Asian-Americans Gather For Comic Convention

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Host Michel Martin interviews Jeff Yang about the first Asian American comics convention scheduled for New York this Saturday.


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we'll talk about summer movies, especially the ones causing heartburn for critics. Some say the most anticipated films this summer are riddled with racist, homophobic stereotypes, but audiences are eating them up, anyway. So what's the line between biting satire and unacceptable stereotype, and who decides?

That conversation in just a few minutes. But first, the Next Big Thing. That's our occasional feature where we try to clue in to the latest social and cultural trends, and we think it might be Asian-Americans and comics.

Now just saying that phrase makes you stop and think. Who are the Asian-American superheroes or super-villains for that matter? Well, to find out, you can head to the Asian American ComiCon in New York City this Saturday. Jeff Yang is one of the organizers of the event. He is editor-in-chief of "Secret Identities: the Asian American Superhero Anthology." In his spare time, he writes the Asian Pop column for the San Francisco Chronicle, and he is a very serious fan of comic books and graphic novels, and he joins us now to talk about the next big thing: Asian-Americans and comic books. Welcome, Jeff. Thank you.

Mr. JEFF YANG (Organizer, Asian American ComiCon): Thank you, Michel. Great to be on.

MARTIN: Well, so, who are the Asian-American comic-book superheroes?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YANG: You know, that's exactly the problem that led us, in part, to actually organize this conference. The number of Asian-Americans in comics on the creative side is staggering. There are tons and tons of incredibly talented people who are drawing and writing comics these days. But the number of Asian-American heroes or villains or characters of any note is ridiculous small. I mean, you can count on a couple hands.

MARTIN: Why is that? So they're behind the scenes. They're not on the page. They're behind the page, the hand behind the page.

Mr. YANG: Exactly. It's sort of like behind the camera, as it were. But…

MARTIN: Why is that?

Mr. YANG: You know, we kind of joke around a little bit about there being a Kryptonite ceiling.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Oh, no.

Mr. YANG: There's a sense in which a lot of the icons of comics today, you know, like Superman and Batman and so forth, they were created back in the '20s and '30s and '40s when the definition of hero was essentially, you know, straight, white male. And these icons are kind of like the big brands.

It's impossible in many ways to kind of catch up with five decades of intellectual property. And yet, you know, there is a kind of change in the atmosphere happening.

If you look at the comics world today, there's more kind of variety, more diversity not just behind the scenes, but increasingly, we're starting to see more and more characters of color in the panels themselves, as well. And that's what this con was about, you know, sort of celebrating the emergence of a new kind of color and texture in comics.

MARTIN: So the Asian American ComiCon, what is that?

Mr. YANG: You know, what we've done is, of course in editing "Secret Identities," we pulled together dozens, literally, just a staggering number of incredibly just able and interesting people who are creating comics today and superhero comics, alt comics, even in manga, you know, which is the other big force reshaping the comics industry, comics from the East. And what we did was in kind of engaging this conversation with them over the book, we realized there wasn't a lot of place for them to get together and talk.

And so this con - con usually means convention in comics parlance - but we really think of it more as a conversation. We're bringing together many of the top creators in comics today from all the different branches of comics, and we are putting together panels that really kind of dig deep into some of the issues behind why it is that comics are so critical to our culture, but also, you know, still have some room to go.

MARTIN: Mom wants to hear about that: why comics are so critical to our culture. But one of the panel discussions at the event will be the Asianization of pop culture. Tell me more about that.

Mr. YANG: You know, well, as I mentioned, kind of one of the big forces really reshaping not just the comics industry, but pop culture at large, is the arrival of, you know, Asian influences. I mean, we're talking about anime and manga, sort of Japanese animation, Japanese comic books. We're talking about, you know, action cinema coming from the East. And increasingly, we're seeing this sort of next generation of comics readers, of pop-culture enthusiasts, just sort of saying the farther away, the sort of more exotic it is to my experience, the more interesting it is to me.

So this Asian flavor in popular culture has become kind of the dominant streak these days. And we're going to take a look at that with some of the top creators both from Asia and the United States who have been working in that sort of milieu and kind of talk about why that's happening.

MARTIN: I want to - I'm - and I know the conversation hasn't happened yet, so I'm sure - maybe you'll come back and tell us once it has, what you've discovered. But I'm curious what you think the appeal is. I'm thinking about what you talked about, the iconic figures of the comics of the '50s, and the underlying theme seems to be this kind of paranoia about the outside threat, right? And this is kind of the Cold War era...

Mr. JEFF YANG (Columnist, San Francisco Chronicle): Oh yeah.

MARTIN: ...and in a way it is that kind of fear, kind of got sublimated into these super hero characters who were able to ward off these vague threats. What do you think? Is there an underlying appeal or theme behind the appeal of manga and some of these other art forms?

Mr. YANG: Yes. You know I think that what we've gotten to is a point technologically where the world literally is at our fingertips we have - we've gotten to the point where all of us are kind of moon explorers, you know, from our parents basements.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YANG: And there's a sense in which this ability to access information and you know kind of cultural means and ideas and phenomena from literally all over the planet at once has gotten us to a point where you know that's the stuff we want to access, that sort of stimulus from beyond our doors and outside of our neighborhoods. And I'd like to think that it's changing the ways that, you know, my kids and my grandkids are going to be looking at themselves as well as the rest of the world, that sort of insularity that has really shaped I think a couple generations of Americans. You know I think that's really starting to peel away.

MARTIN: Well what is the - do you have a favorite? Favorite, as your American super hero character - what's his name or her name?

Mr. YANG: You know it's kind of funny because the character that I remember growing up with, I was a huge X-Men fan when I was growing up was this character Jubilee, who's this sort of Chinese-American mall rat, Jubilee...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YANG: ...Jubilation Lee who has this power to essentially create like bioenergetic(ph) fireworks. And it was always kind of weird to me that in out of all the powers that an Asian person can have - a Chinese person can have, you know; of course, it has to be something like being to create fireworks through your hands you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You said it. I didn't. I'm not going there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YANG: But you know that's kind of typical of Asian characters in comics.


Mr. YANG: So it's always this you know overlay that their ethnicity somehow reshaped their powers you know. Kind of like African-American comics, you know, always had like Black Panther, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YANG: It can't just be panther, it's got to be Black Panther. And we see the same sort of thing with the history of multicultural characters in comics throughout.

MARTIN: Okay. All right. Jeff Yang is one of the organizers of this weekend's Asian-American Comic Con in New York City. He joined us from our bureau in New York.

Jeff, thank you.

Mr. YANG: Thank you, Michel.

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