The ‘Asian Superhero’ is Not an Oxymoron

Originally published at NBC News Asian America

In a New York Times op-ed over the weekend, Malaysian talk radio host Umapagan Ampikaipakan called into question the entire concept of an “Asian superhero.” As an Asian person who has invested quite a lot in the idea of Asian superheroes, you can imagine seeing such a piece in the paper of record left me a bit bewildered — especially because this was the year that comics featuring Asian and Asian-American heroes had finally broken through.

Marvel Comics famously published Ms. Marvel starring Pakistani American Kamala Khan and Silk with Korean American Cindy Moon, and just this month, longtime sidekick Amadeus Cho graduated to lead hero status as the new Totally Awesome Hulk. Moreover, two of Image Comics’ highest profile titles in 2015 were RunLoveKill by Jon Tsuei and Eric Canete and Monstress by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda — both books featuring all-Asian lead characters and all-Asian creative teams.

And, for the last year and a half, I’ve been advocating for Marvel Studios to cast an Asian American actor as the lead for its upcoming Iron Fist series on Netflix, a cause that has been gaining steam in recent weeks. Perhaps Ampikaipakan’s editorial is the beginning of the backlash?

The main thrust of Ampikaipakan’s op-ed is that the comic book superhero is a wholly American invention that upholds ideals and values like truth, justice, and the American way. This is not untrue. Characters like Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman have transcended their pulpy roots to become the closest thing Americans have to homegrown mythology. I mean, there’s a reason why these heroes all wear spandex in the primary colors of red, white, and blue.

Ampikaipakan also asserts that any time other cultures have tried to mimic American superheroes, they ultimately fail. More than that, he specifically calls out the failure of Asian superheroes, pointing to Japanese manga as being nothing more than derivative and, in the process, completely dismissing the work and influence of legends like Go Nagai and Osamu Tezuka.

But it’s telling that Astro Boy and Devilman, the examples of American comic book “rip-offs” Ampikaipakan cites, are 60-plus and 40-plus years old, respectively. I’m assuming he has also never seen Sailor Moon or Gatchaman or Super Sentai — known in the U.S. as Power Rangers — or Dragonball Z — which itself is an adaptation of one of the most “Asian-y” superheroes of all time: the Monkey King.

His lack of knowledge about manga notwithstanding, Ampikaipakan can be given the benefit of the doubt if he were simply pointing out differences between American and non-American concepts of “superheroes.” Where he missteps, though, is the assumption that the American-ness of superhero mythology is indistinguishable from whiteness.

“I suppose the current push to draw diversity into comics and add variety to the canon is meant to reinforce the notion that anyone can be a superhero. But that only risks undercutting the genre’s universal appeal,” he writes. According to Ampikaipakan, superheroes are only “universal” if they’re white. And male. And straight. Because black Captain America, female Thor, and gay Iceman represent a push for diversity that simply “doesn’t make sense.”

The idea that straight white males are the center of the universe not only permeates comics; it’s an idea that drives most of pop culture and it’s why a push for diversity is necessary in the first place.

Here’s the thing: superheroes aren’t the sole domain of white people. And they haven’t been for quite some time, despite what some might think. Take the “original superhero,” born in 1938 from the minds and pencils of Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster, who happened to be sons of Jewish immigrants: Superman’s adventures in Action Comics was the source code for all superheroes to follow.

With his flowing red cape and perfectly coiffed spit curl, Superman is the embodiment of the American ideal. But if you take a closer look, Clark Kent’s origin story parallels the experiences of many immigrants to the United States. And as an Asian American, those parallels are too powerful to ignore.

Coincidentally, Ampikaipakan derisively refers to Kamala Khan’s storyline in “Ms. Marvel” as “merely another retelling of the classic American immigrant experience,” and therefore not worthy of the universality of the superhero archetype. I guess immigrant experiences only matter so long as the immigrant isn’t brown.

And that’s the main problem with the op-ed’s entire thesis. As someone who lives outside the United States and is unaware — or at least, unconcerned — with the racial and cultural dynamics within American society, Ampikaipakan’s opinion that “the Asian comic superhero is a contradiction in terms” holds little weight in the discourse around why media representation matters. It’s a mentality that Hollywood uses to falsely propagate the assumption that films and shows starring people of color will not perform well overseas, despite evidence of the contrary.

Which brings me back to the idea of an Asian American Iron Fist: maybe all of the arguments we’ve made for why an Asian American character can and should exhibit all of the traits of a traditional (read: white) superhero touched a nerve. Maybe somebody will point to this op-ed and say, “See, Asians can’t be superheroes.”

Or maybe we should simply refuse to believe whiteness is the default setting for superhero comics. Maybe we use this op-ed, and others like it, as a clarion call to keep pushing for more diversity, more inclusion to show that Asian Americans are not limited by the stereotypes others place on us.

19 thoughts on “The ‘Asian Superhero’ is Not an Oxymoron

  1. I don’t know what the comic book culture is like today in Malaysia, but I presume that Umapagan Ampikaipakan has a very narrow definition of ‘superheroes’ as being defined by western superhero comics. He’s not completely wrong that Asian superhero comics are derivative of them. My home country of the Philippines copied Wonder Woman and made ‘Darna’ and so many other characters. I can’t say these adaptions are a credit to Philippine creativity when crime and corruption is so rampant.

    The Tatsunoko heroes could fit into the narrow definition of superheroes because they wear tights and capes. Astro Boy is not a ‘superhero’ by that definition. Also the Monkey King comes from the classic Chinese tale “Journey to the West”, later adpated into superheroes like Dragonball Z’s Son Goku. The new animated film from China doesn’t cast him in the friendly, noble light that we expect from a superhero. He’s usually depicted as either wild or anti-social.

    From that article, what Ampikaipakan is arguing about is the heroic style, how American superheroes is a reflection of the American Dream, the American Ego, and its form of justice, and how it doesn’t work in Asian countries. The way conflicts are fought is not the same, even in Japanese manga. The racial issues aren’t the same either, although Asians do have their own prejudices.

    His mention of previous Asian heroes in western comics implies how burned he must have been as an Asian reader. DC’s the Great Ten was a mockery of Chinese culture as much as Marvel’s Mandarin ever was. Countries like Japan, China, and India can easily create their own successful heroes. They even have celebrities they are immensely proud of, even if they don’t break into Hollywood. But other Asian countries still cling to the American standard, and it should not be the case for them. This issue is just another footnote in the culture clash between East and West.

    1. eh gonna agree with the thesis ,

      If your dealing with Khamela khan for example

      Have to separate the stand point of Muslim in the middle east. They don’t need a Muslim superhero that exposes Muslim values . They are Muslim there the majority last thing they want is to mix there native religion and social traditions with an exotic import like superheroes., If there are fans of Superheroes in Arabic culture they want “American supero “Capes muscles Greek hot body and alls . That sorta the point there attracted to it because it .different from there native culture . So yeah that something that is a real problem for anything trying to sale over seas .

      I don’t think it specifically means more (White people )

      it is a really blockade on attempt to blend other cultural and theme into super heroes when the target audience will simply outright reject them and has zero interest in seeing there own culture sold back to them.

      The Force awakening isn’t a good defense to be honest, Star wars is some alien scfi world . that out there focusing on good and evil ., Not specifically trying to Represent a specific religion or culture mixed with the super hero themes .

      1. The concept of the Asian-American superhero IS NOT an oxymoron. Case in point: Bruce Lee, who was Chinese American. He played Kato as the chauffeur/valet/enforcer of Britt Reid who took on vigilante adventures.

        By all rights Bruce Lee could have easily played The Green Hornet circa 1960s because after all Britt Reid wasn’t doing one damn thing that Kato wasn’t doing and in fact Kato was doing it better as THE ENFORCER.

        Bruce Lee stole the show as Kato and left such an indelible impression that the TV series tied-in a set of coloring books produced by “Watkins & Strathmore,” entitled, “Kato’s Revenge Featuring the Green Hornet.”

        My dad introduced me to The Green Hornet in the 70s and we watched it because of Kato (Bruce Lee), not the Green Hornet. We were onto something.

        The Green Hornet’s success in Hong Kong, where it was popularly known as “The Kato Show,” led to Lee starring in the feature films that ultimately made him a pop culture icon—a status that still holds today.

        So my point is, using Bruce Lee as a prime example, this stuff about the “Asian values of humility, self-effacement, respect for elders and communal harmony,” running counter to what a superhero who happens to be Asian is all about—is bunk.

      2. Have you ever heard of the comic ‘The 99″, written by Naif al-Mutwa, published by Teshkeel Comics? There was cross-over story with the Justice League and Americans though it was terrorist propaganda.

  2. It was always beyond me why Superman, who was a straight up alien, just happened to look like an “All American straight, white male.” Go figure. (LOL)

    1. Reminds me of Aaron Diaz’s (of Dresden Codak) Superman reboot idea where Kryptonians were outright non-humanoid (Google his proposal to see he had in mind instead) and the rocket ship instead configured Kal-El’s body to appear human, although he could drop the guise… not very far in my mind to go from that to the rocket ship basing his human appearance on the closest humans in proximity to where he made landfall.

  3. Ampikaipakan really doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Asians can ALWAYS be superheroes, in fact even moreso. Back to Kato…the comic version offered an interesting TWIST. It established a new Kato, a much younger half-sister of the television-based character, Mishi.

    This female Kato also insisted on being treated as the Hornet’s EQUAL and a full partner rather than a sidekick. However, the Green Hornet, Inc., soon withdrew approval [Gee, I wonder why?] ]and this Mishi character was replaced with the 60s version after Vol. 1, #10.

    Her removal was explained by having the Kato family company, Nippon Today, needing her automotive designing services at its Zurich, Switzerland facility. Mishi would return in Volume 2, appearing sporadically in the new costumed identity of the Crimson Wasp, on a vendetta against the criminal, Johnny Dollar. How’s that for an Asian Superhero backstory?

    1. I’ll rephrase the question I asked at another website on this matter:

      How popular are America’s Asian-based superheroes in Asia? Bruce Lee is a great Asian icon, but he became bigger than his Kato character. They look up to the man, not Kato.

      1. I’m ambivalent on that since in America his (publication) history is intrinsically tied to that of the Green Hornet… on the other hand, Bruce Lee’s depiction is basically responsible for every other depiction of Kato ever since, culminating in the 2011 movie’s take.

  4. @Chortles

    Bruce Lee is already an icon as himself in Asia. In Hong Kong they have a statue of the man himself, not Kato from Green Hornet. He’s also inspired other characters, like Fei Long in Super Street Fighter, not Kato.

  5. I hope that comic book movies and TV shows increase diversity. As a half-Latino, I am extremely excited to see the new Power Rangers movie. Two of the actors are of Asian descent, one of them is African American, and another one is Latina. I think someone on here should write an article about the movie’s diversity 🙂

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