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Changing the “Everyday” Asian Image: Behind the Scenes of "Marvels & Monsters"

“It was amazing,” Alexandra Chang of New York University (NYU) recalls. “My first reaction was the shock of the enormity of the collection. My second reaction was excitement to get this out to the public.”

As NYU’s Curator of Special Projects and Director of Global Arts Programs, Chang had seen a lot over the years. But seeing William F. Wu’s collection of comic books featuring stereotypical images of Asians and Asian Americans took her by surprise.

Wu, a respected science fiction author and cultural studies scholar, had assembled the largest archive of comic books featuring Asians and Asian Americans and had donated them to the NYU Fales Library & Special Collections through the university’s Asian/Pacific/American Institute.

“He collected and preserved U.S. comic books published between 1942-1986 that depicted Asians within them,” says Chang. “In them, you really can see a history of Asians in U.S. comics through this amazing resource.”

The collection was so strong and significant that it inspired an exhibition.

“The journey was intense,” Chang says. “(Lead curator) Jeff Yang really delved into the materials, spent a lot of time at the archive, and ran with it.” A/P/A Institute Graduate Scholar in A/PA Archives D. Daniel Kim was co-curator of the exhibition.

Yang, a longtime “Asian Pop” columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, was especially well suited for the challenging task. “Jeff could recognize the date of a comic by the slight changes in the brand icons,” Chang remembers.

From the collection, Yang highlighted a selection of infamous Asian archetypes, labeled as the Guru, Brain, Temptress, Manipulator, Alien, Kamikaze, Brute, and Lotus Blossom. He then set them within a historical context and added comparative content from contemporary Asian American writers and creators, including Ken Chen, V.V. Ganeshananthan, Larry Hama, David Henry Hwang, Naomi Hirahara, Genny Lim, Greg Pak, Vijay Prashad, and Gene Luen Yang.

The result was the exhibition, Marvels & Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in U.S. Comics, 1942-1986, which first premiered at NYU in 2011. The show subsequently traveled to the West Coast, to the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, opening on October 12, 2013.

“JANM is proud to host the Marvels & Monsters exhibition,” says G.W. Kimura, President and CEO of the museum. “It has been tremendously successful at drawing a diverse group of folks across the age spectrum and it has engaged them in thinking critically about the representation of Asian Americans in comics and other popular media.”

“While the images are reviling, they also have a danger of being seen as ‘cool,’ or there is a dangerous attraction to them—they are visually impactful—stunning,” Chang notes. “While it was important to display the images, there was also a need to balance the visual impact of these images with Jeff Yang’s text.”

Chang says that Yang worked hard to contextualize “when and how and why the images came to being” and “how they have lingered in society and how other graphic artists and comics writers have dealt with and are dealing with their legacies.”

The exhibition’s designer, Jonathan Lo, also worked closely with Yang to think through the visual experience of the exhibition, which is key to its impact.

Yellow Claw, 1 (Atlas, October 1956); From the William F. Wu Comics Collection; Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University.

In one of the more provocative aspects of Marvels & Monsters, the exhibition also contains an installation called “Shades of Yellow,” that matches the shades used for Asian skin tones in the comics with their garish corresponding Pantone colors used by commercial printers.

“Many people grew up with these comics, these images,” Chang observes. “It was personal to them. But I think people were really surprised by the wall of Pantone colors that showed the colors that were used for the skin-tones of Asians in comics. These went from dark reds to the stereotypical mustard yellow to lime-greens. It was interesting to learn through the process of the exhibition, the history of how (American comic book writer) Larry Hama was able change things in the industry by asking colleagues to use the true skin color of Asians.”

What can audiences take away from seeing racist depictions of Asians and Asian Americans?

“What I think is important to note, is that they were pervasive and also packaged within the pages of comic books, which were read by the majority of the U.S. population,” says Chang. “There was an element of acceptance to the imagery in the U.S. population and it’s that acceptance that is the danger—that this becomes the everyday.”

To counterbalance the negative portrayals, Marvels & Monsters showcases a library of present-day graphic novels by Asian American creators such as Bernard Chang (Supergirl) and Jef Castro and Jerry Ma (Secret Identities).

NYU is looking for a permanent home for the show. “We would like to donate it to a space that could house it or might like to keep touring the exhibition,” says Chang.

Chang is pleased that Marvels & Monsters became a show that draws people into discussion of diversity and ethnic identities. “Jeff’s narrative provides the history of the issues and why they are so expansive and ingrained into society.”

Ultimately, she notes that for better or worse, images have power. “We have to understand this history to begin to take apart and grasp the inner workings of racial profiling, racist attacks and other violence created from such systems of visuality in our everyday life.”

* * * * *

Marvels & Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in U.S. Comics, 1942-1986
Japanese American National Museum
Closing February 9, 2014

For more information about the exhibition >>

An intimate JANM Members gallery tour with curator Jeff Yang at the Preview Reception on October 12, 2013 at the Japanese American National Museum.

© 2014 Darryl Mori

A/P/A Institute at NYU comic books comics exhibition janm Japanese American National Museum Jeff Yang Marvels & Monsters media NYU racism stereotypes