The ‘Iron Fist’ Argument

Finn Jones as Danny Rand in Netflix's 'Iron Fist'.
Finn Jones as Danny Rand in Netflix’s ‘Iron Fist’.

Since everybody’s arguing about Iron Fist, it only makes sense that we here at Atomic Junk Shop should jump into the fray. Unlike some other sites I could name, I thought maybe the best thing to do would be to not get all whitesplainy, so instead of sounding off about my opinion of all this, I thought I’d do something sensible. So I looked through my Facebook list for friends who meet the following criteria: (a) they are people I know in real life; (b) they have some legit geek cred; (c) they are of Asian descent; and (d) they are likely to have an opinion and the ability to articulate it. So we fired up a group chat and started talking.

Let’s meet our panelists:

Top: Toni Adams, Anson Jew, Benton Jew. Bottom: Nicole Lee, Fred Chong Rutherford, Jessica Tseang
Top: Toni Adams, Anson Jew, Benton Jew. Bottom: Nicole Lee, Fred Chong Rutherford, Jessica Tseang

Benton Jew: I am a storyboard artist in live action film and television. Also draw comics. Some of my film work: Fantastic Four (the Josh Trank version), Logan, the forthcoming Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, multiple versions of the Hulk among my comic book movie credits. Comics work: Secret Identities- The Asian American Superhero Anthology, and a Wolverine story and She-Hulk story for Marvel Comics.

Toni Adams: I’m half thai, quarter black, quarter white. Contributor for Fangirl Nation, Squeedar and Atomic Junk Shop. I dabble in many fandoms.

Nicole Lee: Senior Editor for Engadget. As a matter of background, I don’t know a lot about Marvel (I just know about some stuff through pop culture; I’ve never really read superhero books before, and I don’t watch a lot of stuff either).

Anson Jew: Hollywood storyboard artist.

Jessica Tseang: Comic book historian, founder of Little Geek Girls, The Comic Book Girl, and Girl on Geek. Co-Host for The Kaiju Kingdom Podcast.

Fred Chong Rutherford: I work in online media, help with ground-level political organizing, produce comedy stuff, once got overwhelmed at ComicCon while presenting my short films there, and I help The Thigments with The Help Machine.

Marvel Premiere #15, debut of Iron Fist.
Marvel Premiere #15, debut of Iron Fist.

Jim MacQuarrie: Since I’m the token white guy, I’ll ask the ignorant questions. Iron Fist was invented as a white character in 1974; why shouldn’t he stay that way?

Benton Jew: Personally, I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary that Iron Fist be made an Asian-American character, but it would have been a nice gesture given the unnecessarily caucasian-centric nature of the original comics. It was a missed opportunity. The Iron Fist comic came at a time when there was interest in all things Asian and particularly the Chinese martial arts (Nixon had recently visited China, and Bruce Lee was all the rage) You would think it would have been a time of great opportunities for Asians and Asian-Americans. Instead, we got a lot of Chuck Norris, and “American Ninja” or “American Samurai” type movies (American=Caucasian) and very little opportunities for Asians to tell or be depicted in their own stories. Classic example was Bruce Lee’s “The Warrior” project custom made for HIM being tossed and regurgitated as a half-Caucasian/half-Asian ( played by full Caucasian David Carradine). Hollywood liked Asian CULTURE but not Asian PEOPLE. Iron Fist was another example in this sad tradition. It certainly would have been nice to REappropriate some of the Asian-ness with an actual Asian-American, but alas…

Toni Adams: I agree with Benton. This was a completely missed opportunity for an Asian-American actor. Especially with the Deathnote trailer that was just released. With that said, there isn’t a technical reason he shouldn’t be white as that was his origin. At least make the current story echo what made the character so fun (I’m going by the Power-Man and Iron Fist series). For me, Iron Fist is the surprise strength. There is no surprise that Luke would be strong as his outward appearance reflects that. Iron Fist is supposed to be lanky and wispy and should hide behind Luke. Instead he is a strong and playful force. None of which I see with the Iron Fist trailer

Nicole Lee: To be honest, I don’t know if an Asian playing the character would be that great either. Asians doing kung fu on TV is so… tired. I’d almost rather they not do the series revamp at all. But I guess if it was an Asian lead and they gave a compelling back story (to make him a multidimensional character) it would be more palatable.

Fred Chong Rutherford: I think a more intriguing question would be to ask the creator or folks who like Iron Fist, “why does Iron Fist need to be a white guy?” Like, if I understand correctly, he was created to help grab the then-burgeoning market for martial arts heroes in the 70s. So, a bunch of concepts from other characters got borrowed, then turned into Iron Fist. So, he’s this kind of retread of a bunch of other characters created to cash-in on a perceived craze. I guess? Why does that character then need to be a white guy?

Jessica Tseang: The idea of Iron Fist came to Roy Thomas when watching a kung fu film where “a ceremony of the iron fist” was mentioned, and that was such an intriguing idea, he expanded on it with Gil Kane. Since Shang-Chi was already a character, it would at that time, possibly deemed unfit to have another one. (of course… nowadays… we might welcome it with open arms), but they most likely just didn’t want another Asian Kung Fu superstar. And they write what they know… white people. While his origin is Caucasian, I don’t mind if he stayed that way, if done respectfully. If he was 100% Asian, he may also fill an “all Asians know martial arts” stereotype as well. It would be a tough one.

Jim MacQuarrie: There’s nothing in the original Iron Fist comic that precludes him from being not-white. The only essential is that he be American, in order to have the “fish out of water” element; as a kid in K’un Lun, he’s an outsider, and 15 years later, his upbringing has made him an outsider in American culture. What if he were a thoroughly American kid from the suburbs who happens to have grandparents that emigrated to America? Would that story work? What if he were of mixed heritage? What if he were Thai, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Filipino, or some other specific heritage that’s not just “vaguely Asian” and still finds himself plopped into a Tibetan monastery? Would that be too subtle for a mostly white audience to get?

Benton Jew: He could have been Tibetan- American going back to discover his “roots” and that would have made perfect sense. He would still be a fish out of water. Hell, as a Chinese-American, I still feel like a fish out of water when I visit Chinatown, let alone China itself! And if a visual distinction seems necessary, well, Asians don’t all look alike. There is definitely a visual difference between a Filipino and a Japanese person. A Chinese-American would also have worked because of it’s geographical location would make sense, A Chinese-American flying to China but crash-landing in a remote region near Tibet is not an outlandish possibility.

Toni Adams: If he had mixed Asian roots, the “fish out of water” aspect would still work and strongly reflect what is already going on. Many of those in my generation with mixed blood ALREADY feel like outsiders as we belong to two cultures (or three in my case) and never really feeling like we belong in one. This would have been a great plot twist as we could have seen an Asian-American discovering their roots to defend the present.

Jessica Tseang: I believe a mixed heritage would work as well, as Toni has mentioned. I don’t feel that it would be too subtle, as spiritually/inside…he has a hard time adjusting back in the states, just like….he would have a hard time identifying on “am I Asian? Am I Caucasian? Am I American? Or am I more closely tied to K’un L                                                                            g     un?”.

Many people with ethnic descent have a hard time identifying, I maybe 100% American, but I have never been back to my parents’ motherlands, for the fear that I don’t fit in. In any other country, I’ll be a tourist, but in Taiwan or Hong Kong, I would be seen as “American, but you have the yellow skin.”. I would forever be sitting on a fence.

Jim MacQuarrie: Okay, assuming Danny Rand has to stay white (because reasons), how do you avoid the “White Savior” trope?

Benton Jew: I haven’t seen the TV show. In what way(s) do you see Iron Fist fulfilling “the white savior” trope?

Jim MacQuarrie: It’s a superficial reading that I’ve heard repeated a lot, basically “white guy goes into another culture and ends up better at some defining aspect of it than the actual members of that culture.” Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, Keanu Reeves in 47 Ronin, Richard Chamberlain in Shogun, Matt Damon in The Great Wall, etc. ad infinitum. The “Iron Fist” is an achievement only the greatest can attain.

Benton Jew: Well, then it’s bound to be built in to the character if Iron Fist s white. Which is one of the reason’s why people find it racist.

Jim MacQuarrie: Is there a way to subvert it or play against it? Or is that an “eating your cake and having it” situation?

Benton Jew: Kind of. I suppose if many non-white people have attained the iron fist before him. Perhaps he’s the only one bringing it back to the west. But it doesn’t really solve anything as far as the Asian American community is concerned. We are more concerned that an Asian American actor has the same opportunities as a caucasian actor (or any other profession) without being hindered by their ethnic heritage. An Asian American actor should be considered uniquely qualified to play an Asian role. Asian actors should also not have to worry about Asian roles being rewritten as white to quell some uneasiness of some producer who fears the audience may have the same foolish uneasiness.

Fred Chong Rutherford: I think the only way to keep Danny Rand white and subvert the white savior trope is to have the people who taught him just pretend that he’s the greatest, in order to get him to leave their place.

Jessica Tseang: Danny Rand would be a reluctant one, not one that walks around NY saying “BECAUSE I am the Iron Fist”. In fact, the way he speaks about it should show that he is weighted but honored that he has such a duty and privilege. It is not a RIGHT bestowed on him. And yes, while he did defeat the “undying” dragon Shou-Lao, so what? SO DID OTHERS BEFORE HIM AND HE ACKNOWLEDGES THAT. He’s a dude, simply… doing the best that he can to protect the people of NY and his company.

Boris Karloff as Fu Manchu
Boris Karloff as Fu Manchu, because English dudes make the best Chinese villains.

Jim MacQuarrie: A lot of people (myself included, before I really gave it much thought) suggested that instead of reinventing Danny Rand as an Asian character as many people demanded, they could have skipped over Iron Fist entirely and made a series about a character who is already Chinese (or at least half-Chinese), Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu. Of course the problem there is that Shang-Chi is (or was, when Marvel had the license) the son of Fu Manchu, a character from 1913 that was widely acknowledged as an offensive stereotype by 1930. How would you reinvent Shang-Chi for today’s audience?

Benton Jew: You just don’t call him Fu Manchu. He can still be a mad scientist/evil gangster guy. Just make sure you’re not doing the stupid anachronistic clothing and settings that are generally inaccurate. If I had one thing to say to the creators of these type of things, it would be–DO RESEARCH! READ A GOD DAMNED BOOK! WATCH LEGITIMATE DOCUMENTARIES ON YOUR CHOSEN SUBJECT MATTER. Not just comics and pulps but really study the culture and people you’re writing about. Better yet, talk to people within that culture who actually know what they’re talking about. It shocks me sometimes how much people get their history from pop culture–often badly conceived old stuff that only perpetuates more of the same junk history.

Toni Adams: There are several ways to tackle this one. Either completely eliminate the Fu Manchu background or have Shang-Chi acknowledge Fu Manchu and use that as a way to grow beyond the past. That would have been a personal growth development for the character. But I think technically speaking, China would have a cow about it. They’re quite powerful in the Hollywood industry I hear….

Fred Chong Rutherford: I wouldn’t. I would reuse all the racist tropes, but point out they are racist tropes.

Fu Manchu could have been some evil mastermind who adopted that name, “because it was something white people could understand. Just like the reason I learned to speak English perfectly.”

And then I’d make Fu Manchu leader of a secret organization helping protect the world.

Because, Fu Manchu as a character in the stories first made up about him is a literary invention about how good British Imperialism is against the dastardliness of the yellow menace. Like, Fu Manchu (uck) is this character committing crimes like assassinating officers of the British Empire in the books, while being foiled by the good Imperial officers Sir Denis Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie.

Okay, let’s take ‘British’ off of that, and just say Empire, and just imagine the Empire from Star Wars for a moment. If Fu Manchu was assassinating officers of the Empire in Star Wars, that would make him a Rebel. To go full geek, maybe that makes him a Rebel like Saw Gerrera? Or maybe his ‘dastardly deeds’ are all Imperial propaganda. Meaning, maybe he’s more like Mon Mothma or even a lower-level flunky that’s been elevated by the Imperials to be this stand-in for ‘all rebellious evil’ committed by planets under Imperial rule. It’d be pretty clear who the good guys and bad guys are in the story.

Because, that’s what those Fu Manchu stories are; they’re British propaganda about the glories of British imperialism, written from that perspective. The British government didn’t even have to ask anyone to write those stories; Sax Rohmer just did so on his own, based on the whims of popular culture and his own nativism.

You could tell a story that literally inverts the original propaganda, even begin it with Shang-Chi (uck) still working for those same sorts of Imperialist powers in the beginning, and then learning the truth about his father and the people for which he’s working.

Jessica Tseang: I would not change, character growth and depth is shown by how they deal with negative aspects in their life. Shang- Chi would still be Asian, and speak briefly in one sentence: “I’m not really into that other Fu guy.” Or something much more clever done by a writer 100x better than me. One can acknowledge it, even in one strongly worded sentence. Make it a meme.

Jim MacQuarrie: Comics is the sincerest form of plagiarism. Iron Fist is essentially a mish-mosh of Lost Horizon, Brigadoon, and Bill Everett’s Amazing Man (itself an exoticist ripoff of Philip Wylie’s Gladiator), slathered over with extra Orientalism in order to try to grab some of the popularity of Bruce Lee movies and the Kung Fu TV show for crass commercialism purposes. How would you revise this sack of tropes to make an inclusive and respectful version of the character?

Benton Jew: See my comment on Shang Chi.

Toni Adams: personally, a compelling story and likable character and some bad ass martial arts sequence

Fred Chong Rutherford: I think the first thing to do would be to at least read about “Kunlun.” I got through 30 minutes of the Iron Fist TV show. There’s a lot of astonishing things about it, but it looks like the idea is, “Do you remember in Batman Begins, how Bruce Wayne comes back after being assumed dead? How did he get his company back?” Batman Begins avoided that story, because, that’s boring. But Iron Fist apparently thought there was something deep there, I guess. It’s a collection of surface details, none as telling as saying K’un-Lun is in the Himalayas, but, somehow Danny is speaking Mandarin? Instead of perhaps Tibetan?

But Kunlun is a real mountain range in China. It’s also a fixture of old wuxia fiction; you could translate the name to mean, “Mountain of Magic.” It’s a fictional construct, where mortals would meet immortals, and either take on their power or get their aid. A mountain so high its mists intermingle with heaven.

Jessica Jones ended up being a story about recovering from trauma. Luke Cage, about a lot of things, including being a bullet proof man in a hoodie at a time when black men in hoodies are used as target practice. Iron Fist seems to be about borrowing surface details from as many stories as possible, to say … what? If you look at the first five minutes, a guy walks into a building that he says is his, and then beats up some working class security guards with pretty terrible Kung-Fu-ish kinds of moves. He basically acts like he owns the place, expresses righteous indignation that his privilege is not immediately recognized, then leaves ONLY after the only two people he considers equals rebuff him. The security guards pull guns on him, but, he’s made it clear he can disarm them whenever he wants based on his previous disarming ‘abilities’ that mostly amount to stuntmen just kind of dropping their weapons after some bad dancing. Rand takes a gun out of another character’s hands ~25 minutes later, so they make it clear he has that skill.

The story being told begins with righteous reapportion of material things, from a guy who on the surface says he doesn’t need any of that.

I wrote a piece on Medium last fall, but, I think the missed opportunity here is telling a story some Asian kids know; the story of being a foreigner in America, to all of your peers, and then being a foreigner again when you go to your ‘homeland.’ That could have said something, with just that starting point.

And, you could also delve into cultural appropriation from a different angle. Because an American with an Asian face is still American, and it’s still an American ‘besting foreigners’ at their own art.

Alternately, you could have delved into that same territory by having Danny as an old man, trying to teach Colleen Wing the 铁拳. That might be interesting for similar reasons.

Instead, the TV show is about a guy who gained some kind of secret martial arts knowledge in the Himalayan mountains who is on screen clearly quite bad at Martial Arts, who wants nothing more than to relive about five minutes of Batman Begins.

Jessica Tseang: One of the three main things that could have been mentioned and focused on was
1) What/who/when etc is K’un Lun and why it is so special. Really show the monastery and the people that it takes in. Danny is humbled and grateful, to be taken in by people and to be cared for. In fact, in that world, he is the MINORITY, and he comes out a better man for it.

2) Danny needs to speak briefly to someone (whether it’s Colleen, or Claire), that he wants to portray the best that K’un Lun has to offer and teach him, and he wants to master it to show respect. He is GIFTED it, and not rightful by it. Every time Finn Jones/Danny says “Because I am the Iron Fist”, he sounds like a child who demanded something and therefore, was rewarded it. It is a privilege, not a right.

3) Bring up past predecessor history: with the exception of Orson Randall (who was a more recent story development), he was the “first” outsider” to be given this power, and he wants to do right by it. All the previous Iron Fists have been ASIAN (Wu Ao-Shi, Bei Bang-Wen, Kwai Jun-Fan, Li Park, Quan Yaozu). He feels out of place, but wants to do the best that he can. Not walk around like he’s the best, and he happens to be white. He had gotten the power of the Iron Fist, but he should hold it dear, not a rightful prize.

Dr. Strange and The Ancient One battle an endless array of tropes.

Jim MacQuarrie: On a related topic, the Ancient One in Doctor Strange seemed to me to be a no-win situation for the producers; they could either perpetuate a tired old stereotype (the old hermit wise man trope) or whitewash the role. They seemed to think that casting a woman would provide a mitigating element of diversity, but it didn’t really work out that way. How could “The Ancient One” have been done in a way that is not offensive, while at the same time being respectful of the admittedly stereotypical character that the fans expected? Or should the character have been excised completely and Strange given an origin story that isn’t soaked in exoticism?

Benton Jew: I don’t think The Ancient One has to be made in a stereotypical way. You can have Tibetan Buddhist type characters without being degrading. Look at Scorsese’s Kundun and you can see dimensional characters done beautifully. He also took the time to work with the production designer to have a certain amount of accuracy in the look of the production. Not cheapass, unresearched cliches.

The “old hermit wise man” trope is present even in Asian culture. Lao Tzu was a famous old hermit wise man. It’s not necessarily the trope itself so much as how it’s done. Humanize the character, keep them multi-dimensional. Always a good place to start.

Fred Chong Rutherford: I think a start would be to ask, “If this character is a Tibetan wise person, perhaps thousands of years old, why is he saying his name in English?” Like, I don’t translate my name “Leader of Men Lofty of a Clan from a Fjord near a River.” I just say my name.

I think the problem with the Ancient One is that none of the space magic of Dr. Strange has anything to do with any Tibetan religions or cosmology. Once you go down that path, nothing about Dr. Strange’s fiction makes sense.

Because, most of these (at least 60s-70s era) ‘exotic’ heroes basically used a name of a place as a kind of writing prompt, then just put a veneer of whatever imaginary exotic thing someone wanted to be the gatekeeper for on top of the name.

Tibet is just another name for “Magical Land of Foreigners” in those comic books; you may as well say, “The Land of Oz,” and be done with it.

I think making the Ancient One into a Celtic woman sort of makes sense, because, why not? It makes more sense that way that she speaks English and makes up herself own names for things, this way. It also ends up being a meta-commentary, intentional or not, on Orientalism; she quite literally makes up a religious order and practice, and then (perhaps) centers it in Tibet for authenticity. What she never tells her disciples in the movie is that she’s a superhero using the power of her enemy to do her magic; she built her religion on a lie. There is power there, but, does any of the hand motions or anything they do have anything to do with their abilities? The Eye is an Infinity Stone, and the Ancient One’s power is from an extra-dimensional entity.

What I find astonishing is that changing the Ancient One into a white woman, for reasons largely to do with commerce, is less controversial with the people producing these movies and TV shows than the idea that someone with Asian features could be named, “Danny Rand.” I mean, in the 90s, Superman was played by an Asian guy named “Dean Cain.”

Jessica Tseang: I understand that the producers also wanted to avoid a “A Dragon Lady”, an stereotype of East Asian and occasionally South Asian women as strong, deceitful, domineering, or mysterious. The term’s origin and usage is Western, not Chinese. However, there’s no need to have an over-fiery Asian woman in her 30’s. Michelle Yeoh (in her 50’s) is a great example of a woman who is great at martial arts, but also, a quiet, patient, and understanding. She has the air of quality where one can believe that she is a leader, and a protector.

Peter Ustinov as Charlie Chan; another English guy playing Chinese.
Peter Ustinov as Charlie Chan; another English guy playing Chinese.

Jim MacQuarrie: One more question to wrap this up: What are your best/worst/weirdest examples of Asian representation or misrepresentation in film, comics, TV, or other media?

Benton Jew: Long Duk Dong dept. well he’s certainly the most famous, but he was hardly the first, worst, or last one. Not by a long shot….

Oh no you Khant dept. John Wayne, Jack Palance, Omar Shariff, Marvin Miller,Richard Tyson have all played Genghis Khan. Channing Tatum and Mickey Rourke have been recently considered to play the role. Brian Dennehey played Kubla Khan.

White washing, it’s not just for white people dept. In 1975, a police drama about a Chinese American cop in Chinatown called “Khan!” appeared. The short lived series featured North African actor Khigh Dheigh in the title role. Oddly, IMDB lists the lead as played by “Evan C. Kim”.

Jim MacQuarrie: His birth name was Kenneth Dickerson; is it a stretch to think of Khigh Dhiegh as a rough approximation of “K.D.”?

Benton Jew: Because we’re all The Borg dept. The Collective Man.

Biracially insensitive dept. In Brandon Lee’s “Rapid Fire”, we are supposed to believe the obviously biracial Brandon Lee lost both his full Chinese parents in Tiananmen Square.

Anson Jew: Interestingly, it was only after producer/screenplay writer James Shamus stopped trying to “write Chinese” and tap into characters based on his own Jewish heritage did he deliver characters director Ang Lee felt were “authentically Chinese” in Eat Drink, Man, Woman. I think the takeaway is that you do your research, but always think of characters as real people and not as a collection of tropes and stereotypes.

Benton Jew: It can also be noted the James Shamus also wrote one of the best Chinese wuxia films, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. So it’s not impossible for non-Asians to do good Asian related material. On the other hand, M. Night Shyamalan…

Benton Jew: Rewriting history dept. In Anna and the King, Jodie Foster’s character is shocked by the barbaric Thai practice of caning. In reality, caning was brought to Thailand by the British.

Toni Adams: Thisssss.

Anson Jew: “The spirits of my departed ancestors will punish me for bringing dishonor upon them. Pass the French fries.” Fuck you, Hollywood.

Benton Jew: I don’t know if this counts as best/worst or not, but Chinese American director Wayne Wang did one of the best, most accurate depictions of Chinese American life in SF Chinatown with his 1985 indy film, Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart. He followed it up later with the major American 1993 Disney release, The Joy Luck Club, which was just okay, but very obviously regeared toward American tastes.

Best superhero comic: Gene Luen Yang’s The Shadow Hero. Great fun stuff.

Another good representation of Asian Americans is Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow.

Anson Jew: Oddly enough, Harold and Kumar was a bit of a breakthrough in that this was a story in which the main characters are Asian-American, and while that fact adds interest and dimension to the characters, it doesn’t wholly define them. The characters have strengths and flaws totally unrelated to their heritage. You rarely see this in productions headed by non-Asians.

Benton Jew: It was actually a really big breakthrough. Of course it didn’t take Hollywood long to rain on the parade. Here is the poster for the latest Harold and Kumar film.

'A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas' poster.
A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas

Anson Jew: I remember when Peter Ustinov was announced as the title character in Charlie Chan and the Dragon Queen (1981). There was a huge backlash from the Asian community in the form of a letter writing campaign. Keye Luke (Master Po in Kung Fu) was suggested as a better pick, given his age, ethnicity, physicality and pedigree (he played “number one son” in the original Charlie Chan movie series.) Movie execs ignored it. Coverage about this was buried. Today’s social media makes these types of stories harder to wave off.

Peter Ustinov as Charlie Chan; another English guy playing Chinese.
Peter Ustinov as Charlie Chan; another English guy playing Chinese.

Benton Jew: “Number one son” was played by Battlestar Galactica’s Richard Hatch. Leaving one to question whether Charlie Chan and the Dragon Queen was about a white family of Asiaphiles who are Rachel Dolezal-ing their way through Chinatown.

Anson Jew: I nearly puked when Linda Hunt won an Oscar for Year of Living Dangerously.

Jim MacQuarrie: If we’re over a dozen comments in and nobody’s mentioned Mickey Rooney, it’s worse than I thought.

Jessica Tseang: Besides the obvious Mickey Rooney, and Long Duk Dong (shudder), I remember being incredibly heartbroken with DC’s Karate Kid (Val Armorr) from Legion of Superheroes. He was a great hero, and yes, while one can complain that it’s a “kung fu Asian stereotype” but at that point… his origin was done, so what can I do? Really tho, I always let that go as he was one of the Legion of Superheroes, who tried out, and got into the league, WITHOUT super powers. He was his own kind of special, was THE Karate Kid. And his lack of superpowers reminded me of my other love of a character: Batman, the one who stands out in the Justice League, despite being the one with no enhancements.

Then 2005 came, and Val Armorr was rebooted to have significant Caucasian features. I remember opening the pages, and being incredibly heartbroken. In fact, in the One Year Later and Countdown events, when Batman interrogates him, he gave Bats his name as “Wes Holloway, member of the Trident Guild” and his heroic identity was inspired by the Karate Kid film. My heart cried. He was one of the few Asian characters I had latched on since I was child, and now… he’s a white guy. I felt cheated.

The Atom (Ryan Choi) was also short lived, he went from a character that broke stereotype (he had a white girlfriend, most Asian men are not seen as masculine/desired enough to get a Caucasian woman, and was respected by his mentor Ray Palmer), to a dude that was killed so Deathstroke could find a way to help his son, in a sudden, almost “shock value” type of way. However, DC Rebirth has been trying to give Ryan Choi’s character new life.

Hans Lee portrayed by Matthew Moy on Two Broke Girls is definitely one of TV’s worst. He is everything that is stereotyped: short, terrible English, can’t get women, and kind of dumb. He is always the punchline at times. I really hate that.

Characters that I have felt were portrayed well with their Asian heritage due to the fact, that it is not the entirety of their identity. They had more to offer. They just HAPPEN to be of Asian descent: Alex Nuncy (Lucy Liu Charlie’s Angels), Kelly Hu (Detective Grace Chen from Martial Law), Silk (Marvel), Cassandra Cain (DC), Connor Hawke (DC), and Trini Kwan (Mighty Morphin Power Rangers).

Grace Choi (DC’s The Outsiders) was especially notable as she was tall, muscular, with tattoos, and in a relationship with Thunder (Anissa Pierce) We later find out about Grace’s Amazonian heritage. But in no way did she needed to be portrayed as weak, fragile, cutesy, small, Asian girl, who dates tall men that can protect her.

Mantis (Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel), she was of Asian descent in the comics, and the Marvel film surprised me by also casting Pom Klementieff (also half Asian like Mantis) for the role.

'Wolverine: Agent of Atlas', Marvel Comics. Art by Benton Jew.
‘Wolverine: Agent of Atlas’, Marvel Comics. Art by Benton Jew.

Benton Jew: I worked on a story for Marvel featuring Jimmy Woo. He has a long history with Marvel going back to the Atlas days (he debuted in Yellow Claw comics). He would eventually join SHIELD and appeared with Nick Fury in the ’60’s. I drew him about 8 years ago when he was in Agents of Atlas in a story called “Wolverine: Agent of Atlas”. He’s got a lot of potential, despite the fact that he had no real powers–he was more of a James Bond super-spy type. I would have loved to work on him at Marvel and further round out the character.

9 Comments

  1. M-Wolverine

    The post so controversial, it had to be pulled only to be put up later when the heat died down! (Or you realized you posted two posts on top of each other and pulled one temporarily. 🙂 )

    I mean, I actually like the panel, but the “whitesplaining” explanation plus your contributions could be “virtue signaling” if we’re going to go with the new line of tired tropes to silence viewpoints.

    But anyway, I like Jessica Tseang, and would subscribe to her newsletter. (I may do so to her podcast). She seems to be the one to have the best grasp of history (mostly comic book history) and also seems to have the most creative answers to some of the issues presented.

    I mean, she’s the one who realizes when Iron Fist was created, Shang Chi was created first. So to create “Asian Martial Artist”…they had already done that. Now, could there have been TWO Asian Martial Arts characters. Sure. But it wasn’t like, particularly back then. Shang himself is a minor miracle for lasting as long as he did. Because you can’t place 2017 ideas on 1970’s reality. People are selling comics to the most people possible. Now, but particularly then, it was mostly white people. White boys to be really specific. Would it have been nice to have them all anxious to use their spending power more on faces that didn’t look like themselves? Hell, yeah. But even today that’s a struggle. How many heroes of color do we have that were “new” concepts like Iron Fist that are supporting themselves? Not many. Mostly appropriating the identities of existing heroes.

    But truth be told, comic book people are a set in their way bunch. Most of the characters are either 50 or 80 years old. New characters who really stuck post 70’s are few and far between. Punisher. Wolverine. Etc. Even the white guys. Frankly, Shang Chi was a success. Iron Fist was a failure. It lasted barely over a year. It was a cool costume and concept, but not a great comic. He only became cool when paired with Power Man, when instead of a martial arts trope it became a buddy action movie trope. I think that’s why some people think the show is dull; because the character is dull, and really not good enough to work on his own.

    That’s where Marvel and Netflix screwed up. They should have introduced Iron Fist in Daredevil season 3, just like Luke Cage was introduced in Jessica Jones, and then rather than do their own series just put them together in a series together. Because let’s be honest, Luke Cage wasn’t all that great either. Frankly he’s another character that’s only been interesting when defined by and with another character. First with Rand, then with Jones. The first half of the series has some good performances, but the second half takes a turn into bad acting and things that would seem silly on Agents of SHIELD. If all they had was a hip soundtrack, we didn’t need Luke Cage either. He was better in Jessica Jones.

    Together they’re gold. Different powers, upbringing, white guy/black guy. It fit pattern, but it worked. Could it have worked with an Asian guy and a Black guy? Probably, as long as you didn’t get too Rush Hour with it. But again, that would be working with the intent to put them together rather than give each their own series.

    Shang Chi wasn’t really original either; he just had the Asian face, which was novel for the time. But he’s basically “how can we write a Bruce Lee comic while not getting sued?” It obviously took from the British imperialism stories, but in an Enter the Dragon way. I think you can do him, but legally you’d probably have to avoid the Fu Manchu license anyway, so I just wouldn’t use him. (Though Jessica has some good idea on how that might work). His father could be ignored, but if you wanted to he could be a variety of villain types. A businessman, a criminal boss, a head of state, heck, he could just be an amalgam of James Bond villain types that Fu Manchu was echoing in his later years. And that Fleming, in his British imperialism longing ways, was emulating in the first place. He could be a cross between Fu Manchu and Dr. No (another played by a white guy…but not English! Though we’ll always have Peter Sellers…), who were basically the same character in text anyway, with maybe a dash of Dr. Evil thrown in to show that the over the top bad guy is over the top.

    You’re going to get some of these things that just aren’t going to happen due to $$ and politics. Ancient One is white not because people didn’t want to see an Asian face up there, but because China wouldn’t release anything legitimizing a separate Asian Tibet. Same reason Iron Fist’s origin will remain mysterious rather than specific in place somewhere. We can not like that business aspect, but then we have to complain too when we start adding scenes or characters to appeal to the overseas market too. Which one can do both; they just need to do both.

    I think there’s levels of stereotyping, how how communities do it themselves. Iron Fist being Asian means all Asians have to know marital arts, amiright? Whereas the Ancient One…how many fantasy or martial arts movies are there WITHOUT an “old hermit wise man” as pointed out in the piece? If it’s a cultural character usage, it’s more using it than typecasting. Where in all Asian movies there are obviously lots of Asian actors, so they are in movies without martial arts too. Though, again, I agree with Jessica that you turn this on it’s head by casting an Asian woman in the role. And, of course, Michelle Yeoh would have been awesome and believable in the part. I think the whole Dragon Lady thing is a bit overplayed too. ANY Asian woman who shows any strength, and/or is a bad guy gets accused of it. But then the servile Asian woman is just as bad. To restrict every role to just the right level of virtue and strength is very limiting in roles. It turns out in THIS movie, the Ancient One is a bit more bad than traditional appearances, but I don’t really think she’d raise to that level unless you’re looking to find ways to complain. So going Asian would have been great.

    But as it was said so well, the point is to just write great roles, or create new characters, and not make them White, Asian, Black, Hispanic, or Purple. Then you can cast whoever you want in them. Because of similarities are far closer than our differences. I remember somewhere online having a discussion, probably on the side, where My Big Fat Greek Wedding came up, and a Filipino person was like “I know what that’s like, that could have been my family!” Which is why the film was such a success. Yeah, there were a few things that were pretty Greek in it. But it was an immigrant family tale, and really all of us can relate to dealing with crazy family. And that doesn’t matter where you come from.

    1. M-Wolverine

      That’s so true. I think young people have a hard time conceiving what things were like when their parents parents were in charge of things. It was a different world. They see injustice everywhere, and lord knows we still have a long way to go, but we’ve come a long way in a relatively short period of time.

      And you compose your work on the site? I was always too paranoid to do stuff like that. Fill it out saved in Word or something then transfer it over, add embeds, and do on. Sounds like it’s SOP there, because this is not the first time I clicked on the email link to get to a missing page. That’s ok; it gave the Librarians article a little breathing room. 🙂

  2. Roc Kit

    Missed opportunity defines Iron Fist very well on many levels. I remain unreasonably optimistic that we will get a Daughters of the Dragon series soon.

    I’ve mentioned elsewhere what I saw as a much bigger missed opportunity that I think drew less attention because it wasn’t as much of a Mighty Whitey and also just because we didn’t realize that Netflix Marvel had so much potential – Daredevil.

    The son of a Catholic (and I think the Catholicism is an important part of the character) boxer in a marginalized part of New York who is the first in his family to go to college. There is absolutely nothing about Daredevil’s story that needs to be Irish ancestry as opposed to, for example, Central or South American or Caribbean. There were opportunities even without changing the script at all to visually show the tension between Daredevil’s neighborhood and Kingpin’s neighborhood, and to make some sense out of the schizophrenic decision to be a lawyer by day, vigilante by night.

    Charlie Cox does a great job with the role, no question (and now that he’s cast, I hope Finn Jones does better in The Defenders – I really like the “Netflix universe” and want it to succeed). It’s just one more missed opportunity, and a big one.

    1. M-Wolverine

      Wait, when the argument of trying to flip the race of some Black character comes up the defense always is “yeah, but bring Black is inherent to that character.” So you take maybe the main white character whose ethnicity is emphasized, and you say it it doesn’t matter?!?! *FACEPALM*

      1. Roc Kit

        I don’t see anything about Daredevil that requires him to be Irish American except maybe the ginger hair, which Charlie Cox doesn’t have. I think his ethnicity was deliberately chosen for a good reason in 1964 – he grew up in a marginalized segregated neighborhood, an immigrant community, and his father never had an opportunity to do better than get beat up for a living. If you’re telling a story set in 2016, it’s actually easier to tell that story by changing out the Irish part for an ethnicity that fits those circumstances better. It’s not even as though Netflix Battlin’ Jack has been portrayed as being Irish in any noticeable way – the Catholicism remains part of the story, and the exchanges between Matt and his priest are among the highlights of the show for me, but you wouldn’t lose any of that by changing Ireland for any of the Catholic majority countries from which large number of immigrants have come to New York in more recent decades, and among whom have recently been a significant number of prominent boxers.

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