Although the comics publisher DC Comics is now co-headed by Jim Lee, an Asian-American, for many decades American comics regularly featured racist depictions of Asians as inscrutable masterminds and devious coolies, among other stereotypes. A new exhibition at New York University (NYU), titled Marvels and Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in US Comics, 1942-1986, spotlights the evolution of American attitudes toward Asians in pop culture, as shaped by various political forces.
Co-curated by Jeff Yang, the author of Secret Identities: the Asian-American Superhero Anthology, and Daniel Kim, the exhibition features approximately 100 images gleaned from more than 1,000 comic books collected by science fiction author and cultural studies scholar William F. Wu during the course of his childhood in Missouri and into his 20's.
"I think the real value of my collection and the exhibition is historical," Wu says in an interview with China Daily. "It's pointing out in particular to young people that there is a long sweep of how Asian people have been seen in American pop culture and society in general."
Wu, who is the author of 13 science-fiction novels and a repeat nominee for both the prestigious Hugo Award and Nebula Award, began collecting comics as a child, and later became more interested in the intersection between Asian Studies and American pop culture while he was in college, he says.
When he approached NYU's Asian Pacific American Institute to discuss an exhibition featuring comics from his collection, the curators were thrilled, Yang says.
"I was blown away by the collection," Yang says. "To me, it was more than just a comics collection; it's a historical document and one that covers a period of history that in some respects can be considered to be during the specific period in which the Asian-American identity was forged.
"All of the key elements and factors that shaped who we are as a people occurred during this time - Pearl Harbor, internment, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the rise of immigration, the building of ethnic enclaves, the beginning of the Asian-American rights movement, the rise of Japan and later China. What (Wu) did was collect images shaped by political forces, and to tell this story is to tell a narrative of how America has viewed Asians."
Marvels and Monsters is organized around common archetypes of Asians in the American eye: the Alien, the Brute, the Lotus Blossom, the Guru, the Brain, the Kamikaze, the Temptress and the Manipulator.
The exhibition points to examples of each stereotype across numerous comic books over the span of four decades. The "Guru" is described as "aged and wizened", speaking "in vague riddles and impenetrable allegories". The "Manipulator" is an "evil controller the megalomaniacal puppeteer seeking conquest through nefarious intrigue". Naturally, the "Dragon Lady" makes an appearance, described as having a power that isn't contained "in her resplendent physique, but in the illusions that it offers".
In the accompanying text, the exhibition describes the xenophobic atmosphere that produced these archetypes.
"The images presented in this exhibition are largely negative ones - a reality that reflects the timeframe itself," the text reads. "Over the period of time covered in this exhibition, authentic, three-dimensional depictions of Asian characters were few and far between."
These stereotypes still reflect the way in which Asians are depicted in the American media, Wu says.
"For a long time it was the economic threat from Japan, and now there is a constant drumbeat surrounding the economic rise of China, with jokes about cheap labor and job losses here in the US," he says. "So, often the image of Asian women is overly sexualized, and the image of Asian guys is overly intellectualized. Stereotypes may take a different form, and they may be more sophisticated now, but they still exist."
In recent years, images of Asians in the media have often been more in line with "model minority" stereotypes, Kim says. But stereotypes about Asians go through cycles, he says.
Yang points to the use of anti-China sentiment in the 2010 local elections, in which political imagery stoked fears about China's economic rise and the threat to American integrity, he says.
"We first saw these depictions at the turn of the 19th century when Chinese immigration began to rise, and it's always tied to social anxieties that exist at a time of change and upheaval," Yang says. "We're seeing a lot of those images come back, and the imagery is fascinatingly similar to what we saw back then."
But much of the negative imagery of Asians in comic books during the decades under focus in the exhibition was also due to a lack of Asian artists and illustrators at the time, Kim says.
"The exhibition ends in the late 80s, just before the period when Asian-American artists started flooding the comic book industry," he says.
He points to Jim Lee of DC Comics. "Lee was one of the leading lights in that wave of Asian-American artists, and now there are a large number of Asian-American writers and artists, who have had an influence on making better story lines, better dialogue and better characters. There's been a huge improvement in the way Asians are portrayed in comics."
The goal is not to portray Asians as entirely positive in pop culture, Wu says. He points to a quote by Greg Pak, a writer for Marvel Comics.
"I just want (Asian-American characters) to be human," Pak writes in an accompanying sidebar in the exhibition. "Because humans are flawed and crazy and capable of amazing acts of heroism and terrible acts of villainy I wouldn't get hung up about seeing Asian tyrants or gangsters or femme fatales or martial artists if they were all different and individual and human. What I get angry about is that there are a million ways to write an Asian martial artist, so why is it that we keep on seeing the same darned one?"
Kim wonders how a generation of Asian-American men has been affected by this pervasive imagery.
"As I was working on this exhibition, I came to the fascinating and horrifying realization that I had read a lot of these comics as a kid, and had either not noticed or minimized the way in which Asian characters were portrayed," he says.
"That's how pop culture works. You're caught up in the entertainment and the pleasure of it. When I think back to my 8-year-old self, I retroactively worry for him. I wonder what this will do to him, what role it will play in developing my self-identity and the identity of all Asian boys who grew up reading comic books in America."