DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - A gargantuan alien emerges from the New York City skyline, his bizarre features framed by a fading blood-red sky. His eyes look like slits, slanted so deeply it’s a wonder he can see anything. His ears are pointed, as is his Fu Manchu mustache and claw-like fingernails.
Below the monster, whose yellow skin glows in the dusky light, there is mass panic: Citizens flee the streets while soldiers raise their rifles. The monster’s scowling brow portends havoc for all.
Above his smooth bald head rests a question in bright yellow capital letters: “WHO...OR WHAT... IS HE??!”
Why, it’s the ruthless mastermind Yellow Claw, “the most dangerous man of all time,” as the cover of the 1956 comic book named after the villain states.
One could be forgiven for thinking Yellow Claw is simply a giant caricature of a Chinese man — because that’s exactly what he is.
Yellow Claw is one of the characters and publications explored in the new Japanese American National Museum exhibition Marvels and Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in U.S. Comics, 1942-1986. On display through Feb. 9 at the Little Tokyo institution, it examines the various Asian archetypes that developed in comic books during and after World War II and the lasting impact they’ve had on popular culture.
The traveling exhibition, which debuted in 2011 at New York University’s Fales Library, is curated by Wall Street Journal columnist Jeff Yang and comes from NYU’s Asian/Pacific/American Institute. The idea for the exhibit came after sci-fi author and cultural scholar William F. Wu gave the institute a treasure trove of comics with depictions of Asians.
“When Wu first opened a comic book and saw someone that was supposed to look like him but was a twisted rendition of an Asian person, he was so fascinated and repelled that he wanted to collect all depictions,” Yang said.
Wu would do just that for the next 40 years, assisted by a growing group of friends and fans who contributed their own finds. Yang was tapped by the APA to look through the expansive collection and find a storyline for greater study. He spent three weeks in 2011 poring through the stacks.
Marvels and Monsters largely focuses on eight archetypes that Yang discovered, ranging from “The Alien” to “The Temptress” to “The Brain.” The show explores the archetypes and includes commentary from noted Asian-American writers and creators such as comic scribe and artist Larry Hama.
Yang also found that the historic interactions between the United States and Asian nations go hand-in-hand with the growth of each archetype. For example, the “Kamikaze,” which embodies unwavering loyalty and brainwashed aggression, came as a direct result of real-life suicide attacks by Japanese soldiers on Allied warships in WWII.
The exhibit emphasizes how misguided many of these archetypes are and why misconception has fueled negative portrayals of Asians. The “Kamikaze” trope, for instance, is based on exaggeration: Despite the prevalence of kamikaze mythology in the media, only some Japanese soldiers executed suicide missions out of dedication to their country. Instead, the exhibit explains, many complied because of promises of safety for their families or because they had no choice. Some Japanese pilots even collapsed sobbing and had to be dragged into their cockpits before the missions began.
The gap between fact and comic-book fiction can be attributed to the vast philosophical, cultural and geographic divide between East and West, Yang says, as well as America’s collective fear of the unknown.
“The long lack of exposure between the two cultures means that you can kind of make up depictions and stories based on your own projections and feelings,” he said. “The stories people heard about Asians kind of got veiled in myth and got enriched as more people retold them, like a game of ‘Telephone.’”
The 20th century also was a time of great conflict between the U.S. and various Asian countries, from WWII to the wars with Korea and Vietnam and into the economic battle with tech-savvy Japan in the 1980s. The latter gave rise to the “Brain” archetype, depicted in comics through hyper-intelligence and a mercurial attitude. Though being smart is normally seen as a positive trait, Yang pointed out that even these portrayals painted Asians with a devious foreignness.
Another factor contributing to negative Asian portrayals was that there simply weren’t many Asian Americans working in the comic book field. It wasn’t a discriminatory problem — Hama is quoted in the exhibit saying comics is the “least racist business in the world” — but rather an issue of interest, or the lack thereof.
The tide has slowly shifted in recent decades, and JANM Program Manager Koji Sakai notes that an influx of Asian-American writers, artists and creators has diversified Asian depictions across all forms of media. He also says that younger generations are more aware of what is authentic in pop culture and often crave honest portrayals of characters.
“I look at pop culture today, and I see real roles for Asians,” he said. “John Cho plays normal guys, for instance, and it’s not like Daniel Dae Kim has an accent on ‘Hawaii Five-0.’ Being Asian doesn’t define them.”
More diverse communities in the U.S. also mean more people are interacting with Asians and Asian Americans, providing a counter to cartoon-like stereotypes.
“These archetypes have been created by non-Asians and perpetrated by non-Asians all these years,” Yang said. “But as more kids grow up in communities with big Asian populations, the caricatures become more and more unreal to them. Then you get the confidence to tell a real story about Asian people.”
Progress doesn’t mean racist tropes won’t make a comeback, and the exhibit shows how deeply embedded stereotypes can be. Yang warns that more “periods of combativeness” could inspire fearful, foreign depictions of Asian people to re-emerge.
Still, he points out, the narrative can be continually shaped for the better.
Monsters and Marvels runs through Feb. 9 at the Japanese American National Museum, 100 N. Central Ave., (213) 625-0414 or janm.org.
© Los Angeles Downtown News 2013