Jeff Yang and Parry Shen Spiel on Asian Americans and Comics at Cal State Fullerton Panel
Shen broke out as an actor in 2002 with Better Luck Tomorrow, a film that centered around Asian American characters as the leads (loosely based on the murder of Stuart Tay, a student from Orange County), and would go on to win major prizes at the Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals, launching the career of director Justin Lin (Fast and the Furious, ever heard of it?) Since then, Shen noted before an audience of TKTK, major roles in films remain closed off to Asian American actors, despite the discovery of an untapped market audience and the success of Better Luck Tomorrow (critically and financially, earning $25 million in box office, DVD and rentals).
This isn't surprising. Mainstream Hollywood, of course, has ignored rounded-out characters for people of color for the length of its existence. For Asian Americans, public representation in media was limited to Orientalist fantasies such as the evil mystic, bespectacled, buck-toothed nerd, or yellow face.
Yang explained that historically, images of Asian Americans were guided from the U.S.'s rivalry with Asian nations: the rise of Japan and World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and more currently North Korea. "These are images with an agenda," Yang explained. "It was a political move to use pop culture to define Asians in a way that barred us from coming, preventing us from succeeding, and marginalizing us. Not to complain, but this is part of our history."
The connection from film to comics makes sense; both are essentially composed of a sequence of frames leading the viewer from one to the other, shaping a narrative. "Comics are like storyboards for films." Shen explains. For Yang and Shen, the collaboration on a comic anthology that focused on Asian American superheroes came from a need for more visibility for Asian American characters in media. "The golden age of comics was the early 20th century, when there were superheroes. Those superhero figures are larger than life, like in the movies. But if you had asked me when I was a kid who my favorite superheroes were, they would have all been white superheroes."
Yang and Shen set about to seek Asian American comic artists for a comic anthology that collected stories about Asian American superheroes. The superhero serves as a metaphor for Asian American experience, especially that of Superman, the orphan from Krypton raised by white parents who constantly hides behind glasses in his daily life; shedding his exterior façade, he becomes the powerful Superman. "The two identities can never meet, and he has to find a narrative that fits for both personas," said Yang. "Likewise, we deal with the traditional Asian background and fitting in with the non-Asian public sphere."
Shen admitted the process to find stories wasn't easy; they turned down a lot of stories because they didn't really speak to the Asian American experience. "We were desperate for stories, and there were a lot of good submissions, but we didn't want characters that could have been easily replaced for a white character in a movie," he said.
"Also," Yang added, "there were a lot of submissions about food-related superheroes. As if the thing that represents us the most is food."
Secret Identities became the first anthology of comics. The title refers to the secret identity of a superhero, but also to the image of thick glasses a superhero wears to conceal their identity, which is also an object most worn on Asian characters in films or television. It was met with success; however, Shen noted that some readers felt the genre didn't speak to reality. "Someone came to us and said, 'I really love the book, but your stories are all about superheroes. We aren't superheroes, we have to deal with real problems on a day-to-day basis.'"
The answer to that question became the second comic anthology, Shattered. This time instead of superheroes, the stories focused on Asian American characters in parallel universes of actual events in history. The genres opened up to westerns, noir, science fiction, and fantasy. "The title refers to the shattering of the image of glasses that are mostly worn by the Asian American characters in popular movies or television. These are the kinds of things that represent us today; they are the things that hide us," Yang stated.
Still, Shen replied, there were still some readers questioning the inclusion of all Asian Americans in the second anthology. "Someone asked, 'Why didn't you include Cambodian comic artists? Or Cambodian lesbian comic artists?' What Jeff and I did, we realize, had never been done before, to collect comics from Asian Americans into one book. So we want to encourage others to continue on what we've started."
"We've created a model for others to build from," Yang continued. "We're hoping entire generations that are willing to create can come out. Never before has the creator had such power to put their work out there to the world. It's not all up to us."