Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Pop Mythology, Buying and Selling: A Report from the First Asian American Comic Con

On my way out the door to attend the first-ever Asian American Comic Con in New York City last week I turned on the TV to keep my (awesome, but needy) dog company and suddenly my apartment was filled with the Owen Wilson/Jackie Chan vehicle Shanghai Noon. I averted my eyes (I can't look at Owen Wilson’s face... I am sure he is a nice person who loves his mom but his nose, with its various planes and levels, is like an SAT math question). I changed the channel but not before Wilson could point that dodecahedron at the camera and say “She’s not the killer. She’s just a very, very, very, hot confused Chinese girl.” I looked at the dog and said, “Boy, these personal ads just write themselves, don’t they?” The dog gave me nothing, so I settled on a soothing infomercial about mineral-based makeup and left for the Con. But the random intrusion of that orientalist/sexist joke was a weird preface to the rest of the afternoon.

The Asian American Comic Con was presented by Secret Identities Media (the folks who gave us Secret Identities: the Asian American Superhero Anthology), The Asian American Writers workshop, Greg Pak’s Asianamericancomics.com and the Museum of Chinese in America, in whose beautiful new building the event was held. While it was modest compared to the San Diego Comic Con International, which has become the mother ship of pop culture, the first year of the AACC was impressive in its scope. The Con was designed along three separate workshop tracks: “Reading Comics”, “Making Comics”, and the “Spotlight Track”, which featured comic book industry professionals like Pak, Khoi Phan, Larry Hama and others. Organizing the event this way acknowledges that comic books have become a force in setting trends for mainstream pop culture and in a more academic sense, as models for looking at stuff like ethnic representations in popular media. According to the program, “ You might want to think of the ‘con’ as representing not ‘convention’, but ‘conference’—or even ‘conversation.’” Hmm. Interesting.

Before exploring the panels I went to the “Artists’ Alley” which featured tables with well-known comics professionals sitting elbow-to-elbow with lesser-known self-publishing indie creators. While the program provided a blank page to collect autographs (film actor and Secret Identities managing editor Parry Shen walked right past me) I was drawn to the indie creators. One of the more interesting of these was Alitha E. Martinez, whose portfolio pages showed some of the most dynamic comic art I have seen in a long, long time. Martinez, who has penciled such mainstream titles as Iron Man, Black Panther and Fantastic Four, among others, is not a newbie but is moving into the creator-owned realm with her Manga-inspired property Yume and Ever. And therein lies the rub: among Martinez's fantastic pages were postcards emblazoned with images of her Japanese, female lead Yume, kimono hanging open, breasts front and center, sucking on a lollipop Lolita-style. Absent the context of the story I am not willing to condemn it (although that is what a postcard is, a representative image, right?) but this made me pause... and not just for the obvious reasons. This image raises all sorts of questions for me about the relationship between orientalism, sex and gender, the fetishization of Asian women vs. the potentially empowering re-framing of stereotypes... and the use of use of these images by other PoC. When answering questions about her experience at AACC on her blog Martinez writes that she was "well received" but "some of the attendees said a few insensitive things... about my looks and heritage and what I 'consider' myself. I let it roll off of my back, the art is the thing. What I am or from whense (sic) my people hail has nothing to do with my work. It's just very sad that such ignorance still exists." I only spoke with Martinez briefly--to compliment her excellent artwork-- and I didn't ask her about her postcard specifically, although it really struck me. I'd be interested to hear more about what she intends with this character, so I may follow up with her.

At the apex of "Artist's Alley" was a table set up by the group racebending.com, which was formed by Jordan White specifically to organize the boycott against the movie version of Avatar: The Last Airbender. While White talked with a reporter from MTV I was brought up to speed by an awesome Avatar fangirl, who turned out to be Nora (i.e."nojojojo"), of the great blog The Angry Black Woman. The controversy around the casting of white actors in roles that were conceived as Asian and Inuit has been covered elsewhere, so I won't repeat the details here except for three points that crystallized for me during my conversation with Nora (thanks Nora).

1) The offense stems not only from the white washed casting, but from the purposeful re- imagining of an entire SF/Fantasy universe that was based on a panoply of Asian and Inuit cultures into a European one. For PoC fans of SF/Fantasy, who often have to endure racist and ethnocentric content embedded in their fiction ::cough:: Lord of the Rings Trilogy ::cough:: Avatar was a rare opportunity to see a PoC fantasy universe realized.

2) The controversy around the movie version of Avatar is proving to be a catalyst for activism beyond the fan community. Nora told me about a colleague of hers who is not an Avatar fan, who got involved with racebending.com because the movie represents a direct assault on representations of PoC in the mainstream media.

3) To paraphrase Jordan White, "we don't just want the movie to fail, we want it to fail because fans rejected the casting." Amen.

Wandering into the rest of the Con events I was lucky to catch pioneering Asian American SF/Fantasy author William F. Wu speak. Jeff Yang, Co-Chair of the AACC and Editor in Chief of Secret Identities, interviewed Wu about his Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy Award nominated work, including the short story "Wong's Lost and Found Emporium", which was made into an episode of the Twilight Zone in the 80's. Wu, who was born in Missouri and raised in Kansas, described himself as a "displaced Midwestern boy." Easygoing and a natural storyteller, he discussed not only the content of Asian American representations in SF/Fantasy genres, but their lack overall. Yang summarized this situation by saying "Robot Americans are far better represented than Asian Americans (in genre fiction, despite the fact that) demographically, the future looks pretty damn Asian". Wu expanded on this point by saying that when Asian American men do appear they are usually either "tamed" (i.e. the submissive sidekick) or the villain , while Asian American women are often the "exotic" love interest of the white hero.

In advance of his AACC appearance Wu donated his vast collection of comic book art and comic books, all of which feature Asian and Asian American characters to the Fales Collection at New York University. Despite the fact that many of the portrayals are inaccurate and/or offensive Wu said he was compelled to seek them out, a habit learned during his racially isolated Midwestern childhood. And it is this ambivalent relationship with--too often--problematic portrayals that characterizes the interactions many PoC have with media: You are forced to choose between not seeing yourself represented at all, or only as a creature of the white imagination, with its fears and fantasies about you. Wu made the point that often the way Asians are represented in pulp media offers a more immediate reflection of political reality. For example, in the Buck Rogers newspaper strip of the 1940s, Buck's adversaries, who had been cat-like Aliens, became "Japanese" literally the day after Pearl Harbor. (Go back and read that again and then take a minute: The. Day. After.) Wu discussed some of the other characters who appear in his collection, which range from the ridiculous (Egg Fu, an old Wonder Woman villain/Giant Talking Egg whose evil deeds were facilitated by his prehensile Fu Manchu moustache) to the sublime (Batman Villainess/Love Interest Talia al-Ghul, daughter of the Arab Supervillain Ra's al-Ghul--whose name means "Demon's Head"-- and a mixed Chinese, European and Arab mother, which makes her a kind of orientalist combo-platter.) Torn between killing Batman and helping him escape her evil father and given to catsuits and mixed martial arts, Talia al-Ghul is the culmination of an orientalist ideal... in other words, "not a killer, just a very, very, very, hot confused (part) Chinese girl."

I ended the day at a panel called "Nerd Pop", which kicked off when Ken Chen, the Executive Director of the Asian American Writers Workshop proclaimed to the laughing crowd, "You are here because you are a part of our clan... not Asian Americans, but nerds." The rest of the panel included Ben Nugent, author of American Nerd, Derek Kirk Kim, comics creator who announced, "I'm a total jock, so I don't know what I'm doing here", and moderator Hua Hsu, an English professor at Vassar, exemplifying the high/low mix the AACC was going for. The resulting discussion veered from jokey to serious and raised questions about the connections between nerd-dom and ethnic identity. Nugent asserted that a "nerd" identity was like a racial one, in that it can't be simply changed by changing clothes, which made me arch an eyebrow. I am usually not happy with direct correspondences between race and less visible identities that cross cultures, like "nerd." But Hsu took this point in a different direction, saying that "nerd" becomes more potent when mixed with ethnicity. He argued that the term is used to de-politcize and segregate Asian Americans in a way that isn't often called out as racism. But at the same time, the panel embraced "nerd" as a descriptor and celebrated the "nerd-ification" of US culture, pointing out ruefully that, at least in New York, hipsters now dress like the 80s nerds they used to be... Except that looking like a nerd is not the same thing as being one, and "hipster", like "nerd" could as easily be applied to a PoC as a white person, which is the problem with creating these equivalences. Still, it was a fascinating and often funny discussion that raised questions for me, but didn't provide easy answers, a description I could apply to the entire Con.

It will be interesting to see the direction the AACC takes in coming years, especially in terms of the complex issues around representation, but this was a great beginning.

UPDATE: This review has been cross-posted at Racialicious


  1. Hey, good recap. I was one of the newer and younger guest talents who was invited to the AACC and was given a table at the Artists Alley. I shared a table with Tak Toyoshima of Secret Asian Man. I was kind of an outsider at the Alley because I'm more of a writer than an artist, and I didn't bring any of the art I've done with me to display because again, I'm a writer, not an artist.

    I was often checking out the other tables and was impressed with Alitha's dynamic art, despite the problematic Lolita pose, yet another image that infantilizes Asian women (ain't nothing wrong with cheesecake, except when it infantilizes the supermodel, actress or comic book heroine of color and makes her look submissive). I was even impressed with Alitha's little son's art too.

    The curt comments about her heritage and her son that she says she was subjected to at the AACC made me angry. As someone who was an outsider at the Alley, I hated reading about the treatment of another fellow outsider there. That recent Gray Lady article about how Asians can sometimes be the most racist or insensitive folks is so true. My mother is like that. She always asks me what races my new friends are. Like it fucking matters.

  2. Hey Jimmy,
    Welcome and thanks for the kind words. Just like I wouldn't want to condemn Alitha Hernandez on the basis of a single picture, I wouldn't want to generalize about all Asians re: racism based only on her comments. I hear you about feeling like an "outsider" at the Con, but the parameters of "Asian" in AACC were pretty unclear, at least to me. Did it mean Asian creators, projects featuring Asian characters, or some combination? Perhaps the questions Hernandez got were along the lines of "So... what are you doing here?" Or, "So, are you Asian?" Which isn't a question I'd ask, but one that I understand, given the fuzziness around defining the event in racial terms. I am not defending rude comments... but I think it is worth thinking about these things.