“Marvels and Monsters” dissects Asian-American comic-book characters

A new exhibit at the Museum of Chinese in America examines racial stereotypes in vintage comic books.

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  • Photograph: Courtesy of William F. Wu Collection at NYU Fales Library

  • Photograph: Courtesy of William F. Wu Collection at NYU Fales Library

Photograph: Courtesy of William F. Wu Collection at NYU Fales Library


As a Chinese-American comics nerd growing up in the ’50s, sci-fi writer William F. Wu couldn’t relate to the villainous Asian characters he’d see in illustrations. Collecting these images became a hobby, and after four decades of archiving one-dimensional characters—from karate-chopping superheroes to robe-wearing gurus—Wu donated his stockpile to NYU’s Fales Library & Special Collections. That trove serves as the basis of the exhibit “Marvels and Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in U.S. Comics, 1942–1986,” opening Thursday 27, which looks into the form’s Asian stereotypes, particularly seven stock characters. The exhibit pairs four decades of works with analysis from contemporary Asian-American comic-book artists, plus life-size cutouts and a display that matches Pantone colors to the shades of yellow used for skin tones. Curator Jeff Yang, an arts journalist and coeditor of 2009’s Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology, outlined the offensive tropes as they appear in Atlas Comics’ Yellow Claw No. 1 (1956), a short-lived but influential series penciled by legends Joe Maneely and Jack Kirby.

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Yellow Claw: Influenced by British author Sax Rohmer’s Dr. Fu Manchu, this character is an archetypical criminal mastermind. “This first depiction of him really makes him look monstrous,” says Yang. “He’s bright yellow, he has long fangs and claws, and his eyes are slanted at a sharp 45-degree angle. He’s the most alien of alien Asian beings, and a constant manipulator—someone who is constantly using trickery and mysticism to lead law enforcement down the wrong path while trying to conquer the world.”

Jimmy Woo: This comic’s protagonist is a rare character: a Chinese-American government agent more akin to James Bond than a karate master. “He’s a hero, but a fairly ineffectual one, at least in the early series,” says Yang. “He’s notable for getting captured a lot and then getting saved by the dragon lady. I mean, the series isn’t called Jimmy Woo, it’s called Yellow Claw.”

Suwan: As the Yellow Claw’s great-great-grandniece and Jimmy’s love interest, she embodies two stereotypes: the opportunistic “dragon lady” and the self-sacrificing “lotus blossom.” “When she’s standing by her uncle’s side, she’s this terrible dragon lady, basically this queen bitch of the underworld, but as soon as Jimmy starts strolling down the pike, she swoons and tumbles into his arms,” says Yang.

See it now! “Marvels and Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in U.S. Comics, 1942–1986,” Museum of Chinese in America, 215 Centre St between Grand and Howard Sts (212-619-4785, mocanyc.org). Tue, Wed, Fri–Sun 11am–6pm; Thu 11am–9pm. $7, seniors and students $4, children under 12 free. Thursdays free. Thu 27–Feb 24.


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