We have always worn masks. Forced to wear them by others who feared and hated us, since we set foot on these shores, made to play the part of the “forever foreigner,” the “yellow peril,” the invading, unassailable horde. Hidden behind identical slanted eyes and geisha makeup by others’ ignorance; exotic, other, not quite human. Those old masks– imposed by others, reinforced by the weight of historical repetition– have, over time, obscured and distorted our identity. These new masks, which we choose for ourselves, reveal who we really are underneath.
That quote, from a piece by Jason Sperber, adroitly sums up the central theme of Secret Identities, a new anthology of work by Asian-American cartoonists edited by Jeff Yang, Parry Shen, Keith Chow, and Jerry Ma. This book has a central theme that is strong but simple–one that nearly all creators seem to return to: Judge characters not by their appearance or ethnicity; judge them by their actions.
Asians are underrepresented as comics creators, and even more so as comic characters. While there have been many talented and popular cartoonists of Asian ethnicity–Jim Lee, Jae Lee, and Tony DeZuniga are name-checked in this book, and Greg LaRocque presents a story–there have been a remarkably small number of non-stereotyped Asian characters.
For every strong character like Leiko Wu of Master of Kung Fu, there are many more like the stereotyped “yellow menace”–such as Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu and Marvel’s the Yellow Claw. Many of the creators who deliver stories in this book play directly with those sorts of stereotypes.
“Driving Steel,” by Jeff Yang and Benton Jew, tells the story of a Chinese railroad worker in the 1860s who uses his superpowers to save the life of a hate-filled American; Naseem Mohaiemen and Glenn Urieta’s “No Exit,” set in 1941, focuses on America’s myopia toward people of color; and Gene Yang and Sonny Liew’s “The Blue Scorpion and Chung” gleefully subverts the story of the Green Hornet and Kato by presenting the Blue Scorpion as a reprobate, lazy drunkard who is continually saved by his Asian partner. “Blue Scorpion” also features a lovely inversion of the stereotype as the partner, Chung, intelligently relates why he plays the stereotypical role in the relationship.
Other stories are more autobiographical. A one-pager by Keith Chow and Chi-Yun Lau gleefully casts Superman’s origin with an Asian tint. Gene Yang and Jeff Castro’s “In the Beginning” is a simple tale of friendship among a group of high school students. The fact that the friends are all Asian adds to the story but it isn’t the main focus–thus living up to Sperber’s quote above.
The most interesting stories fit their own unique categories. “Twilight” by Ted Chung and Anuj Shrestha features some gorgeous artwork in a thoughtful parable about diversity and inner strength; Lynn Chen and Paul Wei’s “You Are What You Eat” uses Chinese folklore to help provide the background for a charming modern story; and “16 Miles” by Parry Shen and Sarah Sapang tells a tale, just slightly outside of real life, of true human heroism.
When reviewing anthologies, I’m contractually obligated to note that anthologies are always mixed bags. In other words, some stories are better than others–and this book had a number of stories that didn’t delight me. However, I was quite pleasantly surprised by the amount of intelligent diversity presented in Secret Identities.
While varying in quality, every story was a thoughtful exploration of a creator’s individual vision of how they would explore the book’s theme. What better way to live up to Sperber’s quote than by showing the multitude of faces under the masks in this book?