“Back when I was a kid … I loved all of the Marvel superheroes except for one,” said award-winning cartoonist Gene Luen Yang. “I did not like Shang-Chi at all.”
As a child, the character of Shang-Chi made Yang feel uncomfortable. But today, Yang is the writer of the monthly Marvel Comic series featuring Shang-Chi, shaping and advocating for improved Asian American representation in the American comic book industry.
On May 6, Yang presented over Zoom to students and teachers in the Berkeley High School (BHS) library, as well as several classes that joined remotely. He discussed the representation of Asian Americans in graphic novels, and his recent work on the reclamation of the character Shang-Chi in the Marvel Universe.
“I had not yet worked out what it meant to be an Asian American,” said Yang, whose parents are Chinese and Taiwanese. “It just felt like if I picked up this comic book with an Asian superhero on it and brought it up to the cashier I would be highlighting everything about me that I wanted to keep hidden.”
So, Yang stayed away from Shang-Chi comics, never reading a single one as a child. But he continued to be interested in other comics, self-publishing his first comic a year after graduating from college.
He published many comics as a young adult and found widespread success with his graphic novel, American Born Chinese.
Yang rediscovered Shang-Chi as an adult, already writing and publishing his own comics, and began to learn more about the American comic industry’s fraught relationship with Asian characters.
“When you look at the way the American comic book industry has treated Asian Americans and Asians, it just hasn’t been all that great,” Yang said.
He summarized the history of this relationship, beginning with racist political cartoons in the late 1800s, meant to dehumanize and alienate Chinese immigrants.
By the end of the 1800s, the sentiments behind these cartoons culminated in the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act, effectively ending legal immigration from China to America.
Yang explained that these racist images were found not only in political cartoons, but also early American comics. In 1937, in the first issue of the long running “detective comic” series by DC, the villain was named Chin Lung. He was a Chinese “super demon” bent on taking over the western world.
“The publisher wanted to use a character that was really marketable, that would draw a lot of eyeballs,” Yang said. “He is what we would now refer to as a yellow peril villain … designed to monetize the fear that a lot of Americans at the time felt toward the Chinese.”
The comic industry continued to confine Asian characters to stereotypical roles, even when the characters were heroes.
“In these early American comics, usually if you saw Asian or Asian American characters … they were either a yellow peril villain or comic relief,” Yang said.
Yang continued, describing how when Asian characters played the role of comic relief, jokes often veered into racist tropes and stereotypes.
“You weren’t supposed to laugh because it was inherently funny, you were supposed to laugh because … [a character] was Chinese,” Yang said.
Shang-Chi, another Asian comic book character, was first developed in the 1970s as a heroic counterpart to the extremely popular character Dr. Fu Manchu, a supervillain described by his creator as a “Chinese devil.”
“If you read these early Shang-Chi comics, the appeal doesn’t come from the reader relating to Shang-Chi or the reader imagining themselves as Shang-Chi,” Yang said. “He’s not meant to be related to, he’s meant to be looked at. He’s a spectacle that you’re supposed to watch.”
Now that Yang works for Marvel writing a monthly comic, he explained that he wants to change this stereotypical narrative by bringing the relatability of other superheroes to Shang-Chi, incorporating “human flaws” and “desires.”
“In a lot of ways, superheroes are about goodness, they’re about human ideals,” Yang said. “I think that’s why today there’s this big push for diversity in our superhero comics, because we want to read stories that affirm the underlying truth that everybody can reach the human ideal regardless of who we are. … I’m thrilled to be a part of a comic book industry that is moving in that direction.”
At the end of his talk, he took questions from the audience, including from some classes that joined over Zoom.
A group of freshmen asked Yang why he decided to reclaim Shang-Chi when creating the comics instead of creating a new character.
Yang explained that even though many DC and Marvel stories may “come from not good places,” those universes are living things, and he feels he has a choice to either step out of the story or attempt to move it in the right direction.
“As imperfect as those universes are, I still have a deep heart and passion for those universes. I would rather fix them and try to move the stories in the right direction,” he said.
Yang reflected on how this philosophy can be extended to larger, more realistic stories and the ways in which they are received and related to.
“I feel the same way about America.” Yang said. “The American story is much rougher than the DC and Marvel stories, but ultimately, we can either step out of it, or we can change it and move the story in the direction that we want to see it go.”