Nowadays, while racial punch lines can thoughtlessly be projected on the big screen (we’re looking at you, Steve Hoekstra) they can just as quickly be burned down in a fury of online screeches and tweets. However, controversial images of the past were a bit harder to call out, from villains to even those who were once hailed as superheroes.
On display until March 23, Asian Arts Initiative on 12th and Vine is showcasing Marvels & Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in U.S. Comics, 1942-1986. From the personal collection of sci-fi author and cultural studies scholar William F. Wu, this exhibit aims to create a dialogue with images that most comic book fans grew up with but didn’t think to question—images fueled by xenophobic propaganda generated from as far back as World War II—and how they exist today.
Introducing eight deadly character archetypes with names that leave little to the imagination --the Guru, the Brain, the Temptress, the Manipulator, the Alien, the Kamikaze, the Brute and the Lotus Blossom-- Marvels & Monsters walks the viewer through a colorful documentation of America’s “other” during ages of political and racial unrest. Biting, but also good-humored input from contemporary Asian-American writers and artists help place these images in a historical context while also encouraging present-day discourse. While some may not immediately recognize featured characters such as the evil Dr. Fu Manchu and his hot yet insidious daughter Fah Lo Suee, or the squinty-eyed Chop-Chop and his me-so-funny antics, this impressive collection of clips and life-sized cut-outs will stir unsettling emotions in even the most foreign of fans.
Though curator Jeff Yang (San Francisco Chronicle’s “Asian Pop” columnist) describes the exhibit as “disturbing and even shocking”, Marvels and Monsters does not intend to not victimize or point fingers. Though Wu’s collection ends in 1986, strong Asian characters eventually managed to make the cut above the former low standards of the comic book industry. The clever Chinese-American secret agent Jimmy Woo, for one, emphasizes modern progression alongside examples of the more recent participants of Asian-American artists such as Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, G.B. Tran’s Vietnamerica and even Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series. And remember Chop-Chop, the Jar-Jar Binks of his time? He eventually becomes something of a hero in the ‘60s.
Perhaps the most powerful part of the show is found at the end, where viewers are asked to sound off on post-its their reactions to the exhibit. Many comments express positive feedback to Marvels and Monsters itself, while others confess personal experiences related to these dated archetypes—sobering vignettes of racially-charge street harassment and discrimination, which are unfortunately all-too familiar to your average Asian-American, this writer included (I'll omit the more nauseating details, but all I have to say is keep it classy, Philadelphia.)
Yet these down notes only help to clearly illustrate an important truth: Even in this fast-paced world, the tools we possess beyond the drawing board provide us the advantage of informed hindsight and a swifter reaction. But of course with this great power, we must not forget the great responsibility that comes with it.
And if that doesn’t work, we can at least rewrite history.
Visit Monsters and Marvels online for more information on additional events surrounding this exhibit.