Iron Man, Marvel-ous superheroes and Asian Americans

I wanted to grow up to be a Marvel comics artist

Once upon a time, I went to art school. And although I graduated with a completely useless (career-wise, anyway) BFA in Painting, I chose art school because once upon a time, I wanted to work for Marvel Comics. Real bad. See above.

When I was a kid, I loved Marvel’s lineup of superheroes because they had all-too-human frailties when they weren’t busting up crime in their empowered alter-egos. Spider-man, Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Dr. Strange, Silver Surfer, Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., Daredevil, The Mighty Thor, The Avengers, The X-Men… I collected ’em all. I also had a few issues of Superman and Batman and other DC comics lying around, but I wasn’t a DC fanatic. I was, however, card-carrying member of the Merry Marvel Marching Society, the fan club started in 1964. I had posters (Thor against a psychedelic rainbow in black light in my room looked very cool), stickers, notepads and lots and lots of comics. I had a comic-fan penpal in Australia that I still think about now and then. And, I wrote letters to Marvel about every other month in the hopes of having one of my missives published. Alas, none of them ever ran.

I also drew comics. I wish I’d kept some of them, with dialogue, panels and all. They sucked of course, but they were drawn with the complete self-absorption of of a pre-teen, and that passion eventually turned into some bit of talent, enough to get me into Pratt Institute in New York… a few steps closer to Marvel than high school in Denver. The rest, as they say, is history.

Punk rock, college radio, guitar, big ol’ canvases, The Village and New York’s many distractions distracted me away from my commercial art career, and I eventually ended up a writer — go figger — much to my tuition-paying parents’ chagrin. Besides, my too-Japanese mom decided to eliminate my brother and my clutter when we went off to college, and threw out anything of consequence from our childhoods… including my remaining boxes of comics.

But I still have a soft spot for superheroes, especially ones of the Marvel variety.

So it’s been great over the past decade to watch the Merry Marvel Marching parade of comic-bound characters spring to glorious computer-animated life on the movie screen, with each new movie taking advantage of ever cooler, ever newer technology to create the best special effects ever. Of all of these, I have to say that I’ve enjoyed the smart, funny spectacularly entertaining Iron Man movies best.

Iron Man 2 is a fun, action-packed movie ...even if I left feeling like Asians are never going to be shown as superheroes.The movies aren’t bogged down by the psycho-babble weight of the Spider-Man or X-Men franchises, for instance, and they just out-cool Daredevil and Elektra one-offs. It kicks butt over the two weirdo versions of the Hulk (though the TV show with Bill Bixby rocked, but maybe that’s just because I was a “tween” at the time). Blade’s a good trilogy, but I don’t think of them as comic book movies, rather vampire flicks. The Punisher movies are… violent, though the first one featured John Travolta as the best bad guy ever. The Fantastic Four movies are close, but the fun gets diluted among the quartet. We’ll see how Hollywood does The Avengers.

Iron Man is just Robert Downey Jr. finding his groove and proving it all over the screen, weaving his wonderfully superdoofus wigginess into the tightly-woven tapestry of supporting cast. Gwyneth Paltrow is suitably smart and seductive as Tony Stark’s trusty sidekick; Don Cheatham is better than the first film’s Terrence Howard as Rhodey Rhoades, Iron Man’s dependable sidekick. Mickey Rourke is creepy as hell in an incoherent twist on the Cold War-era Russian Mad Scientist bad guy.

The movies doesn’t hold together as well as the first, but it goes for — and hits — a lot more laff, and the gadgets (special effects) are seriously enough to make a tech-geek swoon.

I loved it, in other words, and will buy it as soon as it’s out on DVD, er, Blue Ray (here’s hoping we have a Blue Ray player by then).

But the movie got me to thinking about how my whole life, I’ve immersed myself in the fantasy world of comic book superheroes, and never questioned the fact that I’m not part of that world.

That is, there just aren’t many Asian characters in comic books (excepting the greenish-yellow Japs or Commie Chinese of war comics, or the inscrutable Fu Manchu knockoffs like Iron Man’s own ultimate nemesis, the Mandarin. Instead, we get to play bit parts as cops or bystanders, scenery not scenemakers. As Angry Asian Man pointed out, one of the few modern AAPI superhero characters, Ryan Choi aka Atom, was killed off just last week in DC Comics’ Titans. One less Asian face in today’s comics universe.

Secret Identities gives Asian Americans a chance to see ourselves in the role of superhero... or normal JoeI hadn’t really thought about that until last year, when “Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology” was published.

It’s a remarkable project, edited by columnist and Asian American pop culture expert Jeff Yang, actor Parry Shen, educator Keith Chow and artist Jerry Ma, with help from senior artist Jeff Castro. The book is a collection of comics about Asian Americans, by Asian Americans, starring Asian American superheroes. A lot of the book is spiced with humor. Yang’s “Preface: In the Beginning” (art by Jeff Castro) starts with a mock comic book cover for “The Y-Men,” the superhero team of Kamikaze, Madame X, Coolie Riceman and Four Eyes, and is about a dorky kid who finds his inner hero when he’s confronted by racist attackers. How often have we dreamed this scene in our heads?

A lot of the stories, like “Driving Steel” (by Yang/art by Benton Jew) about Chinese railroad workers in the frontier West, or “Hibakusha,” (by Parry Shen/art by Glenn Urieta) and “Trinity” (story and art by Greg LaRocque) have a high level of artistic professionalism just as if it were in a graphic novel, a Marvel or EC comic. Some are dramatic and painterly. A couple are charmingly simply drawn. There are intros by artists and writers about their journey. Tak Toyoshima has a one-pager about Secret Asian Man (himself, hellooo) meeting one of his idols, Larry Hama, the man who drew the G.I. Joe comics.

These days, there are Asian American artists drawing comics. In fact, Marvel just today announced “Asian Pacific American Week on Marvel.com” in honor of AAPI Heritage Month, featuring interviews with some of the Asian American talent, including Greg Pak, Amadeus Cho, Jimmy Woo and others.

This book — and the growing cadre of AAPI artists and writers working in comics today — screams proof that there should be Asian American characters in comics too.

“Secret Identities” is personal, political and all about empowering Asian Americans with the possibility of seeing themselves. It’s bursting with great, cool, funny and exciting stories. Stories that could easily have fit the Marvelous world of my youth. Stories that may have shaped my worldview if I had read them at 12 instead of 52.

I treasure “Secret Identities.” That’s why I took it with me, so I could re-read it while waiting for “Iron Man 2” to start.

Thanks to Jeff Yang and the other editors for creating the book. Here’s hoping there will be a volume 2, and spinoffs with characters getting their own books. Or better yet, lessee Stan Lee drop his Japanophilia with manga and anime, and sign on one of these homegrown Asian American superheroes as a Marvel title!

Here’s a one-page comic from the book that explains it all:

A page from "Secret Identities"

(Apologies to the editors of “Secret Identities” for taking so damned long to write about their excellent book, and for using an entire page as an illustration…)

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3 Responses to Iron Man, Marvel-ous superheroes and Asian Americans

  1. saeb says:

    Hi, Gil. wow, I have to say I love marvel comics more than anything out there…used to collect them whenever they came out here. Marvel heroes always felt real: they had their own traumas, mistakes, and weaknesses…truly complex and wonderfully designed.

    and god! reading them again still tops watching any movie or anime airing nowadays…

  2. Gil Asakawa says:

    Hi Saeb, yes, and I wish I still had my collection — even just s few of them. I know some are now collectible, though I probably didn’t take mint-condition care of them. I do still have Nick Fury Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. #1 in almost mint condition, in a plastic sleeve even. It was drawn by an artist named Jim Steranko whose psychedelic work I adored at the time….

  3. saeb says:

    ok you beat me, none of the ones I have are in a good condition :D. btw I’ve been using marvel’s digital service to read some of their oldest Spiderman and X-men issues…wow they look like they’ve been digitally remastered 😛

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