Shades of Yellow, part of the Asian Arts Initiative exhibition "Marvels and Monsters," is a good representative of the whole: It pairs eight comic-book depictions of the faces of Asian characters with Pantone color chips matched to the characters' skin tones; none are a color even remotely close to real-life skin. The (inevitably) imperfect color matching is more show than science, but the idea is clear enough: Comic books, once hugely powerful in American popular culture, were an easy avenue for racist distortions. The simplistic but vivid visual language (written language, too) of comics is particularly prone to isolating and telegraphing stereotypes. And the archetypal situations — life and death, heroes and villains, us and them — resonate profoundly, especially with young people still discovering their identities.
"I grew up reading comics and always loved them, but the Asian characters when I was young ranged mainly from stupid to evil to banal," said YA sci-fi writer William F. Wu, when chosen as the featured guest at the first Asian-American ComicCon. The young Wu started a side collection of American comics depicting Asian characters in 1942, and over 44 years marked by U.S. military conflicts in Asia and the culture clash of heavy immigration, it swelled to an enormous size. Wu drew on this collection for his doctoral dissertation at the University of Michigan, published in 1982 as The Yellow Peril, and "Marvels and Monsters" draws on it from its new home at NYU's Fales Library.
Curator Jeff Yang, writer, media consultant and author of the "Tao Jones" column for the Wall Street Journal, has constructed a memorable exhibition that addresses serious subjects in entertaining ways.
Eight iconic archetypes are explored in individual sections, each dominated by a larger-than-life cutout figure. There's the Alien, the mysterious outsider — a character we can never understand and, because of that, never trust. (It's provocative to remember the similarities between this archetype and comic-book depictions of literal aliens from another planet.) The Kamikaze, face contorted with fear, mindlessly sacrificing himself. An enemy soldier, he's surely the opposite of the patriotic American soldier throwing himself on a grenade to save his comrades. The Brute is another near-robot, incapable of sensitivity or subtle thought. It's OK to abuse or kill the Brute, because he isn't fully human.
Only two female types are represented, both young and beautiful. (The omission of the Crone — opium-den keeper, crafty madam, wily servant — may reflect the comic-book medium's masculine focus, but might also be a consequence of the biases of the exhibition planners.) The alluring, voluptuous Temptress is doubly mysterious and threatening, both alien and female. In contrast, the Lotus Blossom, a dainty Madame Butterfly, is the passive, feminine version of the Brute. Submissive, pliant and unquestioning, she is more pitiable than evil.
There's the enigmatic, otherworldly Guru, a useful teacher, and the brilliant but nerdy Brain. Then there's the Manipulator, the most dangerous character of all, wielding power behind the scenes and ruling cruelly without loyalty to any cause. He is the masculine, dominant form of the Temptress; both are often drawn with elongated, claw-like fingernails, a reflection of their vicious, non-human natures.
The best thing about "Marvels and Monsters" is its relatively light satirical touch, allowing us to laugh at things that were truly harmful. The show even provides freestanding cutouts so visitors can pose "inside the image" for photographs as comic-book characters. And there's a lot of wall text rendered in a comic font; headlines that probably would be signal yellow in print are unexpectedly bright (Caucasian) pink.
Marvels and Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in U.S. Comics 1942-1986," through March 23, Asian Arts Initiative, 1219 Vine St., 215-557-0455, asianartsinitiative.org.
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