by Guest Contributor Jenn, originally published at Reappropriate
The first few pages of Secret Identities chronicle an exchange between Jeff Yang (writer of Asian Pop! at the San Francisco Chronicle) and Keith Chow (freelance writer) that originally inspired the Asian American superhero anthology released today. Yang, researching his now well-cited article on Asian American pop culture and comic books (Look… Up in the Sky! It’s Asian Man!), asks Chow about the appeal that comics have had for Asian American youth. Chow replies: “Comics have always been a refuge for kids who are shy or socially awkward. And I think for Asian Americans, the parallels are even stronger. You’re an outsider. You don’t fit in. But then you go to school and meet other people like yourself. You discover your secret heritage – the thing inside you that makes you special.”
Yet, it is frustrating that the comic book industry has failed to identify and acknowledge their loyal Asian American fan-base. While the number of Asian/Asian American superheroes has slowly increased over the last few decades, these heroes remain massively overshadowed by an overabundance of Caucasian protagonists (for a chronological listing of Asian/Asian American superheroes in comics, check out my site Outsiders). Those Asian/Asian American superheroes who do achieve the pinnacle of comic book success – their own ongoing title or mini-series – are frequently written in a one-dimensional (or even stereotypical) manner (often by non-Asian writers overwhelmed by the pressure to write a realistic portrayal of a person with a hyphenated racial and cultural identity). Instead, many contemporary Asian American superheroes end up as a tragic East-meets-West cliché, before they (or their title) meet an untimely (but ultimately predictable) end.
Enter Secret Identities, an anthology of comic short stories about Asian/Asian American superheroes written and illustrated by a superstar cast of Asian/Asian American comic fans, and edited by Yang, Chow, Jerry Ma (founder of Epic Proportions, an independent studio) and Parry Shen (Better Luck Tomorrow). A whopping 190 pages, Secret Identities runs the gamut from classic origin stories of a variety of Asian American superheroes (e.g. Sampler by Jimmy Aquino and art by Erwin Haya) to quirky commentaries on the roles Asian American characters play in today’s mainstream comics (e.g. The Blue Scorpion & Chung by Gene Yang and art by Sonny Liew). And what an amazing diversity of stories it is! Secret Identities is a spirited and gleeful act of protest against the invisibility of Asian Americans in the pages of mainstream comics: each story is a fresh reminder that we Asian Americans can be iconic superheroes, too.
One of my favourite stories is Jeff Yang’s A Day at Costumeco (art by A.L. Baroza) which turns the formulaic superhero family (a la Disney’s Incredibles) on its ear while also offering a tongue-in-cheek reinterpretation of the magical girl genre of Japanese manga. In the story, an Asian American family of superhumans goes to a local superhero Costco (stocked with plutonium at bargain basement prices), where the tortured, Daria-esque Asian American daughter reveals her latent powers as Pretty Super Schoolgirl Valentine, much to her own chagrin. As a onetime ”conaisseur” of shoujo manga, I became an instant fan of this story. Another favourite was Parry Shen’s touching story, 16 Miles (art by Sarah Sapang), which was inspired by the death of James Kim, a father who walked 16 miles in the snow to try and bring back help for his wife and two daughters after the family’s car became trapped in a snowdrift. Finally, Greg Pak’s The Citizen is a colourful and off-beat reimagining of the Captain America origin story that any comic geek will appreciate. Other stories that stand out are James by Michael Kang (art by Erwin Haya), S.O.S. by Tanuj Chopra (art by Alex Joon Kim) and You Are What You Eat by Lynn Chen (art by Paul Wei).
In addition, the editors elevate Secret Identities beyond a simple graphic novel/anthology format with their inclusion of single-page one-shots that depict the editors discussing the impact of comics on Asian Americans, and vice versa. These one-shots punctuate the intervening stories with a sociopolitical context that help formulate the argument as to why a book like Secret Identities is a necessary and natural evolution in our community’s relationship with comics. Sidekicks by Keith Chow features a conversation between Gene Yang (American Born Chinese) and Michael Kang (filmmaker, The Motel) that examines, and ultimately dismantles, the stereotype of the Asian sidekick. Commenting on Bruce Lee’s role as Kato, The Green Hornet’s chauffeur and manservant, Yang says, “Like it or not, the legacy of Kato is ingrained in our pop culture zeitgeist.” Kang replies, “That’s why it’s important to do what Bruce did. Tell our own stories, on our own terms. The more of us there are out there telling our stories, the more multifaceted, complex Asian characters we’ll see.” Yang then remarks, “One thing’s for sure, if Bruce had never gotten fed up with roles like Kato, he might not have gone back to Hong Kong. And the world would have been without the true legacy of Bruce Lee.” This simple exchange provides a useful commentary for the subsequent tale of The Blue Scorpion & Chung (mentioned above), who are clearly references to The Green Hornet and Kato.
To their credit, the editors of Secret Identities paid careful attention to match their writers with talented artists who are capable of augmenting the stories’ plots and tones with their craft. Sampler by Jimmy Aquino is perfectly illustrated by Erwin Haya in stylized shades of greys that match the playful light-heartedness of Aquino’s script. Meanwhile, Jonathan Tsuei’s 9066 is rendered by Jerry Ma in a darker, somewhat more realistic style and heavy inking (all culminating in a beautiful final page) that hits an appropriately somber and cynical note. Secret Identities includes eight full-colour profile pages, each worthy of reprint as a poster pin-up.
If there’s any criticism that can be made of Secret Identities, it would be some minor problems resulting from the unwieldiness of the anthology genre. The necessary brevity of each story produced an occasional sense of disjointedness from story to story. Though many of the stories introduced the reader to interesting and compelling new Asian/Asian American superheroes, the limits on story length also resulted in an overrepresentation of cursory origin-type stories, and I was left with a hope that future editions of Secret Identities (if additional volumes are to be published) will leave more room for longer stories that are able to delve into somewhat more intricate plots or character development. And, as with all anthologies, there are some writers and artists who are slightly more polished than others. But these are all small issues that don’t come close to diminishing a stunning and politically important final product.
Secret Identities is a unique anthology that I believe will prove to be an essential part of any collection of Asian American literature or pop culture works. Not only do we finally have a work that celebrates Asian American superheroes, but we have an incredible example of the heights we can achieve when we produce those works, ourselves. I’m not sure there’s a more compelling argument in favour of supporting our independent Asian American writers, artists and filmmakers. Secret Identities hits shelves today – and, it’s well worth a purchase! In fact, now that I’m finished reading, I can safely say this: I’m already waiting for volume two.
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