Asian Arts Initiative presents “Marvels & Monsters”

Arts / Article

Knight Arts Challenge Finalist Asian Arts Initiative currently has on display “Marvels & Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in U.S. Comics 1942 – 1986”. Curated by Jeff Yang, the show is a collaboration with the Asian / Pacific / American Institute at NYU, which presents the vast comic book collection of William F. Wu in a way that examines how stereotypes of Asian identity have been shaped by portrayal in comics.

One of the major sources of written information during their heyday (even more widely read than newspapers at one point), comics have played a huge role in shaping American culture during the time that scholar Wu compiled his collection. The images of Asians began from the peak of World War II, when racist and xenophobic propaganda was at its strongest and continued to culminate archetypical characters until much more recently.

Illustrations from a wide cross-section of comics are installed along all of the gallery’s walls. Mixed with these images are placards of text detailing Yang’s breakdown of stereotypes apparent in the genre. Yang details eight specific character types that he culled from the literature: the Guru, the Brain, the Temptress, the Manipulator, the Alien, the Kamikaze, the Brute and the Lotus Blossom. Each archetype has multiple frames of comic examples and a short description. The Guru, for instance, is the wise mystic that speaks in riddles, while the Temptress uses her sexual prowess to betray protagonists. The many examples and included analyses reveal that these cookie-cutter characters were not only common but, for a time, a ubiquitous part of graphic fiction.

Marvels & Monsters group

Also very enlightening is the installation “Shades of Yellow,” which matches the skin-tones of Asian characters to their corresponding Pantone hue. The shades range from almost brown to bright, obnoxious yellow and demonstrate how even the colors selected tell a lot about the underlying impressions. There are also life-size cutouts through which visitors can place themselves into the role of these characters.

“When I began this collection, it was because I realized that popular culture reaches virtually everyone,” says Wu. “These iconic images — good and bad — have real-world effects on people’s perceptions of themselves and those around them.” Indeed, although comic books in today’s world seem somewhat innocuous, they have certainly influenced decades of readers with generalized depictions of their Asian neighbors. The show brings itself up to the present with a collection of contemporary graphic novels by Asian-American creators which show how the depictions have changed.

In a medium traditionally associated with young readers, Yang notes that the portrayals examined in this exhibit are particularly shocking. Bringing them to light, however, can prove to be empowering and helpful for Asian-Americans, as well as provide useful insights for American culture at large.

There will also be an open mic night on Friday, Feb. 17 at 7:30 p.m. with veteran comic artist Larry Hama, whose works include X-Men and G.I. Joe. Come listen to some music, check out the exhibit and hear firsthand from an Asian-American artist that has worked in the industry.

The Asian Arts Initiative Gallery is located at 1219 Vine St.; 215-557-0455.