Why 'Chew' and Asian American Superheroes Still Matter

Books like 'Chew' and 'Heroine Complex' are showcasing Asian-American characters and proving the importance of representation.

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Nov 30 2016, 5:02pm

Image courtesy of Image Comics

A badass secret agent rooster. A collector of superpowers who goes by "The Vampire." A terrifying paramilitary group known as the Jellassassins, whose powers all involve Jell-O. A sullen Chinese-American teenaged girl who might just be the most powerful person in the world... but has as many daddy issues as anyone else.

These are just some of the characters populating the Chew comic series, written by John Layman and drawn by Rob Guillory. Chew came to an end on November 23, after 60 issues and seven years. The series centers on a government agent named Tony Chu, who is blessed/afflicted with cibopathy, or the ability to taste something and learn about everything and everyone connected to it. His powers make it hard for Tony to stomach meat, but also make him a useful FDA special agent.

The series is set in an unspecified time period following the deaths of 116 million people worldwide from bird flu, making the US Food and Drug Administration the single most important law enforcement agency. It's like the Department of Homeland Security post-9/11, but even more powerful. There's an FDA supermax food prison, for instance, and one character refers to the "FDA new world order."

Chew by John Layman. Art by Rob Guillory. Courtesy of Image Comics

Chew is many things: an entertaining take on foodie culture gone riot; the best comic series ever to revolve around poultry; and a showcase for Asian American superheroes.

Those are a rare breed. In 2009, the same year that Chew issue #1 was released, we saw the publication of Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology. Like Chew, there hadn't been anything quite like Secret Identities before. It and its sequel, Shattered, brought together Asian American writers and artists to imagine comic worlds where they actually saw themselves reflected on the page.

Why did this matter? Jeff Yang, who co-edited the anthologies and has written widely on Asian culture, made this clear right from the start. In the preface to Secret Identities, he writes, "Go to a comic book convention, a quarter of the kids are Asian. A lot of the top artists are Asian American, too." Drawing on a strong legacy of comics in Asia, the US comic book industry is stuffed with Asian American creators and consumers. Yet the message being sent is that no one could buy them as the protagonists of these stories.

But superhero myths are ones that many Asian Americans can get behind. For one thing, Yang told me, Asian Americans have a (diverse but shared) origin story of immigration, however many generations ago. And "that notion of distance and difference is so much a part of the troping of what it means to be a costumed character. Those two things are the jumping-off point for any superhero."

Yang's co-editor on Secret Identities and Shattered, Keith Chow, sees this sense of difference as being key to why Asian American superheroes, and not simply Asian superheroes, matter. "Perception and misperception have driven a lot of the conversation about what it means to be Asian American," Chow explained to me, over the phone. But the "unique shared zone of conversation," involving "the experience of being from somewhere else," brings extra weight to the classic superhero feelings of being an outsider and having a slippery, multi-faceted identity.

Sarah Kuhn, who's written several comics series, articulates this well. Her novel Heroine Complex, the first in a series, features not one but two Asian American superheroines—and very different ones. Kuhn broke down in tears when she saw that both Aveda (a Chinese American diva superhero covering up massive insecurities) and Evie (a half Japanese American assistant turned hero) were depicted on the book's cover: "I think every author of color knows that this is not a small thing."

Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn. Art by Jason Chan. Courtesy of DAW Books

Kuhn says superhero stories are powerful vehicles for representation because of how iconic those characters are. It's also reassuring that in superhero stories, "good triumphs in the end, which is frankly a message that a lot of us in the US could use right now." She wonders, "If you're a person of color only watching white people save the day, what kind of message does that send to you?"

In her case, receiving that message as a kid led her to sideline herself. She gravitated toward the sidekick role in life partly because geek culture, from Star Trek's Demora Sulu to X-Men's Jubilee, was telling a generation of Asian American girls that they could be in one scene as a supporting character, and then they had to go away.

In the anthologies Secret Identities and Shattered, the characters are definitely not just sidekicks. They both reflect and build on common traits of (the white default) superheroes. Family duty, for instance, is refracted through generations of difficult history and complicated identity: Stories about Japanese Americans tackle Pearl Harbor, the atomic legacy of World War II, and the internment of Americans of Japanese descent (which is, sigh, of continuing relevance).

Chew by John Layman. Art by Rob Guillory. Courtesy of Image Comics

Chew is less weighty. It's an awesomely silly showcase for food-related jokes. The food powers get increasingly absurd and niche as the series goes on; eventually it includes villains who use peppermint candy to hypnotize people, or who gain enormous strength from wearing spaghetti.

A character in Secret Identities says, "Today's audience is very savvy. They can smell forced diversity a mile away." This is a trap Chew avoids. The effortlessness of its diverse cast reflects not just the kind of world we want to see, but the world as it is. Sure, the NASA chief in Chew is Sikh; unlike what every other spaceship-set movie would have us believe, rocket science is chock full of Asians.

That doesn't mean that Asian American superheroes are interchangeable with white ones. Tony is noticeably smaller than just about every non-Asian character in Chew, and a common visual motif is of other people looming over him. Physical size is a red herring, though. We've see this in Bruce Lee movies and in shows like The Walking Dead (whose Steven Yuen will be voicing Tony in the Chew animated series). And we see it in Chew, over and over.

Chew's diversity is diversity by stealth. Tony's Asianness is largely unremarked upon, although there are hints of the way Asian men have typically been emasculated by superhero culture. Tony's girlfriend Amelia, for instance, is a familiar kind of superhero's girlfriend: white, blond, and a journalist (albeit one with, inevitably, food-related powers). And Amelia's ex-boyfriend, a thick-headed sports writer obsessed with the sex lives of baseball players, is almost a caricature of macho white masculinity. He calls Tony at various points "little Asian twerp" and "runty little half-man," as if standing in for any readers who might be weirded out by seeing a super skinny Asian dude in the role of hero.

Kuhn sees this diversity by stealth as part of Chew's appeal. "It's an Asian protagonist, but the story is not all about him being Asian. He gets to do other cool stuff, drive a lot of the action, and be the hero."

Layman, who wrote the series, doesn't want to influence how people view its treatment of diversity, or its ending. He told me, "It's my intention to go radio silent for... well, for a while, at least until the book has been ended for a while, been digested (no pun intended), and people have come to their own conclusions."

When it comes to the diversification of comics, he wants the series to stand on its own. "I don't think I could bring anything new or vital to the conversation, and I'd just be seen as another old, fat, white, blustery loudmouth—which of course I am, but I'd like to avoid being seen as that, if possible."

Chew by John Layman. Art by Rob Guillory. Courtesy of Image Comics

Post-Chew, Kuhn, Chow, and Yang have varying degrees of cautious optimism about the future of representation. Kuhn points to the massive visibility of Disney's Moana as a sign that Asian American heroines can be both culturally specific and hugely accessible.

Chow, who founded Nerds of Color and has a background in comics for education, holds up the example of Kamala Khan. The popularity of Kamala, a.k.a. Ms. Marvel, punctures the myth that audiences aren't interested in more diverse superheroes. When it comes to Hollywood, "It's a misconception in the industry that certain people don't sell tickets." After all, "you could literally cast anybody as a Marvel superhero"—even a tree or a raccoon.

And Yang mentions an example closer to home: his son, Hudson, one of the stars of Fresh Off the Boat. He explains with a bit of awe, "Hudson is a 13-year-old Asian American boy who did not think it was impossible to one day say, 'I want to be on TV,'" which would have been unthinkable a generation ago.

This changed climate has driven Yang and Chow to consider a follow-up to Secret Identities and Shattered. Volume three would involve their kids and lots of emerging comics creators. And it would look to the future, following the series's focus first on Asian Americans' place in superhero lineage (Secret Identities) and ways to challenge stereotyping narratives (Shattered).

At a time when supervillains are winning at the voting booth, diverse superheroes are sorely needed.

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