By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
To casual moviegoers, the Hulk is a green superhero with super strength mostly driven by his id. He is the Mr. Hyde to Bruce Banner’s Dr. Jekyll. Created by Stan Lee, the Hulk and his Banner alter ego has been played in live adaptations by Bill Bixby, Lou Ferrigno, Eric Bana, Edward Norton, and Mark Ruffalo — all white men.
But in December 2015, a Korean American supergenius teenager named Amadeus Cho used special nanites to transfer the Hulk from mentor Banner into his own body. Cho currently headlines his own Marvel comic series, The Totally Awesome Hulk.
And in the most recent #15 issue, after beating down Prince Regent Phalkan of Seknarf Seven, a red and blue alien adversary, and engaging in some cute repartee about how he does not take lives (“Dude. Chill. I haven’t killed anyone since ever.”), the Hulk rushes off to Flushing, Queens to meet with fellow superheroes — S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Jake Oh, Ms. Marvel (AKA Kamala Khan), Silk (Cindy Moon), Shang-Chi, and Agents of Atlas Head Jimmy Woo — for an Asian blood marrow donor drive. After the event — spoiler alert — the gang goes out for Korean BBQ in K-town, fights over the check, hits up a karaoke joint, sing their guts out, generally bond over cultural identity issues, and then freeze as a bunch of alien lifeform blindsides them at the end of the night.
Yes. For real.
“Over the years, I’ve had tons of dinners and karaoke sessions with fellow Asian American friends and colleagues at various comic conventions and film festivals, where we get real and real ridiculous and everything in between,” Hulk writer Greg Pak wrote in his blog. “And I found myself thinking that the Asian American heroes in the Marvel Universe would probably hang out like that every once in a while, right? So what would they do and say? What kinds of bonding and what kinds of conflict would arise? And then what would happen if the other shoe dropped and they had to go straight from a night out to a massive superhero adventure?”
Pak is a Korean American and Hapa comic book writer and filmmaker. He has penned the Hulk series since 2006. The art in issue #15 was done by Mahmud Asrar and Nolan Woodard.
“I think representation is important because it brings more kids of color into comics,” said Tatyana Sasynuik, who is Chinese and Ukrainian. “Wandering in a comic book store, they might say, ‘Hey, that’s me, and I want to read that.’ [Having characters of color also] makes longtime readers who are not people of color learn more about [non-white cultures]. These comics can be [broadening] and teach and make people want to know more.”
In June 2013, National Public Radio (NPR) ran a story on the lack of characters of color in children’s books. At the time, a report by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that only 3 percent of children’s books were by or about Latinos. At the time, nearly a quarter of public school students were Latino. It is projected that in 2025 (National Center for Education Statistics), 29 percent of students will be Latino and 54 percent of students will be non-white and/or mixed race.
In February 2016, the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism released a study, “Inclusion of Invisibility? Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment,” which found that just one-third of speaking characters were female and 28.3 percent of characters with dialogue were non-white. Half of the U.S. population is female and 40 percent of the population is of color.
“Marvel is leading the way when it comes to creating characters of color,” said Daniel Nguyen, a local comics fan who is Korean and Vietnamese. “Representation matters. And they have generally been doing a great job, at least in their comics realm. The live action realm has some catching up to do.”
“It’s an inclusivity thing,” said Angelina McMillan-Major, who is Chippewa Cree and white. McMillan-Major used to work in a comic book store in the Crossroads Bellevue area. “It’s a ‘We acknowledge your existence’ kind of thing. There was recently a story done called Red Wolf by Marvel. I wasn’t super excited by the story, but I kept buying it because the cover art was done by a Washington tribal member (Jeffrey Veregge), which I thought was really cool, and I wanted to buy it [just for that reason alone]. It’s the ability to put yourself in their shoes more strongly because you feel like you know what they’re going through.”
Diversity within diversity
“I’ve been itching to write classic characters like secret agent Jimmy Woo and Shang-Chi, the undisputed Master of Kung Fu,” wrote Pak. “What makes it so much fun is that you’ve got all of this diversity within diversity, really interesting, different angles on life within this group of characters, which allows for some nice subtlety and depth when you put ’em all together.”
Pak pointed out that Jimmy Woo is one of the oldest Marvel characters, a fact that does get endearingly joked about in the issue by Jake Oh (“Oh, man, Jimmy, I know you’re like eighty or whatever …”), which shows Pak’s efforts at reappropriating these characters, character tropes, and sometimes their politically complicated backstories — but the effect and the response to the efforts can be complex.
Beyond fighting over the check and karaoke, the “Asian-isms” in issue #15 of The Totally Awesome Hulk also veer into more serious territory, with talks about parental expectations, model minority stereotypes, and generational differences.
“I find it slightly annoying that the Asian kid they chose had to be some kind of genius savant,” said Nguyen. “Like that stereotype isn’t tired enough.”
Pak’s balancing act in issue #15 is apparent when Amadeus Cho explicitly refutes being a model minority stereotype — he’s really great at math and reportedly one of the top 10 most intelligent people in the world — by pointing out that the model minority stereotype actually pivots around obedience and being emotionless. Cho claims his emotions, stating that he lacks impulse control — he is a person whose feelings are always written on his face.
This more nuanced portrayal is buoyed up by the fact that Pak is Asian American and is writing his own experiences and identity onto the characters.
“In the past, their newly created POC (people of color) characters were written by white men,” said Nguyen.
“I think it’s a bit disingenuous when people write a character they know nothing about,” said McMillan-Major. “It makes the character feel disjointed in some way.”
The Jimmy Woo character was created by Al Feldstein (writer) and Joe Maneely (artist) in 1956. While Woo was an Asian American FBI agent to start, he also was assigned to investigate and bring to justice a racist and xenophobic supervillain named Yellow Claw, basically a Communist Mandarin character. At the time though, Woo was one of the very few positive portrayals of Asians and Asian Americans in comics.
When it comes to issues of representation, perhaps due to the dearth of ethnically diverse characters still — which is something writers like Pak are trying to broaden and expand upon — people of color tend to latch onto every aspect of the representation and weigh it, good and bad.
McMillan-Major’s main beef with the recent Red Wolf series is that it was set in the 1850s. “So to me, it’s that old stereotype that Native Americans only live in the past. It’s [still] disappointing to not have stories about modern day Native Americans.”
Nguyen has his criticisms of Amadeus Cho, but ultimately sees the character as a significant step forward in the right direction. “Representation is representation, and I’ll take it how I can get it.”
“It is nice to see Asian bodies in positions of strength,” he admits. Later, he adds, “I can’t afford to be picky right now.”
Gender and race
Sasynuik became aware of her ethnic “otherness” only when her classmates started pointing it out in school. That is often how ideas of race gets constructed — externally. She said that she identifies more with her Chinese side than her Ukrainian side.
Being a female comics fan who is also a person of color, she has to contend with two sides of preconceived notions and stereotypes. In her viewpoint, Sasynuik said that she sees race as a construction that is harder to overcome than gender in comics. She points to certain characters who have been gender-swapped or who are alternate female version of male characters — particularly the Batman series, with the female Robin, Batgirl, Batwoman — who have been folded into the universe and accepted as canon.
On the flip-side, Sasynuik has observed that characters of a different race tend to be sequestered to the alternate universe realm.
“It’s like someone said, ‘We should be more inclusive, so we’ll make the next X-men Black! And then [after that’s run its course,] we’ll go back to the ‘regular (white)’ version.” It’s a one-off. That’s how a lot people, in my experience, view superheroes of color, when they talk about canon. ‘Oh yeah, there was this one time …’”
Way whiter on the big screen
In issue #15, Shang-Chi is a man of relatively few words — possibly because the younger heroes are extra chatty — but he does bring a gravity to the storyline.
“Shang-Chi is a minor Asian superhero who took a backseat to Iron Fist,” said Nguyen. “This is stupid because they essentially have the same powers, but Iron Fist is white.”
“Iron Fist” the TV series is scheduled for release March 17. While it does accurately retain a blond, white protagonist at its center, critics have accused the show of continuing a trend of having white characters co-opt and appropriate the more romanticized aspects of Chinese culture.
“On the comics front, they are doing great work,” said Nguyen. “And I think that’s due to the malleability of that medium. Fans are accustomed to change. … In the film/TV world, they have been less than stellar about diversity. The Tilda Swinton mistake in Doctor Strange was infuriating. Now the insistence on moving forward with Iron Fist. It’s just like 2 steps forward, 1 step back. Even the Luke Cage show was a beautiful, earnest, and well-written depiction of Blackness. It was glorious. If only we could see the same with their Asian characters.”
“The Marvel Cinematic Universe and Marvel Comics are run by two different people — two different companies,” said McMillan-Major. “So the lack of diversity in the company itself is showing in the movies and in that decision [to cast Finn Jones as Iron Fist].”
“Inclusiveness is important because it says to the world, ‘These stories matter,’” added Nguyen. “If you only show stories with white heteronormative characters at the forefront, you’re telling the audience that those are the only stories that matter.” ■
The all-Asian team-up in The Totally Awesome Hulk runs through issue #18. Issue #15 is on comic shelves right now.
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at email@example.com.