Welcome back to our world tour of super-heroes from DC and Marvel. previously, we saw how the racialist fantasies of the Yellow Peril marred Chinese characters. Today, super-humans from the Land of the Rising Sun get their turn.
It’s difficult to remember in our world of sushi and Hello Kitty that Japan was an exotic, alien landscape in the Sixties and Seventies of my childhood. And the earliest Japanese characters in comics were shaped by popular culture in the wake of Pearl Harbor. Songs of the period included “We’ve Got To Do a Job on the Japs, Baby,” “Oh, You Little Son of an Oriental,” and “When Those Little Yellow Bellies Meet the Cohens and the Kellys,”
The “Japanazis” in 40s -era comics and include Wonder Woman’s Golden Age nemeses, the cross-dressing Princess Maru aka Dr. Poison and Kung, the assassin of 1000 Claws.
The fiendish Dr. Daka was of course the villain in the the 1943 Batman movie serial. He was co-opted into the DC Universe by Roy Thomas although Thomas did try to challenge discrimination and stereotypes- especially Japanese internment with other characters.
The first of these ( in terms of in-story continuity) was Gwenny-Lou Sabuki aka Golden Girl, who gained the power to generate concussive sunbursts. A sister heroine appeared in mid-80s stories All-Star Squadron and its successor, Young All-Stars. Tsunami had hydrokinetic powers but one of those rather negative, menacing code-names.
In historical terms, Thomas attempted to introduce international X-Men in the late Sixties, with fervent nationalist Sunfire.
The temperamental Shiro Yoshida (sometimes Yashida) was a symbol of Western guilt for Hiroshima. A villain’s dupe in his first appearance, Sunfire went on to confront Namor and Iron Man before an extremely fleeting membership of the All-New, all-Different X-Men of the 70s.
When Wolverine was moulded into a masterless samurai, reflecting mass-media interest in Japan after the success of the Shogun tv show, Sunfire made further intermittent appearances with the X-Men. In the alternate Age of Apocalypse universe, Shiro underwent further mutation and this “mecha” look has been a popular one:
In the 21st century, Sunfire was a member of the Avengers Unity Squad. Other popular Japanese characters in the X-Universe include the thief Yukio who had an implied romantic relationship with Storm; the murderous Lady Deathstrike and the Silver Samurai.
The masterless samurai archetype was embodied at DC by Katana, one of the more enduring Outsiders created in the early 80s.
Katana is interesting because she fulfills some of the Dragon Lady stereotypes, yet in her original incarnation, she is maternal and nurturing. Of course, she also borrows from Elric, with her cursed, parasitic sword. She has appeared as both a kabuki-inspired fighter in the New 52 and a parody of the lethal schoolgirl archetype from Kill Bill.
Dr. Light is another 80s heroine. Driven and unlikeable in her earliest appearances, her abrasive personality was later explained by the diet soda addiction device also used for Power Girl. She’s been a Justice Leaguer on a couple of occasions but the character is tainted by association with the rapes committed by her predecessor.
DC have had a couple of other solar-powered heroes, very similar to Sunfire, primarily in the late 70s and early 80s. The Rising Sun was one and the tv stuntman Sunburst another. The latter “looks” more dynamic, to me, however.
The honourable wrestler and mystic Sonny Sumo first appeared in the early 70s and was revived in Final Crisis. Like many Kirby Kreations, who knows what kind of wacky adventures he might have had., if the Fourth World had prospered at DC.
Recent X-movie star Psylocke appears to be a Japanese character but of course is a body-swapped English woman, who can manifest psionic psis and katanas. She was briefly known as Lady Mandarin and even more confusingly, she’s modelled on the assassin Elektra, who is Greek.
Big Hero Six were the stars of an animated movie and represented Marvel’s attempts in the 90s to capture the whimsy and sci-fi tropes of Manga. DC’s Big Science Action have much of the same flavour. As we can see, Sunfire briefly went down the “powers-are-killing me” route endured by Sun Boy and Jack of Hearts. You’ll also notice Claremont’s favourite Japanese villain, Silver Samurai on this team.
Armor is another young mutant who graduated to membership of the X-Men, this time in a tv anime. I like her because she makes a charming replacement for Colossus while contributing to the ethnic mix of the team.
Colleen Wing, a supporting character in the Iron Fist series of the Bronze Age was revealed to have samurai training and used those skills in Daughters of the Dragon episodes.
Japanese technological advancement, especially in terms of transistors and computer chips, was reflected in Ram, one of Englehart’s New Guardians. This team is probably the most reviled in DC’s modern history. Even JL Detroit are better respected. Ram was also something of a misogynist, IIRC.
The giant robot or mecha trope was most famously explored at Marvel by the Shogun Warrior toy tie-in but the House of Ideas had its own mecha in the form of Red RonIn:
Ronin was a cover identity for multiple heroes in the Avengers and the Ultimate Universe: Echo, Clint Barton, Moon Knight and Blade. As such, while utilising Japanese tropes, he/she isn’t a Japanese hero any more than Psylocke is.
Appearing in the legacy – hero team book Justice Society of Ameica and a gender-swapped version of a Charlton hero, the Judomaster of the Noughties was unable to master English, frustratingly and cleaved to the stereotype of the deadly and unattainable warrior maiden.
One of my favourite Legionnaires was half-Japanese and briefly helmed his own Bronze Age title, as DC came very late to the martial arts craze
We learned in the mid-70s that Val was the son of the villainous Black Dragon in a reveal that was verrry reminiscent of Shang-Chi. Only Dave Cockrum and Mike Grell really drew him as Eurasian- in fact Grell modeled Val on Bruce Lee. In the late sixties, KK was even, briefly, Legion leader. Here we see him with one of my favourite Legionanires who never was, Quantum Queen of the Wanderers,
Although he was fond of painting and flower arranging in the 60s, unfortunately Val laboured under another stereotype. He displayed a kamikaze impulse on more than one occasion and goes out fighting in his final conflict with Nemesis Kid.
The post-Zero Hour and Countdown versions of KK had more occidental features but I hope when the LSH returns, we see a Karate Kid more faithful to Shooter’s conception.
With that Japanese Boy, we conclude today’s post. In the future, we’ll revisit heroes from Hong Kong, Korea and Vietnam.
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