As comic book writers go, Akira Yoshida boasts an impressive résumé. In two years, he went from complete obscurity to working on popular titles such as “Thor: Son of Asgard” and “X-Men: Age of Apocalypse.” The latter was made into a major mainstream movie in 2016 that grossed more than half a billion dollars.
There’s just one issue. “Akira Yoshida” was a pen name used by C.B. Cebulski in 2004 and 2005 as he broke into comic book writing by pretending to be a promising Japanese scribe. Although Cebulski has lived in Japan, he is a white American.
Although it was long-rumored in the comic book world that Yoshida was, indeed, Cebulski, no one investigated deeply. Since he retired the pseudonym fairly quickly, the rumors might have died.
But in November, Cebulski was named the editor in chief of Marvel Comics, arguably the most prominent job in his industry, and the rumors resurfaced. Since the comic book industry is often criticized for its lack of creators of color, the fact that its new figurehead was a white man who had pretended to be an Asian writer drew outcry.
“CB Cebulski adopted the pseudonym Akira Yoshida to write super appropriative Orientalist comic stories. Seriously? Not just real-life yellowface but total cultural appropriation for money too? Screw this guy,” Jenn Fang, who blogs about Asian American issues, tweeted.
Cebulski apologized for his pen name in a statement to the Atlantic on Monday. He did not return The Washington Post’s requests for comment, sent through Marvel.
“I’m truly sorry for the pain, anger, and disappointment I caused over my poor choice of pseudonym. That was never my intention,” Cebulski said in his statement. “I’ve spoken with talent close to this issue, and have had candid and productive conversations about how we can improve the industry and build better stories, while being mindful of the voices behind them.”
Cebulski first became known in the comic book world in 2002, when Marvel hired him as an associate editor to work with manga, a type of Japanese comic. Then editor in chief at the time, Joe Quesada, said in a statement that one reason they chose Cebulski was “because he speaks fluent Japanese and will be bringing some of the greatest artists in Japan to work with us.”
At the time, Marvel editors were not allowed to write or draw their own comics, according to industry blog Bleeding Cool. Even if they received special permission, they weren’t allowed to receive extra compensation for doing so.
As the blog’s Rich Johnston, who broke the story, told it, Cebulski wanted a writing career — so he created Yoshida. Using this pen name, he got gigs writing for other publishing companies, such as Dreamwave Productions and Dark Horse Comics. Eventually, another Marvel editor contacted Yoshida, inviting him to be a contributor — which is what led to the X-Men and Thor titles, among many others.
The issue of Cebulski potentially breaking workplace policy aside, this wouldn’t have been shocking. Adopting a pen name isn’t uncommon in the comics world. Stan Lee, arguably the comic book world’s most famous figure, was originally the pen name of Stanley Martin Lieber — he later adopted “Stan Lee” as his legal name.
But Cebulski took his pseudonym to extreme lengths, creating an elaborate backstory for Yoshida and even giving email interviews as him.
For example, in 2005 industry blog Comic Book Resources profiled Yoshida, citing an interview with the author. The profile said he grew up in Japan and was a childhood fan of comics. His father was an international businessman who often brought him to the United States, where he learned English.
The profile, based on pure fiction, continued:
As a child, the writer said he always wanted to work in either the Japanese manga or American comics industry. Fortunately, he’s had the privilege of doing both as an adult.
Yoshida started his career in editorial at a small Japanese comic publisher named Fujimi Shobo. It was there that he got to meet writers and manga artists like Ryo Mizuno (“Record of Lodoss War”) and Kia Asamiya (“Silent Mobius”). The company was eventually bought out by a larger publisher, but the contacts Yoshida made proved helpful.
None of this was true. Cebulski eventually confessed everything to Marvel, according to Bleeding Cool, but the story was never made public. And while some industry bloggers poked at the rumor over the years, no one really paid it much heed.
But in November, when Cebulski received his high-profile promotion, Image Comics brand manager David Brothers tweeted that journalists “should definitely be asking Marvel and new EiC CB Cebulski on why he chose to use the pen name Akira Yoshida in the early 2000s to write a bunch of ‘Japanese-y’ books for them.” The tweet was liked and retweeted hundreds of times.
Cebulski came under fire. When writing as Yoshida, his characters were often Japanese or included Japanese stereotypes. As the Atlantic noted, for instance, in the X-Men comics he worked on, the heroes would travel to Japan to fight and/or have sex with ninjas, samurai and yakuza.
Cebulski “is just another number in the list of writers and artists using yellowface to succeed in the literary and artistic worlds,” wrote one Twitter user.
Comics critic Kelly Kanayama said Cebulski made Japanese culture palatable for Americans.
Cebulski “presented a vision of Japanese culture that was just different enough to seem exotic, but that aligned with Western biases about what Japanese culture — and Japanese people — were really like,” Kanayama told the Atlantic.
Others criticized Marvel for promoting Cebulski.
“From the outside looking in, it appears as if Marvel would rather hire white people masquerading as minorities, rather than making an earnest effort to tap into the vast community of creatives of color trying to break into the industry,” wrote i09’s Charles Pulliam-Moore.
Cebulski offered a statement at the time confirming the story. “I stopped writing under the pseudonym Akira Yoshida after about a year,” he told Bleeding Cool. “It wasn’t transparent, but it taught me a lot about writing, communication and pressure. I was young and naive and had a lot to learn back then.”
Marvel has declined to comment, according to i09 and the Atlantic. But its director of content and character development Sana Amanat defended Cebulski to Channel NewsAsia, saying Japan “is a world he understood.”
“I think many people who know CB will know that he is one of the most globally minded, and very culturally sensitive as well,” Amanat said. “That man has lived in Japan, speaks Japanese, and has lived all over the world.”
She added, “Of course we want cultural authenticity and make sure we’re casting those people behind the scenes, but the primary goal is getting those kinds of characters out there.”
If that’s the case, then Yoshida, or should we say Cebulski, certainly succeeded.
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