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Japanese War Flags and Comics’ Lack of Creativity

Earlier this week, Valiant Entertainment unveiled the long-awaited lineup for their Valiant First roster of rebooted and revamped characters. After re-introducing a gender-swapped version of Dr. Mirage last year, this time they’re bringing back another of the publisher’s standout Asian characters: the Japanese superhero Rai, in addition to giving Dr. Mirage her own book as well. (Both Mirage and Rai were Asians that served as foundational characters when Valiant first launched two decades ago). As one of the creators behind Secret Identities, I was very excited. Then I saw the way they redesigned Rai’s look:

If you were curious, this is what he used to look like:

The design may not seem that drastically different at first. But a closer look reveals that the motif on Rai’s chest has gone from the Japanese flag to Japan’s military flag during World War II. And I wasn’t the only person who noticed this tweak.

DC Comics superstar artist Bernard Chang (who’s currently penciling Green Lantern Corps) also noticed the same thing, and shared his thoughts via his personal Facebook page:

I just saw the new Rai design for Valiant. Someone should give them a history lesson on the “rising sun” flag emblazoned on his chest. To put it into context, it’s pretty much the same as having a futuristic German character with a Nazi swastika on his torso.

Quick (non-WWII) history lesson: Bernard got his start in the comic book industry when the first iteration of Valiant launched in the early 90s. In fact, it was Bernard, as co-creator of the original Dr. Mirage, who insisted the character be a non-stereotypical Asian American male supehero. “When Valiant first started in 1992,” Bernard explains, “it was an extremely multicultural company with all kinds of heroes and characters.”

It’s this connection to Valiant that made the revelation of Rai’s new look so resonant — and disturbing — for him. To further clarify his point about why he found Rai’s new look so offensive, Bernard shared the following image:

Needless to say, Bernard’s provocative allusion to Nazis and the swastika elicited some backlash in the comments and on the ‘Net more broadly. I reached out to Bernard personally to talk about his feelings about Rai and many publishers’ lack of knowledge and creativity when they create Asian superhero characters.

I’ve actually spoken about this specific point — re: using Japan’s WWII flag — during speaking gigs at college campuses. I even use the following slide in my presentations:

As you can see, everyone from Sunfire to Silver Samurai to Kabuki and Shi has got Japan’s rising sun motif somewhere on their person — though Shi kinda is wiping her ass with it, brokeback and all. It’s like this is the only way comic publishers know how to signify their characters are Japanese.

Bernard speculates why this may be: “From a graphic design standpoint, the rising sun flag is striking and attractive.”

The problem, however, is that even if something looks cool, it doesn’t mean it’s right. It also doesn’t make sense. According to the solicit text for the book, the future Japan in Rai is supposed to be peaceful and benevolent. So why would their guardian sport the symbol of the nation’s imperialistic past? Granted, I haven’t read the book yet, but it stands to reason that Rai wouldn’t be representing the “Empire of the Rising Sun” in the 41st century. I asked Bernard to expound upon the appeal of imperialistic iconography.

“Nowadays, people associate ’empire’ with Star Wars; it’s something cool, ” Bernard explains. “They don’t realize what an empire actually is or did.”

This is why the symbols our heroes wear have to do more than look cool.

“We live in a visual society,” says Bernard. “Symbols, logos, illustrations, and their attached meanings and messages have profound impacts and implications in our lives, whether conscious or subconscious. Some bring joy, some carry messages, and some represent great pain and suffering.”

A lot of people online have pushed back against Bernard’s allusion to the Nazis. However, this is actually a case in which Godwin’s law doesn’t apply. Remember, for many in Asia, the atrocities committed under that flag are just as horrific as what happened in Europe.

“When I saw the image of the new Rai with the rising sun flag on his torso, it immediately struck me as offensive,” Bernard continues. “The problem is people don’t know their history. Anyone with knowledge of World War II will have the same negative reactions to that flag. But people know about Nazis; they probably don’t know about what Japan did in China and Korea.”

It’s that ignorance of World War II that Bernard finds most troubling. But that issue continues to affect Japan’s relations with other Asian countries to this day. Current Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been criticized for visiting shrines to Japan’s war dead. Even Hayao Miyazaki’s Oscar-nominated The Wind Rises has received criticism for glossing over the death and destruction that the film’s romanticized planes wrought.

Many of the voices pushing back against Bernard’s comments are longtime Valiant readers. There’s even a message board dedicated to the controversy. Bernard, though, holds no ill will against these voices and is in fact, looking out for them. “Look, I have nothing but love for Valiant’s characters and storylines,” says Bernard. “Their fans are some of the best and most passionate in comics.”

This is the reason Bernard spoke out. In addition to his connection to the characters, he really feels that the fans deserve better than what they’re getting.

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