In the no-man's land that is the holiday publishing schedule, The New York Times published an op-ed taking issue with the idea of Asian comic book superheroes.
In his essay, "That Oxymoron, the Asian Comic Superhero," Umapagan Ampikaipakan argued that the push for more diversity and inclusion in mainstream comics was a misstep that ultimately alienated non-Americans from the superhero genre. Comics, Ampikaipakan elaborated, were an art form created to showcase various aspects of the American culture and traditionally, the genre's stories were centered around white characters.
"The superhero comic is the American dream illustrated, and by definition the American dream must be accessible to all," Ampikaipakan wrote. "However monochromatic its characters, the superhero comic’s message has always seemed universal."
When I reached out to Ampikaipakan via Twitter, he insisted that he wasn't attempting to downplay the importance of diversity in comics. Rather, he was trying to draw attention to the fact that in Malaysia, pop culture wasn't a "battleground for values."
To be clear: Ampikaipakan's argument that classic American comics were "universal" is based on the fact that most of the characters were white. If everyone's white, then what is a kid of color supposed to do other than project themselves onto the only comic book characters that are out there? This has less to do with the accessibility of the American Dream and more to do with the ways that people cope with the lack of representation in media.
Here's a better way to make comics more accessible: create characters that look and live like the people reading them.
Thor being a woman and Captain America being a black man (and the two of them being a couple) are reflections of a modern America that's ready to see black leading men and women in positions of power. From Ampikaipakan's perspective, these sort of updated stories, with their progressive plot lines and characters of color, did more to harm comics than to help them.
"I suppose the current push to draw diversity into comics and add variety to the canon is meant to reinforce the notion that anyone can be a superhero," Ampikaipakan said. "But that only risks undercutting the genre’s universal appeal."
As Ampikaipakan unpacks his argument, he hammers home the idea that the cultural concepts woven into the fabric of American superhero stories are fundamentally at odds with certain aspects of many Asian identities.
"Try to adapt the superhero comic’s conventions to an Asian context and the genre collapses under the weight of traditional Asian values: humility, self-effacement, respect for elders and communal harmony," he reasons. "American comic book heroes also act in the service of the collective good, but they do so, unabashedly, out of a heightened sense of self."
Ampikaipakan's makes a valid point that certain Asian cultural mores might not have fit well into Golden Age-era American comic books, but that's hardly the case with more modern characters like Kamala Khan, Tatsu Yamashiro, or Hisako Ichiki. Each of these characters spend a significant amount of time reconciling their lives as Western heroes with their Asian heritage that, at times, makes them question their decision to do hero work.
And while Ampikaipakan is more than entitled to speak to the ways in which his personal identity as an Asian man makes it difficult to fully identify with American superheroics, his read on what drives heroes to save the world is downright wrong. When you're reading about the X-Men, The Avengers, or The Justice League, you aren't reading about groups of people who feel entitled to be a "superhero," you're reading about teams of people who are usually the only ones equipped to handle the danger at hand.
More often than not, superheroes struggle with the fact that despite all of the good works they do, they're seen as freaks and outsiders that are feared by the public. For all of their abilities they are, at their core, a helpful threat that the public tolerates, but prefers to keep at an arms distance.
Ampikaipakan's analysis sort of works with a very surface-level read on Batman or Superman as solo heroes that are the literal embodiments of American exceptionalism. Despite what Ampikaipakan said, it's difficult to interpret his words to mean anything other than, "white characters are the only characters that people of color can universally project themselves onto."
The difficulty that he's having doesn't come from the fact modern comics are ruining the larger-than-life, unrealistic "American Dream." It's that modern comics are becoming more realistic of the American Reality that includes people of all walks of live coexisting with one another.
In the past, readers of color were forced to see themselves in Peter Parker, Clark Kent, and Bruce Wayne's white faces because there weren't any characters of color to idolize. When characters of color were created, it was often the case that their race was treated as little more than an exotic dressing rather than an integral part of their identities.
That problematic truth may be a part of comics' history, but that doesn't mean that they should be a part of its future.
"The idea that straight white males are the center of the universe not only permeates comics; it's an idea that drives most of pop culture and it's why a push for diversity is necessary in the first place," Nerds of Color EIC Keith Chow wrote in a response to Ampikaipakan. "Here's the thing: superheroes aren't the sole domain of white people. And they haven't been for quite some time, despite what some might think."
Chow makes a valid point. Despite the fact that some of America's most iconic heroes are, technically, straight, white men, many of their stories were borne out of the struggles experienced by minorities that have since become absorbed into white identity. Clark Kent, DC's most famous super-powered immigrant, was created in the late '30s by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two Jewish men.
"With his flowing red cape and perfectly coiffed spit curl, Superman is the embodiment of the American ideal," Chow explained. "But if you take a closer look, Clark Kent's origin story parallels the experiences of many immigrants to the United States."
Today, DC's still using Superman as a mouthpiece to provide social commentary on the struggles facing the American public. The only difference is that his voice is a part of a much larger chorus featuring the perspectives of queer people, women, and yes, superheroes of color.
Once upon a time, the American Dream was the sole purview of wealthy white folks who grew up inundated with stories and images telling them that the world was theirs for the taking and theirs alone.
If we're being completely honest, the "American Dream" is dead, but the importance of a more accessible pop culture isn't. Heroes of color aren't oxymorons, they're the future. If you can't deal with that reality, then you'll have to stick to the back issues.