Secret Identities: Parry Shen Unmasked

by Guest Contributor Jenn, originally published at Reappropriate

parryThe Backstory: This interview is the first in a series of interviews with the editors of Secret Identities, an anthology of comic short stories about Asian American superheroes from Asian American writers and artists. Secret Identities hit bookshelves last week, and in case you haven’t heard, it’s awesome.

In This Issue: I spoke with each of the editors one-on-one for about an hour, chatting about a variety of topics from the making of Secret Identities to their favourite comic books when they were a kid. These interviews are based on those conversations.

I thank each of the editors for taking time out of their busy schedules (and their jam-packed book tour) to chat with me.

I first met Parry Shen back in the spring of 2004, when he visited my undergraduate alma mater for a workshop on his experiences as lead actor in Justin Lin’s debut film, Better Luck Tomorrow. At his workshop, I learned a lot about Shen’s experiences as an Asian American actor in a predominantly non-Asian Hollywood. I learned about the difficulties for minority actors in the casting process and the sense of futility, cynicism, and defeat that many Asian American actors ultimately succumb to before leaving the industry altogether. And, I learned about the breath of fresh air that an independent film like Better Luck Tomorrow represented for a large community of struggling Asian American actors, directors and producers. Better Luck Tomorrow was a shot of pure adrenaline; it established to a disillusioned community of Asian American entertainers that a socially-conscious, Asian American-focused project could be made in a profit-driven mainstream Hollywood, and that our community would come out in full force to support it.

Six years later, Shen is hoping to do it again.

Although Shen is the first editor I interviewed for this series, he was the last editor to join the board of Secret Identities. A daily reader of Phil Yu’s Angry Asian Man blog, Shen was thrilled when Yu posted a call for submissions for a collected anthology of Asian American superhero comic stories written by Asian American comic book legends and fanboys alike. A long-time comic book fan, Shen immediately responded to the call for submissions (two of his pieces appear in the book: Hibakusha, a story about a group of young Hiroshima survivors who develop awesome powers, and 16 Miles, a story based on the death of real-life Asian American hero, James Kim). The anthology’s editors were so impressed with Shen’s creativity and enthusiasm, that they invited him to join the board as Managing Editor.

“I have been an actor for twelve years,” says Shen. “And, I was getting extremely frustrated with the roles I was auditioning for… [I felt like] I was going out for the same type of guy: this tech guy who works at this firm who is really good at what he does but as soon as a woman walks by, he clams up. [I kept asking myself] How many times will I have to audition for this guy?”

It was during this period of soul-searching that Shen decided to contribute to Secret Identities.

“The top comic book artists are all Asian American,” explains Shen. “How come they hadn’t yet banded together to create a project like this? [This anthology was asking Asian American comic fans to] create some cool people who are masculine and who are saving the day. That really hit home for me, and I [already] had a story in mind — the Hibakusha story. I pitched the story, just wanting to be a contributor, but (and I don’t know what talks they had) but all of a sudden, I got editorial duties! I’m pretty good with organization skills, so that was definitely my strength [on the board]. Maybe I filled that need.”

Like many fanboys and fangirls, Shen’s interest in comic books started in his youth, which of course begs the question: DC or Mavel? “I’m a Marvel guy,” states Shen without hesitation. “When I was a kid, I was attracted to Marvel because of how they humanized their characters, whether I knew it or not. DC’s characters were stuck in a rut where they had the villain of the day and [the heroes] had to foil their plans for world domination. Spiderman and the X-men were the first to delve into stories that featured real people with powers. The X-men were trying to help society, but society hated them and were scared of them. But, I have to say, my first comic book was The Picture Bible, which my mom gave me. It told Bible stories in comic format, complete with superheroic feats like the parting of the Red Sea. I’m not Catholic, but when I went to Catholic school, thanks to that book, I knew all of the Bible stories. It was really cool how this comic presented the Bible in such a digestible format, and that it tricked me into learning. The last page of Secret Identities follows along that theme — it shows a timeline that maps the stories against Asian American history. Hopefully, readers will get to the end and say, ‘holy cow, this was based on something real?’”

During college, Shen became an officer in his on-campus Asian American organization when he decided to enter the entertainment industry. He interned at Marvel Comics, working in the licensing department, but ultimately chose the route of an actor. When I ask whether Shen ever considered becoming involved in the comic book industry full-time, he laughs, saying: “I didn’t see where I could fit into it, except as an editor or a writer. I couldn’t draw!” Ironically, had Shen stuck with Marvel Comics’ licensing department, he might have become a full-fledged comics insider: several years after Shen’s internship, Avi Arad rejuvenated the Marvel Comics franchise via expansion of that same licensing department to oversee film adaptations of Spiderman, X-men and the Fantastic Four.

Perhaps fulfilling his earliest suspicions of where he might fit into the comic book industry, Shen has surpassed all expectations in his role as Managing Editor for Secret Identities. Speaking about the editorial process, Shen expounds on the difficulties the board faced trying to build a cohesive anthology from a wide array of talented writers and artists with varying styles and experience in the comic medium. “Secret Identities had a lot of contributors, because we had somebody write a story and another person draw it. We had to coordinate the schedules for over 60 creators.”

The risk of anthologies is that they can come off as disjointed — certainly, Secret Identities occasionally suffers from that problem. However, Shen points out that a great deal of effort and attention was put towards ensuring that the whole book “gelled together”. “The essence of an anthology is that different styles and different writers come together to produce a beautiful work. We focused on pairing people according to their strengths and their styles of writing and their styles of artwork.”

The editors, too, seemed to play to one anothers’ strengths. Keith Chow, a freelance writer coached contributors in script-writing, while Shen notes that both he and Jeff Yang (columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle) offered different perspectives originating from their experiences in the mainstream entertainment industry. And it was Jerry Ma, founder of freelance graphic design studio Epic Proportions, who literally saved the look of the book. Initially, the editors struggled with the 4-6 page limit placed on each submission. “We fudged [those limits] a little,” says Shen, “but it shows why everyone’s favourite story is Blue Scorpion & Chung. It needs that length.” The problem was that with each story trying to make the most of 4 pages, all the artwork became little boxes. “Midway through, Jerry realized that the book was beginning to look like a street map! He was the one who said, ‘visually, this book isn’t looking very good’, so [based on his comments] we re-wrote some stuff and gave the artists room to breathe.”

The primary challenge for Secret Identities’ editors was working with creators with such vastly different skill levels. According to Shen, the editors worked closely with many writers to help them take full advantage of the comic format. Some artists, too, were inexperienced with the comic medium; Ma helped those artists to literally “think outside the box”. In addition, many of the editors were inexperienced in publishing a book. Shen confesses that before this project, he didn’t know that pages were published in sets of eight. “That’s why we have only eight full-colour profile pages. Originally, we had twelve submissions we wanted to use, but we couldn’t get to sixteen, so we had to chop those four off.”

Despite all this backroom tinkering, Secret Identities appears to come together almost effortlessly, showcasing an impressive array of Asian American talent including pieces from the editors, themselves. Shen talks about this inspiration for his story 16 Miles. “I became Managing Editor [for Secret Identities] in October 2006. The death of James Kim happened a month later, in November or December of 2006. Heroes and Asian Americans were on the forefront of everything I was doing at the time. I was like, ‘he’s the real deal.’ All the stories we have are fictionalized; but this is someone who did a real heroic act. This guy can’t not be in this book in some form. But since this is a superhero anthology, I wanted him to have a superpower he couldn’t use, so he had to rely on his human strength. And that’s the true source of his heroism.”

As for the other stories in Secret Identities, one of Shen’s favourites is Meet Joe. In it, an Asian American guy (average in every way) showcases an array of superpowers only to be confronted by other Asian Americans from his past who reveal that all Asian Americans share those superpowers, and that Joe puts the community at risk by revealing these abilities to the outside world. Shen says, “everyone’s frustrated about being portrayed as the weak guy. This story points that out by embracing it in parody: as if all Asians know computers and martial arts… It’s such an offbeat story, and the artwork matched it perfectly. My favourite character is the Chinese delivery guy (one of the three characters who confront Joe) who has this cigarette dangling out of his mouth. Looking at him, you can’t not laugh! Once [the editorial board] saw the initial sketches, we just busted out laughing!”

Another of Shen’s favourites is S.O.S., by Tanuj Chopra (art by Alex Joon Kim), another parody comic about superhero outsourcing.

For Shen, this latest foray back into the comic book industry began as a side hobby. But with the expected success of volume one, Shen has begun to explore the possibilities of connecting Secret Identities to his day job as an actor. Shen is currently working on a screenplay adaptation of his story Hibakusha, and is excited about the possibility that he might one day have the opportunity to play one of Secret Identities’ 52 Asian American superheroes on the big screen. “It’s become more of a passion than acting,” confesses Shen. ”I can control the content and have my say. We’ll have to see what the public interest in [Secret Identities] is. I’m still auditioning, but the roles don’t really excite me as much as the possibilities for a Secret Identities, volume two.”

A volume two? Do my ears deceive? Shen jokes: “Much to the dismay of my wife, we’re definitely talking about a volume two.”

Among a few logistical changes, Shen thinks that a volume two might have fewer contributors, each being given the space to write longer stories. “Fewer contributors would be more manageable,” says Shen. “[Then we could] double the page content and increase the overall page count. Everybody, including us, wanted to see more of each story.” In addition, Shen drops a tantalizing hint. “While we were at New York’s ComicCon, a fan said to us, ‘I love the premise, but doing heroes is kind of easy. It’s more difficult to do a compelling villain.”

Perhaps Secret Identities, Volume 2 will be a supervillain anthology? Shen says his imagination is already running wild with that notion. Mashura (a villain in Secret Identities) could be one of the forefront characters. “Maybe he’s trying to control all of these young supers!” says Shen, excitedly.

Nonetheless, the possibilities for a volume two depend on the success of the first book. Shen encourages each of us, whether we’ve purchased a copy of Secret Identities already or not, to contact our local comic book stores and bookstores, requesting that Secret Identities be ordered and placed on the shelves. “Let them know you’re interested,” says Shen. “The editors aren’t making a dime off of this book. This book was truly a labour of love.”

Act Now! Purchase your copy of Secret Identities and then tell everyone you know how awesome it is and how they should get their own copy. Also, visit your local bookstores and comic book shops and pester the owners and managers to carry the book, just ‘cuz it’s so awesome.