‘Marvels & Monsters’ exhibit explores comics’ portrayal of Asians

Dec. 08, 2013 | 5:00 a.m.

"Yellow Claw" No. 1, from Atlas Comics, 1956. (William F. Wu Comic Book Collection at the Fales Library & Special Collections, New York University)

An excerpt from "Strange Tales " No. 160 from Marvel Comics, 1967. (William F. Wu Comic Book Collection at the Fales Library & Special Collections, New York University)

Captain America introduces Jimmy Woo to Nick Fury in a panel from "Strange Tales " No. 160 from Marvel Comics, 1967. (William F. Wu Comic Book Collection at the Fales Library & Special Collections, New York University)

"Tod Holton, Super Green Beret" No. 1, from Lightning Comics, 1967. (William F. Wu Comic Book Collection at the Fales Library & Special Collections, New York University)

With his slit-like eyes, spiky nails and Fu Manchu mustache, this Chinese mastermind’s appearance was about as subtle as his name — the Yellow Claw. Evil, exotic and bent on ruling the world, he made his debut in 1956, looming ominously on an Atlas Comics cover as a headline gasped, “Who … or what … is he??!”

The Claw belongs to a “rogues’ gallery” of characters featured in an exhibition looking at Asians and Asian Americans in almost half a century of American comic books. The show, drawn from the collection of sci-fi writer William F. Wu, is visiting the Japanese American National Museum through Feb. 9.

Marvels & Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in U.S. Comics, 1942-1986” examines eight main archetypes: the Alien, the Brain, the Brute, the Guru, the Kamikaze, the Lotus Blossom, the Manipulator and the Temptress.

“The images were largely negative,” says exhibition curator Jeff Yang. “This reflected the time frame — a period when the view of Asians was shaped by racist, xenophobic wartime propaganda” and fears related to immigration and economic and global rivalries.

He adds that the pieces on display, some of which may “disturb and disquiet,” illustrate how “tenacious stereotypes” plus the nature of the medium (“an art of broad strokes and bright colors”) helped create stock villains, vixens and sages.

Captain America introduces Jimmy Woo to Nick Fury in a panel from "Strange Tales " No. 160 from Marvel Comics, 1967. (William F. Wu Comic Book Collection at the Fales Library & Special Collections, New York University)

Captain America introduces Jimmy Woo to Nick Fury in a panel from “Strange Tales ” No. 160 from Marvel Comics, 1967.
(William F. Wu Comic Book Collection at the Fales Library & Special Collections, New York University)

That’s not to say there weren’t what Yang calls “positive exceptions.” One example: Jimmy Woo, the Chinese American FBI agent seen on the Atlas cover battling the Claw, his foe’s lovely grandniece, Suwan, clinging to his side. (Woo’s adventures continued under Atlas’ successor, Marvel Comics.)

“Marvels & Monsters” grew out of the hundreds of comics depicting Asians that Wu, a Palmdale resident, donated to New York University’s Fales Library through NYU’s Asian/Pacific/American Institute, which organized the exhibition.

The show includes original material, reproductions and a reading area offering contemporary graphic novels by Asian Americans. The museum has added WWII comics of a different sort — internees’ pictures of camp life.

Yang, editor in chief of “Shattered: The Asian American Comics Anthology,” says that since the ’80s, the comics world has grown more diverse and an increasing number of Asian-ancestry artists and creators have gained influence, notably Jim Lee, co-publisher of DC Entertainment.

“The archetypes remain,” says Yang, “but the minds and talents behind them are more likely to have the sensibilities and sensitivities to transform them into rich, complicated beings, human and superhuman.”

– Karen Wada

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Comments


2 Responses to ‘Marvels & Monsters’ exhibit explores comics’ portrayal of Asians

  1. Tito says:

    Ok, fine, but I think there are characters of every race that are portrayed as characatures. Here's my idea: only let african americans draw or depict african americans, only let asians depict asians, only let hispanics depict hispanics and of course let everyone depict whites any way they want.

  2. Steven Moshlak says:

    Don't forget "Killer Kane" from the Buck Rogers series or Flash Gordon's, Emperor Ming.

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