When I’d finished writing the first pages of my comic, “For Molly,” I sent it to someone and asked for their feedback. Her first question after reading the draft was, why isn’t the main character Asian American? And I didn’t have a good answer.
In the comic, an antisocial talking dog named Molly helps a recently divorced New Yorker named Greg rescue his sister from an evil that lurks in the New Jersey forest. I described Greg Carthage as being tall and lean with messy blonde hair. Which is strange because Greg’s based on me, and I look nothing like that. But it wasn’t until someone questioned me that I questioned myself. Why didn’t I make him Asian?
My initial thought was, if Greg is Asian American then I’d have to include an explanation why. And my next thought was, well that’s dumb. Sure, if the story took place at the height of the Inca Empire in Pre-Columbian America, I’d probably have to explain why there’s an Asian guy hanging around. But my comic takes place in modern New Jersey. It has feral talking dogs that go to war with rogue cops wielding swords. Why did I think having an Asian American protagonist was so strange that it required clarification? It obviously didn’t.
I did some more thinking. It’s true that in my years of consuming movies and television I’d rarely seen Asian American leading men. Kato was just the Green Hornet’s valet, Sulu was only the Enterprise’s helmsman, and for years, people said my only celebrity look-alike was Russell from Up (which I hated, by the way). That reason was integral, but ultimately incomplete. Just because we’ve been underrepresented in the past doesn’t mean I can’t write about us in my own work.
After digging deeper, I struck pay dirt. I didn’t feel like I deserved to write about us because I wasn’t sure I was included in “us.” I’m only half Chinese—the other half is Italian; despite being first-generation, I didn’t have what most would consider a typical Asian American upbringing. I don’t speak Cantonese or Mandarin, I never attended Chinese school, and our Lunar New Year celebrations never extended beyond dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Was I allowed to write an Asian American character?
I wish I could end this story by telling you that I went on some inspirational journey of self discovery. That I’d conferred with a wise relative or traveled to Hong Kong and walked in the footsteps of my family. But really, I just said to hell with it. I’m Chinese enough. Because in my opinion, the Asian American experience isn’t one thing. If I told you I was hard working, driven, and I loved my family, I bet you’d say I was a typical Asian American. And if that didn’t convince you, I’d throw in that my parents forced me to learn piano.
So Greg Carthage became Greg Shen. And I cut down his character description to one word: handsome. If anyone were to ever ask why he’s Asian, I’d simply say, well, he’s handsome, isn’t he?
(Author note: If you’d like to support this project, please check out my Kickstarter campaign.)
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