"Marvels and Monsters:" Exploring the Portrayal of Asians in U.S. Comic Books

Posted by Stephanie Carrillo on January 31, 2014

Although I'm not much of a comic book fan, I must admit the title of a current Japanese American National Museum exhibit piqued my interest- Marvels and Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in U.S. Comics 1942-1986. I'm always inspired to deepen my understanding of stereotypes and explore their historic roots, so the description on the website had me intrigued.

The exhibit promised to provide an example of how comic books have both illustrated and shaped the United States' racial and cultural perceptions of Asians over time- exactly the kind of exhibit that begs to be viewed through a Facing History lens. I selected a date, invited other teachers to attend and imagined the questions the exhibit might raise. How have comics been used to create and perpetuate the myth of "We and They"? What archetypes have been constructed? How did U.S. relations with China, Japan, and Vietnam during the years showcased influence the ways Asians were portrayed? I anticipated that the exhibit would be thought-provoking and informative and hoped that conversations with my colleagues would be rich and substantial. Needless to say, the evening did not disappoint.

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Marvels and Monsters was curated from the personal comic book collection of William F. Wu- science fiction author, cultural studies scholar, and owner of the largest archive of comic books featuring Asians and Asian Americans. As Wu noted, "Iconic images can have real-world effects on people's perceptions of themselves and those around them." It was in this vein that Wu sought to document portrayals of Asians in comic books specifically.

When I entered the museum, I silently wondered if I'd be out of the loop. Would the exhibit be lost on a non-comic book fan? As it turns out, the stereotypes documented are so familiar and so recognizable, it's clear that the myth of "We and They" permeates American popular culture. The Guru, the Lotus Blossom, the Dragon Lady, the Brain, the Kamikaze, the Alien- I had seen all these characters before, although not in comics. Instead, I met their acquaintance in movies, in commercials, in video games, and even in the aisles of costume shops during Halloween season. I've heard their "voices" imitated in jokes told around dinner tables and in school hallways. I've even seen their images on people's tattoos. But I've never been accosted by these characters all at one time until that evening. It wasn't the one-dimensional caricatures themselves that I found most disturbing, it was the sheer pervasiveness of these archetypes that caught me off guard.

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I learned that The Brain stereotype found in popular culture is a modern mutation of the "tricky oriental." The Chinese, portrayed in the 1800s as schemers and conspirators, morphed into the inscrutable Asians that could not be trusted with their impossibly high I.Q.s and mastery of technology. Not surprisingly, this shift coincided with Japan's increasing competition with the U.S. in the areas of consumer electronics and automobile engineering. In an age of educated immigrants and highly publicized Asian "whiz kids," intellectual Asians were widely viewed as suspect and The Brain emerged as a sexless, friendless, self-hating prodigy whose achievements were seen as pathological and "other than human" rather than the result of meritocracy, hard work or talent. Whether it is the demure, obedient, and vulnerable Lotus Blossom, the masterfully wise Guru with his impenetrable riddles, or the mindlessly loyal Kamikaze bent on destruction- a historical context and critical analysis is provided for every stereotype depicted in the exhibit. It goes a long way in demystifying how each particular iteration of "We and They" was constructed in the first place.

An observation by Incredible Hulk writer Greg Pak had particular resonance for me. He said, "There are a million ways to write an Asian Martial Artist, so why is it that we keep on seeing the same darned one? I'm not looking for Asian American characters to be positive- I just want them to be human..." And there it is, the wish we all share- the desire to be seen as complex, different, authentic, and human.

As provocative as the exhibit was, my experience was made even better by the thoughtful conversation that followed. My colleagues and I discussed how comic books and other forms of popular culture could be used to unpack enduring stereotypes for any number of groups. We talked about the existence of archetypes in literature and art and considered how narrowly crafted historical narratives keep these archetypes in place. We engaged in a vibrant dialogue about the fantastical realm of comic books- the potential for injustice and abuse (and conversely, for positive social impact and greater good) when one is invited to "create your own monster" and "construct your own hero." Like any good educators, we found ample ideas for classroom application.

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Yes, we would ask students to analyze images in popular culture, but we realized the potential for so much more. Perhaps we could ask students to list and describe the archetypes within their own school communities- not just to name them, but to question the stereotypes and explore the limits and dangers of one-dimensional characterizations. Maybe, as part of an identity unit, we ask students to create their own monster. (Imagine how substantial this self-exploration could be! Create the personification of your deepest fear. What powers does it have? What is the source of this monster's power? What is the antidote?) Can we help students articulate the challenges they face? Can we encourage and empower them to be the heroes of their own stories? Can they see the connection between the flat characterizations of those deemed "other" and their own anxiety of groups who are simply unknown and unfamiliar? This exhibit certainly made me think so.

How have you used popular culture to deepen and extend student understanding of history, literature, or art? What strategies do you use to explore the mythology of "We and They"? How do you encourage students to challenge and dismantle stereotypes?

(Marvels and Monsters runs through February 9, 2014.)

Additional resources for educators:

  • The film Ethnic Notions explores the development and perpetuation of anti-black stereotypes in American cultural history.
  • Media literacy analysis is key for students to effectively deconstruct and question visual images. Click here for one strategy which may help.

Topics: Critical Thinking, Los Angeles, Race and Membership in American History: Eugenics

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