guest post: the illustrious and superlative fu chang

I'm on vacation! Taking a much-needed break. But don't worry. While I'm away, I've enlisted some great guest bloggers to keep things going around here. Here's Gene Luen Yang on one of his favorite Asian American superheroes.

Quick! Name as many Asian American superheroes as you can! Asian AMERICAN, not Asian!

Well, there's Jubilee on the X-Men... and the Atom, that Korean-American guy who shrinks... no, wait! He got himself killed last May. Ray Palmer's the Atom again.

What about Shang-chi, the Master of Kung-fu? Did his papers ever go through?

Believe it or not, there are actually Asian American heroes who date back to the 1940's, the Golden Age of the American comic book. Back then, monthly issues sold by the millions and publishers scrambled over each other looking for new material. This decade-long explosion of ideas included at least a few Asian American characters.

Here's one of my favorites:

Fu Chang was created by Joe Blair and Lin Steeter, both of whom disappeared from American comics shortly after. He debuted in 1940 as one of several back-up features in Pep Comics #1, published by MLJ Comics. (MLJ goes by the name Archie Comics nowadays.)

Pep Comics' lead was The Shield, a strapping young patriot who wore a rather uncomfortable-looking costume that resembled a, well, shield. The Shield was a punch-now-ask-questions-later kind of guy, taking on criminals with chemically-enhanced super-strength.

Fu Chang, in contrast, was a hero of the mind rather than the fist. An "American university-educated Chinaman," he resided in San Francisco's Chinatown. He had a mean right hook, but his primary weapons were a keen intellect and a chess set that possessed "all the magic powers of Aladdin's lamp." Whenever he needed help, Fu Chang could get his chess pieces to come to life.

Four panels into his first adventure, Fu Chang saves the lovely Tay Ming from The Dragon, an uninspired Fu Manchu clone.

Amazing what a difference in skin-tone an American university education makes, isn't it?

It would be easy for us as the citizens of a modern, multi-ethnic America to point out all the laughably misinformed stereotypes in this disposable mass entertainment from seven decades ago, but these stereotypes weren't unique to Fu Chang. They weren't unique MLJ Comics, the comic book industry, or even America. In a world wrestling with globalization, they were simply in the air.

Instead, I'd like to tell you why I find Fu Chang so intriguing.

It seems to me (and this certainly could be me reading myself into the material) that Fu Chang embodies a desire for a coming together of East and West. He is a Western-style detective, not a martial artist, but his ethical code comes from a "devotion to the teachings of the Chinese gods." His environment, San Francisco Chinatown, is a slice of the East in the middle of the West.

In public, he wears a blue trench coat and fedora, standard dress for American funnybook detectives of the time.

But in his secret cellar headquarters, he "dons his native garb" before performing the ritual that brings his chess pieces to life.

Even Fu Chang's magic chess set shows both Eastern and Western influences. It's gift from Sing Po, a direct descendent of Aladdin (bet you didn't know Aladdin had Chinese descendents), but the pieces themselves are visibly Western.

In addition to the soldier piece pictured above, there's a mermaid, a top hatted magician, an angel, and an airplane pilot.

By the end of the six-page story, Fu Chang has solved the mystery of a Chinese sailor's murder, as reported by an American newspaper. He even takes the lovely Tay Ming out on a Western style date, where they talk like bad translations of Confucian analects.

Fu Chang lasted eleven issues in Pep Comics. The Shield lasted 65 before the title was taken over by Archie and the rest of the Riverdale gang.

Asian Americans have roots in American comics. These roots are often goofy, forgotten, and offensive to modern sensibilities, but they're there. Rather than grafting Asian American-ness onto existing character legacies, as they did with the Ryan Choi Atom, I'd like to see Asian American comics creators explore, reinterpret, and even deconstruct the roots that are already there. And perhaps grow some new roots all our own.

(PLUG ALERT: The Secret Identities anthology, for which Sonny Liew and I did a story, is recent attempt to grow new roots.)

Guen Luen Yang is the author of American Born Chinese, the first graphic novel to win the American Library Association's Printz Award. The Eternal Smile, his collaborative project with Derek Kirk Kim, recently won an Eisner Award. In addition to cartooning, he teaches computer science at a Catholic high school in California.

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