I’m still sort of recovering from NY Comic Con. It’s given me a tremendous amount to think through, which is great. After the fun of the Black Panther panel, I wanted to share thoughts about the other amazing panel that I attended at the Con.
The panel was about Asian Americans and comics. The panel’s formal title was Asian Americans and Super Heroes: Secret Identities. It was organized around Secret Identities a forthcoming Asian American graphic novel anthology edited by Jeff Yang. But really, promoting the book (preview here) was just an excuse for a bunch of Asian people to talk about race and culture.
It is so easy to fall into dichotomous considerations of race in America, and this panel really drove home the point that there is more to race (*sigh* fine, race and ethnicity) than just Black and white.
Listening in on the conversation made me appreciate how mainstream Black culture has become. It also made me feel sort of clueless. Think about it: the Scream movies had a running joke about the fact that Black characters are always to first to die in horror movies. As a result, a plurality of people are aware of this trope and will look for it. But when someone on the panel pointed out that all the popular leading Asian men in Hollywood got their start in Hong Kong, I was like “really?” But recognize: Chow Yun Fat, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, none of them are from around here. Daniel Dae Kim, the Korean-American actor who plays Jin on Lost might be the Asian leading man exception to this rule, except that he has to play a Korean on the show. He must stand-in for his ethnicity. And lord knows women lust after him, so why hasn’t someone cast him in a romantic comedy opposite Drew Barrymore? Oh, right.
And can someone get John Cho a sitcom? Anyone?
Jeff Yang asserted that one of the goals of Secret Identities is to expose the diversity of Asian American culture. I’d be curious to hear what he thinks about Gran Torino, which focuses on Hmong immigrants. Anyway, this lack is powerfully felt. Its possible to become acquainted with Black culture passively, but where are the uniquely American narratives of Korean-Americans? Of Japanese-Americans? Of Chinese-Americans? I’d venture to say that American media consumers know more about Chinese culture than Chinese-American culture. And, as the panel evidenced, its not that there aren’t talented people who want to tell these stories.
This brings me to an uncomfortable observation, something I certainly wasn’t going to bring up during the panel. The most popular Asian-American voices in graphic novels (as opposed to comics where Jim Lee runs things) are Gene Luen Yang and Adrian Tomine. Yang currently has a serial running in the New York Times magazine and Tomine work is omni-present in the New Yorker and elsewhere. But their best known texts, Yang’s American Born Chinese and Tomine Shortcomings are both about self-hating Asian men who desire to be more mainstream. What does this say about the kinds of stories Asian American creators are allowed to tell?