“Beyond the Icon: Asian American Graphic Narratives”, edited by Eleanor Ty

Detail of cover of 
The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui Detail of cover of The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui

Over the last decade or two, publishing has seen an increase in graphic novels and comics from Asian American writers and illustrators that addresses both contemporary and historical topics. Eleanor Ty has put together a collection of nine essays, including one of her own, in Beyond the Icon: Asian American Graphic Narratives, to demonstrate how these graphic novels and comics also tell a larger story than the ones depicted in their pages. 

In her introduction, Ty provides a quick overview of Asian-American literature in general and writes that the chapters in her book are important because:

 

These Asian American artists use their works to resist what have become “iconic” and exaggerated representations  of Asian Americans in popular Western culture. Asian Americans have had to deal with negative media representations for more than a hundred years.

 

Some of these demeaning representations have included Fu Manchu, Lotus Blossom, and Hop Sing.

 

Beyond the Icon: Asian American Graphic Narratives,  Eleanor Ty (ed) (Ohio State University Press, November 2022)
Beyond the Icon: Asian American Graphic Narratives, Eleanor Ty (ed) (Ohio State University Press, November 2022)

Monica Chiu’s “Countervisualizing Barbed Wire, Guard Towers, and Latrines in George Takei and Harmony Becker’s They Called Us Enemy”, is the opening chapter and shows how the United States War Relocation Authority’s (WRA’s) photos of the Japanese internment camps have been the dominant depiction of the camps until recent times, in part due to prominent photographers like Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams. As the title of this chapter indicates, these photos were strategically taken to exclude barbed wire, guard towers, and latrines. This was all intentional, as Chiu writes:

 

For the majority of the American population who wondered where their Japanese American neighbors might have disappeared to, government-disseminated images provided them a sense of calm while, on the ground, anger, anxiety, depression, and fear ran high among internees.

 

But Takei’s words and Becker’s illustrations show a different story. In an excerpted page from They Called Us Enemy, Takei writes:

 

May 14, 1944
Northern California
Camp Tule Lake was a lot different than Rohwer.
Not one layer of barbed-wire fence, but three.
The government had converted it into a maximum-security segregation camp for disloyals
…guarded by battle-ready troops…
…machine-gun towers…
…and event tanks.

 

The words tell a chilling story, but the images highlight these conditions in ways that leave no room for interpretation. The barbed wire, wide open desert, rows of simple barracks, guard towers and inhuman latrines are no different from a maximum security prison for the most violent criminals.

 

In “Ethics of Storytelling”, Stella Oh and erin Khuê Ninh write about Thi Bui’s 2017 graphic novel, The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir, and how it tells a side of the Vietnam War about which most Americans know very little. As Oh and Ninh write:

 

The Vietnam War is one of the most iconic wars in American history and is the subject of several books, comics, documentaries, films, and television shows. Often the focus of these representations is a white male American soldier who encounters physical, political, and psychological trauma. Such stories of white masculine struggle and bravado applaud American exceptionalism and reinforce racial and gendered anxieties. Contrary to such popular films and literature of the Vietnam War, Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do narrates stories about the Vietnam War from memories of her mother and father as well as her own experiences to create a more palpable reality of the material and affective consequences of war.

 

While the graphic novel is a relatively new genre (at least in the US), comics have enjoyed a longer history in the United States. Shilpa Davé’s chapter, “Questioning the ‘Look’ of Normalcy and the Borders of South/Asian Americans”, centers around Kamala Khan, the first South Asian Muslim American superhero, although she is not the first Muslim superhero for either Marvel or DC Comics. As Davé writes:

 

Night Runner is a French Algerian Muslim black man who is part of Batman Incorporated, and The 99 (a 2006 independent comic with a team that featured heroes wearing burkas) was one of the first depictions in the twenty-first century. Sooraya Qadir, a mutant also known as Dust, is a Sunni Muslim woman in Afghanistan who appeared in Marvel’s X-Men in 2002. Marvel has also reimagined Captain Britain in the form of Farza Hussein, a Pakistani Muslim female physician. Kamala Khan is the first Pakistani American woman to receive extended attention as an American hero.

 

In “(Un)Masking a Chinese Superhero”, Lan Dong discusses the way Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew have updated older superheroes like Green Turtle from the mid-1940s. Green Turtle was based in China during World War II, yet his race was ambiguous and his identity was never revealed. Yang and Liew create a reimagined Chinese superhero who does reveal his identity—and is proud of it—in their comic, The Shadow Hero.

Beyond the Icon is an academic study, but these authors and others provide interesting discussions of the books they feature as well as complementary titles that this collection can also be of interest to readers who are not academics and are simply fans of graphic novels and comics.


Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.