Totally Awesome Hulk #15
INTRODUCING THE ASIAN-AMERICAN AVENGERS
The 1st Asian-American superhero teamup is EPIC because the focus is on character not a pointless battle
Written by Greg Pak
Art by Mahmud A. Asrar
Release Date: Wed 1/25/2017
Reviewed by Roger An 1/27/2017
I'm a middle-aged Korean-American dad who works in the arts. I've enjoyed comic books since before I could read, and they inspired me to go into a creative profession. As a child of the 80s, I could relate to young heroes like Peter Parker, but had to hunt down reprints of his high school years from the 60s in Marvel Tales. I also enjoyed Tim Drake, the third Robin of the 90s. It's funny but as a kid, I'd re-imagine them both as Asian. In my head, Spider-man became Korean as Peter Park. I could swear that while Tim Drake was learning martial arts, that the artist was intentionally drawing him to look more Asian. Wouldn't it be cool to get an Asian-American Robin?
Like my young peers, I'd draw myself as a super hero alter-ego, and sadly think to myself, that I would never see a character like that in American comic books. Let's talk about the paltry roster of Asian characters in Marvel Comics during the 80s and 90s.
Other kids would ask me, what about the X-Men's Sunfire? I answered, "You mean that angry Japanese imperialist who speaks like he's from feudal Japan, and shows up once every two dozen issues only to tell the X-Men how superior he is to them, and then begrudgingly admit they have honor at the end of the story?"
Or how about Jubilee? At the time, she had been completely white-washed in the 1990s X-Men Animated Series. I don't think any of my middle school classmates knew she was Chinese.
Don't even get me started on Psylocke during the 90s. I was confused at her origin of being a purple-haired British woman, whose mind was transferred to a comatose Chinese ninja woman, and wore a high cut bathing suit that highlighted her derriere.
Older Asian comic heroes like Shang Chi from the 1970s and Agent Jimmy Woo from the 1950s weren't active during my grade school to high school years.
It gets worst with even more minor characters like Mantis in Silver Surfer, or Karma of the New Mutants, both of Vietnamese descent during the 80s/90s, but let's not go there just right now.
The past year has highlighted many complicated struggles to get Asian-Americans represented in the Marvel cinematic and TV universes. The recent hit Doctor Strange film, recast the Ancient One from a Chinese man to a Celtic woman and erased Asians from an Asian setting besides one manservant. Granted the Ancient One character had many problematic stereotypes, Marvel Films' choice to simply ignore the character's race, and avoid rehabilitating the past stereotyping, echoed the same action they took for Iron Man 3, when the villainous Mandarin's Chinese-ness was simply erased.
Even more complex was the movement to recast Netflix's Iron Fist as Asian, instead of his traditionally blond-haired blue-eyed comic book self. I thought to myself that it kind of sucks that Asian Americans have to be protesting about the cinematic whitewashing of minor support characters, and ask to morph the race of a white martial artist to an Asian-American one.
If these events upset you, you should purchase a copy of Greg Pak's Totally Awesome Hulk #15. Greg Pak, a veteran Asian-American comic book writer, indie filmmaker, and playwright, gets what Asian-American superheroes should be. Greg was born in Dallas, Texas to a Korean father and American mother, and his current run on the Totally Awesome Hulk series has been an absolute delight to read.
For the uninitiated, the current Hulk, is Korean-American teenager Amadeus Cho: A super-genius, and what I call the millennial's new and improved Rick Jones. The parallels I draw between the 60s-90s Rick Jones, and 2000s Amadeus Cho are that they're both sidekicks who take on a variety of identities and powers throughout their teenage superhero sidekick careers.
Rick Jones squired with the Avengers, shared nega-bands with Captain Mar-Vell, palled around with the Hulk, was trained by Captain America, briefly gained omnipotent powers during the Kree Skrull War, and started a support group for former teenage super heroes called the Loners.
Amadeus Cho appeared in 2005, and has close ties with Bruce Banner, Hercules, S.H.I.E.L.D., golden age hero Mastermind Excello, and his television cartoon version was the Scarlet Spider in Ultimate Spider-man. To me Rick Jones, and Amadeus Cho are an engine for reader's wish fulfillment. I contend that today, Amadeus Cho is the more appealing and upgraded Rick Jones, and that's not just my bias speaking, at our both being Korean-American!
Amadeus Cho as the Totally Awesome Hulk has made the Hulk fun again. For many years we've seen Bruce Banner brood and torture himself with the gamma irradiated horror his giant green alter ego brings. The angst is part of the appeal, but it got a bit old and repetitive after 50 years. Personally, my favorite Hulk was the intelligent and confident Professor Hulk of the 1990s.
During the recent snooze-fest Civil War II, Hawkeye euthanizes Bruce Banner's head with an arrow through the head, because of a dire horoscope prediction, and it feels quite hollow. We all know Banner will be back. What we didn't know was that Amadeus Cho was going to be more fun to read as the Hulk.
With Amadeus Cho, we get someone who is liberated by the powers of the Hulk and still has many life lessons to learn through his adventures. The art on Totally Awesome Hulk has been fantastic. Over the years, I've found that the bulk of American comic book artists don't know how to draw Asian faces. The Hulk's facial features actually look Asian and he preens and poses like a goofy teenage body builder in Venice Beach.
A recent issue had Amadeus teaming up with Asian American basketball superstar Jeremy Lin, (who sadly doesn't read comics), but issue #15 has the most audaciously epic Asian American superhero team up we've ever seen.
We get Jimmy Woo: former 50s S.H.I.E.L.D. agent turned head of the agents of ATLAS, breakout new teen star Avenger: Kamela Khan code-named Ms Marvel, newly introduced Arachnid powered super heroine Cindy Moon known as Silk, classic 70s Marvel martial artist Shang Chi the Master of Kung fu, and their millennial Asian American S.H.I.E.L.D. liaison Jake Oh.
Let's take a moment, to discuss the quiet renaissance of positive portrayals of Asian-American characters in Marvel Comics since the turn of the 21st Century. Greg Parker revived Agent Jimmy Woo in his excellent 2006 series: Agents of Atlas. An aging Jimmy Woo active since the 50s, is horribly burned by dragon fire and revived into a youthful body by Uranian technology and the loyalty of his friends. Jimmy Woo is Chinese American, and battles a Fu Manchu-like villain named Yellow Claw (now retconned to Golden Claw.) Technically, Jimmy Woo assembled the first team of Avengers during the 1950s.
Shang Chi returns to the 21st Century, in a hip red and black costume, evoking Bruce Lee's from Game of Death. He takes his place as a major character in the Avengers during the 2010s to battle reality threatening incursions. Shang Chi appeared in his own book in 1973, and his father is literally the evil Chinese sorcerer Fu Manchu, whom Marvel can't even use any more by name, because it would be a copyright violation. It's apropos for the younger characters to refer to Shang Chi and Jimmy Woo as the "Asian Dads" of the group. They earned it.
Kamela Khan becomes the fifth Ms. Marvel in 2013, and is a runaway hit as the first successful Muslim-American super-heroine, headlining her own series, and appearing on multiple super teams from the Avengers to the Champions, and Inhumans. Her series balances everyday teen tribulations with the experience of being a 2nd generation immigrant, along with taking on the mantle of a veteran super heroine on the rise: Carol Danvers now Captain Marvel.
I have to mention here, that the Ms. Marvel alias was first used by Carol Danvers in the 70s, and later adopted briefly by a parade of failures. First in the 90s, Sharon Ventura (She-Thing of the Fantastic Four) took the name as a super powered wrestler. Second in the 2000s, Ultra-Girl of the New Warriors and later the Avengers Initiative took the name and classic costume for a few issues. During the early 2010s, the moniker was stolen immediately by the villainous psychiatrist Karla Sofen known as Moonstone during Norman Osborn's (the Green Goblin) takeover of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the Dark Avengers. Out of those three, it seemed to me that Karla Sofen made the most impact as a sexy evil Ms. Marvel. Karla went back to being Moonstone after Norman Osborn was deposed.
After four tries to continue the Ms. Marvel legacy, it's satisfying that a teenage Muslim-American can take on the mantle of Ms. Marvel and be popularized in the American subconscious. Who could have guessed 40 years ago, that Ms. Marvel's heroic legacy would be picked up by a dynamic multi-dimensional Muslim-American teenage girl with realistic and healthy body proportions, after failed attempts by three supermodel proportioned white women.
Cindy Moon as Silk appeared in 2014, and is Korean-American. She is the newest character on the team. She kicked ass during the Spider-verse crossover, and is a fun addition to the recent renaissance of Arachnid-powered heroines. Silk impressively holds her own with Spider-Gwen and Spider-Woman.
Agent Jacob Oh appeared in 2006, also created by Totally Awesome Hulk writer, Greg Pak. He's had appearances in Agents of Atlas and War Machine and serves as a liason between our new Asian American Super Team. He is now referred to as Jake Oh. He had a stint as War Machine 3.0.
I've communicated all the info you need, to decide whether you want to purchase and read this issue. From this point onwards, I am going to talk about plot points that may be spoilers, so don't read below the SPOILER SPACE graphic, if you don't want to ruin any surprises!
The issue opens with Amadeus dispatching a generic alien threat (Prince Regent Phalkan of Seknarf Seven). It seems like just an average day for Amadeus, but he gets a call on his smart watch from dashing S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Jake Oh. Amadeus is late to an important meeting, and is quickly joined by our roster of Asian-American Super Friends.
As a reader we wonder what villain lies behind the curtain, and it's actually a charity event to raise awareness of the need for Asian American Bone Marrow Donors. If you become ill with a blood cancer or other disease requiring a stem cell transplant, the uncomfortable fact is that race matters. For a successful transplant, identical genes are needed, so minorities in America are disadvantaged by mathematics. You can read more about it here in this Washington Post article:
Race matters when a patient needs a stem cell or marrow transplant
Back to the fantasy world of comic books: Our intrepid Asian-American heroes perform amazing feats of martial arts and display their super powers to an adoring crowd. It's heart-warming to see Amadeus autograph his Hulk photo for a young patient. It's a bold storytelling move to have the team battle against cancer, rather than a poorly motivated villain. This foot in the real world is touching, courageous, well done, and an excellent social cause to take on.
The team sets their sights on their next important task: DINNER! This is where I feel my real life bleed onto the page. As a Korean-American New Yorker, the Asian-American Avengers' night out on the town, is what mine is: Korean BBQ followed by karaoke and candid talk about race, identity, and family.
Another aspect of unique metropolitan Asian-American culture that is shared here is to see the the alliance of East Asian (Korea, China, Japan) and South Asian heroes (India) with our mostly East Asian heroes and Kamela Khan who is Pakistani-American. I love that the characters explore each other's cultures with questions of diet.
If I want to treat friends to a taste of my culture, I get them kalbi: Korean marinated BBQ beef ribs. Yet, Korean cuisine is diverse enough to provide plenty of dietary options such as a vegetarian bibimbap for Agent Jake Oh. Here's my own recipe for Black Rice Tofu Bibimbap:
I like that Cindy asks Kamela if she can eat beef, and Kamela matter of factly explains that Muslims can eat beef, and that she is not Hindu. Kamela adds that some Hindus don't eat beef and some do, but she isn't an expert. It's another beautiful cultural moment which celebrates diversity, nuance, and a positive curiosity for other people's cultures.
I find it insightful to see middle-aged Agent Jake Oh, acknowledge the generational transition from the older generation Jimmy Woo and Shang-Chi, to the youngbloods: Amadeus, Kamela, and Cindy. When Jake tells the youth that they are "a big deal, and don't screw it up," I feel like it's an appeal to writers not to waste the potential of these young Asian-American heroes who can be an inspiration to young minds around the world regardless of their demographic.
The characters dish on what their parents expected of them, and you get another gradient of experience. It's natural and respects the characters' actual origins. Agent Jake Oh reveals his bisexuality here. In the past, he had a relationship with Celeste Cuckoo of the X-Men, and in this issue he lets everyone know that he's dating a methodist corporate lawyer who's also a black dude.
I love that the heroes pause to gauge what Agent Jimmy Woo's reaction is to this, since he's from the 1950s. I grinned big at Jimmy Woo's positive reaction and affirmation of support and encouragement of self determination. Jimmy's tolerance was spot on for a guy leading a diverse team with a Greek goddess, Gorilla, Robot, Uranian, and Atlantean Queen.
Next, the Asian dads fight over the check. Shang Chi and Jimmy Woo acrobatically spar in what is actually a realistic tussle for who pays the dinner bill. I see every Asian-American reading this issue nodding knowingly at this scene. Finally, the characters end the night with karaoke. Greg Pak, can we get a song list of what our Asian-American heroes sang in the karaoke room? I'm a huge karaoke fan, and it's my activity of choice for birthday parties.
To me the bravest part of this issue is that Greg Pak chose to not have his team battle in a mindless brawl for the majority of the their first meeting. He chose to share a slice of everyday Asian American life. It isn't just about being Asian, it's about molding your dual identity into a melting pot with a tempest of societal/parental expectations for career, relationships, how you're challenged by negative demographic stereotypes, and how you determine your own self-identity, down to even what food you like to eat.
The characters themselves comment on how they didn't have a stereotyped super-villain to fight like a Giant Japanese Monster or the Mandarin. Maybe we need to see some dastardly appealing and complex Asian-American super-villains created next.
I can't say enough, how positive it was for me personally to see a slice of my life shared with the rest of the world that is uniquely Asian American: going out for Korean BBQ, candid talk about identity, and karaoking afterwards.
After karaoke, the aliens from Seknarf 7 return to rouse our heroes to battle, briefly teasing the next issue. For me the battle was already won by having an entire issue of a major American comic book dedicated to six dynamic Asian-American characters that aren't grossly stereotyped, and breathe with genuine heroism, empathy, and humanity.
Can't wait for the next issue!
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