In recent weeks, Marvel has brought to the forefront of its comics actual unicorns: Asian-American superheroes. There’s Silk, back in her solo series post-“Secret Wars”, Amadeus Cho is the new Hulk, and Daredevil’s protege is Samuel Chung, an immigrant who dons the name Blindspot. These heroes (except for Blindspot, whose story has yet to be explored) are challenged with confronting identities in ways divorced from their ethnicities. Is it just a matter of “the times,” or is Marvel ignoring a crucial reality of life as Asian-Americans?
Silk, Hulk, and Blindspot all arrive in Marvel as the comics giant have embraced diversity full-stop. It’s an “All-New, All-Different” Marvel, where ethnic, sexual, and gender minority superheroes have their turn to save the world from super-villains and battle their own inner conflicts. Among its breakout stars is Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American Muslim teenager and the new Ms. Marvel (previously Carol Danvers). With acclaimed author and journalist G. Willow Wilson at the helm, Ms. Marvel is among the publisher’s top-sellers and a personal favorite of yours truly. Besides its delightful meshing of teenage drama and Saturday morning escapism, Ms. Marvel succeeds because of an authentic voice about life as a second-generation millennial: a never-ending tug-of-war between one’s foreign household juxtaposed against a western upbringing.
In her debut in Ms. Marvel #1, Kamala disobeys her Muslim parents and hits up a rowdy party held by her classmates. Finding it’s not what she hoped it’d be, Kamala is lost on her way home when she’s engulfed in mist from a Terrigen Bomb (fired by Black Bolt in the Marvel crossover Infinity) that unlocks her Inhuman superpowers. In that moment, Kamala hallucinates her heroes and confesses to suffering an all-too familiar problem: “Who am I?”
But no matter how or what people like Kamala choose to identify themselves, the world often doesn’t let them. This week, Presidential hopeful and actual comic book villain Donald Trump called to prohibit Muslims from entering the U.S. until what Trump and his PR department can only describe as a “dangerous threat” is better understood. Besides the unconstitutional nature and obvious fear-mongering, within such rhetoric is the marginalizing of the Muslim community regarding only simpleton prejudices. For eastern Asian-Americans, such was the norm at the height of World War II and, going further back, during Chinese exclusion.
It’s been decades since Japanese-American internment and other large military involvement by the United States in east Asia, but socially it can still feel like 1950. Much of popular culture in the 20th century deformed the Asian-American identity, which ran the gamut of dorks to “dragon ladies”. These unflattering portrayals lacked nuance, complexity, or even just mundanity. The watershed moment: 1999’s American Pie where John Cho’s Asian bro was just a bro. His brief thirty seconds on screen changed everything.
Today, Marvel have contributed their own Asian bro to the populace. Amadeus is now the Hulk, in place of a missing Bruce Banner. Unlike Banner who treated Hulk like Dr. Jekyll treated Mr. Hyde, Cho is having fun with his powers. Hence, being “Totally Awesome.”
But Totally Awesome Hulk #1 foreshadows a dark showdown between Amadeus and his inner beast. However juicy and rich that conflict may be, there is zero mention of any alienation he might feel as a teenaged Korean-American brainiac, which is reality for many Asian teenagers in the United States.
In New York City, Cindy Moon swings the neighborhood as Silk, the newest member of Marvel’s Spider-Family. Her story continues classic tradition, having her juggle between working for The Fact Channel and moonlighting as a masked crimefighter. Her identity crisis is as recognizable as, well, Superman, who went through the same ordeal when he was Clark Kent on Daily Planet payroll.
But one moment in Silk’s origins reflected reality. Before a radioactive spider took a bite, Cindy was just an All (Asian-) American high school athlete hiding her boyfriend Hector from a strict, overbearing mother. (“I like Hector,” Cindy’s father casually uttered reading the morning paper. “He’s got a wicked wrist shot.”) Though Cindy breaks up with Hector because of extraordinary circumstances, it’s a scene not unfamiliar to second-generation children of immigrants compelled from childhood to marry within their racial pool.
Meanwhile in Hell’s Kitchen, Blindspot proposes an interesting opportunity for Asian-American representation, especially since he’s not American. Samuel has yet to even be unmasked in Charles Soule’s current Daredevil, but his backstory as an illegal immigrant raised in the U.S. isn’t a secret to readers.
In an interview with Comic Book Resources, writer Charles Soule described the challenges Samuel Chung will endure as Hell’s Kitchen newest defender:
“He was brought to this country illegally by his parents from China when he was young, and while he’s grown up here and considers himself pretty much American, he’s not a citizen and doesn’t really have a path to become one. So, many sections of American society are closed to him — it’s hard for him to go to college, hard to get a good job, etc. There are millions of kids in his position in the U.S. today, and I thought it was a really interesting perspective to write from. I’ve been working in immigration for a long time, and I’ve met a lot of people like Sam Chung.”
That’s not a fantastical story in the slightest. For an IRL example, look no further than Pulitzer-winning Filipino journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, who came out as undocumented in 2011.
Kamala’s place in the new Marvel Universe is an empowerment fantasy stemmed from roots grounded by real Muslim-American anxiety birthed one Tuesday morning in 2001. It’s been almost fifteen years since, yet Islamophobia is dangerously alive today even though time, tolerance, and hella good food should have worked. Sometimes, they do not.
Thankfully, racism of any kind is rightfully condemned and antiquated, for Asian and Muslim-Americans, and Marvel showing off new heroes of all spectrums speaks volumes about the publisher’s awareness of their audience. But it is questionable that Marvel still left out some realities for their Asian superheroes they put at the forefront of standout neo-icon of teenaged Muslim-American empowerment. Certainly Marvel shouldn’t be regarded as irresponsible, but with great power to tell meaningful stories comes great responsibility to be more aware.