U.S. Comics Reflecting the Asian Stereotypes from 1942-1986

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A couple weeks ago, I had the chance to check out the Marvels & Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in U.S. Comics, 1942-1986 exhibit. After going through a friend's photo album that had contained pictures of the exhibit, I made up my mind to put it on my summer to-do list, especially when it was on my home turf, good old New York University. Personally, I am more enticed by manga than U.S. comics, but scrolling through my friend's pictures I noticed that this exhibit wasn't just some comic book collection on display.

My attention was drawn by the bright colors of yellow and pink in the photo album. They were pictures of quotes. Skimming through most, I stopped at one that caught my full attention.

I’m not looking for Asian American characters to be positive—I just want them to be human. Because humans are flawed and crazy and capable of amazing acts of heroism and terrible acts of villainy, and that’s what makes us compelling. If you go out there as a writer and say, “I’m going to create a role model," you’re going to create a boring character—it’s as bad as creating a stereotype. But if you go and try to create real characters, as screwed up and conflicted and inspired and inspiring as we all are deep down, you’ll create characters people want to read, and that they’ll fall in love with. I wouldn’t get hung up about seeing Asian tyrants or gangsters or femme fatales or martial artists if they were all different and individual and human. What I get angry about is that there are a million ways to write an Asian martial artist, so why is it that we keep seeing the same darned one?

Greg Pak, Writer, Incredible hulk; Hercules; and Heroic Age; Prince of Power

I quickly reflected on the "model minority myth" that has haunted Asians in America. Yes it has its perks, but it comes with heavy baggage. We are given tremendous stress to often live up to this myth, but the truth is we all aren't as smart as we are said to be, we all don't want to be doctors, lawyers, or engineers, and  we all aren't well off. We more than often forget that others in our community have not reached this model minority glamorous status and struggle to do so.  And sure enough, there are  a few that chase after that American Dream, but there are others who rather create their own as brought to public attention by Wesley Yang's article, Paper Tigers. As Greg Pak had mentioned people are flawed, and that could be bad, but it can be good. Our flaws make us unique, in other words they are part of who we are as individuals. Being placed in this myth, only holds us back from showing the true potential of who we are.

The stereotypes we face today as Asian Americans evolved from those in the past. Walking through the exihibit made me acknowledge that although these images of Asians in comic books were not in the best light, it is worth taking in to learn about the different perceptions.

On display in the exhibit were glimpses of the "types" of Asians that were represented by comic books of that era:

Curious, I immediately look through the female characters descriptions. Reading through the Temptress's description reinforced the notion of the exotic femme fatale stereotype that even today exists. Or even the Lotus Blossom, which plays into the stereotype that Asian women are passive and docile.

I walked through this exhibit with my camera feeling quite foolish, but I was on a mission to soak in what this exhibit was all about. It wasn't the art work, the story lines, or the main characters. It focused on the minor characters whose presence said a lot and represented a community not often noticed in the big picture of things.

I highly suggest to check it out if you are in the NYC area!