Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Juxtaposed Pictorial Portraits of Asian Americans

Asians were first depicted in American comics as a dangerous threat. It was fall 1942; the US for almost a year was officially at war with the axis powers. Back in the states, there was much fervor surrounding America’s current situation. Walls were covered with patriotic posters, theatres showed short accounts of the war in Europe, and on the newsstands were images of Captain America and his sidekick Bucky delivering some painful haymakers to two Japanese soldiers. At least I think they were soldiers. Looking at the cover of Captain America # 18, it almost appeared as though the costumed crime fighters were tackling some Martians. The Japanese soldiers’ ears were drawn almost as large as their heads and extremely twisted. The coloring of their skin was a dark yellow, sharp vampire-like teeth hung from their mouths, and their eyes were contorted into a menacing shape; to any kids picking up this issue, there was no doubt that Asians were evil.

And yet, it is interesting to see how this villainous representation evolves in the next ten, twenty years. After World War II and just before the Vietnam War, Asians were portrayed very little in American comics. But when they were portrayed, it was not only as villains, but also as heroes. In 1956, Marvel Comics released a comic entitled “The Yellow Claw,” which featured Jimmy Woo, a Chinese American secret agent. Woo’s main archenemy was a brilliant madman, know as the Yellow Claw. The Claw’s appearance harkened back to the World War II comics’ depiction of Asians; he sported a fu Manchu and teeth resembling Dracula’s; his skin was also saturated yellow. Woo, on the other hand, was clean-shaven and had perfect teeth. He was also part of the FBI. This brings up an interesting thought; was Marvel trying to say only foreigners were evil and that those who are American citizens are not forever doomed to bad skin, teeth, and evil thoughts? Despite its well-written plots, the series was canceled within a few issues; the public just wasn’t interested.

During the 50’s and early 60’s, Asians were illustrated more in Japanese manga than in Western comics. An example of this was Astro boy, a robot built by the kind Doctor Tenma. Race and ethnicity did not directly associate with good or evil in manga as they did in American comics. Astro boy caught on with an American audience when it was adapted into a cartoon and has since been a classic icon in both Japanese and American culture. I’m still looking and referring back to different genres implementing the comic book genre at the moment; some things that did pop up was the use of Asians as villains again in the sixties. Tony Stark, later known as Iron Man, was captured by Vietnamese communists and forced to build them a powerful weapon. Peter Parker, the civilian identity of Spider-man, battled a Vietnamese sorcerer who had captured his classmate Flash Thompson when Thompson was drafted into the war. Very convoluted stuff. In my paper, I hope to not only address more fully the depictions of Asians and Asian Americans in comics, but also how comics from Asian (and subsequently translated to English) as well as their animated counterparts have made an impact on American pop culture and its consumer market. You’d be hard-pressed to travel back to 1999 and not find a fourth grader who wasn’t crazy about pokemon.

http://www.coverbrowser.com/covers/captain-america - Issues 18, 38-40


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