Years ago, before the TV show existed, a fellow Asian American comic nerd suggested I check out this series called The Walking Dead. I read through the first trade paperbacks and have kept reading, (admittedly begrudgingly the last couple of years) ever since. I was impressed that there was an Asian American male character, Glenn Rhee, a pizza delivery driver and weed dealer who seemed like a good hearted, normal kid.
When the show rolled around, I wasn’t feeling it at first, but I did like the actor they selected for Glenn, Steve Yeun. Of course, anyone paying attention to the show knows by now that Glenn is a fan favorite regardless of race and that the actor, Steve Yeun, is considered a hottie. Those of us Asian Americans on pop culture watch, of course, also appreciate the added layers: Asian American men are seldom portrayed as likeable, desirable guys in Western pop culture.
One could argue that we’re rarely seen as even human, if we’re seen at all. And yes, it’s problematic that Glenn is seemingly the only Asian alive in the mythology of the show — but rather than see Asian American viewership as an indicator that we are fully endorsing the show, it’s more about how starved Asian Americans are for any steps forward in terms of meaningful representation. My Facebook feed routinely carries posts from Asian Americans threatening to stop watching the show if Glenn dies. It’s safe to say that many of us are invested in the character.
Catching up with both the show and the comics, my personal opinion is that the show has surpassed the comics at this point. I used to feel it was the other way around — but by season five, I think the show has done a tremendous job of adding nuance and conflict where the comics plow forward with blunt force trauma. Maggie and Carol are far more interesting and developed in the show than the comics. The show version of Tyreese had a lot of potential to offer an alternative vision of Black male masculinity — plus, he was played by Cutty from The Wire — but they killed him off. It’s perplexing what the show decided to do with Andrea, but I have hopes that they will further develop female characters like Sasha and Rosita. Rick and Carl are at least tolerable in the television show. The actress who plays Michonne is incredible to watch, and Daryl — a character original to the television show — is a welcome addition to the core crew.
And what of our beloved Glenn, the Jeremy Lin of The Walking Dead? This year, it was a joy to see Glenn grow as a character, overcoming his initial role as comic relief, then simply being one half of an admittedly heart warming romantic couple, to where he is now: conflicted and hardened, but still struggling with doing the right thing. He’s arguably the heart and soul of the original crew, and his character arc has been fulfilling this season.
That’s why I was surprised that in Rolling Stone’s end of season wrap-up, writer Noel Murray wrote:
Season Five seems to have been designed to satisfy fans of the show’s core: Rick, Daryl, Michonne, Carol, Maggie, and Carl.
Uh… how is Glenn not a member of this show’s core?
You may say it was just a slip up. If so, it’s a rather unfortunate one, especially since the writer tried to bring up race in the same article, regarding The Walking Dead’s tendency to kill off Black characters. Great that he tried to address and dissect that dynamic — an issue that needs to be explored and broken down even further (not to mention the complete lack of Native American characters and many other things). Ironic that the writer completely ignored the sole Asian American character, during a season where he had an arc with significant development. It may not have been intentional, but it certainly does rub salt in that old wound of Asian Americans being invisible, and Asian men in particular being dismissed or illegible.
As activist and scholar Scott Kurashige said, “Asians are like Casper: we’re either dead or a ghost.”
It’s not like those of us who love Glenn and read the comics aren’t used to heartbreak. It would be great, though, if mainstream media could at least try to catch up to this idea that Asian men, you know, exist and are worth noticing.