In the beginning of May, I went to University of Toronto’s 3rd annual New Narratives Conference. Since I hadn’t presented at academic conferences before this, it was an eye-opener. With such a growing field as comics and animation, it was amazing how everyone’s presentations gelled together.
I wasn’t going to post my paper, but I just realized that even though I’m writing my thesis on comics and I’ve read tons of comics and tons of criticism, I haven’t posted anything related to comics at all. So here it is. The Secret Identities Anthology can be found here. It’s a great read even if you’re not interested in racial politics per se.
Eammon Callan, in his discussion of multicultural education in the US, worries that multicultural histories may be “too shameful to warrant anything other than revulsion,” and that national heroes “lose their God-like status and become richly ambiguous human beings, just like the rest of us” (Callan 475), thereby creating demoralized and apathetic future generations who do not have faith in the national community. However, recent researchers into superheroes comics such as Mike Dubose and Matthew J. Smith have shown that superheroes change according to their cultural climates, and are no less national heroes for this. Callan’s concerns and comics scholarship on superheroes meet in Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology, published by The New Press last year. The comics collected in this anthology span from the days of railroad building into the near future, directly engaging with topics such as the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII and the murder of Vincent Chin during the downturn in the US automobile industry in the early 1980s. Arguably, historical events presented in Secret Identities could disrupt founding US myths such as freedom and democracy. However, the diverse Asian American superheroes featured in this anthology share one goal, which is to strive for and maintain these values. In addition, the editors have also put together an extensive teacher’s guide. Far from demythologizing US history, Secret Identities creates an alternate body of US myth in the form of superhero narratives. I will briefly outline issues with multicultural education and the potential for comic books as education materials before examining Secret Identities in more depth.
I. Comics in education:
Although we think of comics as only recently become a tool in education rather than a distraction from it, comics in education is not new. During WWII, the Office of War published comics instructing its young readers to fulfil their “patriotic duty” and stay in school (Zorbaugh 196, cited in Dorrell, Curtis and Rampall). As a popular medium, comics intimately reflect their times, and even overtly discriminatory comics of the past can “present a number of social phenomena, including gender, race, and sexual inequality or stratification, and violence” and especially “superhero comic books also reflect cultural assumptions about gender and American values” (Hall and Lucal 60). Indeed, Hall and Lucal suggest that X-Men be supplemented by texts such as Omi and Winant’s Racial Formation in the United States to discuss identity politics (62). In a sense, Secret Identities is riding on a long-established tendency in using comics as education materials as well as a recent resurgence.
II. Multicultural education
the classroom is one of the early “contact zones” (Edelstein 28) between cultures, where both students and teachers are increasingly coming from diverse backgrounds, and where school texts may describe communities different from the school community.
Edelstein writes that criticism of multiculturalism have come from both the right and the left, with the former “bemoaning the loss of a supposedly ‘common’ culture” (21), and the latter faulting it for being too much of a token and superficial approach without affecting any change in power and privilege. Although liberal scholars recognize that the idea of a common culture is absurd, it does not rule out the problem put forth by Callan, that teaching disparate histories of oppression may demoralize readers and contribute to a loss of faith in the national community. The other large issue is finding ways of engaging more deeply in multiculturalism beyond, say, setting up food festivals. I will argue that SI works to resolve both issues.
III. Myths, Superheroes, and US identity
Callan specifically discusses Benedict Anderson’s influential idea of “imagined communities” (qtd. 469), and argues that although Anderson does not explicitly state it, myth is central to building communities because “myth inspires in a way that plain facts about predatory warfare, self-serving elites and downtrodden or resistant masses cannot possibly equal” (469) [Richard Reynolds: Superheroes: A Modern Mythology] Dubose examines national myths specifically as it relates to Captain America in the 1980s. What is particular about Captain America is that he changes as the socio-political climate of the US changes. Although he serves as a soldier in WWII, after rehabilitated from his plane accident (comics serialized in the 1960s), he is sensitive to the “doubtful status of morality” in the 80s and even admits that America isn’t living up to its own dream (927). Dubose writes that ultimately Captain America is a hero because he transcends politics – that he represents the abstract concepts of liberty, justice, dignity, and the pursuit of happiness. To develop upon Dubose’s argument, because one superhero character outlives individual creators and readers, he/she builds an imagined community not only through space but also through time, and is a “contact zone” (to borrow from Education) where citizens, through time, negotiate cultural values (Alilifu Nama: “psychological sandbox”). Other studies, such as Matthew J. Smith’s “The Tyranny of the Melting Pot Metaphor: Wonder Woman as Americanized Immigrant,” also focus on the evolution of one superhero figure along with changing American cultural climate. What Secret Identities presents is not so much the evolution of one figure but the evolution of the idea of superhero as it relates to nation. Arguably, an anthology of superhero comics by Asian Americans could only have arisen recently in the US, as there would not have been Asian Americans working within the comics industry, and with the resources, to put together this anthology. Realizing this allows us to better examine multiculturalism and superheroes in conjunction.
I. Minorities and superheroes
One of the central ideas behind the anthology is the similarity between the Asian American experience and the situation of superheroes. The opening page of the section, “When Worlds Collide,” features Asians of various national backgrounds gathering, paired with deliberately ambiguous words that could refer to either the immigrant experience or alien superheroes. Similarly, the publisher summary on the back cover begins by describing a “quiet and unassuming guy with black hair and thick glasses,” which describe the Asian stereotype but also Clark Kent. Granted, not all previously conceived American superheroes are from another world; even so, immigrants, with different ideas, abilities, and appearances, are comparable to superheroes due to their difference from the majority. “Taking Back Troy” is the fictionalized story of Vincent Chin. Historically, in 1982, as imported cars from Japan led to layoffs in the American automobile industry, two workers took Vincent Chin for a Japanese man at a strip club and murdered him after a dispute. In this comic, the Japanese professionals behind the more desirable import cars are directly compared with superheroes (Asian Americans especially have been labelled the “model minority” for their work ethic, which has earned both ill-will and praise from the majority). “No Exit” is similar in that Enayet and Rahmat are arrested because of their foreign appearance and their Muslim religion.
However, one trope of superhero comics is the masked and costumed hero, which should hide visible racial markers (though I will be discussing exceptions featured in the comic “9066” shortly). In many cases in SI, dressing in the same attire as other American superheroes enable Asian American superheroes to belong not only to the superhero community but also the national community, and in many ways the comics depicting military combat in WWII present the military uniform as another kind of superhero costume, which further emphasizes the national dimension. By presenting Asian Americans superheroes, SI positively reconceptualizes difference while also tapping into the superhero’s inclusive potential.
II. SI and its way of addressing history: not just “cultural tourism” (Edelstein)
The superheroes in the short pieces of Secret Identities certainly address both the history of discrimination experienced by the Asian American communities, and also provides the positive models for integrating the complex history and overcoming marginalization. In addition, the anthology consciously works with and presents itself as part of the American superhero tradition. Thus, as a text for multicultural education, it is not simply “cultural tourism,” nor does it engender apathy and ethnic separatism.
1) First of all, the volume deals explicitly with the history of Asians in America, and the effects of discriminatory events on Asian Americans today. Campus activism in the 1960s has lead to broader consideration of minority histories, however these narratives still rarely emerge in popular culture. The twenty-six stories in the anthology are arranged largely in chronological order, from “Driving Steel,” which traces the conflicts between Irish and Chinese railroad workers, to “Peril,” about a young man trying to clear his father’s name and prevent his research on advanced weapons from being abused. In SI, most comics centre around one or two heroes of specified ethnicity during a specific time or political climate. For example, “9066” and “Heroes Without a Country” are early stories dealing with Japanese-Americans during WWII and particular sentiments during this time period. The title of “9066” refers to the executive order signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942, which called for the internment of Japanese Americans living along the coast of the Pacific after the bombing of Pearl Harbour. In this comic, the main character is an unidentified Nisei (or second generation) Japanese American superhero, who feels that he has overcome the racial barrier. [Example: “I thought that it didn’t matter who we were when our masks were off” (Tsuei and Ma 27). However, after Pearl Harbour, his fellow superheroes tell him that if he resists their arrest, they would take him by force. The Nisei superhero goes quietly because he is “afraid of what a fight would do to others that look like [him]” (27). Although a fictional account, this narrative reflects widespread attitudes within the Japanese-American community that while their internment was unjust, they would comply to avoid further dividing the nation. It also points to a failure of both the superhero ideal and the American idea, which in this comic especially are intentionally conflated.
2) Despite the comics in the anthology showing the mistreatment of Asian Americans at the hands of the majority, they also insist that Asian superheroes in America are Americans. This insistence on American citizenship also balances diverse Asian-American voices in these comics with a unifying theme (and also reflects earlier directions in Asian American cultural studies). “Heroes Without a Country” fictionalizes the historical all-Japanese 100th Battalion. In the comic, the leader of the battalion, Captain Matt Kim, is based on Korean-American Young Oak Kim, who refused a transfer from the 100th battalion because both Koreans and Japanese Americans are Americans. Also, in “The Citizen,” Franklin D. Murakawa (who goes by his superhero alias, “the Citizen”) had tried to arrest a former US president for war crimes and was sealed inside a spherical chamber, until President Obama releases him to fight off the Nazi mutant soldiers of Operation Robot Stomp.
The title of “Heroes Without a Country” echoes Captain America’s alternate superhero profile, “Nomad, Man Without Country,” during a period when he disagrees with government policies and operated separately (Dubose 927). Despite this, he is still an “all-American superhero,” and readers (and perhaps to a certain extent the citizens of the Marvel universe) recognizes that to be truly American in spirit requires that he recognize when it is straying from his values and refuse to participate. Though Asian Americans can only do so at a greater risk (as shown in “9066”), the superheroes of SI choose to identify with the foundational tenets of America rather than America as a geopolitical entity. Patriotism, in Callan’s definition, is “active identification with one’s particular nation as a cross-generational political community whose flourishing one prizes and seeks to advance” (468). Hence, Franklin D. Murakawa is truly “The Citizen,” though it may take rehabilitation by a later president, and as a fictional character only be popularized generations later than Captain America.
3) As Captain Matt Kim allies himself with Japanese Americans, many Asian American superheroes of SI ally themselves with other American ethnicities. Edelstein discusses the dangers of ethnic or racial separatism in multicultural education, suggesting that “forging coalitions, not only ‘among various oppressed groups’ but between oppressed groups and ‘members of dominant groups,’ is crucial in order to move toward these goals” (36) “Heroes Without a Country” emphasizes that Samson is the most decorated American superhero and is Jewish. Graphically, Samson is shown in newspaper clippings to have a large star of David on the front of his costume. This comic does not only evoke the internment of the Japanese with the depiction of Nazi camps, but by evoking this parallel shows the similarity in history between various ethnic groups who have faced persecution around the world. Other comics show historical alliances between the Asian and African American communities. In “Driving Steel,” the Chinese railroad worker “Jimson Fo” is accompanied by an African American youth, “Jack,” as they compete with an Irish railroad worker team who is cheating to get farther into the mountain. While it might seem that Jack is Jimson’s sidekick, the comic ends with John telling Jimson, “Jack is what Creeder [the Irish overseer] calls me, suh. My real name is John. John Henry.” Jimson replies, “I will call you John Henry, if you will stop calling me Sir” (Yang and Jew 24). In addition, readers should realize by this time that young “Jack” is the African American folk hero John Henry, who challenged rail workers using a steam drill and won. Chinese labourers on the American and Canadian railroads are an important component of Asian North American history, and “Driving Steel” not only features an alliance between two minority characters but also a marriage between their cultural legends, enacted upon America during nation building.
4) In addition, by asserting themselves as superheroes of the American cause, the Asian superheroes already establish their alliance with the dominant group. Perhaps the most morally complex comic in this collection is “The Blue Scorpion and Chung.” In the opener to this comic, the comics creator Gene Yang and the director Michael Kang talk briefly about the role of most Asians in action films as sidekicks, which is demeaning and emasculating. Therefore, it is important to “tell our own stories, on our own terms” (Chow and Baroza 62). “The Blue Scorpion and Chung” fulfils this obligation in somewhat unexpected terms. Chung, a Korean-American, acts as a sidekick and chauffeur to the hero Blue Scorpion, who is often drunk and makes jokes bordering on racist. After defeating a Korean drug trafficking station, the captured drug dealer asks Chung, “So why do you put up with this pile of garage? You do all the work, he gets all the glory” (Yang and Liew 70). Chung answers, “The Blue Scorpion is justice. Sometimes justice requires sacrifices” (74). The “own terms” of “The Blue Scorpion and Chung” shows that the heroism of Chung is less that he can fight off drug traffickers and more that he makes sacrifices to ally himself with “garbage” for the sake of something greater than any individual. The comics in SI are certainly not separatist in this regard. The anthology ends with a timeline diagram showing when the comics are situated, and how characters relate to one another across time. On the website, this diagram is captioned, “Multiple creators. Disparate stories. One universe?” I believe that this qualifier operates at a few different levels: to echo the vast and complicated “universes” created by Marvel and DC, to create one universe for disparate Asian stories, but also to forge one universe and one community with existing superhero and real world stories from different cultural backgrounds.
5) Using superheroes to discuss the history of Asian Americans also answers another charge of multicultural education, that present and future generations would feel that nothing can be done about repeated oppression of racial minorities. Although critics of superhero comics sometimes argue that these comics do better when focusing on action sequences and do not lend themselves well to serious social critique and contemplative subject matters (eg, in Wright 162-163), SI uses the martial definition of “action” to drive its activism. One comic, “The Hibakusha,” deals with the aftermath of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still impacts families today, and in teaching this topic is it difficult to avoid black and white portrayals of US as the “bad guys” and Japanese citizens as helpless victims. “The Hibakusha,” whose title is a transcription of the Japanese expression “explosion-affected people” (SI Study Guide, 3), deals with young adults who have developed superpowers as descendants of the atomic bomb survivors, who are training in a facility run by a man known only as “Mishira.” The story does not sidestep the horrors of the atomic bombs even though it deals with amazing superpowers. Ryan Suda, who is given more back story than the other characters, is recruited to train with the other young superhumans. Ryan’s father loses his temper at the agent, telling him that his own father’s skin was peeling, his mother’s kimono was fused to her skin, and his wife was interned in the US. However, Ryan sees things differently, and agrees that it may be a “silver lining of a genocide,” a chance to overcome mutual hostilities for one, and secondly a chance for Ryan and others like him to be valued and to act on their abilities, despite being made inhuman. By focusing on the imagined superhuman abilities that could come from such a horrific historical event, the comic itself focuses on agency instead of victimhood. In addition, creating an anthology of superhero comics is an active method to teach students history that may be otherwise neglected, and also to assert current Asian American talent in the comics industry.
6) Historical background not included in the comic is covered by the Secret Identities Discussion Guide. Although the medium of comics has been praised to be effective in education, a criticism has been that the comics industry is slow to adapt to the protocols of education and academia (Coogan, qtd. in Hudson 23). Multicultural history, with its possibly depressing and difficult content, may need even more scaffolding to become successful in education. Keith Chow, one of the four editors of SI, is a specialist in comics and education, and thus has developed extensive teaching notes to SI. As of December 2009, discussion guides to the first three sections of SI are available online, covering “War and Remembrance,” “When Worlds Collide,” and “Girl Power.” Each corresponding section of the guide contains the social or historical background to the setting of each comic, followed by discussion questions. The entire section concludes with “Resources and Further Reading,” which lists books and articles. “War and Remembrance” and “Girl Power” also includes lesson plans with essential vocabulary and assignment plans.
Callan, Eammonn. “Democratic Patriotism and Multicultural Education.” Studies in Philosophy and Education 21 (2002): 465-477.
Dubose, Mike. “Holding Out for a Hero: Reaganism, Comic Book Vigilantes, and Captain America.” Journal of Popular Culture 40.6 (2007): 915-936.
Edelstein, Marilyn.”Multiculturalisms Past, Present, and Future.” College English 68.1 (2005): 14-41.
Hall, Kelley J. and Betsy Lucal. “Tapping into Parallel Universes: Using Superhero Comic Books in Sociology Courses.” Teaching Sociology 27.1 (1999): 60-66.
Hudson, Laura. “Comics in the Classroom.” Publishers Weekly 255.51 (2008): 22-23.
Nama, Alilifu. “Brave Black Worlds: Black Superheroes as Science Fiction Ciphers.” African Identities 7.2 (2009): 133-144.
Reynolds, Richard. Superheroes: A Modern Mythology. London: B.T. Batsford, 1992.
Secret Identities: An Asian American Superhero Anthology. Eds. Jeff Yang, Parry Shen, Keith Chow, and Jerry Ma. New York: The New Press, 2009.
“Secret Identities Discussion Guide: Section One: War and Remembrance.” Secretidentities.org. Web. 18 Dec. 2009. .
Wright, Bradford. “From Social Consciousness to Cosmic Awareness: Superhero Comic Books and the Culture of Self-Interrogation, 1968-1974.” English Language Notes 46.2 (2008): 155-174.