Every year, New York Comic Con is a torrent of color and energy squeezed into a space that will barely fit everyone inside. But I’ve gotten fairly accustomed to it after so long, and at this point it’s basically an annual ritual. But eight months removed from the last NYCC in 2018, I still think about the Asian-Americans in Comics panel held there. Discussing everything from the success of Crazy Rich Asians to the challenges of portraying Asians in media in a landscape eager to work off of old, exotic stereotypes, it made me more invested in a fight I’ve had a stake in all along, even as this blog has concentrated primarily on anime and manga.
So when I read that Marvel was debuting a comic with an all-Asian team, I decided to break my years-long hiatus from traditional superhero comics and purchase the first issue of War of the Realms: New Agents of Atlas. But without even seeing a single image or piece of dialogue, I instantly sensed who the writer for this brand-new series was, or perhaps hadto be: Greg Pak, a long-time champion of introducing Asian characters to comics who was also one of the biggest names on that NYCC panel. Joining him on art is Gang Hyuk Lim, and on color Federico Blee.
The first issue opens up with a very familiar problem in Asia: a territorial dispute. Wave, a Filipino superhero, is chasing after a disturbance only to run afoul of a Mainland Chinese superhero named Aero, who tells her that she shouldn’t be outside the Philippine Sea. The comic instantly frames the level of detail the series aims to have by not only touching upon the ongoing disagreements over borders between Asian countries but also implies that the Filipino and Chinese heroes have different levels of connection to their respective governments.
From there, the series introduces the main Agents of Atlas team, which consists of Asian characters from all around the world, with some established Marvel characters and some all-new. Here, while also showing individual character motivations, the comic also highlights something important: they may all be Asian and raised Asian, but they’ve all been brought up in different ways with different values and assumptions based on the countries of their respective people and where they call home. For many Asian-Americans, there’s often a bit of cultural dissonance when going back to Asia because of the Western values they’ve grown up with. In other words, the first issue specifically emphasizes that just because they’re all “Asian” doesn’t mean they can be painted by the same brush.
The comic goes on to show various other heroes, including a number of Korean ones, as if to imply that superheroes have really taken off there. Amid attack by an outside enemy (from another REALM!), confusion ensues, and a lack of communication and a whole lot of jumping to conclusions leads to heroes fighting one another rather than their common foe.
What impresses me about this first issue is how much it respects both the similarities and differences of Asian cultures around the world while also pointing at the sensitive topics endemic to Asia and its diaspora. It’s the classic and universal idea of “we have to put aside our differences and work together to overcome this obstacle” but through the lens of Asian characters. There’s no exoticizing of any of the heroes, not even the older ones who came about in a time of exoticization.
While I know Greg Pak values and pushes for Asian characters, I have to wonder if part of the reason why Marvel as a business has gone ahead with New Agents of Atlas and its all-Asian team (and non-affiliated Asian heroes) is due to the success of the Marvel movies in China especially. The afterword suggests this, such as when it mentions how stories featuring Aero and Swordmaster can be found on NetEase, a Chinese comics site. As China exerts influence on entertainment and media, companies increasingly try to cater to the country and it’s government’s values. At the same time, however, if appealing to a Chinese audience potentially means more portrayals of Asian characters are respectful, is it a net positive? I don’t really have an answer myself at the moment.
So War of the Realms: New Agents of Atlas is off to a good start more or less. Here’s to hoping it keeps its momentum.