Joseph Illidge and ChrisCross on Doctor Light’s Time to Shine

In tonight’s all new episode of The Flash, not only are fans finally going to get to see Harrison Wells back on the show, but we’re also getting another live action take on an iconic Justice Leaguer: Doctor Light. Created in 1985 by Marv Wolfman and George Pérez for DC’s massive Crisis on Infinite Earths, Kimiyo Hoshi might share a codename with a classic supervillain, but she has always been depicted as a hero in various multimedia incarnations.

Now that the character is poised to cross into the mainstream with her live action debut, I sat down for an exclusive interview with the creative team responsible for one of the character’s only solo story — and that was nearly 20 years ago: writer Joseph Illidge and artist ChrisCross.

KEITH: Though Kimiyo Hoshi was integral to Crisis on Infinite Earths — and an important member of the Justice League — she was never centered in her own book. I believe the short you both worked on in issue #9 of Showcase ’96 is probably the only time she had her own solo adventure. What is it about the character that resonates most with you?

JOSPEH: What struck me the most about Kimiyo Hoshi — above and beyond her being an Asian hero — was that she was a hero adopting an identity and costume originating from a popular villain. It was the ’80s, so racebending was already present in mainstream superhero comic books with James Rhodes taking over as Iron Man, for example. The idea that a person of color — a woman of color — would own and redefine the identity of a Caucasian male is what sold me.

After that, it was the fact that Kimiyo was a mother, and there were few superhero parents in comics at the time outside of Reed and Susan Richards of Marvel’s Fantastic Four. That aspect of Kimiyo’s character was seemingly a footnote for most writers of her early appearances, so I chose that human angle as my entry point.

CHRIS: In my apartment in Jersey City, Joe and I would powwow, and we spent hours coming up with that scheme. If DC really liked what we did once the 10-pager got published, we would be prepared to show them some cool stories that would show how gung-ho we were to get Kimiyo ready to shine. Complete with new costume and a new purpose that would totally erase the legacy of the old Doctor Light. The thing that resonated the most about Kimiyo were the possibilities — a whole world in DC that was sometimes misunderstood and sometimes cliche — from the costumes to the way of life in Japan.

Joe and I thought not just because Doctor Light was female and Asian, but we were both children of manga and anime. We weren’t going to get cliche on the stories or storytelling either. The thing about the way Japanese comics tells their stories, they’re ruthless. And they don’t go about telling stories like we’re used to. Cities can be destroyed at anytime, science can wax spiritual at any moment, it can get super-cosmic or comedic at any time. Whatever it takes to get the point across, they’ll go there.

And Joe and I wanted to be the first to introduce that kind of chutzpah to not only Kimiyo, but the whole thought process of her traditions, her family, and her fighting spirit when it was her turn to shoulder her responsibilities as a new guardian of Japan. We even wanted to give a better reason other than just putting on a costume because she garnered super abilities. We didn’t want a cakewalk, and were were prepared to go epic.

JOSEPH: I feel honored to have been the first writer to tell a solo story about Doctor Light. She’s one of my ten favorite female superheroes.

Was the Doctor Light short one of your first gigs at DC coming off of your work at Milestone? How did you both get attached to that story?

ILLIDGE: Yes, it was! The editor of the story was Alisande Morales, who worked on various Justice League titles. I think she co-edited that issue of Showcase ‘96, and she gave me an opportunity to pitch a story.

CHRIS: This was fresh from my move from Milestone Media and years of Blood Syndicate/Heroes into DC. We both knew that if we were going to get Doctor Light, we wanted to start fresh and create a buzz for the new Doctor Light that might get her her own book. Or at least a mini series.

Why was it important for you to tell her story at that time?

ILLIDGE: Even though Kimiyo was a member of the Justice League for a time, she was mostly ignored within the wide scope of the DC Comics superhero universe. Much like Monica Rambeau, the Black female Captain Marvel from Marvel Comics, Doctor Light was a woman with vast power that could be used in subtle and destructive ways. Powerful female characters of color deserve more spotlight.

CHRIS: Personally, I think it just fed into our wheelhouse.

The issue of Showcase that featured your story is interesting because it also explored other Asian characters and characters of color. From Lady Shiva to Shadowdragon and even Martian Manhunter (whose story is analogous to POCs and who has often been portrayed by actors of color). Was that a conscious editorial decision when putting that issue together?

JOSEPH: You’d have to ask Alisande that question, but I’m guessing it was intentional from an editorial standpoint. Interestingly enough, Doctor Light was the only clear hero of that issue. Lady Shiva was an assassin with her own unique code, and Shadowdragon was a mercenary, I believe.

Another thing is that DC Comics only had a handful of Japanese superheroes and did practically nothing with them, so I managed to include them all in this story. Suffice it to say, ChrisCross was provided with a lot of reference.

Strangely enough, it seems to me that DC Comics has less Asian superheroes now, than they did in the ’90s. With Doctor Light being introduced in The Flash television show, the character’s now at the top of the hierarchy, in that regard.

CHRIS: At the time, I hadn’t even realized that, and after years since seeing it, still didn’t realize that until you asked the question. I’m sure it was, though. The amount of meetings DC staffers have during a week, I’m sure the idea of coupling as many people of Asian decent that had been underused came up in conversation. Especially with that particular book. My thing is I don’t know if it happened because Joe pitched the idea of utilizing Kimiyo from the offset. All I know is that it really ignited my creative juices in a way I still crave until this day.

Considering this book came out in the mid-90s, it’s kind of amazing that your story in particular featured a lead woman hero of color. But with the both of you, as well as inker Caesar Antomattei, the creative team was made up entirely of people of color. This was 20 years ago! Why is it so difficult now to see that kind of diversity both on the page and behind the scenes?

JOSEPH: To be fair, the comic book industry is emerging from its latest era of multicultural marginalization. The path of least resistance approach editors took to hiring people they knew personally or knew about, that’s changing. The larger entertainment industry has more diversity, and is showing up the comic book industry on a daily basis.

That said, the cultural makeup at Marvel and DC Comics was and is also a factor. DC Comics had a more diverse editorial lineup in the ’90s — when I was a Batman editor — than they do now. Marvel was lacking in cultural diversity in their editorial group, but can now boast a Latino at the top, a Pakistani American, and at least one Black person in the department, as well as more women. Look at the level of effort both publishers are making towards diversity in terms of characters and writers, and you may see a connection.

CHRIS: I wish Ceasar was here to give his perspective, but here’s the thing with me: although it was a bit troubling to rarely see many people of color being represented back in the day, to me, drawing people of color in comics was the normal thing to do. If you can believe, one of the great men who gave me an opportunity in comics is named Brian David Marshall. He always wrote scripts to get me drawing with the intent in mind to self-publish. And he was successful at it. He created Lodestone Publishing back in the ’90s, and another company before that to give the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents time under the sun.

We were sitting down in his office in Brooklyn and he just out of the blue asks me, “Do you have problems drawing black characters? If you had the chance to work for Marvel or DC and the only way to get gigs in comics were for you to draw any color of character OTHER than white, would you?” Of course I chuckled a bit, but without even thinking about it, I said “Yes! Every character has a story. Why did you ask that?”

Understand that Brian is a white man who was completely disappointed and miffed that he proposed people of color to a couple of artists who just happened to be black, and they turned his request down because “they didn’t think they would get any recognition for their abilities because no one reads black characters.” I mean, he was red faced. He was a true advocate for diversity and thought comics get boring when you can’t pull from other sources and cultures.

People need to see themselves represented in order to be a part of the experience. It was a no-brainier for me to be a part of that experience.  And it was amazing to me that people of my own culture didn’t want to draw their own culture in comics for fear of neglect.

With the advent of the social media paradigm, it’s easier now for people to show their dismay and put companies on notice. They want to be able to dream in their own skin and traditions. Some people may be out of touch in the companies, some may be fearful of doing it the wrong way considering the prison that is political correctness.

There are multiple reasons nowadays why people feel the Big Two aren’t doing enough. They have bigger parent companies they have to answer to and must abide in their happiness and traditional standards in order to comply to mergers and agreements they signed off to.

But that’s also why people shouldn’t forget the independent publishers. They’re not worried about what others think. They just want to tell their stories. So it’s up to the independents to set the new standard and not worry so much about what the bigger companies need to do. The proving ground comes from the dreamers in the smaller companies. So we can’t complain anymore. We have access to publishing and access to marketing those works all over the world digitally. The argument about forcing bigger companies to comply to your wishes are pretty moot now, in my opinion. You want to represent? The power is in your hands via Mac or PC.

I imagine this story means a great deal to you Chris because I believe it was your first gig as the lead artist on a mainstream “Big Two” comic.

CHRIS: It was indeed the first gig I got at the DC Comics. And you can imagine the excitement. But while some may freak out at the prospect of finally crossing that plateau, I was chomping at the bit. One, because this was a dream for not just myself, but for Ceasar and Joe. Three guys who met in the unlikeliest of ways. All those hours, days, weeks, months, years of talking about it, of working on it, paying dues on it… It hadn’t hit any of us that we had crossed the line together by bringing each other along until we started working on that first page.

You two also go back to the Milestone days and even earlier. Can both of you speak to what it was like working together on Doctor Light?

CHRIS: On my blog, I found old xerox copies of those Doctor Light pages and decided to post them. And while it could have easily been about the art, it became more and more about our first foray together hitting that echelon when there were so many people and circumstances telling you you won’t make it, that what you want is a pipe dream. I go into depth about it on my post. It was a great way to remind me and anyone else reading it the power of the art of “PURSUE.” You don’t give up. You stay the course UNTIL. It’s what separates the people who talk for the people who DO. It’s what makes Joe know what pushes me. Autonomy unleaded.

JOSEPH: Chris is one of the most talented storytellers in American superhero comic books. He’s drawn for the majors, and kicked it up a notch on every series he’s tackled, from DC Entertainment’s Justice League of America and Katana to Marvel’s Captain Marvel to Valiant Entertainment’s Bloodshot.

He’s well-versed on Japanese art styles, and has been for some time, so working with him on a Japanese superhero story set in Japan had me excited. I think I added the large cyborg element to the story because mobile tech is present in a lot of manga, and Chris and I go back to the earlier Macross and Mobile Suit Gundam days. Ultimately, I can’t think of anyone more qualified to draw a Doctor Light story.

Having worked on the character, and being one of the few creators tasked with writing a solo story, what was your reaction upon learning a live action version of Kimiyo was coming to TV on The Flash?

ILLIDGE: First off, considering that Kimiyo Hoshi was introduced in a major DC Comics story in which The Flash played a significant role in saving the multiverse from annihilation, how great and perfect is it that she is introduced on The Flash television series?

The news blew me away, and DC Entertainment gained another point in my eyes for expertly mining their superhero universe and bringing a gem like Kimiyo Hoshi to the masses.

CHRIS: I was excited! I’d like to see who they get to play the part, and most importantly what that uniform will look like. I also found out that Jason Rusch, who was the version of Firestorm I created from the ground up with Dan Jolley, is also a part of the TV mythos. That’s just as exciting. And speaking of diversity, I used my brother Jeremy as the mold for Rusch. I wanted him light-skinned — looking like his father but having his mother’s skin color — because that’s how genetics works.

One being being brought into this world with the characteristics of both progeny. Because of our birth genealogy and history, African Americans come in many “flavors.” So they should be represented as such. So should Asians. There are many hues of Asians and they’re not all light. So they should be represented as such also. Paying attention to the details shows a creator acknowledges the existence of you. In all your facets, which is really what this is all about anyway. The pathological fear of this planet and society is to be treated like you don’t exist — not like you’re invisible — but like you’re not even worth the energy to be acknowledged as living. Like you never existed. People don’t want to be looked at. They want to be seen.

It’s weird that the producers of the show have been so hush-hush about who’s playing Doctor Light, though. For a while I was worried that they may have whitewashed the character — something Arrow has done with Asian characters in the past.

CROSS: Stop worrying about that. Actually, DC has been really good about representing on television. It can always get better, yes. But they’re actually pretty good so far. I leave room for sidestep in focus. I severely doubt they would get a Caucasian sister and put tape on her eyes and pass her off as Asian. Because Lord help them if they did! LOL!

It looks like one of the reasons for all of the secrecy is because this is the Earth-2 version of Doctor Light, and she’s going to be played by the actress who plays Linda Park on the show. How does that make you feel about the absence of Kimiyo Hoshi from DC’s television universe?

JOSEPH: I would have loved for it to be Kimiyo, so she could have been developed from the ground up. If it is Linda, then the writers have a great opportunity to show Earth-2 Linda’s character arc from apparent villain to superhero. Both options allow for dramatic possibilities, and could expand on Doctor Light’s character in different ways.

CHRIS: I guess I don’t have a problem with it ultimately, but its perplexing. I’d like to be a fly on the wall in these meetings. Jimmy Olsen is culture-swapped; Linda Park is Doctor Light instead of the original Asian woman who started it; and Jefferson (Jax) Jackson — who existed in the DC continuum as a minor character — is Firestorm instead of Jason Rusch, the character Dan Jolley and I went through painstaking effort to create. But I guess they have their reasons and essentially they can do what they want. It’s really their properties. I just hope they do great work with these characters.  

In terms of diversity in live action adaptations, The Flash has been rather successful in highlighting characters of color from the comics — like Cisco Ramon or the aforementioned Linda Park — and racebending others to great effect — like the entire West family. What lesson can other live action properties take from this approach?

JOSEPH: The lesson is for stories to reflect the world, not ignore the world’s variety of people and cultures. I think because television shows are longform, they allow for more casting opportunities than movies, as new characters are introduced more frequently.

CHRIS: Well, I’m kind of on this quest to change the verbiage on the “racebending” vernacular. I prefer “culture-bending” since under the scientific paradigm, there’s no such a thing as race when it comes to human beings. And that is proven. It’s just a way to keep that verbiage in our mode of language to keep us separated. And we are all of one blood. Never get that twisted. People can argue back and forth about the shenanigans of my verbiage, but it’s my opinion they habitually repeat what they’re used to hearing.

And why does it seem to be easier to achieve this on TV and not in the movies? For instance, look how diverse the MCU is on TV — Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Carter, Jessica Jones, Daredevil, Luke Cage all prominently feature women and POCs while the Avengers movies are still mostly lilly white. Though DC/WB seems first to change up that dynamic with a Pacific Islander Aquaman and an Asian American director.

JOSEPH: DC Entertainment has definitely upped their game, as they also have a Cyborg film on deck. Marvel Studios did end Avengers: Age of Ultron with a more diverse lineup, so I look forward to seeing them in action. It’ll be interesting to see which of the two studios makes the biggest impact for diversity within the next five years.

CHRIS: That being said, what we learn from this is knowing there’s more to the world than what we’re used to. And new ideas, albeit ideas as old as the Earth itself, are like new wine put in old skins. They’re useless to those who don’t have the dexterity to expand their minds. The wine/ideas will just be wasted on the brick floor. There needs to be an injection of more new people who have new, bold wine. Soon those people will be able to introduce that a person’s ethnicity and culture add to the look of a character of fantasy and his/her story. The less afraid of that kind of thing, the more pure the story tales.

Back to the comics themselves and how much of an outlier a story like the Doctor Light story would be today, while the industry has made some strides in diversifying their characters, there is still a shortage of writers, artists, and editors of color. What can be done to ensure that the right talent is being employed at the big two? And with the slew of diverse talent at smaller publishers and in indie comics, does it even matter?

JOSEPH: If each of the major comic book publishers had a diversity board, made up of a diverse set of people, they could act as the counsel and gauge. It sounds like creative hampering, but it’s really about informing people about options for representation, as well as catching offensive things before they go to print. Even with the various efforts being made in the interest of diversity, I still see initiatives which exclude Latinos and Asians.

It’s 2015. That shouldn’t be happening any more.

CROSS: The concept of what Joe and I had planned was universal and relevant on all timelines in my opinion. What we planned was not only relevant, but spirit provoking, so those kinds of things always last. Because as much as situations and perceptions change, how humans emote and the nature of what triggers their spirit remains the same.

Given what’s happens thus far in the medium, there are big strides occurring. And at some point, we have to stop badgering the Big Two and just do it ourselves. There has to be a point where pushing complaints end even though they’re relevant. But be teachers rather than victims. That makes us as people of color seen as seemingly weak. And we’re not. We don’t put up with what we have experienced and get to this point in reality and still be weak. We need to change our inner dialog and our perception. Acknowledge what’s in front of us and adjust accordingly.

People of color should never be bosses. We should be leaders.

Finally, since it’s clear Kimiyo holds a special place for the both of you, what are your expectations for the character after her brush with mainstream audiences on TV? Since she has yet to appear in the new DC continuity, do you think the raising of her profile will ultimately make its way back to the books? How would you see Kimiyo’s story being played out in 2015 and beyond?

JOSEPH: DC Comics is learning from Marvel, which it comes to alignment of their comic books with media extensions of their characters, so I do expect to see Kimiyo Hoshi’s return to the DC Universe soon. Doctor Light has the potential to be one of the most powerful heroes in the DC Universe. I want to see that explored, as well as the various issues of a single Japanese woman being a mother, widow, scientist, and superhero. Women holding down careers, raising their children, and co-managing the financial architecture of their households are superheroes.

Doctor Light could go a long way to being a reflection and examination of that life.

CROSS: I guess time will only tell with that last question. It’s all about the effort they put into Kimiyo and what they do with her moving forward. I know that showing her one time won’t do. People need to see her at least semi-repetitiously. And what she does has to matter.

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