A Collage of Perspectives: Dragon Hoops

Dragon Hoops by Chinese-American comics creator Gene Luen Yang is a 2020 Harvey Awards nominee for “Best Children or Young Adult Book.” A sort of hybrid biography/autobiography, it covers Yang’s own experience learning about the basketball team at the high school where he taught math, and the complexities of race intertwined within sports and culture.

When I first heard the title, I figured that the book would be something about Chinese basketball players. But while there is a Chinese exchange student on the basketball team, the main focus is on the Bishop O’Dowd Dragons basketball team as a whole, which is made up of a variety of ethnicities. The book spotlights a variety of figures: the coach who was a former player at O’Dowd, the two black star athletes who are hesitant to talk about the details of their upbringings, a Punjabi teammate who feels out of place at a Catholic high school, the aforementioned Chinese player who dreams of being able to play real American basketball, and more. Over and over again, Dragon Hoops emphasizes their uniqueness as individuals and the intricate ways that their respective experiences shape how they see both the world and the opportunities afforded by basketball. 

Dragon Hoops also provides multiple history lessons, including the invention of basketball, the rise of the sport in China, and even how black players became integrated into professional basketball. One thing I found out from this book is that there was once a false belief that black people did not have the quick wit or the athletic ability to succeed in basketball over white people. In contrast to today, where black people are sometimes likened to “gorillas” as a way to diminish their tremendous skills and talents, the ways that racism can mold and reshape itself to fit any changes highlights how insidious it really is.

An unusual aspect of this book is that part of the overall narrative is how Yang, as a person unfamiliar with basketball, learns about these students’ stories and the lessons he takes with him in his own career in comics. As a character in his own book, there’s a great deal of 4th wall breaking, and it does sometimes feel like Dragon Hoops might be getting a little too self-centered. However, I feel that it actually successfully conveys the authenticity of Yang’s position as an outside observer, and to take a more authoritative position would arguably have been more disingenuous. I connect strongly with Yang’s approach because I used to be someone who was bothered by not having deep and intimate knowledge of any subject I became interested in, but more recently realized that it’s simply okay to not be an expert in everything. In this respect, the book feels more like Yang letting the students tell their own stories through the comics pages, even as Yang himself admits to a bit of fictionalizing to get some points across.

While Dragon Hoops did not end up winning the Harvey Award, it was actually another title by Yang, Superman Smashes the Klan, that ended up winning. The two books may seem different on the surface—one is about that most iconic of superheroes, the other based about teenagers and their relationship with basketball—but both take an intimate look at American culture with respect to race and racism. But whereas Superman Smashes the Klan bases itself in the iconography of Superman, the biographical aspect of Dragon Hoops makes it feel even more relevant to the checkered past and present of the United States and its racism. Dragon Hoops provides a context of what it means to “succeed” in a world where basketball is oxymoronically both a respite and a direct engagement with American culture.

Our Better Angels: Superman Smashes the Klan

When I was more actively into superhero comics, the prevailing sentiment about Superman was that he’s a “boring” character whose nigh-invulnerability and moral uprightness were far less interesting than the grim and gritty Batman or what Marvel Comics had been doing. But I think that was as much a reflection of the kinds of people who called themselves comics fans as well as a kind of blindness towards the very fact that Superman is a reflection of both the ideals and the shortcomings of the United States. It’s a country built upon both racism and opportunity, and Superman as the “ultimate immigrant” stands at that crossroads. 

Plenty of works about Superman have helped to showcase his humanity, from All-Star Superman to Smallville to the 1990s’ Superman: The Animated Series to even the controversial Man of Steel, but Superman Smashes the Klan by writer Gene Luen Yang and artists Gurihiru that I think presents an especially poignant story about Superman’s internal conflict through his own status as an immigrant.

Superman Smashes the Klan is an adaptation/re-imagining of one of the most famous stories ever told in the old 1940s radio show, The Adventures of Superman, in which Superman faces off against a Ku Klux Klan analogue. The catch: the show had actual KKK secrets and code words, and helped to expose them to a greater American audience, weakening their ability to recruit new members. Where Yang makes his mark as the writer This particular arc also includes the Chinese Lee family as minor characters, and that’s where Yang—whose previous comics focus heavily on the Chinese experience in the US—makes his mark by giving them extra attention. The topics of racism and the immigrant experience are portrayed with an incredible amount of nuance that leads to far more than just a “racism is bad” moral lesson.

The Lee family, for example, is portrayed as each having different relationships with the concept of “Americanizing.” Tommy, the son, loves baseball and will even make jokes about his Chinese-ness as a way to befriend the white kids around him. Roberta, Tommy’s inquisitive sister, sees his behavior as incredibly fake, and doesn’t want to have to put on a show or play into stereotypes. Their father is so intent on presenting himself as a model minority that he tries to dress the part of the professional scientist even in dire emergencies. Their mother gets fed up with her husband’s insistence on speaking English instead of Cantonese even though it’s a much more comfortable language for her to express herself. Even though all four characters are Chinese and even related to one another, they’re shown to be influenced by the tension between their Chinese background and American life in different ways. 

The white characters are given a similar treatment, where Tommy’s baseball rival, Chuck Riggs, is shown to have both good and ill within him. He worships Superman and the righteousness he embodies but also has a white supremacist upbringing that influences how he sees others. It’s the conflict between these two aspects of him that defines Chuck’s own development throughout.

Superman’s part in this story mirrors that of the Lees. He actively tries to portray himself as a Good American just like any other—albeit with superhuman strength and speed—but has to deal with knowing that he’s not human like everyone assumes he is. One antagonistic character even assumes that Superman is white, and asks how Superman could betray his own race, a scene that touches upon those with non-white backgrounds who are able to pass as “white” in American society, and reap the benefits as a result. There’s even an acknowledgement of Superman’s parallels to the Nazi idolization of Nietzche’s concept of the “Die Ubermensch” by having a Nazi villain constantly call him “The Superman.”

There’s one aspect of Yang’s writing of Asian characters that I must praise, and that’s his willingness to portray them as having their own problematic beliefs. After the Lee home is attacked by the Klan, a group of black men driving by stop to help them out. However, Roberta and Tommy’s father immediately sees them as a threat and treats them as such. Here, his racism and stereotypical assumptions of black people reveal themselves, even as he himself tries to fight racism towards himself and his family. As an Asian-American myself, the capacity for Asians to both bristle at the discrimination inflicted upon them while being complicit in racism against other peoples is one of my greatest frustrations in life, and I am glad to see Superman Smashes the Klan showing both the fact that this happens and the complexity it carries. It’s very much in line with the kind of well-rounded yet complicated depictions seen in Yang’s previous works such as American Born Chinese and The Shadow Hero.

While I focused mostly on the writing aspect for this review, I want to give credit to Gurihiru’s excellent art. As always, their work feels both approachable yet filled with a sense of quiet grandeur. The care they give to showing the differences between the characters through their body language ends up enhancing the greater themes and important points of the comic overall.

Superman Smashes the Klan feels ever more relevant as the United States is seeing the rise of hate groups and increased violence towards non-white groups of all stripes. It is an accessible book that is worth reading by kids and adults alike, and I think it would especially resonate with Asians living in the US. It’s worth not just a look, but also a close examination of how America succeeds and fails at the ideals it presents to the world.

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.

Authenticity I Never Knew I Wanted: The Shadow Hero


Superhero revivals are a dime a dozen, but few are like The Shadow Hero by writer Gene Luen Yang and artist Sonny Liew. The basic idea behind the comic is that it provides an origin story to a hero who never had one, the golden age character known as the Green Turtle, but Yang and Liew take it further by essentially “reclaiming” the character for Asian-Americans.

Originally created by a man named Chu F. Hing, the publisher for The Green Turtle had tried to make its titular hero white. Hing, it is argued by Yang and Liew, appears to have defied this order by never showing the Green Turtle’s face, either having him face away from the reader or having his features obscured by a cape or something else. Yang and Liew take this further by actually making the Green Turtle undoubtedly Chinese-American, but what’s really remarkable about this series is that it manages to ground this character in both Chinese culture and that early 20th century United States in which they live so well that it actually made me realize I’ve been missing out on an important component of superhero comics all along.

While superheroes have been created since the beginning by people of practically every ethnicity (the most famous example being Superman’s Jewish creators), they have traditionally exuded predominantly a sense of whiteness. This does not make them bad stories or bad superheroes. Nor does it make them unrelatable. I don’t need to have my uncle shot and killed to understand why Peter Parker takes Uncle Ben’s famous great power, great responsibility line to heart. After all, I’m mostly a manga reader and I do not connect all that directly to Japanese culture, either. However, what’s amazing about The Shadow Hero is that, as an Asian-American, the relationship the protagonist Hank Chu has with his family hits so close to home that it makes me feel as if my own culture, that hybrid of my parents’ values and the values of the country I was born and raised in, is being expressed right there on the page.

The best example I can think of comes fairly early in the story, when Hank’s mom is rescued by a Superman-like hero and becomes enamored with the idea of superheroes in general. Wanting the best for her son, she decides Hank should be a superhero too, and goes above and beyond to try to make it happen. Whether it’s dragging him close to chemical spills or getting him to train in martial arts, the mother has her mind set on the idea that the best future for Hank is for him to don a cape and tights and fight crime.

When I replaced the word “superhero” with doctor, lawyer, engineer, pharmacist, or whatever is the most current profession that my parents and older relatives and their friends mention as being the most reliable path to success and prosperity, it all just clicked in my head. Here in The Shadow Hero was something my siblings and I, as well as many of the kids we knew growing up, would encounter on a regular basis. We knew their eagerness over this one thing could be a bit much, but we knew they meant well.

Other signs of Chinese culture can be found throughout. The main villain’s daughters are named after mahjong titles. When Hank first becomes a superhero, his mother makes him an outfit with the Chinese character for gold/money on it, because in Chinese culture it’s common to wish people well by saying that they’ll makes lots of money. This sounds like something you’d do to mock DC superhero Booster Gold, but here you can sense the mother’s earnestness, as well as Hank’s own conflicted feelings towards her.

For the longest time, I’ve felt that I do not look enough at comics that represent Asian American culture. Over the years, seeing David Brothers consistently question the marginalization of black characters in superhero comics and how this is reflective of the historic injustices done to the black community in the United States has made me aware of how little I look at my own culture in the mediums that I love. The Shadow Hero, and that sense of inherent cultural understanding I experienced, made me even more keenly aware that there is so much more I can do.