Paperback: 208 pages
Publisher: New Press (April 14, 2009)
by Keith Chow (Author), Jerry Ma (Editor), Parry Shen (Editor), Jeff Yang (Editor)
So what’s the deal with Hollywood’s current fascination with superheroes? They’re not just cartoon characters – they’re modern American mythology, only more personal. Greek kids couldn’t dream of growing up to be Hercules but look at Spiderman. He’s an ordinary geeky kid who gets bitten by a radioactive spider. And the X-men. They’ve got these incredible powers but they’re still outcasts.
That’s why comics have always been a refuge for kids who are shy or socially awkward. And I think for Asian Americans the parallels are even stronger. You’re an outsider, you don’t fit in. But then you go to school and meet other people like yourself. You discover your secret heritage – the things inside you that make you special. Go to any comic book convention and a quarter of the kids are Asian. A lot of the top artists are Asian American too. So why aren’t there more Asian superheroes?
The good news is, now there are more Asian superheroes. Secret Identities opens with the above prologue
by Jeff Yang and explores the Asian American identity and the influence of comic books on it.
Secret Identities is a new exploration of Asian American identity in the form of comic book super heroes and it accomplishes this on a number of extraordinary levels. Inside Secret Identities are 26 unique stories written and drawn by Asian Americans.
First Secret Identities works as a compilation of thought provoking short comics written by a large number of talented people from both inside the comic book industry and from without. On the basic level of anthologized tales loosely organized by a common theme it succeeds. The stories are thought provoking, fun and at times captivating. The art is wonderful and covers a wide range of styles. Storytelling is good, ranging from standard comic book fair through satirical looks at every day life to the examination of tough subjects that transcend the black and white ink on the pages, Secret Identities is first and foremost a worthwhile and entertaining read.
As all comic book fans know, there is always more to a comic than onomatopoeia, spandex, superpowers and capes. Deep introspection on the part of the characters, thought provoking story lines and the study of the human condition from unique perspectives are expected in most modern comics. Secret Identities is no exception nor does it disappoint. The hopes, dreams, fears and the realities of being Asian American are a part of this book. The intention is not to separate the Asian American experiences but to tell them from individual perspectives and in a way that is appealing to all readers. Secret Identities succeeds on this level as well. It asks the reader to consider what it means to be Asian American as the 26 stories explore stereotypes, dreams and aspirations, fears and goals.
Many of the stories are loosely connected and range from pre-civil war era America through modern times, with focus on certain historical events such as World War 2, the American internment camps, the silver age of comics through the 60’s and 70’s, the modern era and beyond.
Not all of them are wholly concerned with the historical record and the place of Asian Americans in modern society. Take Long by Martin Hsu. A simple yet elegant romp with a boy who can fly – who wouldn’t want to fly, right?
Other stories tackle weighter subjects. 9066 written by Jonathon Tsuei with art by Jerry Ma looks at the Japanese American internment camps of World War II from the perspective of a superhero who once worked to help all Americans and is now imprisoned alongside a small minority of them.
16 Miles is a retelling of the unfortunate accident that befell James Kim and his family. James, a TV personality and writer for CNET perished after he with his family became lost in an Oregon blizzard. After spending close to a week waiting for help, James walked 16 miles through snow covered back country, 33,000 steps, before collapsing and dying while searching for rescue for his family. 16 Miles looks at James’ heroic act from a slightly different universe where super powers exist and serves to shine a light on real life heroes in our own, more mundane seeming universe. One continuous message throughout this (and many other) comic book compilation is that it’s not the superpowers that make the superhero but rather how they use them and how they choose to live their lives.
I am not Asian American and at the conclusion of this book I couldn’t tell you what it feels like to be Asian American. I can say that I have a deeper understanding of the struggles and the identity issues that many Asian Americans must deal with – whether it’s once in their lives or on a daily basis. This work of fiction contains not just grains of truth but deep insights into how it is to live as an Asian American. Like any good work of fiction in any genre it consistently encourages the reader to think about others, to put themselves in the position of someone else and see that the fictional other, while they have their differences, are still more similar to us than not. If that reader has gone through similar struggles in their own lives this work offers an ally in this fictional world that they can relate to their own entirely nonfictional existence. Isn’t that why we engage with all of these words and drawings in the first place? That is a powerful thing.
Reading this was an experience for me as well, not only for a glimpse into the lives and thoughts of other people I would not normally get to see but while I am not Asian American, my daughters are. I’ll never truly know what their experience of growing up in America will be like. I’ll be there with them while they grow and learn but I have grown up in entirely different circumstances. I will not be them. What I took away from Secret Identities – starting with the the title, will certainly grant me a deeper understanding of the struggles my two beautiful girls may encounter within themselves and from the world around them. That too is a powerful thing and in a world without the flying or X-ray vision, it’s a power we could all use.
There’s this guy we know – quiet, unassuming, with black hair and thick glasses He’s doing his best to fit in, in a world far away from the land of his birth. He knows he’s different and that his differences make him an alien, an outsider – but they also make him special. Yet he finds himself unable to reveal his true self to the world. . . .
[tags]comic books,literature, reviews, secret identities[/tags]