By the mid-50's, the comic book industry was floundering. The novel, Seduction of the Innocent by Fredric Wertham, denounced the medium as a mechanism of moral decay. In regards to race, the novel claimed that comics presented children readers with a distorted and overlysimplified view of race and ethnicity. A Senate Subcommittee was established to investigate the comic medium's role in juvenile delinquency. This bad publicity had an adverse effect on sales. In addition, super hero comics just weren't popular anymore (Daniels, 1991). Since World War II ended, Timely had trouble getting the public excited about Captain America as well as the other heroes fictionally involved in taking down the Axis. A new concern was also becoming readily apparent in the public's mind- Communism.
In 1956, Marvel Comics (under their current publication imprint, Atlas Comics) released a comic entitled “The Yellow Claw,” which featured Jimmy Woo, a Chinese American secret agent. Woo’s main archenemy was a brilliant madman, know as the Yellow Claw. This evil tyrant embodied the public's animosity against "Red China" as he readily adopted Marxism and declared war and violence against America. The Claw’s appearance harkened back to the World War II comics’ depiction of Asians; he sported a Fu-Manchu mustache and teeth resembling Dracula’s; his skin was also saturated yellow. Woo, on the other hand, was clean-shaven and had perfect teeth. He was also part of the FBI. Les Daniels claims that it was perhaps this contrasting dynamic between the "good" Asian American and the hideously evil Asian foreigner that caused the book to be poorly received (in terms of commercial value) by the public. Perhaps no one was ready for an Asian hero, even if he was an American citizen.
In the 60's, Communist Vietnam played a large part in comics, particularly the origin story of Iron Man (Published by Marvel Comics). Wealthy military industrialist Tony Stark is captured by
tyrant Wong-Chu (shown below) and forced to build him weapons.
Stark manages to befriend a famous Vietnamese physicist by the name of Professor Ho Yinsen (shown below) who helps design the preliminary Iron man battlesuit. This story is notable in that it provides a counterbalance to the evil Asian archetype with a kindhearted scientist who helps out a stranger.
The art itself is also a drastic departure from previous character designs of Asians. Even the villains's features are toned down. There are no martian ears present; Wong-Chu's face depicts that of a cruel, heartless man, rather than simply that of an alien monster.
This did not exactly cause a sudden shift in how Asians were portrayed. In the pages of Wonder Woman (published by DC comics), the idea of Communism produced a villain who quite frankly was and still is the most absurd supervillain I have ever seen. Egg Fu, a Chinese Communist agent, was shaped like an egg, yet had a face similar to that of Fu-Manchu. In addition, he wielded his mustache as a deadly whip! (For images, refer back to section "Enter: Fu-Manchu!").
Another notable '60's Asian villain that stemmed out of the Cold War was Chen Lu, better known as Radioactive Man (owned by Marvel Comics).
Chen was a physicist for China and after his exposure to radiation, became a super Communist agent. What is notable about Radioactive Man is his character design and origin story. Here we don't have some evil dictator or hunched mad scientist. We have a brilliant and powerful man who gains the superpowers to go toe to toe with heroes such as both Thor and Iron Man (who were depicted as White). He doesn't bear disproportionate ears, teeth, or head, but rather is quite muscular going against the archetype of the frail Asian male. Chen was perhaps one of the first actual super-powered Asians (his powers weren't derived from the mystic arts) and also one of the first characters to break away from the illustrated mold that had previously characterised Asian characters. Despite this transition in portrayal, the concept of race in superhero comics still remained unchanged since the 30's. Race was still a method of introducing a new plotline/conflict. A further example of this was Marvel's creation of Sunfire, a mutant who received his powers from the bombing of Hiroshima (which subsequently killed his mother). Wanting revenge, Sunfire attacked the US capitol and battled the X-men as a result (Sanderson, 2000). The issue provided a spectacular fight, but failed to mention anything too deeply on race's relation to conflict (rather it just reiterates that racial differences almost always lead to conflict). Again race was simply a method to establish the context for a grand battle.
1. Daniels, Les. Marvel : Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1991.
2. "The Outsiders:: Asian/Asian-American Characters in Comics." 16 Apr. 2008 <www.reappropriate.com...>.
3. "The Outsiders:: Asian/Asian-American Characters in Comics." 16 Apr. 2008 <www.reappropriate.com>.
4. 2 Apr. 2008 <www.marvel.com...>.
5. Sanderson, Peter. Ultimate X-Men. New York: Marvel/DK, 2000.
Essential Iron Man vol 1
Essential Avengers vol 1