You wouldn't like them when they're angry. From left, animated versions of Keith Chow, Jeff Yang and Jerry Ma strike martial art poses in the pages of "Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology." Along with Parry Shen, Chow, Yang and Ma are the editors of the graphic novel. (Art by Jef Castro/Secret Identities)
We can be (super) heroes
‘Secret Identities’ collects stories of Asian-American superheroes from Asian-American perspectives
By Joe Nguyen, AsiaXpress.com
April 12, 2009
Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology
Publisher: New Press (April 14, 2009)
List price: $21.95
Official website: www.secretidentities.org
About the editors
Yang pens Asian Pop column in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Worked at Marvel Comics before becoming actor.
Education and Outreach Editor
Childhood heroes were Batman, Michael Jordan and Kool Mo Dee.
Short story “Burn” led him to launch the indie comics studio Epic Proportions.
From Larry Hama to Jim Lee to Greg Pak, Asian Americans have been at the forefront of the comic book industry for years. For fanboys, their names are as synonymous as the characters they helped mold.
But despite their numbers behind the scenes, between the pages there is a lack of characters of Asian descent that are more than just one-dimensional bit players.
"There really aren't that many Asian heroes," San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jeff Yang said. "Asians in comics have been relegated in the sidekick role, sometimes with offensive characters."
That's why Yang teamed up with Jerry Ma, Parry Shen and Keith Chow to create "Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology." It’s a 200-page collection of original stories about Asian-American superheroes by Asian-American creators that comes out on April 13.
"The one cool thing about comics is that anything is possible," said Yang, editor-in-chief of "Secret Identities." "You can imagine beneath the mask, beneath the cowl, it could be your name, your face, your identity beneath that costume.
"And yet when that mask came off, it wasn't us. We didn't see the alter-ego resembling us or sharing experiences that we had."
The book features 66 different creators who came up with a multitude of characters, each with their own unique experience that weaves its way through the fabric of Asian-American history.
"We always wanted to have a diversity of voices because one of the things we tried to point out is that there isn't just necessarily one Asian-American experience," said Chow, the project's education and outreach editor. "There are a multitude of Asian-American experiences."
Back in 2006, Yang wrote a piece about the role of Asian Americans in comic books called "Look ... Up in the sky! It's Asian Man!" for his Asian Pop column in the Chronicle. In it, he explored the appeal of superheroes within Asian America.
One of the people he interviewed was Chow, the education specialist for Diamond Comic Distributors at the time. Chow had just finished a newsletter about Asian Americans in the comic industry in May 2006 for Asian Heritage Month. It featured interviews with creators such as Pak, Gene Yang and Derek Kirk Kim and showcased books that featured Asian-American characters, Chow said.
"In the 80s, you have all these creators like Jim Lee and Greg LaRocque ... and you never figured out why there were so many Asians behind the scenes, but not that many Asians in the scenes," Chow said.
In the course of their encounter, the two men began talking about how cool it would be to put together a book about Asian-American superheroes someday, Yang said.
"(We) invite all these creators who were out there already and said, ‘hey, why don't you actually try creating some characters who are Asian American and see what would happen,’" he said. "We both said it was a great idea, but again we didn't think anything was going to come out of it."
But something did come out from their discussion. A few weeks later at a comic book convention in Philadelphia, Chow met Ma, an artist who was the creator of an indie book called "Burn."
"When I mentioned this idea of Asian-American comics, (Ma) was like, ‘I know Jeff Yang,’" Chow said. "‘We should totally do this.’"
Now armed with writers and an artist, they set out to solicit ideas.
"We sent this massive PR release call out to everybody saying we need stories, we need ideas," Chow said.
One man who answered was Shen, an actor from Los Angeles known for his lead role as Ben Manibag in "Better Luck Tomorrow." But prior to his days on screen, he worked on the editorial side of Marvel Comics.
"I thought this was a perfect opportunity to start a bumper crop of 50 Asian-American characters that could be spun off to other mediums such as film and television," said Shen, managing editor for "Secret Identities." "You see a lot of graphic novels that are becoming feature films like '300' and 'Watchmen' and this is a great opportunity to do that."
'I DON'T KNOW IF WE EVER SET OUT TO GET 66 PEOPLE'
Parry Shen shares a story of how he got “Detective Comics” artist Dustin Nguyen to draw “21 Jump Street” actor Dustin Nguyen’s idea for a hero.
“That was a get for us. It has always been a dream of who would we try to get and we know that Dustin Nguyen who draws for ‘Detective Comics’ is awesome. And I knew the actor, and when I went to San Diego Comic-Con last year, my sole intent was to get Dustin to draw Dustin Nguyen from ‘21 Jump Street’s’ idea or concept. So I pitched it to him and at first he wasn't interested then I mentioned about the actor and then he loved it because they both have been confused, mistaken for one another. Let's clear the air here and have you draw his concept of a hero and I pitched it to the actor and they both loved it. And they were working together, so this was the first collaboration ever of Dustin Nguyen and Dustin Nguyen.
“I know James Kyson Lee from ‘Heroes’ and we were trying to get Jim Lee from Wildstorm – It never panned out.”
With Chow's connections to the comic industry, Shen's to the world of Hollywood and Yang's to other facets of Asian America, the Secret Identities crew was successful in its outreach efforts.
"I don't know if we ever set out to get 66 people because if we did, we would've said, 'this is a lot of people'" Chow said. "That's probably why it took three years to get the book done."
The vast amounts of responses created a diverse cross-section of voices, Yang said. While the book features mainstream creators such as Billy Tan and Greg LaRocque, and actors such as Sung Kang and Kelly Hu, it also showcases those who would normally never have an opportunity to do a comic book.
"If we wanted to do this right, instead of picking and choosing our favorite artists and our favorite writers and working with people who are established, we wanted to open up the door for all those people who are like ourselves," Yang said. "Fans of comics (who) always doodled or thought to ourselves, 'wouldn't it be great if there was a hero who did what.'"
After choosing the most interesting ideas and fleshing them out, the editors paired the amateur writers with professional artists.
"We have professionals and amateurs side by side," he said. "You have people who are dreamers, you have people who are professionals and we think that was the best way to represent the richness of what superheroes mean as a metaphor in the Asian-American condition."
During this process, the editors began finding common themes in many of the stories. These themes revolved around certain points in history such as the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II and the death of James Kim, who died of hypothermia while trying to save his family in 2007.
"There are so many parts of American history that aren't really spoken about as necessarily in the mainstream of what people talk about in history that nevertheless were critical moments in Asian-American history," he said, "and potentially you could really see them as a place where an alternative history could have been forged."
MISSING IN THE MAINSTREAM
When Yang wrote his piece back in 2006, there was a sudden rise of minorities taking over the roles of many established characters in the comic book industry, he said.
Marvel altered its character of Wasp, who is white in its main universe, to Asian in its Ultimate universe in 2002. DC, meanwhile, changed the Atom to a Korean scientist.
“Let's just make this guy, his parents get mugged in an alley and he takes on this costume of a flying rodent and his name is Bruce Wong,” Yang said. “It's not that simple.”
Often these characters fail because fans see the change as a cheap stunt, Chow said.
“If you look at the Blue Beetle, they made him a Latino teenager – that series got canceled recently. That's what happens when you try and racialize traditional characters,” he said. “The reason they see it as a gimmick is because after 12 issues, the original guy always comes back. ...
“They're always seen as a placeholder and not a true iconic character.”
But creating new minority characters who add to the story is tough, Chow said. These characters would be introduced to a universe started more than a half-century ago by creators who populated the world with what they knew.
“It's difficult being a creator to come up with original characters that don't feel contrived,” he said. “When they do throw in an ethnic character, a lot of times it just feels tacked on, it doesn't feel authentic.”
One of the goals of “Secret Identities” was to create rich characters whose ethnicity and experiences helped shape them, Chow said.
“The best way to do that is to create your own universe that mirrors your reality more so than what's already out there,” he said.
And by mixing Asian-American history with the superhero genre, they were able to forge their own unique universe, Yang said.
“That was sort of the shadow history background,” Yang said, “taking real-life, real-world circumstances and using the lens of the superhero to explore the Asian-American experience within them and using the lens of Asian America to explore the metaphor of a superhero.”
'Just a Nisei Kid.' The unnamed main character in Jonathan Tsuei's "9066" takes flight. (Art by Jerry Ma/Secret Identities)
PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE
Right now, the four editors are touring around the country, promoting the book. But before the book even comes out, they have already been talking about plans for a second volume to the anthology.
Only this time, they’re taking a different approach.
“One of the first things I wrote as managing editor ... was coming up with a tally list of things that we would do differently and the second one was to have half as much creators and longer stories,” Shen said. “Because some of the stories … I want to see a little bit more of and to see where they would go.
“It'd be more manageable for all of us. This is more of a learning curve. I think we can turn it out in half the time at least.”
People have already asked how they can contribute to the second volume, Shen said.
And as exciting as it is to hear the buzz travel about their book, Yang said the true reason behind their efforts can be found on page three where they list the staff's babies who were born during course of their work. Growing up, there weren't Asian-American superheroes and they don’t want that for the next generation.
“Every blockbuster film out there is a superhero movie,” he said. “We wanted to make sure the next generation at least has the potential of not growing up entirely the way we did, without any kind of hero that looked like us and talked like us and maybe shared some of this in ourselves.”
For more information about "Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology," go to www.secretidentities.org.