Among all the superheroes in the Marvel and DC universes who are of Asian heritage, a very small percentage of them are Asian American, and as we know (most of us, hopefully), Asian is not the same thing as Asian American. Unfortunately, that distinction often still gets lost both on social media and in the mainstream American media.
As it is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, I thought I’d look at the Asian American superheroes who are out there (there aren’t that many) and name the ones that I personally think are best.
There were a few criteria I used for my selection:
• All characters must be American by birth or naturalization. Thus, no Psylocke or Sunfire.
• All characters must be superheroes, not just regular human characters. So no Glenn of The Walking Dead or Agent Chu of Chew (fine characters though they are).
• Characters will not be considered if, in my view, they have “orientalized” features or their ethnicity is an overly prominent feature of their appearance (for example, having the Japanese flag printed on their costume).
11. Rina Patel / Timslip (Marvel)
Created by: Evan Skolnick / Patrick Zircher
Ethnic background: Indian American
Affiliation: New Warriors
Recommended book(s): New Warriors (1990) #68 – #71 “Future Shock”
Timeslip was a mutant superhero who, briefly during the mid-90s, became a part of the New Warriors. Despite interesting powers and a cool costume, she slipped into obscurity after the conclusion of the 90s run of New Warriors (with the exception of brief appearances during the Civil War and Initiative storylines). From the get-go, Rina presented a problematic character to write for given the paradoxical nature of her powers: she could “swap” her present consciousness into the body of her past or future self, while the consciousness of her past or future self would come into her present-day body. If you think about it, this presents all kinds of continuity challenges for writers. This, combined with her lack of combat skills in a genre which is primarily action-oriented, made it likely that she’d be pushed to the wayside. Still, she was pretty cool while she lasted.
10. Kevin Kho / OMAC (DC)
Created by: Dan DiDio / Keith Giffen
Ethnic background: Cambodian American
Affiliation: Justice League International (New 52)
Due to the early cancellation of both his self-titled New 52 series and Justice League International, we never got to see Kevin Kho’s full potential as a character developed. And to be honest, the character design needed some work (that mohawk, ugh). But we include him here for being, first of all, of the lesser represented Southeast Asian heritages, and also for being hopelessly, but amusingly, obsessive-compulsive. Any stereotype, even a positive one, becomes problematic when it becomes accepted as the default reality, and more than a few Asian Americans have had an uneasy relationship with the “model minority” stereotype while growing up, especially if they didn’t fit into it. It helps to see fictitious Asian American characters in the media who are just as angst-ridden and screwed up as anyone else.
9. Element Woman / Emily Sung (DC)
Created by: Geoff Johns / Jim Lee / Andy Kubert
Ethnic background: Korean American
Affiliation: Justice League / Doom Patrol (New 52)
This is the New 52 version of the character, not the original, though like the original she is basically a female version of Metamorpho. In his original notes for the character, writer-creator Geoff Johns wrote, “[her] breath smells like chalk, transmutes body into any element or compound, colorful exterior and smile hides sadness, closer talker and socially awkward.” Notice there’s nothing about her being Asian. Like all good characters she was defined by her personality and powers, not her ethnicity, and a delightful yet complex personality it was—scatterbrained and borderline schizophrenic with an airy demeanor that belied her sincerity and compassion. It’s too bad the Justice League didn’t seem to know quite what to do with her and she soon found herself a member of the new Doom Patrol where, perhaps, her eccentricity was better suited.
8. Jubilation Lee / Jubilee (Marvel)
Created by: Chris Claremont / Marc Silvestri
Ethnic background: Chinese American
Affiliation: The X-Men / Generation X / New Warriors
Sure, Jubilee gets some hate and has often been the brunt of jokes due to her once arguably lame powers (before she lost them and became a vampire, that is). And, yes, she has often been an annoying brat. But by sheer longevity the character has seen more evolution than any other on this list, going from plain Jubilee of the X-Men, to senior member of Generation X, to Wondra of the New Warriors, to vampire Jubilee. And you can’t be a core member of a group as popular as the X-Men, or Wolverine’s intermittent sidekick, for over twenty years and not deserve some respect for that fact alone. All this wins her a relatively high ranking on this list. So here’s to you, Jubilation Lee. Thanks for representing all these years.
7. David Kim / Xombi (DC)
Created by: John Rozum / Denys Cowan
Ethnic background: Korean American
Recommended books(s): Xombi (2012)
Kim, as many know, is an extremely common Korean surname. And David is one of those biblical names so dearly loved by Korean American parents such that David Kim has become the Asian American equivalent of John Smith. But this David Kim is no ordinary, boring character. Injected with nanotechnology that gave him rapid tissue regeneration, David was pretty much as unkillable as Wolverine or Deadpool and had the power to manipulate matter on a molecular level like Firestorm. With Kim as the thoughtful hero supported by a quirky cast of genuinely fascinating characters like Catholic Girl, Nun the Less and Nun of the Above (brilliant names!), the 2011 comic series was a terrific hybrid of more traditional superhero fare and occult-influenced titles such as Vertigo’s original Hellblazer. It really is too bad that it was discontinued. Had it been allowed to run longer, David Kim might have earned a higher spot on this list as he was a very interesting character.
6. Ryan Choi / Atom (DC)
Created by: Grant Morrison / Gail Simone
Ethnic background: Chinese/Korean American mix
Affiliation: Justice League
Originally from Hong Kong but later naturalized as an American citizen, Ryan Choi succeeded Ray Palmer to become the fourth hero to take up the name of Atom. Unlike some other characters on this list, Ryan Choi did not quickly fall into obscurity or have his comic title cancelled. Perhaps this had partly to do with the fact that Atom was a legacy superhero name and there was already an existing fan base for it. Or perhaps it also had to do with the fact that the comic was just a lot of fun, filled with action, humor and science. Choi, moreover, went against a stereotype of Asian male characters that was still common during the 90s when The All-New Atom was launched. Asian males were often portrayed as being asexual and this has largely been the case in general throughout much of the history of popular media, but Ryan was portrayed as quite the ladies’ man, and without even trying to be at that.
5. Cindy Moon / Silk (Marvel)
Created by: Dan Slott / Humberto Ramos
Ethnic background: Korean American
When Silk was first introduced in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man there really wasn’t the need for yet another Spider character. So in my mind she initially got some point deductions for being yet another Spider character in a world, Earth-616, that was already crowded with them (I don’t share the same reservation for alternate universe Spider characters). She was also, at least at first, a relatively uninteresting love interest for Spidey as written by Dan Slott. But in the hands of writer Robbie Thompson and artists Stacey Lee and later Tana Ford, the character came into her own in her eponymous series as a genuinely likable and endearing character with a spunky, Parkeresque sense of humor. But that’s not all she was. Her origin story of being locked up in a bunker for ten years, with all the psychological and mental health issues that something like that would bring with it, whether you approach it symbolically or literally, belied her jocular exterior, and her therapy sessions with Dr. Sinclair would eventually become an important and defining highlight of the book.
4. Grace Choi (DC)
Created by: Judd Winick / Tom Raney
Ethnic background: unspecified Asian/Bana Amazonian (fictitious) ancestry
Affiliation: Outsiders, Birds of Prey
Few Asian American characters have gone against type in any narrative medium as much as Grace Choi. Back when she was first introduced in the pages of Outsiders #1 (2003), the dominant trend for Asian female characters in popular media was still, at the time, to be depicted as sultry, diminutive, soft-spoken, mysterious and exotic (i.e. the geisha-type). Grace was none of these things. Towering over most other characters at an “unfeminine” height of seven feet, headstrong, foul-mouthed, muscular and covered in tribal tattoos, she was anything but exotic and sultry. She was also an inspirational model for overcoming past sexual abuse. Whereas the stereotype for characters who have been sexually abused is to feel ambivalence or disgust towards their own sexuality, Grace was confident and healthy in her active, bisexual lifestyle and was in full control of her own power and sexuality. (Note: Though “Choi” is a Korean surname, Grace has not been revealed to specifically be Korean American.)
3. Amadeus Cho / The Hulk (Marvel)
Created by: Greg Pak / Takeshi Miyazawa
Ethnic background: Korean American
Truthfully, I was a bit skeptical when Marvel first announced that Korean American character Amadeus Cho would be taking over as the new Hulk. This was part of a string of changes Marvel had been making at the time, another one being the female Thor. As much as I believed that comics should have more diversity, at the time it almost like Marvel was trying too hard. That, coupled with the fact that I wasn’t previously a fan of Amadeus Cho, made me somewhat reluctant to read the comic for the beginning of its run. Recently, though, I read the first couple of volumes. The first few issues almost confirmed my initial reluctance in that Cho’s bratty teenage personality nearly undermined the tortured quality of the Bruce Banner/Hulk dichotomy that has always made the Hulk one of the most compelling characters in comics. But then, somewhere along the line writer Greg Pak starts to mine deeper and explores the idea of the Hulk power as being inextricably tried to issues of rage, no matter how bubbly the person who’s bearing that power may be (kind of like how the One Ring will eventually start to corrupt even the purest of hobbit hearts). And while Cho’s anger issues don’t involve matters of race and ethnicity per se, to see an Asian American character who’s normally seen as being affable and cute grapple with an anger that threatens to destroy everything is powerfully symbolic and hits close to home for any Asian American who has ever struggled with racism-induced rage.
2. Kamala Khan / Ms. Marvel (Marvel)
Created by: G. Willow Wilson / Sana Amanat / Stephen Wacker / Adrian Alphona
Ethnic background: Pakistani American
Upon her introduction Marvel’s Kamala Khan was promoted as the Peter Parker for a contemporary YA audience, an adolescent everyman (in the gender neutral sense) for a more multicultural America. It was a description that turned out to be quite accurate, and fears that she might be a token gesture pandering to progressive readers were alleviated in the early issues of Ms. Marvel. Again, as with All-New Atom and Totally Awesome Hulk, she was created to fill in the shoes of a preexisting character, but in this case only the name was borrowed, and Kamala’s powers were unique to herself. More importantly, in an age when it can be tricky to portray Muslim American characters in a way that is both sensitive and realistic and at the same time isn’t patronizing or sensational, writer G. Willow Wilson nails it, making Kamala very much of her family’s culture and ethnic heritage but also universally relatable.
1. Cassandra Cain / Batgirl (DC)
Created by: Kelley Puckett / Damion Scott / Jordan B. Gorfinkel / Alex Maleev (costume)
Ethnic background: Biracial / Chinese American
Affiliation: Batman family / Outsiders
For my money, Cassandra Cain is one of the most compelling Asian American superheroes I’ve seen in comics, whose run as Batgirl nearly (though not quite) equals the greatness of pre-New 52 Barbara Gordon/Oracle. It’s not her background as the ultimate assassin, which is trite. It’s the way she starts out being mute/semi-mute due to the abuse from her father, the assassin David Cain, who raised her so that physical combat would be her only “language”. Her haunting cowl, with the lower half sewn over with a patch of fabric, spoke volumes about trauma-induced silence in the face of abuse. Much like Batman himself, she was an uncompromising character willing to give up everything, including her life, to be truly great at what she does and to redeem her tortured past. And her relationship with Lady Shiva, especially a certain promise she makes to her in a pivotal moment, is the stuff of comics legend.