Yesterday, we looked at the Russian (read: Communist) superheroes who populate the comic universes of the Big Two. Today’s post concerns Chinese super-doers, as you’ll have guessed from the Bowie/Iggy reference.
Undoubtedly, Chinese characters in comics were shaped by the existential terror of the Yellow Peril: the dread of the West being conquered by degenerate and occult powers. This terror began in America with legal immigration and was fed by the Boxer Rebellion.
In Britain, lurid tales of white slavery and opium dens in Limehouse created childhood fears of Glasgow dockside Lascars in my mother’s mind. The torrent of pig-tailed barbarians led by a sinister intelligence, writhing in the psychosexual landscape of America, surfaces in comics in various ways.
Wing and Stuff, kid partners to the Crimson Avenger and Vigilante are redeemed by their youth, cultural assimilation, comedic value and/or stupidity. Chronologically, the next Chinese characters to feature are deathless, diabolical masterminds, in the Fu Manchu or Shiwan Khan mould.
The Mandarin, an imitator of the earlier Yellow Claw and Dr. Sun ( a Marvel version of the Doom Patrol’s Brain) are often seen as more loathsome than their American or European lackeys. Even the name of Ming the Merciless suggest this brand of “yellow deviltry” extends into space.
The pre-FF monster mags also feature Communist Chinese terrors. Fin Fang Foom, the phenomenally popular extra-terrestrial dragon-creature, however, is an ambivalent ally of the West.
Racialist anxieties would explain the rapid modification of Dr. Strange’s Asiatic appearance.
As with the Russian or “Bodavian” villains in Iron Man, toxic Buddha the Radioactive Man gains his horrible, lethal powers from Communist science- an ideological development of Chinese malevolence. Chen Lu has sometimes reformed, apparently but such is his Chinese treachery, it’s never permanent. ( Is my tone clear enough? I once had a squabble with a colleague about the use of “Oriental” in reference to people. )
The flipside of Chinese inscrutability might have begun in comics with spiritual seekers like the Beats and the Hippies discovering Buddhist ideas. I Ching ( a terribly unsubtle name) mentored the Diana Rigg Wonder Woman for a while.
For 70s kids like me, tv show such as David Carradine’s Kung Fu and later The Water Margin -a Japanese adaptation of one of the Four Great Classical Novels of China- presented Chinese martial artists in a positive and glamorous light.
Bruce Lee’s portrayal of Kato in the Green Hornet and his phenomenal Enter the Dragon role blended with the Pulp Revival ( Rohmer’s Fu Manchu) to create Marvel’s most enduring Chinese hero:
Shang-Chi is actually half-Chinese ( wasn’t his mother Marilyn Monroe?) and quite recently joined the Avengers. During the 70s, UK kids doubtlessly swooned for the philosophical fighter with the poppa issues. They would again , I think: I currently live in a town with a population of around 20,000 and three martial arts clubs.
Lin Sun was the nominal leader of the Tiger Sons but was something of a weak Shang-Chi knock-off. Another well-known Chinese Marvel star joined the X-Men a decade later. As Wolverine’s sidekick, her design made witty reference to the Carrie Kelly Robin. Lately, she’s been a vampire, probably because lots of grown men find her teen sass and firework powers too silly.
It amuses me to think how the fanmen must hate Jubilee’s role as the X-Men’s leader and part-time Avenger in the MC2 universe.
In the 90s and beyond, Marvel have depicted several Chinese national heroes: the Collective Man, the Jade Dragon and even a group not dissimilar to DC’s Great Ten:
And at DC, the seductive Dragon Lady archetype continued (in spite of Jubilee), first with New Guardian Gloss, with her Feng Shui powers:
and later, in the form of the 2000s Batgirl.
The third Batgirl is a Eurasian protagonist like Shang-Chi, with whom she shares character beats. Once mute and illiterate, Cassandra Cain had a horribly abusive childhood and has been a pawn of Deathstroke and the League of Assassins. A typically grim Bat-character, she’s struggled to find a place since Final Crisis.
The Legion’s future features two Chinese characters, who draw upon the tropes we’ve seen in this post. Dragonmage was a short-lived 90s Legionnaire whose sorcerer’s powers manifest as dragon holograms. Visually interesting but frustratingly vague, like all LSH mages.
More recently, the fire-breathing Dragonwing was introduced just before the New 52, as part of a move to bring more modern-day diversity to the inter-species LSH ( vide flamboyant super-bear, Gravity Kid) . Not only is her venom power unappealing, her futuristic cape would be impractical to draw.One of the things I didn’t like about Levitz’s New 52 comics were the dated tropes: Dragonwing’s China is heavily polluted -with a sea on fire– and fanatic nationalists augment themselves with super powers. It all reminds me of the Marvel 2099 comics ( or Unionist prophecies of Scotland).
Harmonia was an elemental and an immortal who was added to the Legion when the New 52 began. An enigmatic” celestial” stereotype, I have no idea what the point was of making her a member in addition to Dragonwing. I suspect that when the Legion returns to comics, none of these Legionnaires will appear.
So, out of the martial artists and mystics, only Shang-Chi and Jubes really make an impact.
next: Big in Japan
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