“Quality over Representation in Comics” is a False Argument

When looking at current discourse over media, one notion hanging around comics and other related mediums is that diversity is somehow “forced.” The argument, so it goes, is that over-prioritization comes at the expense of storytelling and presentation. There is a disingenuous element to this whole line of reasoning where the true motive is trying to keep racial and sexual minorities out of fandom, but you’ll sometimes find people trying to argue this anti-diversity point in good faith. After all, “I love diversity, but quality should come first” seems like an innocent enough stance at first blush. However, the way they think about it is somewhat backwards. Being able to ignore the state of representation in works and judging them primarily on aesthetics is, to a degree, a luxury born out of already being able to see yourself and your values in them.

The image of the strong white man is practically foundational to the superhero tradition upon which American comics were built. Batman is one clear example, but even Superman—who was somewhat secretly coded as an immigrant—could pass as a typical white American on a visual basis. This is not to say that the intent behind their creation was racism, but rather that these stories had to deal with an assumption of what and who was the default.

It’s certainly not impossible for a reader or viewer to see themselves in a character who doesn’t look like them, come from the same background as them, or think and feel like them. In fact, that’s one of the beautiful things about media and fiction. But there’s a difference between being able to do this whenever you want and having to do this because you have no choice otherwise. Even when a new character is introduced as a way to speak to fans who could not see themselves in comics before, such as Stan Lee with the Falcon or Jack Kirby with Black Panther, their good intentions were also inevitably limited by a lack of firsthand understanding that comes with being born a part of black culture—which is where later creators such as Reginald Hudlin and director Ryan Coogler come in.

Comics and comics culture benefit not just from having a wide range of possible stories, but also giving the opportunity for a greater range of people to experience those stories while still feeling like they are as important and as special as anyone else. The many decades since the golden age of comics have brought the world an ever greater range of heroes of all colors and walks of life, with different authors and artists being able to leave their marks on this history. And even if a particular title is perceived as being too blunt or ham-fisted in its championing of certain groups or just diversity itself, having voices out there saying, “How you live and how you are is perfectly fine. You can dream!” is an important precedent to make, especially because it’s all too easy for an industry or culture to slide back into ignorance.

 

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The Real Pressures of Being Asian-American: American Born Chinese

Gene Luen Yang is a comics creator I hold in high esteem thanks to his work on The Shadow Hero and the Avatar: The Last Airbender comics. I know him as a writer who strives to make Asian voices heard, and who depicts the Asian experience as something natural and relatable, as opposed to foreign and exotic. Recently, I read American Born Chinese, Yang and colorist Lark Pien’s 2007 award-winning comic, it resonated with me on a very deep and fundamental level. It’s to the extent that I have to wonder if the story it tells—and the tools it uses—are not intrinsically understood by those for whom race is neither an active or even passive issue.

American Born Chinese tells three seemingly disconnected narratives. One is about the Monkey King, loosely based on the classic novel Journey to the West, and his attempts to prove himself the equal of the gods. Another follows Jin Wang, a Chinese boy born in San Francisco’s Chinatown whose family moves to a predominantly white neighborhood. Jin has to balance his desire to be more like the other “normal” (read: Caucasian) kids against his friendship with a Chinese immigrant classmate named Wei-Chen Sun—particularly when it comes to his crush, a white girl named Amelia. The last is about a boy named Danny who is exasperated by his cousin Chin-Kee, a bizarre figure who seems to embody every awful Chinese stereotype. The three stories eventually come together in an interesting way, highlighting a common theme between all three: the pressure, both internal and external, to change yourself to match what the world says is worth something.

What I find interesting—and extremely personal—is that while the end of the book hammers home the idea that you should love who you are, its specific lens made me feel in my marrow each signal and hint at the conflict Asian-Americans have in terms of cultural identity. The name of the book itself speaks to a common distinction made among Chinese-Americans, those who were born in the US and embrace or at least assume its values (American Born Chinese, or ABCs) and those who have immigrated from China or Chinese-speaking places (Fresh off the Boat, or FOBs).

Growing up, if you were an ABC, you never wanted to do anything that could be read as FOBbish—which was made all the more complicated if you were first generation and your parents immigrated. Wearing clothes that were too Chinese meant you were a FOB. Speaking with an accent, or even in an imperfect way, meant you were a FOB. Kids didn’t know or care that maybe you just mumbled—it all sounded like “ching chong” to them. The American culture and even some Chinese adults to a certain degree communicated the idea that whiteness or a facsimile of whiteness was something to aspire to. Combined with the Chinese spirit of hard work, it was meant to be a recipe for a kind of success. At the same time, the terms ABC and FOB were primarily used among Chinese and Asian kids, almost like we were trying to self-police our collective behavior.

Jin’s initial reluctance to getting to know Wei-Chen reflects this fear of being seen as “too Chinese.” Wei-Chen tries to talk to Jin in Chinese, only for the latter to reply that he should speak English in America. As an immigrant with an accent and different cultural norms, Wei-Chen is basically everything Jin’s trying to run away from. When Wei-Chen then starts achieving things that Jin cannot or believes he’s not American (i.e. white) enough to do, and when Jin encounters racism from those he considered close, it flips his world upside down.

The Monkey King’s increasingly desires to be accepted by the gods. He learns mystic arts and all the things gods are supposed to be able to do, but they still only see him as a monkey. At the same time, he tries to correct his monkey-like behavior—for instance, by wearing shoes. The parallels between Jin and the Monkey King jumped out at me immediately, though I wonder if that’s the case for all readers.

Chin-Kee’s role initially seems to be highlighting racist imagery of Asians. There’s even a kind of laugh track at the bottom of every panel he’s in, as if you’re watching a sitcom with a wacky cousin. But as the story unfolds, his purpose becomes clearer: he embodies the fear that many Asian-Americans have about their image of American-ness showing cracks. If only they could just keep that side of themselves hidden, the world wouldn’t question whether they belong.

There’s an early scene in the comic where Jin is eating dumplings, and a couple of white kids make fun of him for it, even going as far as to say they’re made of dog meat. Chin-Kee is basically the personification of the shame Jin feels in that instant. Dumplings would be innocuous in China or other countries, but they become a barrier to acceptance in his mind.

While it never quite got that bad for me in my own life, I recall questioning why my family would sometimes eat steamed buns for breakfast, when American TV told me it should always involve muffins or something. My parents tried their best to provide a life that was both Asian and American, but on more than one occasion, I would ask, “Why do we have to eat rice so often?” It was only after I came back from my first year of college that I realized what a blessing daily rice and a home-cooked meal from my parents’ culture could be.

In 2019, Asian acceptance is at a high. Between cultural shifts that call to attention subtler forms of racism to successful films and TV shows starring Asians without the need for kung fu, things have changed. But there’s still an Asian-American experience whose trials and triumphs build day by day, and whose specifics may not be communicable to those unfamiliar with such a process. While it may never be entirely possible to bridge that gap, I hope we continue to build.

“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.

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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