation, for instance. I also love what Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda are doing with Monstress and I’m a huge fan of artists Arielle Jovellanos and Trungles, who worked on Fresh Romance --- their work is so beautiful, vibrant, alive. Oh, and there’s webcomic I adore called Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu, which is billed as “a (queer, Chinese-American) paranormal romance.” It has really wonderful characters and magic and is just generally adorable.
One recent thing that’s helping my optimism along quite a bit: I just saw Sana Amanat, Marvel’s director of content and character development, speak at an event, and it was really inspiring --- particularly as a WOC writing WOC characters --- to hear her talk about the genesis of Kamala Khan and the kinds of stories she’s looking to tell. Seeing someone like that actively working at a big company to bring out new stories and storytelling voices made me feel like we are headed in the right direction. I actually teared up quite a few times while she was talking.
And I’m stoked about Psylocke and Jubilee, particularly since I can cosplay as Jubilee by just wearing outfits I already own
Full disclosure: The author was formerly employed by Image Comics, the publisher of RunLoveKill, as well as Saga and Monstress.