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It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane. It’s … An Asian American! On Superheroes of Color

Cindy Moon
Cindy Moon becomes Silk, the first Asian American female superhero, who’s also socially awkward.
By Ed Diokno


It’s a bird. It’s a plane.It’s … an Asian American Super-man, with all the powers of the original Superman, but his secret identity is Kenan Kong.


While most of the attention on diversity in the media has been centered on #OscarsSoWhite and #WhitewashedOut for the lack of roles for actors of color, the same question has been circulating around the comic book universe for a couple of years.


This topic has been extensively discussed for years at the Nerds of Color website and for a more in-depth analysis, I suggest clicking over to that site.


I don’t read the comics as extensively or devotedly as I did when I was younger when I would walk the five blocks to our corner store and read the latest editions of comic books for free (A belatedly thanks to the tolerant owner of the Parkside Market.) to follow the adventures of Batman and Superman.


Super-man: Debuting in July

In college — yes, college — I discovered Marvel and the complicated characters of angst-ridden Spiderman, guilt-ridden Thor and the lonely Silver Surfer. The art was amazing. The frames were like watching a movie with closeups, wide shots and quick cuts. They popped off the page.

Late night discussions during college (encouraged by a couple of beers) didn’t always center around life, death, Vietnam or existentialism, sometimes  in half-seriousness, we’d weigh the probable fate of our superheroes.

When I became an adult and faced the realities of paying rent, paying off loans and putting food on the table, I lost touch with comicdom.


So while I was away … the world of comics and superheroes drastically changed. Now, some of my favorite characters are on the big screen and in the comics themselves, superheroes of color have been introduced. A few are Asian American  including the new Man of Steel and the Hulk.


Kenyan Kong joins a growing stable of superheroes of color, though many of them have been unable to grow beyond their mantles, according to cultural critic Keith Chow, founder of the cultural criticism site The Nerds of Color and editor-creator of the two Secret Identities collections.

RELATED: Kenan Kong is only part of the DC Comics ‘Rebirth’ of its iconic characters.


Marvel’s current Hulk is Korean American Amadeus Cho; African American Sam Wilson is one of two Captain Americas; the Asian American Cindy Moon is the female Silk with Spiderman-like powers,  Miles Morales is an Afro-Latino Spider-Man; and the teenage Pakistani American Kamala Khan is the current Ms. Marvel. But only the latter two have become very strongly associated with their superhero mantles, Chow said.


“Now when you say Ms. Marvel, you’re associating it with Kamala Khan and not necessarily ([the first Ms. Marvel) Carol Danvers,” Chow told NBC News. “For a segment of the population, their Spider-Man is Miles Morales. That’s a character that’s not going away to the dustbin of history. “

“Super-man,” (Can we do away with the hyphen already?) is being penned by Gene Luen Yang, a graphic novelist with a long list of credits including American Born Chinese, which was nominated for Book of the Year in 2006. For the past year, he’s been writing the Superman stories for DC Comics.

While most of the above reboots of traditional superheroes have been out for some time now, the new “Super-man” is set to debut in July this year.

None of the superheroes I read in the comic books looked like me – not that I wanted to be a superhero, but the lack of Asian Americans in the American pop melieu cut me off from what I considered to be my home. It reinforced the feeling that I did not belong nor was I a part of American society, my town, my school and not even in the make-believe world of comic books.

Things have changed – are changing – for the better, I think. I’m sure there will be some Asian American kids reading about the adventures of this new crop of superheroes who will at last see characters who look like them. Today’s superheroes are imperfect. They have flaws and often are dealing with the same feelings of exclusion and angst that young people of color, sometimes feel.

 Incredible Hulk


Sana Amanat, the Marvel exec who created Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel, recalled those feelings last week at the United State of Women summit at the Washington Convention Center. The Pakistani American was on a panel focusing on diversity in the media, and she shared the stage with such other leaders as Gloria Steinem, TV’s Shonda Rhimes and Muslim Girl editor Amani Al-Khatahtbeh.

“When you grow up being very conscious of the fact that you are the ‘other,’ it cultivates a sense of uncertainty and shame within you that can take a long time to overcome,” Amanat tells The Washington Post. “My desire to be ‘white,’ while covert, fed a delusion in my self-identity that I only broke away from towards the end of high school and truly in college.”

With the introduction of Kamala Khan, Kenan Kong, Cindy Moon, Amadeus Cho and others not mentioned here, hopefully the AAPI kids reading the comic books of today won’t have to be alone in the sometimes gut-wrenching search for identity. They’ll have superheroes who look like them as guides.

Television and films have a ways to go to catch up with the comics. For those two mediums, it is too easy and creatively lazy to recast superheroes to the default white guy. In the meantime, I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.


Kamila Khan
Kamila Khan, just your ordinary Muslim/American teenager struggling to fit in.



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