“Very East-Coast Avengers.” War of the Realms: New Agents of Atlas

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.

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Changing of the Guard in Fandom

ComicsGate, or what remains of it, has been a thinly veiled campaign to bully women out of comics, and the “movement” itself is hardly worth talking about as anything more than unjustified harassment. However, I find that it pulls its energy from a profound change occurring in readers of the superhero genre: the ever-increasing presence of women as both readers and creators, and with it, a change in how the comics-reading community determines what is worthy of praise. I’ve seen it on a personal level, as I went from understanding comics fandom as a boys’ club filled with casual sexism and jokes about Hal Jordan’s punches to one where a mutual understanding and acceptance of such things can no longer be assumed.

I previously wrote a blog post exploring the interaction between canon, fanon, and headcanon, and in it I used those terms the way one would when talking about narrative continuity. However, I think the contrast between those concepts still exists if we use the other definition of “canon”: the commonly accepted masterpieces of a given medium. The challenging of “canons” and “fanons” in that sense is what I’ve seen as a result of the changing demographics of superhero and comics fandom. Over the course of many years, women and girls have come in with their own ideas about which artists to respect and what ideas should be taken away from a given comics, and those deeply entrenched in the older ways feel the ground shifting beneath them. Guys like that can be vulnerable to a smooth-talking neckbeard snake whispering to them, “They’re changing the rules. They’re outsiders. What happened to the things that matter?” Losing the place they belong can be more important to some than trying to address political issues in communities.

Fandom is built in partly on passion, partly on accruing knowledge and experiences. This combination lets fans both embrace that which they love—be it a book, musician, film, or anything else—and perhaps even take it to places that the work by itself would never travel. Fandom creates communities and communication, and it encourages fans to pool their resources together and establish some common ground. But when that common ground is challenged, or finds its foundation shaken by newer generations eager with different preconceived notions of what’s good or acceptable in both people and works, it can create schisms between fans.

In a way, it reflects the world’s politics at large, as previously established majorities have seen their numbers slowly dwindle in ways where numbers alone will not let them hold onto power, and a loss of influence can be downright frightening for those accustomed to always being on top in their own universes. Even if there’s an intellectual understanding that the actions of today are meant to address certain past injustices, it can be a bitter pill for those who assumed a stable foundation in their comics fandom.

A Food Analogy to Explain the Resistance Against Diversity in Comics (and Why Diversity is a Good Thing)

Marvel placing blame for its declining sales on its push for characters outside of the white, male archeype has provided the latest arena for critics and fans to come out for and against diversity in entertainment. Looking at the online discourse, however, I find that there are many championing diversity who have difficulty seeing why anyone would resist. A major part of the problem, I believe, is that there’s a failure to understand that the two sides are coming from unique points of view built on very different foundations.

The Story of Trans Fats

Here’s a food analogy (because I love food analogies).

For years in restaurants across the US, frying oil was reused over and over by default. Then it was discovered that this process produced what came to be called trans fats, and that these fats were more harmful to health than just frying in general. Because of this, every place began changing their practices and eliminating or minimizing the presence of trans fats.

In addition to the added expense of having to rethink how food is prepared, this transition came at arguably another cost: flavor. Fried food just tastes different when old oil isn’t being reused. If the reason for eating at, say, your favorite fried chicken joint was because of what that reused oil imparts to the meat and skin, it could have felt like an unnecessary sacrifice for “health.” Even though having food be healthier is unarguably a good thing (if people could eat versions of the food they do now that tasted the same but was better for the body, they would), health benefits are not necessarily what any given person will prioritize.

The Establishment of Critical Values Among Fans

This is where I think some of the contention over diversity in comics and media lies. While the notion of “I don’t mind diversity in my entertainment, I just won’t want it to turn into some SJW hugfest,” is an argument borne out of certain biases and blindness towards privilege, it’s also on some level based in the standards established in a given circle of media consumers. In this environment, there are criteria by which a comic or television show is judged as “good” or “bad,” e.g. narrative consistency. To a different audience, narrative consistency could be important too yet still take a backseat to something accepted as a “higher priority,” such as a visceral feel to romantic interactions. Personally speaking, different groups of fans I’ve interacted with can have wildly different elements they value, to the point that it can seem as if two groups are watching completely different things despite it being actually the same product.

In other words, the push-back against diversity isn’t only about right and wrong, but about what people are accustomed to—what they’ve accepted as truisms of the medium. When a given community is built and reinforced over time, certain values become stronger in turn. If the specific reason you ate fried foods was for the savoriness that trans fats provide, then no amount of “it can increase the risk of heart attack!” will placate you.

Old vs. New Criticism

To move this away from deep frying and towards actual examples from comics and entertainment, I present two examples. The first is the changing reception over British comics writers such as Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. The second is the increasing prominence of character-over-story manga series from around the early to mid 2000s.

In years past, Alan Moore and Grant Morrison were praised by comics fans as writing incredibly intelligent and mature comics. Works such as Watchmen (Moore) and Seven Soldiers (Morrison) are genre-defying/defining creations that present complex and cerebral arguments that challenge comics readers. However, a lot of their works involve anywhere from minor to heavy doses of misogyny, so if your priority is the positive portrayal of women above all else, then it might not matter how “smart” Moore and Morrison’s comics are. On the other side, if you’re from a community space that believes the intellectual elements of their comics are what define good comics, then misogyny might be viewed as a lesser complaint or a non-issue.

Somewhat similarly, manga scholar Ito Go has written that manga criticism was historically biased against manga that emphasize character over story. When manga began coming out in the late 90s/early 2000s that focused on the stylization of its characters above all else, these were considered “bad manga” by established critics. Ito, on the other hand, argues that this because of the values that have been built and reinforced around the cult of Tezuka Osamu (the most celebrated manga artist ever), and that the visual “realness” of characters (kyara, as Ito calls it) has been just as much a part of manga all along. Essentially, the idea is that the only reason why kyara-heavy manga is considered inferior is because of the ossification of the criteria for “good” manga. Yet, for those who still want strong story above all else, Ito’s point of view holds little weight.

Whether the contention is based specifically in diversity or not, the general tendency for a group of like-minded individuals is to assume certain truths and then build around them. Disagreement can happen within these parameters, and sometimes those boundaries can even be stretched or broken, but in time certain truisms develop. Attacking that structure or praxis from the outside can appear to an insider as if you’re saying “1 + 1 = 3,” even if what you’re expressing merits consideration.

Noticing the Problem

On a certain level, I believe that the resistance against diversity in comics and other forms of entertainment is because we’re in the middle of a paradigm shift. Where once comics fandom and criticism was built on a long established marketing focus on white, male, and straight readers, other groups are making their voices heard in ways that the entrenched fanbase can’t help but take notice. The reason that they didn’t notice in the past is because they were unaffected by it, plain and simple. Many likely didn’t even know there was a problem, and this is because the values emphasized and prioritized in that community left little room for diversity to be brought up except in very broad strokes. The sand is shifting underneath them, and it’s not surprising that some would double down on what they’ve learned to be true.

Beyond the Brokeback Pose: Don’t Meddle with My Daughter

It’s obvious from the very first page that the manga Don’t Meddle with My Daughter! (“Uchi no Musume ni Te o Dasuna!” in Japanese) is 1) based on American superhero comics 2) a vehicle for constant fanservice. One aspect I’d like to talk about is how it can bring to the front of our minds the very idea of heroines as sexual ideals for men and its entrenchment in our ideas of superheroes.

Before that, a couple of points. First, to reiterate something I said in an old post, I am not against characters being drawn as sexually desirable in comics, and I’m even okay with works that are pretty much thinly veiled pornography. This is not a criticism of having everyone be unrealistically hot in fictional portrayals. Second, I am well aware of the recent steps that have been taken in American superhero comics to show women neither as strong or weak but as human and capable of growth, such as the Ms. Marvel from Marvel Comics series starring Kamala Khan and Batgirl from DC. These are not the points of this post. Rather, what I want to say is that a work like Don’t Meddle with My Daughter! can help contextualize some of the discussion that surrounds the portrayal of women in comics.

Don’t Meddle with My Daughter! comes from Tamaki Nozomu, the artist who brought us Dance in the Vampire Bund. Whereas his previous work featured a dangerously underage-looking vampire girl, this one focuses on a mother and daughter, both of whom have superpowers. The mother, who in her heyday fought as the “Eighth Wonder,” has now retired, only to find that her daughter has taken up her mantle. If you think this is basically like The Incredibles and has the room for the same sort of kid-friendly family bonding, keep in mind that not only are they drawn in really, really skintight outfits, but the good guys are called “N.U.D.E.” (like S.H.I.E.L.D.) and the bad guys are actually called “Blowjob.” It’s a work that wears its intent on its sleeve.

I think it’s safe to say that most superhero comics that are actually published in the US aren’t quite this blatant and gratuitous in its depiction of the female body. However, many are also not that far off; in a way, it’s as if the manga is actively pursuing the brokeback pose, but achieves this fanservice more through “convenient” camera angles and the refusal of tact. The reason I bring this up is because when you have discussion about the portrayal of women in comics, one common argument I’ve seen is that it’s “just the way things are.” In other words, this is simply how women are drawn in comics. However, Don’t Meddle with My Daughter!, as a manga, lacks that sort of cultural context, and is more a reflection of superheroes as cultural import. Thus it draws into question that very idea of explaining it all away with “tradition.”

It’s true that styles get replicated and imitated because of popularity, tradition, and a number of other reasons that don’t really get thought through extensively. A person new to shoujo manga might see all of these character with tiny noses and sparkles in their enormous eyes and wonder why everything looks the same, and the answer in part is indeed that it’s simply how it is. At the same time, there is room for discussion as to why that turned out to be the case, as well as an opportunity to discuss how this impacts people’s view of shoujo manga and what steps might potentially change this for the better or the worse. It’s not likely going to be the example people turn to in order to show the influence of American comics on the world, but the fact is that the fanservice Don’t Meddle with My Daughter! is clearly a choice working not from an unconscious tradition but from an active decision. This re-contextualization of superhero cheesecake can help to highlight that it’s not as simple as ignoring the highly sexual poses that have been found in comics just because it’s an established style.

Childhood Meets Adulthood: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Watching the Guardians of the Galaxy films fills me with a mix of nostalgia, fondness, and appreciation. As a kid, I loved the 1990s comic series. I was amazed at how it explored the Marvel Universe in the 31st century, and I had a huge crush on the golden-clad Guardian known as Aleta (see below). While the films are based more on the 2008 Guardians of the Galaxy (starring Peter Quill and based in the present), I found both the newer comics and the films to be solid works that succeed in bringing action, levity, and even sprinklings of drama. However, because I feel a more personal connection to Guardians of the Galaxy, one aspect of the films that stands out greatly in my eyes is how different some of the characters are compared to their comics counterparts.

In the films, Yondu is a rough-around-the-edges mercenary with a telepathic connection to specially designed arrows. In the 90s comics, he was a highly religious member of a shamanistic alien race who used an actual bow and arrow. Stakar, played by Sylvester Stallone, is the tough-as-nails leader of the group to which Yondu belongs, the Ravagers. Comics Stakar is Starhawk, the One who Knows, a being of light whose cycle of death and rebirth traverses time. To say that these characters drastically different is an understatement. Even Taserface, the secondary antagonist of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has a major change. While in the film Taserface states that his name is “metaphorical,” in the comics he can actually shoot tasers from his face. As someone who instantly recognized the name of Taserface as being one of the 90s Guardians‘ earliest villains, I felt just the slightest twinge of disappointment at a lack of face beams.

These changes are not necessarily bad. In the interest of making the Marvel Cinematic Universe more streamlined, the members of a cast as large as the one in Guardians of the Galaxy need to be unique and avoid overlapping roles. For some characters, this is simple. No one else is Groot, the giant tree alien. The gun-toting Rocket Raccoon is self-explanatory. Yet when we get to Dave Bautista’s portrayal of a powerful yet amusingly humorless Drax, that portrayal means Gamora, a character who is similar to Drax in the comics, finds herself in need of a new personality. Instead of a green Amazonian-type, Gamora is more a battle-hardened soldier. Elements of her Conan-esque “warrior speech” still exist, like when she refers to Knight Rider as a “magic boat,” but Gamora retains only about 50% of what she is in the comics, for better or worse.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, like its predecessor, is a highly entertaining film that succeeds by being more fun than serious. However, whereas characters such as Captain America and Iron-Man are iconic figures in comics history that cannot be altered too extensively, the fact that Guardians of the Galaxy is a lesser, more obscure franchise (a description that may very well have changed thanks to the films) means its minor characters are fair game. I can’t help but wonder which classic Guardian will show up next and be someone completely different from what they were in the comics. This approach can lead to some great and memorable characters, but perhaps at the expense of losing the memory of the original.

 

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Kiryuin Satsuki and the Curse of Power Girl

I view the DC superhero Power Girl as being almost doomed by her appearance. If you ask anyone with even a passing familiarity with Power Girl about what defines her character, you’re very likely to get the response “boob window.” This is despite numerous attempts to revamp her character, emphasize her personality, and make her more than just eye candy first, superhero second.

This is not to say that Power Girl is an inherently bad or sexist character, whether she’s supposed to be an adult Supergirl (her original origin) or something else entirely. I don’t even think the boob window necessarily has to go. But what fascinates me about Power Girl’s situation is that, for whatever reason, it seems especially difficult for her to escape being seen almost as a character attached to a pair of breasts.

In contrast, when it comes to characters who have overcome a highly sexualized appearance, one need look no further than Kiryuin Satsuki from the anime Kill la Kill. In spite of the fact that her battle uniform looks like a sling bikini on steroids, her personality overwhelms even the sheer and unbridled sexuality of her clothing. Despite her breasts and buttocks often being in full display in numerous scenes what first comes to mind are her other attributes: scowl (with enormously imposing eyebrows), her ambition, and the fact that she literally radiates an aura of light that symbolizes her power.

I find myself wondering, what is the difference between Satsuki and Power Girl, or indeed Power Girl and other female superheroes who have been successfully redefined as more than just their eroticism (note that I did not say more than just their looks—appearance is just an essential part of superheroes, male and female)?

There are two major context points that separate Satsuki and Power Girl. First, unlike Power Girl, Satsuki is introduced in Kill la Kill in her full-body school uniform rather than in her skimpier attire. Second, whereas Satsuki’s existence is defined solely by one television series, Power Girl has been a part of comics for decades. While the circumstances of 2010s Japan and 1970s United States are substantially different, I suspect that Power Girl would be remembered very differently if she arrived on the scene the way Satsuki does in Kill la Kill: as someone grandiose and powerful. Perhaps it would even be possible for her to keep the boob window and still be thought of primarily for her superheroics and feats of strength.

Or perhaps my view of Satsuki is too charitable. Maybe the imprint she’s left on anime and its fandom, especially those who know Kill la Kill only from images, is just her near-naked body in a battle bikini.

Power Girl appears to be a victim of historical inertia. No matter what is done with her character to turn her away from a primary emphasis on her breasts, focus always returns to her iconic cleavage cut. Whether it’s possible to overturn this might require not just an amazing creative team where artist and writer are working towards this goal, but a comics fandom willing to accept this change.

 

New York Comic Con 2016 Essay #3: The Artist Alley vs. My Expectations

For this year’s New York Comic Con (which is now months ago, whoops!), I’m doing something a bit different with my coverage. Instead of doing a standard con report, with overviews and opinions on panels, artist alley, etc., I’m going to be writing a series of essays based on things I saw at NYCC 2016. Think of it like extended thought exercises and musings inspired by the con.

While manga is closest to my heart, I love comics in general. Even if individual titles aren’t my cup of tea at times, and even if I find myself going back to Japanese comics more often than not (for reasons both rational and irrational), I never want to stop giving different types of comics a chance. This is one of the reasons I’m generally eager to visit the Artist’s Alley at New York Comic Con. Though it’s been years since I looked forward to Wednesdays (the day when new comics in America come out), I still opened myself up to the artists of NYCC 2016 with a simple desire: I wanted to be wowed, to be drawn to them and convinced to read more.

Perhaps I set too unfair a standard for myself and for the artists there.

I want to emphasize that I think the New York Comic Con Artist’s Alley is full of incredible talent. These are hard-working artists, each of whom have their own stories when it comes to how they came to comics. Also, given that NYCC is built on American comics culture, a lot of it would be the things you’d expect: superheroes, graphic novels, and certain approaches to cartooning and anatomy that have grown out of the American tradition. I think all of these things are great and have their own unique strengths worth exploring, but when it came time to find something that, pardon the cliché, spoke to me, I just wasn’t able to.

I feel that the decision-making process I went through as I looked from booth to booth was vague, even to myself. It’s not that I had any specific criteria. For example, I enjoy seeing comics about cool girls doing cool things, but I’d find that the particular arrangements that existed in the Artist’s Alley fell into recurring categories that made them all blend together to a certain extent. If they weren’t female superheroes, they were girls who wanted to show how much they defy gender expectations. These are both very good things, but it’s as if, in the rush to seize these ideas and the momentum they carry (whether for profit, social consciousness, desire to create interesting stories, or something else entirely), they ended up collectively dulling the product in my eyes.

I believe that a lot of the problem lies with me. When you distance yourself from something as I have, you tend to look at it in broader strokes. The opposite is often true if you get too deep into something. For example, when it comes to anime I’m a long-time Gundam fan. I’ve seen nearly every series, and I appreciate the subtle nuances and varying approaches that they bring, for better or worse. To someone outside of Gundam fandom, it just all looks like robots fighting wars and characters giving speeches. Thus, when I looked at Artist’s Alley as this well of potential to bring me back into the fold, I think I was expecting it to have much more of a gravitational pull than it had any right to. After all, if you’re at an Artist’s Alley at New York Comic Con, it’s natural to assume that you should already be into the stuff. It’s not the responsibility of the artists there to “convince me” to give American comics more of a chance, only to convince me to check out their work.

I still plan on taking a similar approach to Artist’s Alley next year with some adjustments. Instead of hoping for something to call out to me and speak directly to my soul, I’ll drift towards anything that catches my fancy. I shouldn’t expect a revolution, but I should at the very least leave the door open for minor reforms.