By William F. Wu
When George first invited me to join Wild Cards so many years ago, I was especially excited by the idea because I had spent so many years reading comics. I had also studied a class on comics in graduate school and participated some in comics fandom. Anthologies and braided novels telling stories in the vein of comics were a new concept and the characters and settings have ranged widely.
When a controversy arose a few years ago about the Netflix TV show Iron Fist, based on a Marvel comic in the 1970s, I missed the debate at first because I wasn’t paying attention to developments in TV. In early 2017, the issues of cultural appropriation and the protagonist’s race in the show had grown considerably. Author Scott Edelman, an old friend of mine, emailed a scan from one of the comic books in 1974 and said, “It was you, right?”
I started laughing and wrote back confirming that, yes, that’s me. Still laughing at the oddity of having a letter of comment in a 1974 comic book circulating in 2017, I got myself up to date on the controversy about the new TV show, which has since been cancelled. (By the way, neither the house nor the address in the old letter still exist. The above address was eliminated when the house was torn down.) The scan of the letter appeared on several websites covering the 2017 controversy. I don’t know who first saw it or remembered it, then scanned and uploaded it.
I haven’t laughed, except cynically, about the complexities of cultural appropriation. The subject affects me from two sides. For that reason, I was careful in the letter to make the point that Marvel could have broken new ground, but not to make a flat statement that the racial choice was simply wrong.
On one hand, I’m one of many people—of many cultural and racial backgrounds—who have been weary and angry for a long time regarding white protagonists showing up in cultures unfamiliar to them and then besting all the local people. Tarzan is just one example that survived for many generations, crossing from prose fiction to comics, movies, and TV. So many others exist that I won’t bother with a list.
On the other hand, as an author, I have another concern. After all, I’ve written about characters with a range of racial and ethnic identities, and sometimes from a female viewpoint. Pressuring writers into too many limitations go against the ongoing cultural mix of our interconnected world.
The issues of cultural appropriation in the big picture are open to legitimate debate. I’ve never wanted censorship of any kind. For many generations, editors at publishing companies exercised judgements related to business matters as well as personal preferences, sometimes in effect collectively censoring many voices. Now the ability to self-publish is open to nearly everyone. These matters should be debated from every direction.
The attitude that criticisms of cultural appropriation should carry no weight certainly remains. Longtime comic book writer and editor Roy Thomas was interviewed by Inverse.com on March 17, 2017, partly regarding the Iron Fist controversy: “I have so little patience for some of the feelings that some people have. I mean, I understand where it’s coming from. You know, cultural appropriation, my god. It’s just an adventure story. Don’t these people have something better to do than to worry about the fact that Iron Fist isn’t Oriental, or whatever word? I know Oriental isn’t the right word now, either.”
I was always a fan of Roy Thomas’s writing. I bought a full run of his Conancomic book and many other comics he wrote and edited. The Iron Fistdebate is about judgement calls.
I get it that he does not have the life experience of someone like me; I deal with other people’s views of me based on my appearance and last name fairly often and have to be prepared to do so for every time I leave home. I have always believed, as my parents and others in their generation did, that popular culture presentations play a significant role in forming public opinions of various groups of people in society. That includes ethnic, racial, religious, and gender issues in the most encompassing sense.
So when Roy Thomas says, “It’s just an adventure story. Don’t these people have something better to do?” the answer for me and many other people is “No, this influences our everyday lives.” Taken together, stories in comics, prose fiction, and from Hollywood can be life-changing for many people. Any of them can become part of the culture we live in.
Thomas said in the same interview: “He was a character for a comic book at a different time. It’s very easy to second-guess anything. You can argue about Tarzan, you can argue about almost any character who came up then is bound to be not quite PC by some later standard or other.”
Yes, standards are always changing. However, I wrote that letter to him back in 1974 when the comic was new. I found Iron Fistdisappointing at the time it first appeared. I was not the only person I knew back then who believed that Marvel could have made Iron Fista cutting-edge comic by making the protagonist Asian. Marvel pioneered African American characters Black Panther and Luke Cage, though I know that both involved controversies as well.
I have always respected the fact that Roy Thomas printed my letter. He did not give a response to it.
In the interview, he also said, “On the other hand, if they had decided to make Iron Fist an Asian, that would have been fine with me, too. I wouldn’t have cared.”
I believe him.
Finally, in regard to critics, he said: “It’s a perfectly respectable thing, but I think you should try to put yourself in their [the creators’] shoes instead of constantly complaining because they didn’t do exactly what you think they should have done. Rather than having that, you should go out and do it yourself.”
That takes me to Wild Cards.
Doing it yourself is a legitimate challenge, though readers of any work have a right to express an opinion without becoming writers. I had been writing stories and poetry since I was very young but by 1974, I was writing short stories and submitting them in the hope of becoming published professionally. When I wrote that letter, I considered myself “in the arena,” though without much success yet.
I’ve never wanted to write about the kind of old-fashioned, fundamentally unflawed super protagonists I often read about when I was young. Also, I’ve never said that no one should write about villains of East Asian descent. I prefer flawed protagonists and antagonists whose motives and goals go beyond their racial and ethnic identities.
George’s invitation to join Wild Cards long ago certainly brought me back to all my years of reading comics and, of course, writing letters to comic books. I wanted my first character for Wild Cards to have the complexity I had rarely seen in comics. (I want to acknowledge here that Doug Moench with Master of Kung-Fudeveloped the character of Shang-Chi unusually well, starting in the 1970s.) My creation became two characters, twins who represent the yin-yang duality of Daoism. That phrase literally means male-female but also represents all dualities such as light-dark, good-evil, and so on.
The male twin, Ben Choy, is also Lazy Dragon, named after a Robin Hood-type character from Chinese folktales. This Lazy Dragon is caught up in a world of crime, however. His twin, Vivian, who in her Wild Cards role uses her Chinese name, Tienyu, is a police officer. (They appear in “Snow Dragon,” One-Eyed Jacks, 1991.) I described them in detail in my previous blog entry, so I’ll just make this point here: My goal was to create a character that would have the complexity I sought when I was writing letters that criticized the comic books that I grew up on and mostly loved a great deal. Characters with internal conflict are very common in prose fiction and much more common in comics now than when I was a kid. I didn’t want Ben or Tienyu to be simplistic.
The issue of cultural appropriation also involves the question of whether certain viewpoints can be well written by people from outside the culture that’s in question. The short answer is that of course they can be. The longer answer includes the kind of issue that takes me back to Iron Fist.
Iron Fist, as well as the novel Lost Horizon involving the fantasy land Shangri-La, and the Tarzan stories all have Caucasian protagonists who are used to view other cultures — which are fictional in all these cases. Their viewpoint means that readers can be introduced to the fictional culture as a newcomer would see them. This is a common story-telling tool and has often been used in fantasy and science fiction to introduce readers to other planets, universes, and futures. Yet a similar story about someone in the fictional culture could also be told.
One example from decades back is Charles R. Saunders’s first novel Imaro (1980), which was described on its cover as featuring the protagonist as “a black Tarzan.” Similarly, Iron Fist might easily have had a protagonist of East Asian descent discovering the distinctive environment that molds him.
Writing successfully from outside a culture has plenty of pitfalls. The first time I watched the film Year of the Dragon, a 1985 crime story starring Mickey Rourke,Ariane Koizumi, and John Lone, based on a novel by Robert Daley, I was involved in the story until I saw a scene in which Rourke’s character talks about Chinese American subjects. It hardly sounded to me like it was part of the storyline. To me, those lines of dialogue came across as though someone had researched some stuff to say to mollify critics of the depiction of New York’s Chinatown and were combined in a quick lecture almost arbitrarily. I don’t know if that’s true, but it came across that way to me. Protests also pushed the film’s creators to put a disclaimer about the depiction of Chinese Americans in the movie, the need for which is hardly a selling point. Still, my complaint was about the artificial sound of the dialogue.
Another potential pitfall is that, of course, no one’s in charge; individuals judge and debate the qualities of all creative works. My opinions are just my own, like everyone else’s. However, the accomplishment is possible.
As comics continue to move to Hollywood, Deadline.com reported this: “Marvel Studios is fast-tracking Shang-Chito be its first superhero movie tentpole franchise with an Asian protagonist. The studio has set Chinese-American scribe Dave Callahamto write the screenplay, and Deadline hears Marvel is already looking at a number of Asian and Asian-American directors who want to do something as potentially monumental as was accomplished in Marvel’s first viable Best Picture candidate, Black Panther. That film tied into African and African American cultures and the sensibilities of its nearly all-black cast, with a black director in Ryan Coogler and writer in Joe Robert Cole. The goal here is to do a similar thing: introduce a new hero who blends Asian and Asian American themes, crafted by Asian and Asian American filmmakers.”
I’m curious to see what happens.
The issue of cultural appropriation in storytelling depends a great deal on research and respect for the subject matter. Success depends on reader identification with characters, which in turn requires finding what I’ll call shared humanity even if, in the genres of fantasy and science fiction, the characters might not be human. That said, voices from inside a culture will usually be different, perhaps what I’ll call more viscerally knowledgeable. Then again, a writer within a group might not be much of a writer, so there are no guarantees.
Taken together, Wild Cards offers a huge range of characters with all kinds of appearances, backgrounds, and concerns. Its detailed and varied world comes alive precisely because of finding shared humanity.