Who Wins In A Superhero Cage Match: An Interview With Parry Shen, Jeff Yang, And Keith Chow

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Talking about the people they've met, reactions outside of the API community, the formula to Coke, Asian American Comic Con, whitewashing, Virginia Tech, Oldboy, ninja abilities, a documentary, "Build-a-Hero", farmboys, critics, refugees, and most importantly -- who wins in a Superhero Cage Match with some of my favorite Secret Identity heroes -- you'll definitely want to check this out.

Now that the anthology has been released and you're out promoting the book, what are you hearing from the fans coming out to the signings, that probably like me, really enjoy seeing themselves reflected in the stories that you've helped bring to life?

PS: That basically it's been something that they've been waiting for -- the heartfelt comments we've been getting so far on our Amazon product page have been so great and says it all.

KC: It's fascinating. We're getting so many people who tell us they don't typically read comics but had to go out and grab Secret Identities based on the concept alone! Similarly, we've gotten feedback from many fanboys/fangirls who appreciate the fresh approach we're taking with the superhero genre. It's really the best of both worlds.

JY: A lot of the people we hear back from are simply startled and gratified to have the chance to read stories featuring actual Asian American superheroes--some of the anecdotes are kind of heartwrenching, in fact, with people talking about experiences with schoolyard racism, or about learning English from comics but being frustrated at not ever seeing heroes that look like themselves.

We've had skeptics, too: People who, long before the book came out, publicly announced or privately messaged us that they thought the idea of doing an anthology pegged to identity is invariably a terrible idea, because the quality of the results ends up being inferior and the tone of the work tends to be strident. We actually took those warnings to heart -- we were equally committed to creating a book we'd really want to read, regardless of its other dimensions, and also to avoid making the anthology a 200-page angry rant. Not that there's anything wrong with angry rants, of course.

It's been terrific getting praise, even grudging praise, from some of those initial cynics, since the book's been actually published.

I think there's an obvious pull to Secret Identities if you're Asian American, and that the significance of seeing ourselves in this form (as well as other media) can't be emphasized enough, but at the same time there's also an importance in having those who aren't Asian American accept this work as well -- even though these superheroes may not look like them, that they can still relate to them and their stories. Can you talk a little bit about the response you're getting from readers and industry insiders who aren't from the API community?

KC: Some of the ones singing our biggest praises have come from the non-API community, actually. I think we're getting to a place in society where what's considered "mainstream" is malleable. I think we are moving beyond the old notions that the lead hero has to be white anymore. I mean, a black man is the most powerful person in the world. Although, I think the audiences are further along than the tastemakers and decision makers--which is why you still see a lot of "whitewashing" of ethnic characters. Of course, we aren't where we'd like to be yet, else there'd be no reason for our book.

PS: At the dozens of events we've already done, we've had a very diverse mix of people in the audience -- the book covers areas in history that we all have some vested interest/exposure to: building the Transcontinental Railroad, WWI, Immigration, women's issues, real heroic acts in the news. All that is really different in the book is that these topics/historical moments are being told from the Asian American perspective but they're still very universal stories.

JY: You know, it's not just Asian American readers who've outreached to us saying they appreciate seeing a different cultural take on the superhero--a lot of non-Asian readers have as well. I think mainstream media really misunderstands how many people out there are open to the idea of seeing stories featuring protagonists that actually mirror reality. As one of our most high-profile contributors, Greg Pak (WAR MACHINE; INCREDIBLE HULK) often says, if done properly, providing characters with an authentic cultural context enriches them and opens up narrative possibilities -- it's not simply court-ordered superhero affirmative action, not that there's anything wrong with affirmative action, of course.

The point being that if every character you encounter in comics was a white farmboy who grew up in Smallville and moved to Metropolis, their whole backstory eventually becomes generic. In the real world, you have farmboys AND refugees from Vietnam or the Sudan AND fifth generation descendants of slaves or railroad workers AND children of undocumented migrant laborers or restaurant workers...a rich mosaic of origins and ancestries that we shorthand as "diversity," but that writers should see as a universe of untapped opportunities.

And that's why it was important to us not to just make the Asian American aspect of the stories a tag hung around the characters neck. We wanted our creators to tell stories that come out of a real place -- a historical or social context where being an Asian American and having some kind of an extraordinary power would make sense. Because it bores us when Asian characters are identical to non-Asian characters except with a slightly more jaundiced appearance, and it pisses us off when the only thing that does stand out about an Asian character is that they have Ninja Abilities. Not that there's anything wrong with Ninja Abilities, of course.

(Which only makes Koji Sakai's contribution to the book, MEET JOE, that much funnier, of course...)

After the initial release, Parry Shen wrote on his blog about some of the roadblocks that you've come up against as far as getting it into bookstores. As you're getting more and more press on the novel by larger media outlets, are some of these roadblocks coming down?

KC: Absolutely. I'm starting to see the book pop up on bookstores all the time now. We've even started a running photo journal on our Facebook page chronicling all the places the book is showing up across the country (http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=98569&id=58688536866&ref=mf).

JY: The roadblocks never come down of their own accord -- you have to crash through 'em. One of our biggest challenges with the anthology was that we chose to publish it through a nonprofit publishing house that specializes in progressive and multicultural books -- they'd only done one other graphic novel (a graphical biography of Emma Goldman!) and honestly had no experience with the comics industry, the comics distribution network or the larger comics audience. That was a conscious calculation on our part, of course: We are more interested in getting this book into nontraditional channels than the traditional fan market; if we only showed up in comics specialty stores and the graphic novels section of a few chain bookstores, we'd be around for a month before our sales velocity would get us pulled from shelves in favor of X-MEN ORIGINS: ARTIE AND LEECH or something. If we're seen as not being a straight-up superhero comic collection, we stand a better chance of sticking around for the long haul (and our Amazon sales rank bears that out! We've been doing remarkably well on Amazon -- we've been in the top three in their Asian American Studies category since our launch! Of course, we've also been in the top 25 in Comic Books/Cartooning -- ahead of Warren Ellis's "TRANSMETROPOLITAN" v0, Garth Ennis's "PREACHER" v3, and Neil Gaiman's "THE SANDMAN: ENDLESS NIGHTS." Also Bill Watterson's last Calvin and Hobbes collection.

Which is pretty effing cool, because I love all four of those books.

That said, we need continued support to make this book into something more than a one-shot deal. We're outreaching now to producers in Hollywood about opportunities to option some of the anthologies' pieces into other media. We're hoping to find a way to continue the stories in "floppy" format as well, if we can find a publishing partner. And of course, we hope to do SECRET IDENTITIES, VOL. 2!

PS: The word is still getting out there - but we've still yet to have a major media outlet covering the book on a national, mass media level. But then again, most books don't. But the good thing is that the book is at least now available in flagship book stores in major cities. So these next few months will be critical in not letting up in the promotion of the book -- we'll be busier than ever with the creation of our own Asian American Comic Con on July 11 in NYC, San Diego Comic Con July 22-26, college tour once the school year commences in the fall and trying to get colleges to adopt the book into their Asian American study courses with our lesson plans we've created.

I really enjoyed the fact that you put in the section "From Headlines To Heroes". Can you speak a little on how that section came about and why you felt it was important to put that in?

KC: The various sections of the book actually came together after the fact. Once we selected the stories we liked that were going into the book, then we started to see how they all fit together. We didn't set out to create the Headline to Hero, but each of us had a story that was inspired by real life events, but didn't fit into the War & Remembrance section (the other chapter devoted to stories inspired by real people/events.) In fact, I believe Parry only started writing "16 Miles" after he came on board. If anything, we hope people who are intrigued by the stories "16 Miles," "Taking Back Troy," and "Peril" will try to learn more about the men who inspired those stories. Namely, James Kim, Vincent Chin and Wen Ho Lee.

JY: Well, real life was a major inspiration for us. The first piece in the book that really nailed the connection we wanted to make between the Asian American experience and the narrative of the superhero was Jonathan Tsuei's 9066, illustrated by our art director Jerry Ma. It's a short work pondering what a Japanese American superhero might have experienced in the months leading up to America's entry into World War II. When we saw that story, it really lit up for us the fact that we should be looking for stories that are inherently rooted in an authentic Asian American context first -- using the conventions of the superhero to highlight aspects of those stories that are often overlooked or ignored; using the extraordinary to illuminate the ordinary, so to speak.

The Headlines to Heroes section took that concept and brought it out of history and into current events. Parry did a piece, "16 Miles," inspired by the heroic actions of James Kim, the CNet editor who saved his family from a terrible death in a frozen mountain pass, sacrificing his own life in the process. Keith Chow did a story, "Peril," inspired by the experience of Dr. Wen Ho Lee, the Taiwanese American nuclear scientist improbably accused of selling U.S. defense secrets to Mainland China. And I wrote a short piece that retold the Vincent Chin story -- the Chinese American man who was beaten to death days before his wedding by unemployed Detroit autoworkers, who mistook him as "Japanese." The superhero element in "Taking Back Troy" was essential, because it really does force you to think about the absurdity of blaming other countries for our own lack of competitiveness. In "Troy," instead of Japan, it was superhumans who'd taken over the auto industry, since someone who could run at superspeed and lift a truck over his head could do the work of hundreds of normal humans pretty easily. Tough to compete with that.

PS: There are so many real life Asian American heroes that have sacrifice so much (fiscally, in reputation or life) that we wanted to bring forward again so that their stories wouldn't be forgotten.

I noticed when James Kim sacrificed his life to save his family (he walked 16 miles in the snow to find help for his stranded family and died in doing so), the press hardly mentioned him being a Korean Man - that he was just a heroic guy -- and I thought that was so cool that race had been so-called, "transcended". But then when the Virginia Tech shooting occurred, all the press focused upon Cho was him being Korean. Even to the point suggested the Korean movie "Oldboy" was the shooter's motive.

So when I did my story "16 Miles" inspired by James Kim, the reasons were two-fold -- so that people would remember the heroic acts of this Korean-American man.

In regard to the final product, how did the editorial and submission process, as well as the call for entries shape the stories that got selected? And for those of us who aren't familiar with the book publishing world, what type of constraints were you under as far as length of stories, total page count, and overall deadlines?

KC: We did both an open call as well as individual outreach to certain people and contributors. When doing a project as huge as this one, it's important to remember it's still not huge enough to encompass the totality of the Asian American experience. And honestly, we never set out to do that. We try to tell people at our appearances that the book only chronicles 26 Asian American experiences. Hopefully, this will be successful enough that we're given the opportunity to tell even more. Because we want to illustrate the diversity and complexity of all parts of the Asian American community. But we can only do that 200 pages at a time.

PS: Basically stories had to come from an innately Asian American perspective. Where the story would really have a tough time being told without an Asian American being central to the story. But it also had to be cool - after all, it's a superhero graphic novel. We wanted to enlighten but entertain. Once those stories passed that qualification, we grouped them accordingly into their respective sections. For me as Managing Editor, the difficulty was dealing with deadlines for 66 individual creators and their schedules.

We also tried to get as diverse selection of the Asian American experience -- but we got our share of rejections from plenty of people. We also had a 6-page story about the Vietnam airlifts drop out 2 days before we went to press. We basically had taken 2 1/2 years to compile this book together and had to go with the best we had compiled. What some folks don't realize is that no one paid/commissioned us to do this. We saw something that we felt was missing and wanted to do something about it to the best of our abilities. The anthology is not the end all to all Asian American Anthologies -- it's meant to inspire, enlighten and educate. And if that means it'll inspire someone to even create an even better book, then that's a great thing as well because we started with just an idea -- and working in Hollywood for 13 years, I've come to see many times that everybody has a 'great idea' but very few actually are proactive and actually go about making that into a reality.

JY: I know that this question relates to some critique we've gotten about the fact that the book lacks the full range and depth of representation that some readers -- and all of us editors -- wish it had. Specifically, there was this post on Racialicious (http://www.racialicious.com/2009/05/26/missing-identities-racialicious-revisits-secret-identities/) that hit us pretty hard on that front. And while it ultimately wasn't really appropriate for us to use that forum to respond (it would have ended up being a comments-based back and forth flamewar, which is sucky for everyone concerned), here are my thoughts on the points that poster made.

There's no question that we have fewer female contributors (and characters) than we would have liked, and fewer South Asian American contributors and characters, and no stories whatsoever featuring openly LGBT characters.

For what it's worth, this is a challenge with any Asian American project; ours is a community that is as diverse internally as the rest of America is externally, with dozens of ethnic and linguistic and religious subgroups, not to mention divisions that relate to class, multiracial identity and length of time in America. And you have a tension that automatically exists, between framing an overarching, pancultural "Asian American" agenda (which leads to allegations that you've suppressed smaller groups in favor of the larger, majority ones) and incorporating the singular, unique narratives of our individual subcommunities.

You have to do both -- you need to be as inclusive as possible, while linking those individual narratives back to the collective story of our diverse community. And it's hard, and you will never, ever, ever fully succeed. Keith often says that there isn't a single Asian American experience, there're 15 million Asian American experiences, one for each of us. But the book wasn't going to be able to include 15 million stories, obviously -- so where do you draw the line on representation?

Well, we had both practical and conceptual parameters we were dealing with.

On the practical side, we did this as a volunteer effort for a nonprofit publishing house, with a budget on the low side of ridiculous. A lot of contributors we outreached to turned us down (very nicely, in most cases!) because they had to focus on real, paying work...especially in this economy. Making comics is a sh*tty business in the best of times, equivalent to garment piecework -- you're paid by the page, you have crazy deadlines, you get your stuff done or you don't eat or pay rent, and most people can't survive on comics alone. This is especially the case for people on the edges of mainstream comics -- which disproportionately includes some of the groups who ended up being underrepresented in our book. And that, sadly, creates a Catch-22.

There are very few women, South and Southeast Asians, and openly LGBT contributors in the comics world, relative even to, say, heterosexual Asian Americans of East Asian heritage. Many of the ones we outreached to told us they were swamped and couldn't commit to a minimum-wage project. One major feature, which happened to be by an openly gay writer and a Southeast Asian American artist, unfortunately dropped out the week before we went to press, when the artist got a paying job he couldn't pass up. We had to scramble to fill six pages with SOMETHING at the last minute, which is why you have this somewhat random back matter at the end of the book. Ironically, the very people who might have gotten the most out of being showcased in an anthology like this were also the people who had the least financial freedom to do so. Catch-22.

As it is, while we weren't fully satisfied with the level of inclusion we were able to manage from women and South and Southeast Asian contributors, we were delighted with the work we did get -- stuff which we thought pushed the envelope on the meaning of the word "superhero," not to mention the context of the term "Asian American."

Another point worth noting: The Racialicious post also asked why we had a section devoted to female characters, and why that section included female characters created by male artists. That's really two separate issues that together cut to the heart of the challenge we face as Asian Americans in media. There's the issue of what's in front of the camera, and what's behind the camera, and the two don't always produce the same priorities.

We created a section focusing on female characters because we thought there were specific, germane issues related to the depiction of women in comics that were worth discussing in concert. And we included stories by male creators in that section because we DIDN'T want to make it a "women's creator ghetto" -- the section was about what's in front of the camera, not what's behind it.

By the same token, there were female creators whose work was not in that section, because they were working on stuff that didn't relate to that set of issues. And we had LGBT contributors who ended up submitting work that had nothing to do with LGBT issues as well, while many creators wrote characters of very different ethnic backgrounds from themselves.

Though we played an active role as editors, this was a creator-owned anthology, and we felt that mandating creators to write specifically to "their" backgrounds was problematic, for any number of reasons. We've never publicly counted the various "belongings" of our creators (ethnic, gender, sexual orientation) for that very reason -- we let them identify themselves if they chose, how they chose.

That's not to say we didn't feel like we had and have a responsibility to be inclusive; we just thought that a strict quota was probably the worst and hardest way to accomplish that. Ultimately, we settled on a few principles:

1.) An open process that solicited creators of all backgrounds, both professional and amateur, from as broad and inclusive a set of sources as possible.

2.) Highly involved and long-lead, multi-stage editing, actively working with new creators in hopes that we could bring their great ideas to fruition even if they'd never set pen to paper before.

3.) Development of ancillary resources to highlight facets of the Asian American experience that we weren't able to get into the book -- ranging from the "interstitials" in the book that provide a framing device, putting the stories in social and historical context, to the downloadable Discussion Guides we've been building and providing for free on the Secret Identities website, to a program we call "Build-a-Hero" that we incorporate in most of our book tour stops, where we collaborate with the audience to create an original Asian American superhero and have one of our artists sketch that hero on the fly.

We'll be putting up a gallery of our Build-a-Hero workshops on the SI website at the end of our tour's first leg -- and the results are pretty amazing (and defiantly diverse)! We're also talking with a nonprofit partner about turning the Build-a-Hero workshop into something we can bring to a younger audience, targeting underserved and at-risk Asian American youth -- more on that as it develops.

The bottom line is, we didn't want to excuse the fact that the book doesn't represent every aspect of our Asian American communities -- we knew we needed to address it, but had to do it in a way that conformed to the resources we had available and the practical limits we were facing. With any luck, if we do Volume Two, a lot of the creators who turned us down will turn us up again...and creators we didn't know about will come out of the woodwork.

Any advice to people who get inspired by Secret Identities and want to put out their own comics, or maybe even an anthology themselves?

KC: One of the reasons we did the book was because we tired of not seeing ourselves represented (in whatever media). But rather than wait for someone else to do it for us, we decided to do it ourselves. If there's a takeaway for someone inspired by SI, that should be it. If you have talent and something to say, don't let anything stop you. Honestly, I think making comics (and more importantly, getting folks to see them) is easier now than at any point in history. And that's because of a little something called the Internet. Because the editors and contributors were literally scattered across the planet, this thing would never have come together if not for the Web.

PS: Try your best to get the best people together within the resources and time that you have. But what I think people don't realize is the harder work is afterwards, publicizing the book -- all the attention we've gotten in the press outlets, radio shows, book tour, creation of our mask postcards, making video clips, making lesson plans, banners, etc have come soley from us and from our pockets. We're now in the midst of cutting together a documentary of the book to screen at film fests and now our own Asian American Comic Con in July -- most publishers these days only have the bandwidth to send out review copies to reviewers and that's it. I'm very proud with everything that our team/contribs have done in making sure the "SECRET IDENTITIES" name and book is staying out there. By being at appearances and thinking outside of the box instead of just crossing our fingers and hoping people find the book by accident."

JY: That's the other thing that people should know about this project: We're nobody special -- at least where the comics world is concerned! (Our families love us.) Yes, I'm a journalist and have been doing stuff in and around the Asian American community for decades. And Parry is a Celebrated Thespian whose performance in BETTER LUCK TOMORROW continues to resonate. And Keith and Jerry have their own contacts and relationships in the comics industry -- which definitely helped.

But most of the people in the book either came to us, or responded to total out-of-the-blue cold calls and stalker-ish emails we sent. They didn't know us from Adam. (Or The Atom.) Hell, we didn't even know each other before this project! We connected through a random set of circumstances, and communicated solely by phone and email until after we actually got a publisher for the project -- about a year into the game.

The bottom line is that this is something anyone could have done, and everyone SHOULD do, if they want to. The book is called "THE Asian American Superhero Anthology," but that "the" is not meant to be exclusive -- it's a stupid marketing thing. Like, Coke calls itself "The Real Thing" -- but, uh, there are a lot of other things that are also equally real, right? (And our formula's a lot easier to duplicate than Coke!)

I was at MoCCA (the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art)'s annual Artists Festival yesterday. Just about every creator there was a self-publisher, doing awesome stuff. The most impressive: A group of Pratt Institute students calling themselves "Hatch Comics" (http://pratt.theanigroup.org/), who've published TWO really nice anthologies of work using Lulu.com -- a terrific resource if you're looking to roll your own book, by the way. Seriously -- in two years, they've done two books (110 and 214 pages respectively!) and it took us three years to do one 200 page book. Do we suck or what?

What it all means is, we're in a different kind of world now; technology means that the zone of production is in all of our hands. So if you see a hole, don't stand there pointing at it -- get a damn shovel! Heck, we'll happily help you dig!

Last question. Who wins in a superhero cage match: Lynnn Chen's Ting, Koji Steven Sakai's Joe, or Jimmy Aquino's June?

KC: That's an interesting collection of characters doing battle. There must be some evil overlord forcing them to fight each other (think Han from "Enter the Dragon.") I say they team up and go after Han.

JY: I love/hate this game! It's the fanboy's ultimate smackdown, "Who Would Kick Whose Ass?" And the answer is always Wolverine, because of ADAMANTIUM and CLAWS and HEALING FACTOR, even if it's Wolverine vs. Galactus or whatever.

Anyway, I hope the next generation of fanboys and fangirls end up playing WWKWA with SI's characters. Here's my take. Ting is screwed because she's dependent on food. If there isn't a ham sandwich in the ring, what's she going to do? If you have this battle royale at the Cracker Barrel buffet, watch out, kids, but you mention "cage match" so I'm assuming not.

Joe's problem is that, by definition, his powers are just what every Asian can do, right? I mean, can't you crush a brick with a single blow of your mighty yellow fist? I know I can. So, put him in a ring with non-Asians, and he's deadly, but against his own kind, he is effectively countered at all turns. Plus, he's the only guy in the ring, and I suspect he'd pull his punches, which would only really piss off the ultimate winner in this battle, June Park.

June's Sampling ability (and her ever-present swatches of costume fabric) would put her combat skillz way above the less flexible powers of her opponents. At least, until Wolverine enters the ring and smokes her with his adamantium/claws/healing factor, FTW!

PS: It would be a real nail-biter. Joe would be in a dilemma -- afterall, he's a gentleman and would never strike a woman. So to end this quickly, he chooses the lesser of two evils -- June wears glasses and he's always been taught to never hit anyone with glassses, so he mathmatically figures out the best vector to leap at Ting and take her out with a quick nerve pinch.

Ting sees this and whips out a Chili Pepper stashed in her utility belt - gulps it down and bursts into flames by going Super Nova - temporarily blinding Joe and knocking him unconcious.

Ting then turns to June, and sends a flare from her fingers - June dodges aside and the flame scorches her favorite "I SUCK AT MATH" Blacklava shirt.

Anger flares up behind June's spectacles and Ting sees she is in trouble. She tries a different tactic, reaches into a punch on her utility belt and munches on a cucumber to freeze the moisture in June's body and knock her out - but June simply touches the utility belt absorbs all of Ting's Yin/Yin food conversion projectile abilities and Ting is met with a blasts of fire and ice -- and instantly knocks her to the ground with a really bad cold and uncontrollably sneezing for days. The winner: JUNE

Check out the Secret Identities site to get the latest information and keep up with what's going on in the SI Universe.