By Kelly Kanayama
On March 16, 2021, eight women working at spas and massage parlors were murdered in Atlanta. Six of them were Asian.
The shooter (white, male) claimed that his actions were motivated by sex addiction: a view that the county sheriff’s office seemed to endorse with the statement that he considered the victims’ workplaces “a temptation…that he wanted to eliminate”.
On March 3, 1875, the Page Act – the first piece of anti-immigration legislation in the United States – was signed into law.
The Page Act prevented Chinese women, and specifically Chinese women, from entering the country on the (fabricated) basis that they were sex workers and had poor moral character. Many of these women were actually married to Chinese men who were already residing in America, but to the creators of the Page Act, that didn’t matter.
In November 2000, two young Japanese women visiting Seattle as exchange students were abducted and sexually assaulted by David Dailey, Edmund Ball, and Lana Vickery. (Another young Japanese woman was also abducted but shortly released.)
The rapists stated that they targeted Japanese women due to believing they would be too submissive and meek to report the crime. Ball also possessed a large collection of Japanese bondage porn, leading at least one writer to hypothesize that he sought out Japanese women in order to use them to act out his sexual fantasies.
And now, here we are.
I’ll give you a moment to guess as to whether any of the above was discussed in The Other History of the DC Universe #3, which aims to look at Katana against the backdrop of anti-Asian racism in the US, and which I think of as The Asian Issue.
Given that I’m writing all this, you can probably figure out the answer.
I’m sure John Ridley meant well.
His contextualization of Katana’s character development seems sincere, and he does gesture towards the aggression that has underlaid American (and, implicitly, Western) cultural appropriation of Japanese popular media and technology since the 1980s, when Japan began to surpass America on the industrial and technological stage:
“Our culture, our cinema, our way of life… Everything from anime to sushi had become ripe for American society to appropriate. But the elements of Japan that could not be assimilated made America’s prevailing culture anxious. The American psyche was unable to reconcile the fact that it was no longer the center of the universe.
The American body expressed its anxiety as it always does when confronted with its own limitations.
It became belligerent. Hostile. Openly xenophobic. Japanese flags were burned in public. Japanese cars were physically trashed as surrogates of our success. The fearsome, ‘inscrutable’ Asian became the straw man of American politics and media.”
Which is overall accurate, but – “became”? Became?
America has been like this towards Asians since at least the 19th century; granted, in ebbs and flows, but it’s never gone away. Look at the Chinese Exclusion Act (which Ridley does mention later but does not discuss). Plus, may I remind you of a little thing called WORLD GODDAMN WAR TWO?
Look at how Japanese people in America were treated in contrast to, say, German people in America. The government took our properties, our lands, our money. Japanese-Americans were forced to fill out so-called loyalty tests which asked if they would renounce all ties to Japan, which many first-generation Japanese people (Issei) refused to do. At the time Issei were legally prohibited from becoming American citizens, so renouncing their connections to the homeland would have left them without a country.
And I am just scratching the surface. I’m not even going to go into detail about the 442nd – one of the most decorated units in US military history to this day, which was made up of young Japanese-American men, many of them from my homeland of Hawaii. These men were often put at the forefront of incredibly dangerous situations as expendable cannon fodder, and yet they are often forgotten in America’s fetishization of troops past. My mother got to speak to one of them once; he told her about coming to the US mainland after seeing his friends bleed and die on the front lines in Europe. Quite a change, he said, being greeted with adulation and openness abroad and then being shouted out of a barbershop in Texas with a “No Japs Allowed” policy.
Ridley makes a nod to this with his mention of “Executive Order 9066” – the order Franklin D. Roosevelt signed to have American residents of Japanese descent placed into internment camps and everything they owned seized by the government – but no elaboration on how deep those wounds might run. Likewise the quick rundown of select manifestations (a few among many) of the anti-Asian racism running through America’s history:
“It was not the first time Asians had become the irrational focus of the public’s fear. The Chinese Exclusion Act. The Rock Springs Massacre. The Hell’s Canyon Massacre. The Naturalization Act of 1870. The California Alien Land Law of 1913. The formation of the Asiatic Exclusion League.”
It would be churlish not to give Ridley credit for listing these; I suspect the majority of people reading this comic, not to mention the majority of people in America and other English-speaking countries, don’t know about most of the atrocities he notes here, so kudos to him for pointing them out.
It would also be churlish to overlook Ridley’s full-page discussion of the Vincent Chin murder in 1982, wherein two white American men bludgeoned a Chinese-American man to death because a) they thought he was Japanese and b) they blamed Japanese people for taking their jobs in auto manufacturing. Chin’s tragic death, which galvanized a new wave of Asian-American activism, is nowhere near as well known as it should be, and it’s a nice surprise to see it mentioned in a comic from a big mainstream publisher.
Yet something big is missing.
Clue #1: “The fearsome, ‘inscrutable’ Asian became the straw man”. “Straw man”.
There’s a lot here about violence against Asians in general, Japanese people in general, and one Asian-American man. Which should be – must be – discussed, don’t get me wrong; racially motivated violence is a shameful atrocity that cannot be ignored.
Clue #2: This whole entire issue is about a Japanese woman who comes to America.
Considering how much anti-Asian sentiment and violence is specifically targeted at Japanese and other Asian women, it’s weird to the point of being chokingly galling that none of this makes it into the comic. When I think of the particular flavor of blood we are stepped in so far, returning is fucking impossible, let alone tedious (some Shakespeare for everyone!), I feel the claws growing from my hands, the hair growing long and hanging over my dread countenance, obake-style. There’s your dose of Japanese culture.
Issue #3 of The Other History of the DC Universe debuted on March 30, 2021, exactly two weeks after multiple Asian women working at spas and massage parlors – workplaces associated with femininity and female sexuality – were murdered in Atlanta.
Certainly there was no way Ridley could have anticipated this, and I wouldn’t have expected him to try to slot it into the comic at the last minute; a shoehorned tribute to the dead would have been much worse than leaving it out.
But in the year leading up to the comic’s release, the US had seen a sharp uptick in anti-Asian hate crimes, harassment, and violence, fomented in no small part by then-president Donald Trump’s continued characterization of covid as “the China virus” and “kung flu”. Most of these acts were directed against Asian women.
This is no coincidence. Since at least the 19th century, Asian women, including Japanese women, have been stereotyped as submissive, ready to be oppressed and objectified by white male desire, things to fuck and hurt and rob of agency. You can thank Western expansionism for that; Admiral Perry and General MacArthur have a lot to answer for.
Maybe you’ve seen the portrayals of geishas not as accomplished entertainers who train for years to hone their craft but as little more than walking vaginas looking for some white American dick. Filipina mail-order brides waiting for a white American man to click a button and buy them like a spare USB cable off Amazon. Me love you long time, GI. (Almost every time I’ve been catcalled as an adult, it’s been racial: “NEE HOW” shouted across the street, etc.)
Today, porn online tends to represent Asian-American women as victims of sexual violence rather than as people who are just trying to consensually get some, as many actors of other racial backgrounds are. And Asian women in America are more likely to be assaulted by non-Asian men than by Asian men.
In short, anti-Asian racism in America is so bound up in misogyny against Asian women that not discussing this feels like a grave omission.
Do I expect John Ridley to be the guy to deconstruct all of that? Not really. It’s not fair to him or to anybody reading his writing. My problem isn’t so much that a person of color who is neither Asian nor a woman didn’t come fully equipped to tend to the exact types of lacerations that anti-Asian misogyny leaves on the soul of its targets. My problem is that DC signed on one man of color to shoulder the responsibility of communicating the pain of otheredness for all of their big/screen-media-adapted heroes.
Why not, I don’t know, get an Asian person – a Japanese woman, even! – to write this issue? Or why not focus on DC’s Black heroes as a first run and then come back to other heroes of color later with different authors?
I suspect the answer has something to do with how tightly The Establishment in general, and The Industry in particular, will twist itself into Gordian knots to avoid fully facing its role in treating people of color as a uniform, sanded-down monolith. Dump us all into the bin marked “Other,” whatever our race or gender or sexuality or national origin.
Then again, is it fair to expect a single issue of a superhero comic to adequately illuminate the scope of anti-Japanese and anti-Asian atrocities, both in thought and deed, in which America has wallowed for so long?
To which I ask: if it’s not, why did DC take it on to begin with?
True, if I wanted to read a thorough history of anti-Japanese and anti-Asian sentiment in America, The Other History of the DC Universe #3 probably wouldn’t be my first choice. But I’m not asking for a full academic reckoning here; all I want is an outline with no huge gaps. Imagine drawing a chalk outline of a person’s body: I’m not going to object if you didn’t provide detailed facial features, but I am going to object if you didn’t include a head at all. The Other History of the DC Universe #3 is a body missing its head.
Then I ask: if superhero comics are fundamentally unable to pull off talking about these topics, what’s the point of superhero comics? What’s the point of any of this?
Considering that superhero comics are all about ways of exercising great power – responsible versus thoughtless, ethical versus unethical, constructive versus destructive – it feels like a hollow excuse to suggest that the manifestations, effects, and underlying ideologies of racism and racialized misogyny are beyond their purview. Isn’t a superhero comic a perfect place to talk about the hate and fear that prop up murderous, violent structures of power? And if it isn’t, what are we even doing here? Why read them? Why create them? Why write about them, like I’m doing right now?
Really, the problem isn’t that superhero comics can’t discuss these things in the ways they need to be discussed. It’s that they won’t, and I don’t think the industry quite realizes how deep this problem runs.
Looming over The Other History of the DC Universe #3, even larger than the omission of Japanese and other Asian women’s experiences in America, is the unanswered question of why Katana is Katana.
Why would a relatively young Japanese woman in the 1980s, a woman modern enough to seek corporate employment before turning to crime, take up a samurai sword and use it to kill people? Although gun ownership was even rarer in Japan then than it is now, guns and other modern weapons were extant in the country, so it’s a huge mystery why she needed to haul a big-ass sword around. Yes, the sword thing begins with her yakuza brother-in-law showing up to her house and using the sword to kill her husband, but that begets another question: namely, why did he have a damn sword? Surely the yakuza had money for less unwieldy weapons.
Why would that same Japanese woman wear a huge rising sun, the symbol of Imperial Japan, on her costume? Baffling, considering that as a Japanese woman in Japan, there wouldn’t be much question as to her nationality. It’s true that Japan’s prime minister at the time, Yasuhiro Nakasone, was pushing for a resurgence of nationalism, some of which related to the country’s history in World War II. However, I’ve seen the Rising Sun emblem on other Japanese characters’ clothes in comics after Nakasone stepped down, which – along with, well, general racism – leads me to believe that the artists were just doing stereotypes rather than trying to make any sort of commentary on then-contemporary Japanese politics.
Also, why does Katana appear to be unstuck in time? The character debuted in 1983, so presumably we are to read her origin as events unfolding in that year. But the outfits everyone is wearing in the battle scene in her origin story, not to mention her huge Edo-period house, are straight out of a samurai drama. Somebody watched too many Kurosawa movies, I suspect.
The answer to all these is simple: because we aren’t people.
Not to the white-dominated industry, at least. There, Japanese people (and other Asian people) exist mainly as collections of tropes and stereotypes, ready to have the distinctive bits of our humanity lopped off so we can fit into whatever anime- and Kurosawa-influenced display cases are already waiting for us. Like Cinderella’s sisters trying to fit their feet into the shoe, but with weeb bullshit instead of toes and heels. It’s not just the characters we see on the page, either; it’s the people who decide what gets to be on the page.
For a prime example of what this looks like, cast your mind back to November 17, 2017, when C. B. Cebulski became the editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics.
Soon after his appointment was announced, it emerged that Cebulski had previously written several comics under the pseudonym “Akira Yoshida”: bad enough by itself, but made worse by the fact that he had created an entire Japanese persona for “Akira Yoshida,” going so far as to enlist an actual Japanese person to pretend to be “Akira Yoshida” in interviews, and capitalized on the supposed authenticity of the storylines written by “Akira Yoshida”. These tended to be set in Japan with Japanese characters who were obsessed with honor, samurai tropes, and martial arts.
At the time these comics were published, Cebulski also worked as an editor at Marvel, contravening the company’s rule against freelancers or employees holding simultaneous creator and editor roles, and, many pointed out, taking a paycheck that could have gone to someone else – perhaps even someone Asian.
Despite the anger in many circles over these revelations, Cebulski (or as I like to call him, Honorable Senpai Akira Yoshida) is still Marvel Comics’ editor-in-chief.
Yes, yes, I know DC is not Marvel, and yes, I know DC Comics’ Chief Creative Officer is Jim Lee, i.e. an actual Asian person. Nevertheless, the Cebulski fiasco being unresolved, or more accurately being resolved in the most unsatisfying way, speaks to a problem with the comics industry – and, I would venture, to nerd culture industries as a whole – wherein Asianness is nothing more than a commodity to be seized, tokenized (in the literal sense), shrugged on and off and then discarded when it’s no longer trendy.
That’s why Katana is Katana.
Maybe probing this too far might have caused an existential landslide that compromised the viability of the entire comic. In which case, I’d suggest writing a different comic, or at least a different single issue; can’t really talk about race in your comic if you’re not going to talk about race in comics.
But in a comic that seeks to tackle difficult, painful topics surrounding race in America, why avoid the biggest question of all? Especially in a time when Asian women in America are suffering to an extent we haven’t felt in a while, and when many comics fans are still reeling from the utter kick in the face that is “Akira Yoshida”. If you’re not going to look beyond the tropes or consider what America has inflicted upon Asian women and sought to impose upon our femininity and identities, then leave us alone so we can write our own stories.
The Other History of the DC Universe #3
Story by John Ridley
Layouts by Giuseppi Camuncoli
Finishes by Andrea Cucchi
Coloured by Jose Villarubbia
Lettered by Steve Wands
Kelly Kanayama is a writer and comics scholar who is literally writing the book on Garth Ennis. Don’t believe me? Have a look at her Patreon page here! You can also find Kelly on Twitter here!
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