FROM THE CREATORS of the acclaimed “Secret Identities” anthology comes a second comic anthology that centers on deconstructing racial stereotypes, primarily through the eyes of fictitious Asian villains in pop culture.
The book, “Shattered: The Asian American Comics Anthology (Secret Identities)” (released last week), brings together more than 75 Asian American creators who offer snapshots into their characters’ daily lives and confront ingrained racial perceptions.
“We chose comics as a medium and the anthology [as a format] because by nature, they are a collection of different things, different stories and different characters that are multifaceted,” Keith Chow, one of the book’s editors, tells Comic Riffs. “I think that is a pretty good instillation of what Asian Americans are like today.
“We are not a monolithic group of people, but we do represent all types of backgrounds, languages, income levels. … The best way to alter perceptions of a community is by showing as many different angles of them as you can.”
Chow and three other writers, Jeff Yang, Parry Shen and Jerry Ma, are pushing boundaries — and pushing back against stereotypes — at the intersection of art and media. They came together three years ago after Yang interviewed Chow, a former Diamond Comics employee, for a story about the disheartening lack of Asian American superheroes.
(Chow and Yang will join illustrator Jamie Noguchi for a discussion and signing of “Shattered” tonight at 6:30 at Washington’s Busboys and Poets on 14th and V streets NW.)
The Brooklyn-based Yang, a self-described “geek of all trades” founded aMagazine and writes as a Wall Street Journal columnist (Tao Jones) and regular contributor to NPR. Chow works as an educator and comics journalist in Maryland.
Ma, a New York creator who founded the comics studio Epic Proportions, and Shen, a Southern California-based actor perhaps best known for his role in “Better Luck Tomorrow,” joined the duo after responding to an open call for contributors. Together they created the acclaimed anthology “Secret Identities,” which explored complexities involving race and brought new Asian American superheroes to the comics scene.
“People may think that an anthology that addresses stereotypes is somehow about us wanting to erase those images; that we somehow want to prevent them from ever surfacing again,” Yang tells Comic Riffs. “There are people saying: ‘Look, there’s an Asian American wearing glasses and studying — that’s a terrible thing. And the [idea of] exotic women — that’s a terrible thing … But it’s not that you can’t have these characters or even these caricatures of clowns, nerds, thugs out there. These are all standard tropes that exist in popular culture across every kind of story and community.”
While the guys were on book tour to promote “Secret Identities,” one fan challenged the editors to create a second volume of Asian American comics — this time a book about non-heroes.
They accepted the challenge, choosing to focus on villains.
“We decided to tackle other Asian stereotypes, along with the [idea] of an Asian super-villain, because it is a really prevalent — not just in comics but in popular media in television shows and movies,” Chow said. “When you need a bad guy, chances are the bad guy — an effective bad guy — would be Asian.”
Historically in comics, infamous villains, including Fu Manchu and the Yellow Claw, have possessed stereotypical, yellowed physical features and unnervingly flat personalities. These characters joined the rogues’ gallery of one-dimensional Asian caricatures in popular culture.
“That is what Asian Americans had to face for generations,” Yang says to Comic Riffs. “What we don’t want to say is, ‘You can’t have Asian bad guys.’ We love Asian bad guys, just like we love Asian good guys in comics. We want to be shown as people, as beings with three dimensions, complicated histories and real motivations. We want to see what’s inside [these character’s] heads, and not what just happens when they’re rubbing their palms together and grinning maniacally.”
Last winter, the four editors holed up in a New York City hotel to work out their approach to “Shattered.” They homed in on the anthology’s theme. They penned “The Sacrifice” as the prologue, and divvied up each chapter according to their representation of five malevolent “demons” that they saw as Asian archetypes”: the Brute, the Temptress, the Brain, the Alien and the Manipulator.
“The reality we have as Asian Americans is shaped by the perceptions that others have of us,” Yang tells ‘Riffs. “It’s the stereotypes that persist across time and history that daunt us and continue to challenge us today. ...
“A section of the book [deals] with images and stories that subvert, upend or otherwise twist, reinvent and renew, in some cases, those stereotypes in ways to what people usually think.”
“Shattered” includes contributions by such industry heavyweights as Gene Yang (“American Born Chinese”), Larry Hama (G.I. Joe), Takeshi Miyazawa (Runaways) and Greg Pak (“Robot Stories”), as well as creators from other disciplines, like rapper Adam WarRock, slam poet Bao Phi and author Jamie Ford. And the stories run the gamut from the everyday to the historic, from realism to fantasy and horror; they include snapshots of an internment camp, a supernatural romance, a lousy day at school.
Filmmaker Michael Kang paired with Edmund Lee and artist Glenn Urieta to submit a gripping short titled “Solitary.” The textured chalkboard sketch in its first frame helps the reader decode Korean terms, such as “oppa” (elder, respected brother) and “unnie” (elder sister), and then dive into a story about a misunderstood and unexpected Korean gangster.
“The best way to alter perceptions about our community is by showing as many different angles as you can,” says Chow, who notes that a stereotype only becomes a problem when people oversimplify their understanding of others.
“Stereotypes come from a kernel of truth; they don’t come out of thin air,” he said, “but they become problematic when other people don’t allow you to be something other than that perception.”
Chow and Yang say that their anthology comes at an apposite time, when political candidates and the news media sometimes reference Asian countries in a faulty way.
“The stature of Asia — of China in particular, has been rising as a ‘boogeyman,’ as an entity in which to scare people in geopolitics,” Yang tells Comic Riffs. “Once those images get into the marketplace of ideas, people view Asians as a looming and dangerous force in this world. …
“Asians Americans cannot ignore the fact that these archetypes are still here today and will come back again.”