When it comes to superheroes, secret identities are about as common as the cold. What's not so secret is that the most widely known comic book icons - from Superman and Batman to Spider-Man and Wolverine - are Caucasian. While other ethnicities and cultures have their place in comic books, many are often misrepresented or skirted under the rug altogether. With any luck, however, that all changes when a new secret identity is revealed this week.
"Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology," is coming to stores this Wednesday from The New Press. As the title implies, the book provides an underrepresented culture with a superhero legacy all its own. But the collection aims to do more than just address the small amount of Asian American superheroes in mainstream comics - it's looking to create brand-new, all-awesome characters that men and women of all shapes, sizes, colors and varieties will enjoy. And if Education and Outreach Editor Keith Chow has his way, "Secret Identities" will also alleviate some stereotypes that readers have of Asian American culture.
"In the history of comics, when you think of Asian superheroes, a good majority of them are Asians from Asia and retain a kind of exoticism," Chow told CBR News. "Like Silver Samurai - of course, he's a samurai! On that end, that's something we wanted to address. We wanted to make characters in our book organically, authentically Asian American that came from an experience of being Asian in America as opposed to being Asian from Asia."
Greg Pak, writer of "Incredible Hercules" and "War Machine" for Marvel Comics, contributed an all-original character named The Citizen for "Secret Identities," and the writer hopes that his story and the book at large will add more varied types of superheroes to comic in general.
"I've been very happy working at Marvel, because there is a history of a lot of different writers creating characters of different backgrounds over the years," said Pak. "I've been the lucky inheritor of some of those characters - Jim Rhodes, not only one of the greatest characters in comics but also one of the best-known African American characters. That's pretty awesome. But I'm just all for more varieties of people in comic books. Asian American characters are critical just because if all you ever see are characters only from Asia, then that becomes the only representation, it creates the impression that there are no Asian Americans, or that there's no such thing as an Asian American hero. So as soon as I heard about this anthology, I was all over it. The more characters you can get out there, the better."
"We don't begrudge the notion of martial artists or the tropes of what's considered Asian in America. The whole premise of [one of the stories in the book] is that all Asians do know martial arts and are good at math!" Chow laughed, adding that one such Asian American decides to exploit those abilities to become a superhero.
There's no question that "Secret Identities" is addressing issues of stereotypes and racism when you check out the book's "Y-Men" satire. Imitating the cover of "Uncanny X-Men" #1, the Y-Men boasts parody versions of Angel, Cyclops and Iceman as Kamikaze, Four Eyes and Riceman, respectively. Instead of being published by Marvel Comics, the mock cover has an OHYELL Comics Group logo, a barely-subtle dig at the stereotype of Asian people as yellow-skinned. While the picture seems funny on the surface, it's nonetheless a jarring image - and that's the whole point.
"What's powerful about that image is that they're extreme examples of Asian stereotypes, but not so far removed from the way Asians have been depicted in comics, especially in the '50s and '60s," said Chow. "On the one hand, they're extreme stereotypes and on the other hand, they're kind of tropes that are accepted in mainstream culture."
But the book doesn't rely solely on Asian American stereotypes - far from it, in fact. The stories are mainly set in the fictional Troy City, named after the mythological Trojan Horse. According to Chow, the idea behind the Trojan Horse - appearing one way on the outside and being something entirely different on the inside - is sort of the mission statement of "Secret Identities."
"What we attempted to do, and I'll leave it to the readers to decide if we were successful, is be a Trojan Horse," Chow said of the anthology's purpose. "On the surface, all 26 stories [in 'Secret Identities'] are super-cool superhero stories at the end of the day, where when you read them, you'll be like, 'Wow, that was pretty kick ass!' But if you read a story like '9066,' which takes you back to the Japanese internment camps of World War II, it's kind of a pretty cool story but you realize the historical significance of it. You kind of think that there's an actual history there that hasn't been touched on before [in comics]. Ultimately, they have to be pretty cool superhero stories - we don't want to be preachy or didactic. But at the same time, there's an undercurrent of serious issues in many of these stories."
In the vein of creating cool superhero stories with culturally significant undertones, Greg Pak invented the fictional character of The Citizen, an Asian-American soldier turned superhero. It's a heavily political superhero story, pitting the superhero alongside a certain newly elected African American president as sort of a buddy-cop duo.
"The whole notion is that you have an Asian American super soldier who's been put on ice because he tried to citizen's arrest the previous president," Pak explained. "Now you have a new President who happens to look remarkably like Barack Obama. When he gets to office, he realizes that they're not telling him anything, so he thaws out the Citizen so this Asian American superhero can be his eyes and ears. He can do things like fight Nazi gremlins and stuff like that."
"Over the years, there have been Asian American soldiers who are not only war heroes but American heroes," Pak continued. "There is a very interesting history of Asian American soldiers who have spoken out for the true principles of the country, even though that's maybe speaking out against certain policies of the country in order to defend the true principles. That always intrigued me."
"I also wanted to create a main character that's a little unhinged and crazy, but who has real principles that he was going to defend until the end. Those principles would be identified with the nation's, with America. On the surface, it's just a crazy buddy story with the president and a super soldier fighting Nazi gremlins. How much bigger and goofy comic book can you get? But on a deeper level, without even talking about it, it creates an image of an Asian American who is a symbol for America. That's useful symbolically just because there has been a trend forever for Asians to be associated with aliens. Asians and Asian Americans have long been treated as foreigners. It's a common experience for many Asian Americans to have people remark, 'You speak English so well! How long have you been in the country? Where are you originally from?' And all that stuff, basically not acknowledging that there are plenty of Asian Americans that are Americans! There are plenty of Asian Americans who are fifth or sixth generation Americans. Even if that's not the case, even if somebody is an immigrant, they're still American. That identification of an Asian person being the symbol of America - there's some value to that."
While Greg Pak hopes that the characters in "Secret Identities" have legs, he teases that at least his character will pop up again. "This isn't the last you'll see of the Citizen," the writer confirmed, ominously.
In addition to being one of the editors on "Secret Identities," Keith Chow is also the writer of "Peril," one of several short stories in the anthology. The character has been in development for nearly a decade and first stemmed from the editor's idea that "Peril" was a cool name for an Asian American superhero.
"The whole notion of the Yellow Peril, that we're always perceived as a foreigner no matter how many generations we've been in the country, no matter how American we are - based on how you look or your last name, people are just going to assume you're a foreigner," Chow explained. "In the late '90s, there was a lot of that going on because of the scandal in the White House about donations from China. That all kind of came to a head when Wen-Ho Lee was accused of espionage and charged with 59 counts of spying. This was before Guantanamo Bay, so this was a big deal back then - you take an American citizen and throw him in solitary confinement for months and not have any kind of trial or justification, other than he looks like the bad guy.
"I've had this idea for a long time - what if that happened to someone who wasn't dealing in illegal secrets but high-tech weaponry, and had a son who decided to clear his father's name by stealing this technology that he was thrown in jail for? That was the premise that I had for years but never really did anything with until this project came along - because I can't draw worth crap! Greg can attest to how difficult it is to break into the industry as just a writer, so I never really had any inclination to go into comic book writing. But it was always a fantasy that I never thought anything of until this opportunity came along and I had a chance to explore this universe I'd had in my head."
If the execution is as good as the general concepts, then there's no doubt "Secret Identities" successfully accomplishes the balance between being a super cool superhero story while having historical significance. But in the end, it's not just about history - that is, past events and trends - but about the now and the future, as well. Both Pak and Chow acknowledge that while it's not easy to grow up without an Asian American superhero or icon to readily identify with, there is something easily accessible to Asian Americans - and other minorities - about several other comic book characters from Caucasian backgrounds. With "Secret Identities," they hope to turn that notion on its head.
"If kids of all background have identified with Peter Parker, then there's a chance for kids of all backgrounds to identify with these characters in ['Secret Identities']," said Pak. "That would be a big step forward from my point of view, and in a way, it's sort of like the Obama thing. There are kids all around the world - literally all around the world - who are looking at Obama and seeing opportunity. Kids of all different backgrounds see that he's the president. He's this symbolic representation of the United States. The fact that literally millions of kids can look to that image and identify with him as that kind of an ideal - there's an emotional journey with hopes and dreams being nurtured there. It's a bigger world all of the sudden, a more inclusive world. And that's sort of exciting."
"What we're trying to do with these stories is to inject really cool characters into the mainstream popular culture that just so happen to have Asian American sensibilities about them," Chow said, bringing it back to comics. "If a story is a good story, it shouldn't matter what that character looks like."
"Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology" is on sale now.