Happy Asian Pacific American Heritage Month! Er… did you know that May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month? Well, now you do. And I hope you have a happy one.
All over cyberspace, folks are celebrating in all sorts of ways. Wall Street Journal columnist Jeff Yang (no relation) kicked things off with an article that asks if the APA community is one or many (and graphically compares it to Voltron). CAPE (Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment) launched a campaign of YouTube videos with several prominent APA entertainers talking about their career paths.
I’m doing my part by sharing with you my Top Ten Favorite APA characters in comics. They aren’t listed in any specific order, but they all meet these requirements: They’re in comics, they’re of Asian or Pacific Islander descent, they’re American, and they make my heart happy.
1. Amadeus Cho. Amadeus is the brainchild of superstar writer Greg Pak, and he explodes the stereotype of the Asian American teenage super-genius by pushing it past its most ridiculous limits. Amadeus is a skinny Korean American kid who’s so smart, they call him Mastermind Excello. And he’s partnered up with the Hulk and Hercules, two of the Marvel Universe’s toughest heroes.
2. Jimmy. Jimmy’s the protagonist of Jason Shiga’s many graphic novels. He and his creator are proof you can be nerdy and badass at the same time. In Fleep, Jimmy wields his math skills like a weapon to escape a phone booth encased in concrete. In Bookhunter, Jimmy chases down overdue books, armed with not much more than a pistol and a heart full of tenacity. In Meanwhile, Jimmy eats ice cream, time travels, and fools around with the Kill-o-tron, a machine that will kill either the person standing inside of it or the rest of humanity depending on a coin flip. Like I said. Nerdy. Badass. At the same time.
3. Jubilee. Jubilation Lee seems like someone I would’ve hung out with in high school, except for the part where she shoots fireworks out of her fingertips. A So Cal native, she joined the X-Men after discovering she was a mutant. Her fashion sense is proudly stuck in the 90s and she’s spent much of her superhero career palling around with Wolverine. Quick-witted and resourceful, she would’ve been a riot in my Saturday morning Chinese language class.
4. Quick Kick. When I was a kid, G.I. Joe was probably the only American franchise that regularly featured Asian Americans. This was because most of the Joe comics and many of the action figure filecards were written by Japanese American Larry Hama. Hama’s Asian Americans are complex and three-dimensional — in other words, human. That’s not to say they weren’t goofy in that 80s cartoon sort of way. Quick Kick, a Joe of Japanese and Korean descent, is a martial arts expert. He never wears a shirt or shoes, even when the Joes and Cobra are duking it out in the snow. As Angry Asian Man blogger Phil Yu likes to point out, apparently being a super-hardcore martial arts master renders you impervious to cold. But Quick Kick is also a ladies’ man, maybe the only Asian American ladies’ man I saw as a kid.
5. Tony Chu. Man, Chinese people will eat anything. Tony Chu, the leading man of the popular series Chew, turns this stereotype on its head. Tony’s a cibopath. When he eats, he has psychic visions of his meal’s past. He sees where the tomatoes in his pasta sauce were grown, how the cow in his burger was butchered. He’s an officer of the law, so naturally he solves murder cases by eating cadavers. Writer John Layman and artist Rob Guillory turn your stomach in the most awesome way possible.
6. Nancy Kim. In Derek Kirk Kim’s masterful graphic novel Same Difference, twenty-something Korean American Nancy smokes, curses, farts, and relentlessly cracks on her best friend Simon. When letters arrive for her apartment’s previous tenant, she not only opens them but also answers them, writing in the voice of their intended recipient. She and her friends remind me of me and my friends when we were in our twenties, though we never committed mail fraud. (Honest.)
7. Batgirl. For about a decade starting in 1999, the Batgirl mantle belonged to a Eurasian teenager named Cassandra Cain. Raised by assassins, Cassandra’s a broken soul who is eventually adopted into the Bat Family, at which point (I would argue) she becomes an Asian American. Her costume borrows a little too heavily from Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, but I have a soft spot for her. Weirdest fun fact about Cassandra Cain: she’s an English-as-a-second-language learner because her first language was body language. No joke. She has yet to show up in the newly rebooted DC Universe, but I imagine she will soon.
8. Secret Asian Man. Tak Toyoshima’s been tackling Asian American issues in his popular comics strip for well over a decade now. Main character Osamu Takahashi (who is basically a cartoon version of Tak) and his friends have graced the pages of influential newspapers like the San Jose Mercury and Boston’s Weekly Dig. Osamu’s an immensely likeable dude. Who knew a bowl haircut could be so endearing?
9. Lynda Barry. Because she does autobiographical comics — or as she describes them, autobifictionalography — cartoonist Lynda Barry is both a character and a creator. Her comics are raw, delightful, and often uncomfortable. She explores every corner of her life with a disarming honesty, including her relationship with her Filipina mother. If you haven’t read her stuff yet, please do. Right now. My favorite of hers is One Hundred Demons. What It Is is a close second.
10. Green Turtle. Okay. This one’s self-serving, I admit. But if I didn’t genuinely love the Green Turtle, I wouldn’t have teamed up with Sonny Liew to revive him in our graphic novel The Shadow Hero. The Green Turtle was created in the 1940s by Chu Hing, one of the first Asian Americans in the industry. Though the evidence concerning his ethnicity is murky, the Green Turtle just might be the very first Asian American superhero. And that’s why I’m so into him. His existence shows that at the beginning of superheroes, this quintessentially American genre, Asian Americans were there.
Did I leave off your favorite Asian Pacific American comics character? I bet I did. And that’s kind of cool isn’t it? It means there are now enough APA characters in comics that they won’t all fit onto a single top ten list. When I started reading comics in the 80s, I would’ve struggled to come up with a list half as long.
So do me a favor. Fill in the gaps I left. Tell me your favorite Asian Pacific American comics character in the comments below, and have a great APA Heritage Month.
Gene Luen Yang’s first book with First Second, American Born Chinese, is now in print in over ten languages and was a National Book Award finalist and winner of the Printz Award. Yang’s other works include the popular comics adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender and the New York Times Best-Selling graphic novel diptych Boxers & Saints. The Shadow Hero, the story of the first Asian American superhero is his most recent graphic novel.