What Graphic Novels Get Away With that Visual Culture Can’t

Last week we talked about Asian Americans in Film, this week we focused our attention to Asian Americans in comics. While both are completely different medias, we still ask the same question: Can an Asian American be the main character??? In class, it was interesting to notice how people approached images and films. Stories seem to be infinite with still images and comics; while characters are more important in film. But instead of going into a long hypothetical rant, let’s use another example.

Big Hero 6 was a Disney animated film, made by the same people who brought us Wreck It Ralph, released in 2014. However, it has been a comic series since 1998. When the teaser for BH6 released, many people were extremely excited. Not only was it going to be another Disney film everyone could go crazy over but it was also going to feature an Asian American. However, there were some people who found numerous problems with the film.

Our first focus will be on the imagery. Let’s draw our attention to Wasabi-no-Ginger (again, this was a 90’s series). In the movie he is the Black-American man in the green shirt (image above) while in the comic he is the Japanese man in the Hawaiian shirt (image below). The first question we should be asking is why change the race of Wasabi-no-Ginger? We’ve brought up the topic of yellowface and blackface. But isn’t it just as bad to replace a minority with another minority (Do we really all look the same)? Another thing to note is the setting for the BH6 movie is not consistent with the comic book. While the Disney characters fly around a fictional America-Japan hybrid city called San Fransokyo, the comic book characters are in Japan. The idea that everything has to be Americanized was another topic brought up in class, and I believe BH6 makes those unnecessary decisions. But then again, it always goes back to the political economy.

Comics don’t get nearly as much attention as movies. They seem to be more grassroot and niche than movies, which pine more towards the mass culture. As a result, artists are not subjected to as many editorial changes as movie directors are. However, that’s also because movies cost so much more money. Directors can’t fund their own films, they need producers who ultimately make the final decisions, and because of that high cost, movies aren’t able to last as long as comic book series. In comparison, comics are inexpensive and will continue to be printed out for all of history until enough people stop reading them. Which is why people focus on the stories in comic books. They are longer, have deeper narratives, and character personalities can/will change in comics.

While there are many economic reasons why movies are more limiting than comic books, this does not change the fact that movies continuously hurt the image for Asian Americans. As everyone on the internet continued to glorify Big Hero 6 as the film Asian Americans needed, I found that point disturbing. Firstly, this isn’t the first modern 3-D animated film to feature an Asian American main character. I’d argue that this was also a thing:

If we can objectively look at Hiro and Russell without eliminating the stereotypes, Hiro most likely got more spotlight than Russell because of the action. it seems that movie directors still have trouble escaping the habit of throwing Asian Americans in the stereotype of being smart and related to martial arts. Which brings us back to the first question asked in lecture: What does it mean to be “not just ‘Asian'”? Would we argue that Hiro in BH6 is an embodiment of what is “Asian” while Russell from Up is a representation of “not just’Asian'”?

Indeed, kung-fu and karate originate from Asiatic cultures. However, they do not originate from the Asian American culture. I personally want more Russells because he isn’t a super genius, he isn’t disturbingly skinny, and he doesn’t eat stinky tofu from a plastic container. Although, that doesn’t necessarily mean I didn’t like Hiro. If movie representations are dependent on what the mass culture wants, then it’s up to us to decide how we want our Asian American heroes. So let’s embrace both Hiro and Russell, point out that there are flaws but also rejoice that they made it to the center of the big screen. Because while comic books are able to freely express the Asian American, their messages can’t easily break into mass culture without our help.


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