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We need Asian-American superheroes

By Jeff Yang
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Leela and Fry, from the recently canceled "Futurama," beg on the sidewalk outside the Comic-Con convention in San Diego on Sunday, July 27. Sunday was the final day of the annual convention, mecca of all things pop culture. Leela and Fry, from the recently canceled "Futurama," beg on the sidewalk outside the Comic-Con convention in San Diego on Sunday, July 27. Sunday was the final day of the annual convention, mecca of all things pop culture.
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Costumes at Comic-Con 2014
Costumes at Comic-Con 2014
Costumes at Comic-Con 2014
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Costumes at Comic-Con 2014
Costumes at Comic-Con 2014
Costumes at Comic-Con 2014
Costumes at Comic-Con 2014
Costumes at Comic-Con 2014
Costumes at Comic-Con 2014
Costumes at Comic-Con 2014
Costumes at Comic-Con 2014
Costumes at Comic-Con 2014
Costumes at Comic-Con 2014
Costumes at Comic-Con 2014
Costumes at Comic-Con 2014
Costumes at Comic-Con 2014
Costumes at Comic-Con 2014
Costumes at Comic-Con 2014
Costumes at Comic-Con 2014
Costumes at Comic-Con 2014
Costumes at Comic-Con 2014
Costumes at Comic-Con 2014
Costumes at Comic-Con 2014
Costumes at Comic-Con 2014
Costumes at Comic-Con 2014
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Marvel is creating an African-American Captain America and a female Thor
  • Jeff Yang: It's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
  • He asks when will there be an Asian-American superhero we can identify with?
  • Yang: Green Turtle, an Asian-American hero created in 1940s, may be coming back to life

Editor's note: Jeff Yang is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal Online and can be heard frequently on radio as a contributor to shows such as PRI's "The Takeaway" and WNYC's "The Brian Lehrer Show." He is the author of "I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action" and editor of the graphic novel anthologies "Secret Identities" and "Shattered." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Why did I fall in love with superheroes?

For me, it was all about the masks.

You see, growing up in the '70s, I learned early on that expecting to see someone who looked like me in a heroic role on TV or in the movies was like waiting for a unicorn to wander into our living room. When Asians did show up, it was usually in thankless, forgettable roles as nameless henchmen or comic relief: mules and donkeys, not unicorns.

Jeff Yang
Jeff Yang

Which is why I turned to the world of comics. The bigger-than-life icons who fought for truth, justice and the American way in comic books often donned cowls, helmets and hoods to hide their identities to protect their loved ones from the vengeance of their diabolical nemeses. But their masks also allowed me to imagine myself (or someone very like me) beneath the Lycra Spandex.

While I never quite felt authentic pretending to be James Bond, agent 007, or Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man, a few tiny tweaks were all it took to become Batman or Spider-Man. All I had to do was re-envision Bruce Wayne as Bruce Wang, Peter Parker as Peter Park. The rest of their stories readily fell in line: Child of a doctor? Check. Nerdy science student? Check.

Masks made the magic possible.

When the masks came off, however, the fantasy ended. Batman was revealed as a billionaire WASP playboy, and Spider-Man a working-class Irish-American from Forest Hills, both with sparkling blue eyes.

And that's why I'm holding off on getting too excited over Marvel's recent announcements that Captain America will pass his shield and red, white and blue tights on to his African-American friend and partner Sam Wilson, and Thor, God of Thunder, will turn his winged helmet, his mighty hammer Mjolnir and his divine powers over to an as-yet-unnamed woman. Costumes are just clothes. In the world of comics, they get passed around like the sniffles at a kindergarten.

Don't get me wrong. It's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice. A look at any toy aisle or movie marquee is all you need to see the degree to which superheroes have moved to the very center of our pop culture.

Maybe that's because, as celebrated graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang says, "Superheroes are quintessentially American. They were created in America, they're most popular in America, and in many ways, they embody American ideals. That's why we want diverse heroes: because we want to affirm that anyone can be an American."

But just swapping costumes doesn't quite do that — not in a permanent way, anyway. "The problem with nonwhite characters taking over the legacies of established white characters is that the changes never seem to stick," says Yang. "The Asian-American Atom got a sword in his belly. The African-American Goliath got lightning-bolted through the heart. The Asian-American Wasp got eaten by a supervillain. And the African-American Green Lantern simply receded to the background when it came time to make a major motion picture. The costume almost always reverts back to the original wearer."

Cartoonist Vishavjit Singh in a Captain America costume.
Cartoonist Vishavjit Singh in a Captain America costume.

And when the costumes go away, the secret identities beneath them remain. Cartoonist Vishavjit Singh saw this firsthand when he decided to go out in public in a Captain America costume, modified to accommodate his Sikh turban and beard, testing Yang's premise that "anyone can be American."

"The transformation of how people saw and responded to me was startling," says Singh. "Americans and tourists alike were turning heads, breaking out into smiles, offering high fives and warm words of support. But as soon as I got out of the costume, I encountered stereotypical epithets about my turban and beard."

The fact is, the only way to really make the superhero universe look like America (and by extension, the world) is to create fresh, new heroes who represent us in all our vibrant diversity, with origin stories that are authentic to their identities.

In the graphic novel collections, "Secret Identities" and "Shattered," my co-editors and I challenged Asian-American comic creators to pen original tales of Asian-American superheroes who were Asian-American from the very beginning. This was just a small step in the right direction.

Because when you create new heroes, they don't have the weight of history behind them. Superman boosted spirits in the wake of the Great Depression and fought Nazis in World War II. He's woven into our nation's fabric. It takes the passage of time for a hero to achieve cultural capital, something that will take decades for modern heroes-come-lately.

The original Green Turtle, by Chu F. Hing
The original Green Turtle, by Chu F. Hing

Fortunately, it turns out an Asian-American superhero of Golden Age vintage actually exists. Back in the early 1940s, one of the few Asian-Americans working in comics was Chu F. Hing, who invented the Green Turtle — a character he reportedly conceived of as Chinese-American. However, with "yellow peril" fears rampant in the years after World War II, Chu was forbidden by his editors to reveal that the Turtle was Asian. In defiance, Chu never drew his Turtle out of costume, and the character quickly fell into obscurity.

Now, the Turtle is back. Gene Yang and collaborator Sonny Liew, in a new graphic novel called "The Shadow Hero," are giving him a fresh origin story that shows his rise from Chinatown grocery store stock boy to invincible Chinese-American crime buster — under the watchful tutelage of his cranky uncle and overprotective mom.

In doing so, they've brought this original Asian-American superhero to the attention of a new era. This means that for my kids and future generations, there might finally be a masked marvel they can legitimately call their own — one whose origins are deeply rooted in our nation's past, yet whose features reflect the ones they see when they look in the mirror.

To me, that would be super.

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