This is an important time to look at graphic works depicting Asian-American heroes, hopes, and hurts.
The Covid-19 pandemic has spread some virulent ideas along with its deadly virus. Once-common stereotypes and fears about Asian–Americans, in particular Chinese-Americans, have flared since President Trump began invidiously describing this global outbreak as the “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan flu.” These attempts to distance himself from the deadly results of his own lack of leadership have incited physical attacks against Asian-Americans as well as verbal assaults. (Ignorant bigots often mistakenly assume any Asian-American is of Chinese descent.) As one Korean – American writer eloquently wrote recently, she now too often hears “The slur I never expected to hear in 2020.”
So, today I describe some graphic literature by luminary author/illustrator Gene Luen Yang. In earlier posts, I have discussed his award-winning novel American Born Chinese (2006), rooted in his own experiences growing up in California, as well as his set-in-China historical duology, Boxers and Saints (2013). I have also examined the first two collected volumes of Yang’s visionary comic book series about a young Chinese Superman. Today, I have the pleasure of overviewing that recently completed series, as well as a brand-new work by Yang, Dragon Hoops, and of describing a forthcoming work by him I highly anticipate. That volume, Superman Smashes the Klan, is a collection of his most recent three comic books about America’s Superman, and will be published next month. I was also delighted to discover, through a recent webinar featuring Yang and Vietnamese – American author Minh Le, Le’s brand-new graphic novel about a tween superhero, Vietnamese – American Tai Pham. Titled Green Lantern Legacy, it is iIlustrated by Malaysian born Andie Tong. I have so many delightful, worthwhile books to spotlight for you today!
Yang’s adventures of China’s Superman, teenaged Kong Kenan living in today’s Shanghai, are completed in volumes 3 and 4 of this “New Super-Man” series. These volumes collect issues 13 through 24 of the comic books, illustrated respectively by Billy Tan and Brent Peeples. New-Superman Volume 3: Equilibrium appeared in 2017, and includes a bonus story written by award-winning Canadian-Japanese Mariko Tamaki, while the fourth volume, New Super-Man and the Justice League of China, appeared in 2019. In these volumes, Kenan continues to discover his superpowers as he acquires the sometimes painful self-knowledge that comes with young adulthood. Along with verbal jabs between friends in that Chinese Justice League, there are colorful, dramatic battles with supervillains, some drawn from different Chinese traditions. Some double spread pages splay out the multiple, simultaneous conflicts of these battles, while canny illustrators use other double spread pages to capture just one dramatic moment. Kong Kenan’s first use of his freezing super-breath is an example of that. Another is Kenan’s pained acquisition of super hearing, with sounds large and small—depicted in circular “snapshots’–assailing him from all directions.
There is humorous, true-to-life sibling snark between some of those Justice League superheroes and their non-superhero sisters, while the budding, sometimes sappy romance between China’s nerdy Batman and its Wonder Woman entertains us even as it exasperates their super-pals! Chinese mythology also appears in the possible futures facing the Chinese Justice League heroes. Will Wonder Woman learn to control her anger enough to stop morphing into the gigantic Green Snake of legend? Will the newest member of this Justice League, a superpowered Aqua man escaped from North Korea, resist the temptation to wreck vengeance as his mythological father’s “Dragonson”? And, most importantly, will an “enlightened” Kong Kenan drop his recent destructive pursuit of perfection to accept and appreciate this flawed world’s “goodness that is—is so, so good”?
Within these last two collected volumes, we see the once-selfish, boastful Kenan learning about and adopting some Taoist ideals. The harmony of balanced, opposing forces—the yin and yang of Taoism—is modeled by his martial arts teacher and life guide, Master I-Ching. He and his views are the opposite of the “Fu Manchu stereotype,” a mask worn by his villainous opposite, who says his enemies constructed this “mask out of their own fears.” Certainly, this 19th and 20th century image of a Chinese – American criminal mastermind is one of the stereotypes underpinning President Trump’s fervent proclamations about the “Chinese virus.” In a blog post , Gene Luen Yang has examined some historical “Fu Manchu” comic book images and explained the significance of Kong Kenan’s final, transformed costume. Yet we really do not need this explanation to understand how the new costume’s “S”—now formed by the black-and-white yin-yang symbol—marks Keenan’s new maturity and self-awareness. The comics’ dialogue and descriptive word boxes are enough to convey this. The deeper bronze skin tones used for Chinese Justice League figures in this fourth volume might also reflect their personal growth as Asian individuals distinct from the original Justice League characters.
Personal growth and acceptance of life’s complexities are also prominent in Dragon Hoops (2020), illustrated as well as authored by Yang and colored by Lark Pien. This non-fiction novel, Yang’s first lengthy foray into this genre, focuses on the basketball players and history of the Dragons, the basketball team of Cardinal O’Dowd High School in California. Gene Luen Yang taught computer science there for 17 years, and the book has autobiographical elements. To his surprise, as ruefully unathletic Yang learns more about these young people and their coaches, he becomes enthusiastic about sports. He recognizes its transformative power in people’s lives and comes to see how its complexities mirror those of his own life, after talking with and researching African – American, Sikh, and female players who have dealt with negative stereotypes and discrimination. Yang is also inspired by the way that, as he tells the team, “[E]ven though you don’t really know if you’re gonna win or lose . . . . [Y]ou step out anyway.” This inspiration leads Yang to accept the risk of leaving teaching to become a full-time author/illustrator. He will take the rare opportunity just offered to write Superman comics!
The probable misdeeds of one gifted coach, accused of abusing students, also impact Yang as a parent as well as an author, leading him to tell his children that there are not always clearly “good guys and bad guys.” Similarly, Dragon Hoops includes this coach even though Yang in the book considers omitting him because of his checkered past. Much is communicated by the visuals here: the body language and facial expression of the now elderly coach and those who welcome him at the school confound Yang’s expectations. Dragon Hoops’ illustrations also enhance its storytelling with shifts in focus, panels of different sizes and shapes, apt double spread images, and many dramatically large, varied sound effect words during ball games. Crucial points during those games are also spotlighted by how Yang sequences illustrations. One tie-breaking moment is in suspense until readers turn the page to find a huge “SWISH” on one side of a double spread, with a ball having just gone through a hoop on the other side. Victory for the Dragons!
The forthcoming Superman Smashes the Klan, written by Yang and illustrated by the Japanese illustration team known as Girihuru, is fiction, but this book is based on real life in several ways. First, it is a revisioning of a 1946 Superman radio series titled “Clan of the Fiery Cross.” In that sixteen-episode series, Superman aids a Chinese – American family, the Lees, who are being attacked in Metropolis by a Ku Klux Klan like organization. Gene Luen Yang was excited to learn of this early connection between Superman works and the fight against anti-Chinese bigotry. He was also excited to learn that the radio series’ popularity had a dampening effect on the real Ku Klux Klan! This trailer for Superman Smashes the Klan, narrated by Yang, whets readers’ appetite for the book. Meanwhile, I would point readers to Yang’s own creation of a 1930s to 40s era Chinese – American superhero, in a graphic novel illustrated by Sonny Liew titled The Shadow Hero (2014). I reviewed that book here. Eager readers will also find exciting, satisfying reading about another Asian-American superhero in the just-published Jade Lantern Legacy (2020).
Thirteen-year old Tai Pham’s warm, close relationship with his grandmother does not include knowing she is Earth’s Green Lantern, one of many interplanetary peacekeepers. He only knows her as his Vietnamese – American community’s strong “heart,” offering support along with sharp words and advice in her family-run store. Not until her sudden illness and death, when Kim Tran’s jade ring “chooses” him as her superhero successor, does Tai learn about the immigrant woman’s secret strengths and adventures. The discovery of a grandparent’s hidden talents and a new connection to old traditions also figured in author Minh Le’s award-winning picture book, Drawn Together (2018, drawn by Dan Santat and reviewed by me here). In that sense Le’s focus on this cross-generations relationship is not a surprise. But the brilliant ways in which the author, illustrator Andie Tong, and colorist Sarah Stern connect this family story to the long comic book history of Green Lantern superheroes, to contemporary tween – age life, Vietnamese culture, and to refugee and immigrant experiences past and present, are purely delightful!
The novel’s two plot elements—a local community trying to save its neighborhood from a greedy housing developer, with that rich investor here also turning out to be an evil “Yellow Lantern” overlord—are (with minor variations) typical comic book or TV stories. But Le’s character development and dialogue add appealing freshness. Tai Pham’s older sisters offer him pop culture advice as well as moral support, while school friends salt their sympathy with snark. Visual elements support these scenes. Tai’s more dramatic college-age sister sports a shock of maroon hair, while a seemingly life-or-death fight between Tai and schoolmate Serena, first shown with close-ups on their angry faces and threats being exchanged, turns out to be a cut-throat ping-pong game! Andie Tong’s fast-paced zooming out and then back into this game, including a few wordless panels, is funny and believable. The pace and “look” of Green Lantern appearances and disappearances on other worlds or in different dimensions is similarly breathless and dazzling.
Vietnamese culture in this book is also communicated through a blend of verbal and visual storytelling. The legendary properties of jade, colorful lanterns, long tunics, and connections with spirits of the dead are some of the Vietnamese items and beliefs that smoothly fit into Green Lantern comic book lore. And the way in which the book’s color palette shifts to reds and oranges not only for dreams or nightmares but for the dangers Kim Tran faced years ago as a refugee and, later, as an immigrant are significant in several ways. They are part of the human suffering, often preyed upon by criminals, that fictional Green Lanterns combat. Yet Kim Tran’s flight from Vietnam, and her later struggles, also show the heroism this character displayed in every day life, confronting dangers apart from her duties as a daring Green Lantern. Tai’s grandmother is representative of individuals that Minh Le has described elsewhere as “the actual heroes that walk among us.” The final, wordless two pages of Green Lantern Legacy signal that similar threats still exist today, in the real world.
We see a family at home, its ethnicity suggested by the woman’s hajib, the first page concluding with a panel focused closely on her fearful face. In response to knocking, she has partly opened the apartment’s door. The next page shows gently smiling Tai Pham, his friends Serena and Tommy, and John Stewart (a Green Lantern off-duty and out-of-costume) each carrying bags overflowing with food to welcome these new arrivals. It is their heroism and hope, rather than the hurt these “new to the neighborhood” folks may have encountered, that conclude the novel. We readers young and old need this positive message, to combat the virulent distrust and anger political leaders such as President Trump and other groups continue to spread about people whose looks and heritage differ from theirs. Asian – Americans are in the foreground of this blog post, but so many of us other Americans still make up its kaleidoscopic background.