Monday, July 10, 2006

Slanted Perspectives

Hello, True Believers. Come join me in a tour of recent Asian representations in the Big Two, yes?


Week 6 of the highly enjoyable 52 series brought on "China Syndrome", an introduction to Grant Morrison's new team of Chinese superheroes, The Great Ten. My initial reaction wasn't very enthusiastic, though hopefully that will be assuaged as the team is fleshed out more (I believe they're playing a sizable role over in Greg Rucka's Checkmate?)

For now though, I'm giving the screwface to a dude whose superpower is...well, being a Tibetan buddhist...a Tibetan buddhist who incongruously works for "the preservation of China", and also to a woman whose power is to...well, give birth to a lot of babies and send them off to fight for the country (and I'm assuming die for it as well, since she still has an active function on the team). "Mother of Champions" is a kickass name though, I'll give them that.

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Morrison's shown a strong interest in Eastern philosophy and mysticism and all that jazz, and I'm a big fan of Vimanarama, but I'm reticent to let him off the hook on hokey racial/cultural representations just because, well, he's Grant Morrison. The Great Ten might end up falling on the wrong side of hokey for me, but as I said, I'll give DC some time to hopefully flesh out the characters and develop them further from the cheesy communist-border-patrol-against-American-heroes they've been portrayed as so far.

Also from the brain of Grant Morrison comes the All New Atom, a book I've been anticipating for a long time. There's been quite a few Asian female characters in the mainstream comicverse, but, as in other forms of media, the Asian male is usually relegated to stereotypical side roles at best. The All New Atom, along with Firestorm and Batwoman, is one of DC's attempts to diversify their universe by taking less-popular characters and turning them into minorities.

Judging a book by its cover could prove disastrous in this case, as I'd say the cover for The All New Atom #1 is a failure on several fronts. Firstly, the Atom doesn't look Chinese to me, but that's highly subjective and nitpicky on my part, so I'll let that slide. Secondly, on the cover the new Atom looks damn near forty-years old, with a receding hairline, body rippling with muscles. No such character appears anywhere in the book. It's as if the cover artist had no more info other than "draw an Asian dude. Shrinking. Yeah. No. More Asian-ish. Yeah."

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The tagline reads "Size Isn't Matter!" I'm not well-versed in all-things-Atom, so if this phrase existed before this issue as some sort of catch phrase please let me know. As it stands, the phrase sticks out to me for two offensive reasons: 1) The play on the phrase "size doesn't matter", usually used in reference to men with small dicks, a nod towards a stereotype that has played a big role in the effeminization of the Asian male in pop culture; and 2) The play on words - "size" and "matter" being terms of physics - is unsuccessful, which leaves me wondering what the punchline is supposed to be about. I'm left feeling that it's not a pun or a joke, but merely a purposeful mangling of language in the vein of bad Asian "engrish". I don't see how else that phrase could be thought of as clever.

So what you end up with is an Asian dude using poor English to defend his small size. That sucks. Plus, Atom is only flexing his right arm. It just looks weird, like he's trying to take a shit but his left arm fell asleep so he can't flex it (I hate when that happens!) and he can't undo his belt because it's too high up on his chest.

The interior of the book is much better fare. John Byrne's rendition of Ryan Choi is much younger and less earnest. While I'm not a huge fan of John Byrne's recent work, it's not bad per se. As for the story, I won't get too much into plot recaps, but Simone does well; it's quirky and fast and establishes character quickly. Random quotes pop out of nowhere in relation to what Ryan is thinking, showcasing his geekiness and wealth of knowledge. I dig it.

It's the first issue so there's the requisite "first-shrink" scene. We've seen it a million times before but it's not bad. The important thing is that it's out of the way, plus it's only the first issue and Ryan has already told everyone he found Palmer's belt. It's onwards and upwards from here. I'm not quite digging the Foggy Nelson-fat-jokey-sidekick thing, but I can live with it, especially knowing that Simone is good with the quips.

There's an obvious effort to address the Asian-guys-aren't-sexual thing, with a bunch of female students following Ryan around and making ga-ga eyes at him. The problem is that so far Ryan seems pretty oblivious to the opposite sex. Even if the girls think he is hot shit, if Ryan shows no particular interest then we still have a desexualization problem. It's only the first issue though. I'll give him a couple issues of prep time, but eventually he better start getting some and not in any tee-hee passive way either.

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In other Gail Simone Asian goodness, Birds of Prey #95 saw Black Canary ending her little sabbatical in SE Asia. I love this book to death, but I'm glad that story is (more or less) done with. With Batman Begins, I got my final fill of white people going to Asia to train in mysterious fighting arts, only to then reject their inscrutable Asian masters and their unscrupulous Asian ways (kicking a bunch of Asian asses in the process). By the book's end, Black Canary pulls an Angelina Jolie on an Asian kid. Could be interesting, but child characters have the potential to get real cloying real fast. Simone does a great job of writing believable adult females, let's see how she does with little girls.


In one of the more bizarre Asian spottings in comics, Civil War Frontline #1 had a short sidestory of Spiderman reflecting on the Japanese internment camps. I have to say, I stood this story a lot more before Spiderman unmasked.

Pre-unmasking, Peter's reflection at the end, "...with great power, huh?", seemed to me a condemnation of the US government's abuse of their power. In the same panel, a Japanese father tells his daughter that they must acquiesce to the interment camps in order to help the American war effort, "because it is our duty, because we are Americans." An image of the Statue of Liberty separates the image of the family from Spiderman, and Peter's reflection seemed at the time a sad response to the Japanese man's assertion, a reflection on when power and responsibility can go wrong.

Post-unmasking though, we know that Peter is on the side of the government, so the reflection reads differently. Instead, I see him as empathsizing with the Japanese family, doing something against his personal wishes because it is what's best for the country. It's his responsibility to give up personal freedom for his government.

That's a load of bullshit to me. Politics aside (Iron Man's team still has valid arguments on their side), to use the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII as a parallel to Spiderman and Iron Man taking off their masks is ridiculous and trivializes what the internment camps meant.

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Paul Jenkin's preamble reads:

"In the interests of fairness, it can be noted that while they provided very sparse accommodation, these relocation centres had the highest live-birth rate and the lowest deathrate in wartime United States. The Japanese in the centres received free food, lodging, medical and dental care, clothing allowance, education, hospital care, and all basic necessities. The government even paid travel expenses and assisted in cases of emergency relief".

*Italics mine

OK. If that ain't a steaming pile of white-washing bullshit I don't know what is. In the interest of fairness? Even paid for travel expenses? As if you pay the bus fare when you get shipped off to jail. And oh wow, free food. Lowest death rate? Shit, I'm starting to wish I was Japanese in 1943. Those motherfuckers had it easy.

Anyways. The preamble is followed by nice poetry captions that illustrate some of the negative aspects of the Japanese "relocations". But the whole thing is bookended by that horribly apologetic introduction and by Spiderman saluting the patriotic responsibility of the Japanese Americans. The story is unnecessary and leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

In more pleasant news, let's talk about my favourite Runaway, Nico. Runaway fans have been waiting and speculating over issue 18, when it is promised that yet another Runaway will be murked. Well, at the end of issue 17 Nico gets shot through the chest. I still don't think it's her that dies though, seeing as it's not yet issue 18, and I really don't think they'd off another minority character after the death of Alex.

I'm guessing someone sacrifices themselves to save her or some other magical business. Or who knows. She just might bleed slowly to death for the duration of the next issue.

I hope not though. Nico's grown to be not only my favourite Runaway, but one of my favourite recent characters overall. I love the way she's drawn and the complexity of her character. Lately she's been going around making out with a bunch of different people, male and female, and to writer Vaughn's credit, Nico doesn't come off as a floozy but as a girl who's going through shit. But the best part (and this goes for all the Runaways), is that even for a girl who's going through shit she doesn't read as a self-absorbed depressed emo kid. Which is more than I can say for half of the X-Men these days.

Nico's power is also one of my favourites. In order to summon her magical Staff of One, she has to cut herself and draw blood. I love the idea of a teen goth hero who has to cut herself in order to access her power. I got a little choked up during the story arc where Nico couldn't do it and yelled "I don't want to cut myself anymore!" Also, the staff shows up at inconvenient times, like during her time of the month, or when she brushes her teeth too hard. That's dope.

Let's hope that Nico makes it though the next issue, and that we see more characters like her in the near future.



JRennoldz said...

Great issue! And yes, The Mother of Champions stuff was a bit "out there". Hmmmm, don't women in China get shunned if they give birth to a girl? I hope that isht gets explored some more. I really like those characters though...

As for The Atom, damn! You are very perceptive and knowledgable. Your analysis of the cover blew me away i.e. it changed my mind on it. I loved the debut issue though and the logo lettering was real hard!

Being a dude with a major DC bias, I can't really comment on the Marvel stuff because I'd sound ignorant but I will be checking into Nico an The Runaways.

Stellar read and an all-around fascinating blog.

Way to go, man.
MAJOR PROPS!!!!!!!!!

DrNO said...

Just wanna defend DC a little.
Sure, you can see the chinese team as hokey depictions of chinese ideals but aren't Superman and Green Lantern hokey depictions of American ideals? I can't see any quantifiable racism going on in their depiction yet. We stll don't know much at all about them. As for the incongruos politics: that seems a little skewed as a whole in the DC universe. Russia is still adorning their Rocket Reds with red stars after all.
As for the title of the Atom story, I think the messed up phrasing is in rference to that mysterious prologue with the bad dudes speaking completely out of order. It's also too early to be claiming that he's being desexualised because it looks like Simone is playing the Peter Parker angle more than anything else.
I get the sceptiscism but I think DC is doing a fine job at diversifying their lineup so far.

I wonder if that Supernova character will turn out to be non-white too.

lonesome said...

How is it that Batwoman, who's had two pages and one cameo, gets more nods as a symbol of DC's diversity than Jaime Reyes, who's got 4 issues under his belt as the Beetle? Well, yeah, lesbians are hotter commodities than kids in El Paso, but still... Jaime helped bring down Brother Eye, and all Batwoman's done so far is spy on a former lover and a guy with no face.

My own take on DC's burst of the diverse is that they're building up credit in order to be able to perpetrate stuff like the Big Ten and - brace yourself - the return of Egg Fu, which the guy over at 52 Pickup is predicting with great assertiveness. I mean, Egg Fu! Egg Fu! Egg Fu! I wonder if he still plans to use his evile moustache trap?

Brother Afron said...

This is some powerful posting. Mother of Champions seems to be a sticking point with a lot of people. Justified, of course, since a stereotype of Asian women is being kept barefoot and preggers.

DrNO said...

Mother of Champions seems much more a reflection of Soviet values than any racial stereotype. I don't think asian women being barefoot and pregnant is a huge stereotype. This is the first I've heard of it.

M Belle said...

I'm still trying to wrap my mind around Civil War Frontline #1. Are they honestly saying that internment was a good thing? The gov't paid for their travel expenses, but too fucking bad about the businesses and homes they lost. WTF? I'm sorry, but they missed the point by a country mile and then tried to wipe it off the map on that one.
They may have been humane internment camps, but they were internment camps. Why weren't German and Italian immigrants rounded up? For their own safety, of course.
"...Great power, huh?" Paul Jenkins fucked up. What fucking pro-internment "special interest group" got to him? Wait, those groups don't exist.

M Belle said...

Oh, yeah. Good article.

toothpick said...

thanks for the comments everyone! JR, cop those Runaways digests! the art in the early issues is kind of weak, but hang on it's worth it.

dr. no: just want to be clear and point out that i never accused anyone of any "quantifiable racism". 'cism is something i take seriously, and i didn't use it here at all.

there's a difference between saying the Great Ten is racist, and the Great Ten is on the bad side of hokey. It's on the bad side of hokey.

Sure Supes and Hal Jordan and them are depictions of American ideals, but the difference is that those American ideals are being celebrated. Sometimes deconstructed, or questioned, sure...but still, overall, celebrated.

The Great Ten are hokey and meant to be hokey. Names like "August General in Iron" and "Seven Deadly Brothers" are cheesy in a different way than the name, I dunno..."Animalman" is cheesy. It's a funny weird-English Chinese-ish name. That's the joke.

I don't hate it, I just don't like it. I don't think I'm alone. Aside from gripes about cultural representations, most of the initial reactions I've read/heard of The Great Ten all range from lukewarm to cold. Like everyone else, I'm just hoping for DC to do something better with them.

As for the Atom cover, I think you're probably right about the phrasing referencing the weird dog-controlling dudes. I still dislike the cover for the reasons I laid out nonetheless. It's still a cover that says SIZE ISN'T MATTER next to an asian dude, and it's everything I didn't want to see on The Atom #1.

I'm diggin the Peter Parker angle, don't get me saying "he better get some and soon" or whatever was mostly tongue-in-cheek. I know what kind of character they're going for, and I am (so far) a fan of the book. But what made me skeptical initially was an interview before Atom #1 dropped where DC described him as (paraphrased) "being too into his work and research of Palmer's theories to notice the attention he gets from the ladies". Whereas Parker really wanted dates but couldn't get them. If that's really where they're going...I'd say the desexualization thing is pretty valid. I dunno, we'll see. Like I said, it's only the first issue.

m belle: word.

frank said...

"a nod towards a stereotype that has played a big role in the effeminization of the Asian male in pop culture;", lol. i don't think that's what they meant...

neo said...

that preamble is one of the worst dog-poop paragraphs I've read in a minute..

..and yes that "Atom" cover is the cheesiest thing evar! Wow..I didn't get the need for the bad english either.

Kadin said...

(four years late)

In retrospect, I think the Japanese internment thing was meant to show Peter having doubts about the SHRA. We now know that he eventually defected to the side of the angels.