The first major portrayal of Asians in mainstream action comics was anything but mild. Published in March 1937, the debut issue of Detective Comics featured a Fu-Manchu archetype glaring out with blank, yet insiduous eyes. Despite the lack of sensationalist text that would soon dominate the title's covers, the message was clear: foreign equated to evil.
The title was notable for its introduction of Batman, who would later become both an icon and marketable franchise for DC Comics (at the time known as National Allied Publications). Yet despite its lauded role in providing the first Batman story, Detective Comics did not start out with a science fiction/superhero focus. Instead, its issues dished out gritty, hardboiled crime stories, based on the pulp fictional works, popular at the time (Daniels, 1995). Many teenagers(primarily male) were hooked on these pulp magazines and sales of over one million copies per issue reflected this interest. Of course like any good business, National Allied Publications decided with Detective Comics to give the public what it wanted.
Fu-Manchu, created by Sax Rohmer, was an ideal villain for many pulp magazine writers to use in their stories. He was a mystical, criminal mastermind who employed savage henchman to wreak havoc...no doubt these qualities would persuade many boys to fork over their hard-earned allowance to the newsstands. Such appeal convinced many pulp writers to create carbon copies of the character. In fact the "Fu-Manchu" in Detective Comics #1 did not go by that name. It was not until National Allied Publications began paying royalties for the character that they began referencing the character as "Fu-Manchu" (as seen in Detective Comics #18).
So what distinguished this evildoer from all the other diabolical villains and mad scientists? What was it about Fu-Manchu that captured teenage boys' short attention spans? It could not just be his lust for violent acts alone. Perhaps he was a commercial reflection of the publics' fears and obsession regarding the unknown. This key element of the unknown was appearance; this was what markedly separated this brand of Fu-Manchu villains from the predominantly white audience. Shown in the gallery above is a panel within Detective Comics #1. The skin color of both Fui Onyui (the Fu-Manchu clone here) and his henchman were colored a noticeably rotten yellow. It provided an unworldly aura to the mastermind. Whereas Cheng, the protagonist in DW Griffith's film, Broken Blossoms (1919), walked with a hunch to suggest a gentle frailty, the Fu-Manchu model in this panel used his hunched demeanor to demand terror.
His deranged appearance allowed the audience to disassociate themselves from him; it gave them the freedom to hate him without guilt. He was afterall so different. Within a historical context, it is important to note that this surging interest in Fu-Manchu comics paralleled the intense animosity felt toward the "Yellow Peril." This term,popularized by William Randolph Hearst, described the xenophobic views of certain Americans towards Asian immigrants from around the late 19th century to (some argue) the middle of the 20th century. These feelings arose from many American citizens' fears that their jobs and wages would be affected by this influx of Chinese immigrants. Ninteen thirty-seven was an especially fertile period for such feelings as this fear and anger expanded beyond Chinese immigration to include the American public's concern at a growing Japanese military force. As readers' interest in the mysterious Fu-Manchu faded, mainstream comic book publishers soon found themselves forced to change their marketing direction (Daniels, 1995). Some focused more on superhero and fantasy elements, while others began incorporating a twist on this archetype of the evil foreigner; they not only re-highlighted the manipulative schemes of the Asian man, but also emphasized patriotism in the face of evil. Afterall, no one could have too much patriotism during the brink of war...and of course the fact that it helped boost sales didn't hurt either.
1. Daniels, Les. DC Comics: Sixty Years of the World's Favorite Comic Book Heroes. 1st ed. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1995.
2. "The Clones of Sax Rohmer's Dr. Fu Manchu." 1 May 2008 <www.njedge.net...>.
3. "Yellow Peril." Wikipedia. 1 May 2008 <en.wikipedia.org>.
4. "Asian American Empowerment- the Lingering Legacy of Chinese Exclusion." 1 May 2008 <modelminority.com...>.
5. "The Outsiders:: Asian/Asian-American Characters in Comics." 16 Apr. 2008 <www.reappropriate.com...>.
6."Pulp Magazine." Wikipedia. 1 May 2008 <en.wikipedia.org>.
Cover images from www.coverbrowser.com (used throughout all pages/modules for project)