Creating the Chinese Superman Was "Fraught with Landmines"
Gene Luen Yang says his ongoing DC superhero comic, 'New Super-Man,' is about freedom, religion, and self-control.
Superman’s square jaw, kiss-curled hair, and unmistakably American good looks have made him a global pop icon for more than 75 years. But, what if, instead of Clark Kent, Superman was named Kenan Kong, and he hailed from Shanghai? Would it work?
In New Super-Man, part of DC’s Rebirth event written by Gene Luen Yang, a bullish Kenan Kong is gifted the Man of Steel’s powers as the state-approved “Super-Man” alongside Bat-Man and Wonder-Woman, Chinese analogs to the world-renowned superheroes. Unlike Clark Kent, who kept his identity secret as a mild-mannered reporter (until recently), Kenan immediately revealed himself in last month’s issue #2, reveling in the fame and glory.
While Yang has written Superman for DC before, it was his graphic novel Boxers & Saints, and American Born Chinese, that won him acclaim, Eisner awards, and ambassadorship by the Library of Congress this year. Even so, Yang was hesitant to take up DC’s “Chinese Superman” series because of one crucial reason: Yang grew up in California, not Shanghai. Kenan is a Chinese national, and the Asian-American experience is different from the East Asian citizen’s.
“I’ve never had first-person experience living in China. I would be writing as an outsider,” Yang told Inverse. “There’s all sorts of cultural, political sensitivities. It felt so fraught with land-mines.”
A Chinese Superman wasn’t Yang’s idea either — New Super-Man came from DC heads Geoff Johns and Jim Lee — but Yang warmed up knowing he’d get to write a prominent Asian superhero in American comics, a rarity even in 2016. “There’s something affirming about seeing a reflection of yourself within the stories you are reading,” said Yang, “Stories are a way of saying, ‘This experience is important.’ When you grow up not seeing your life reflected, you have a fear that what you’re experiencing is unimportant.”
Yang’s other biggest block to writing New Super-Man wound up becoming the book’s central themes: democracy and freedom. “Superman is about truth, justice, and the American way. What does that mean in modern China?”
What’s the long-term plan for the DC Universe to know who Kenan Kong is? What’s Kenan supposed to learn from bragging about being Super-Man?
The big difference between Kenan and Clark is that the Chinese Superman doesn’t have self-control, an important part of what it means to be Superman, the standard bearer of superheroes. Outing himself is just a symptom of a deeper issue. A lot of his arc is going to be about how receiving Superman’s powers changes him physically, but also morally. This drastic action he took [in issue #2] is going to be the first step learning how to have self-control.
It’s inevitable that Superman will know and find Kenan. What’s going to happen when those two meet?
You’re going to have to keep reading. There’s a concreteness to that question.
I love Kenan’s dynamic with New Bat-Man and New Wonder-Woman, but why are there Chinese versions of known heroes instead of new characters? I feel like you’re trying to say something with them.
I grew up Chinese Catholic. When communists came to power they wanted an atheist state, so they outlawed religion. They realized people were practicing secretly in their homes, so they created state-approved versions of major religions. If you’re Catholic, you would go to the Patriotic Catholic Church, the state-approved Catholicism. Running along that is an underground Catholic Church. There’s a lot of debate about which one is legitimate. The underground church has official ties to Rome, the Patriotic Church sometimes and sometimes doesn’t. It’s very complicated.
The Chinese Justice League stems from growing up in that. In the DC Universe, post-New 52, superheroes appear in America six, maybe seven years ago, and shortly after started appearing in China. At first the government’s response was to suppress them, and they realize they can’t. What they’re doing is creating state-approved superheroes. That’s the Chinese Justice League.
Asian culture is rooted in respect for parents, so why is Kenan’s relationship with his father strained? Is it to make him stand out from Clark Kent who had two great dads?
That really is central of the first arc. Within traditional Chinese culture, because of Confucian roots, the parent/child relationship is central. All society is built around this. To start with that broken felt authentic. A broken relationship between a parent and child threatens the roots of what it means to be Chinese.
While a New Super-Man movie is nowhere near a rumor, I do wonder if a Chinese Superman is preparing for a push into the Chinese box office. Is New Super-Man trying to lay a foundation for a movie franchise?
One of the things I thought going in is, if that’s going to be a major concern, making movies as opposed to making a good story, then I don’t want the project. In the very first issue, I dropped the D-word, “Democracy” just to see what would happen. DC let me run with it so my thinking is, at least on the comic side, nobody is thinking hard about movies. There’s no way you make democracy a central theme and get a Chinese financier behind that.
It’d be awesome if there was a New Super-Man movie down the line but for me and the creative team working on this book, that’s definitely not a priority.
Comic publishers have been diversifying their universes. In your opinion, what creates visibility: New superheroes, or new people inheriting mantles?
I sympathize with the argument against heroes of color inheriting mantles. It happens, right? There was Ryan Choi, Atom, there was Cassandra Cain, Batgirl, even John Stewart, Green Lantern. What ends up happening in every single one of those cases is you have to give the costume back. As a writer of color, as a fan of color, I sympathize with the argument that passing down the mantle doesn’t always work. The mantle never feels your own, it feels like you’re borrowing it and you have to give it back which kind of sucks.
There is that visibility factor. When Amadeus Cho became Totally Awesome Hulk, that brought him a ton of exposure he wouldn’t have otherwise. I really think there has to be a balance. Each has its benefits and ultimately the approach when you’re talking about diversity within superheroes, it’s to do both. It’s both the creation of new characters and also the mantle.
Similarly, as an Asian-American writer, what kind of stories have been more fulfilling? Mainstream superheroes or works like American Born Chinese?
Each is different. When I’m writing my own stuff, like American Born Chinese or a short story I did for Secret Identities, it feels personal. I also get more control. Every word comes from me and I do what I want. When I’m working with a team on somebody else’s character like Clark Kent, I learn a lot in those situations. I get to see how they approach story, and I can feel myself growing in those. It’s different. One is about expression and the other is about being part of a storytelling tradition and learning from that.
Issue #3 of DC’s New Super-Man is available now. Issue #4 arrives October 12.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.