Asian Superheroes Making Headlines
Updated: Jul 6, 2022
Written by: Joshua Lim
Published: March 22, 2022
The inspiration for this piece is due to two Asian superheroes, pictured above, who have been making headlines.
The official trailer for Ms. Marvel was released last week, on March 15, 2022. After pushbacks, the show is finally set to premiere on Disney+ on June 8, 2022, which will mark Marvel Studios’ first onscreen Muslim hero. The show will star Iman Vellani as Ms. Marvel. Iman is an 18-year-old York Region District School Board graduate from Markham, Ontario 🇨🇦! So, before the show starts, let’s dig into the comic history of Ms. Marvel.
The character Carol Danvers first appeared in Marvel Super-Heroes #13 in March 1968. Carol would later take the position of Captain Marvel, a superhero who was introduced in one issue early in Marvel Super-Heroes #12. Carol is also the first Ms. Marvel, debuting in her own solo series titled Ms. Marvel in January 1977. The debut of Carol Danver’s Ms. Marvel was considered progressive for its time, occurring on the coattails of the American feminist movements. The same character was used for Marvel Studios’ first female-led superhero film Captain Marvel (2019), one of the highest-grossing films of 2019 and all time.
Another prominent character, Monica Rambeau, has held the title Ms. Marvel (see for a more in-depth breakdown from bookriot). But the Ms. Marvel we are interested in is Kamala Khan.
Kamala Khan slowly worked her way into the Marvel Universe. She first appeared in a single panel as an anonymous background character in Captain Marvel #14 (September 2013). In it, the unassuming character is seen observing Captain Marvel, Carol Danvers, in action.
She then had a second cameo in Captain Marvel #17 (January 2014). We see teasers of the superhero’s background in this cameo: her continued inspiration in Captain Marvel, Pakistani origin, and superpowers are shown briefly.
The cover for this issue hinted at the passing of the Ms. Marvel torch with various characters in the Marvel costume. However, the second printing really brings this idea home, featuring only Kamal and in costume for the first time.
Kamala’s first full appearance as her superhero moniker, Ms. Marvel, was not until All New Marvel Now! Point One #1 (March 2014).
Kamala’s popularity would quickly garner her own solo series, Ms. Marvel: No Normal #1, in April 2014 and become marvel’s first Muslim character to headline her own comic book. Meryl Jaffe (2015) from the Comic Book Legal Defence Fund describes this series the best:
“2014’s Ms. Mavel: No Normal encompasses the first five issues of Marvel’s new reboot. It features a Muslim Pakistani American superheroine who struggles with identity issues whether she’s in or out of her costume. Despite everything like most teens, she’s just trying to figure out how to fit in. Kamala’s polymorph superpowers — which mean she can change her shape, size and form — are a wonderful metaphor that reflects her inner struggles as she stretches, bends, and recoils from the pressures all around her. Kamala not only struggles with her identity, but with the different ways and expectations of her religion, with the pressures and expectations from her strict (but nurturing) parents, and with her power as well.”
Meryl Jaffe has a PhD in Educational Psychology and has authored two books on using comics and graphics novels to teach literacy. She also writes various guides for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund’s League of Graphic Novel Educators’ Using Graphic Novels in Education series. You can check out her guide on Ms. Marvel: No Normal here.
Like Marvel’s original teen hero Peter Parker, Spider-Man, she balances her life as a teenage superhero with her commitments to school and family (Marston, 2022a). Spider-Man’s success was largely due to the character’s relatability (see Comics and Classrooms). However, Ms. Marvel represents the new age of superheroes made to be relatable to historically marginalized groups.
In the trailer, we see the comic consistency with Kamala’s love for cosplaying and idolization of Captain Marvel. However, her powers deviate from the comics, which are no longer limited to polymorphing and manifest through cosmic purple energy. We will have to wait until June to see what other differences the show’s head writer Bisha K. Ali will make for Kamala in the MCU. Bisha is no stranger to the MCU, working as a writer on Marvel’s popular 2021 Disney+ show, Loki. Along with her own Pakistani descent, we can be confident in whatever version of Kamal appears.
Though one thing I am hoping for is to see elements from the Champions series that started in December 2016. This is the same series mentioned in Comics and Classrooms that contains the issue of examining gun violence in schools. Kamala develops into Ms. Marvel through her relationships with other teenage superheroes on the super-team Champions in this comic series. (Teenage superheroes is one of the blog topics in the works!). We are also poised to see all three Ms. Marvels in the 2023 movie The Marvels.
In Comics and Classrooms, I wrote about the superhero Shang-Chi as an example of the
70s craze for the now cliché kung-fu archetype East Asian characters found themselves in. If Shang-Chi was the yin, then Iron Fist is the yang. Iron Fist first appeared in Marvel Premiere #15 (May 1974). Iron Fist would get his own series titled Iron Fist in 1975, led by industry titans Chris Claremont and John Byrne. Both are famous for their work on X-Men, a historically progressive series with progressive characters. Unfortunately, that progressiveness was not carried over to Iron Fist.
The characters origin goes as follows:
Fueled by a desire for revenge, nine-year-old Danny Rand spent a decade training in martial arts in the heavenly city of K’un-Lun. He eventually earned the title of Iron Fist, granting him even more power. Earning the power of the immortal dragon, Shau-Lao (寿老), Iron Fist can harness and channel chi as a weapon or a method of healing.
What did I tell you, classic mystical kung-fu! Danny Rand as Iron Fist is white saviorism and orientalism incarnate.
Iron Fist and Shang Chi would first cross paths in Master of Kung Fu Annual #1 (1976).
They would both make several appearances alongside other stereotypical East-Asian influenced characters (you can tell by the names) like The Sons of the Tiger, The White Tiger, and The Daughters of the Dragon in The Deadly Hands of Kung Fu series that began in 1974. The Deadly Hands of Kung Fu was an anthology series created by Marvel’s sister company, Magazine Management. It showcased hard-hitting action for both real-life and fictional martial arts characters and celebrities, often including reviews of recent martial arts films and, from time to time, featured interviews with martial arts instructors (Sparkle, 2021). The two would continue to cross paths as members of the Heroes For Hire team.
With the movie success of the Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Marvel’s confirmation of Destin Daniel Cretton’s return to direct Shang-Chi 2, speculators have gone crazy for Iron Fist comics in anticipation for Iron Fist to make his MCU appearance. To add to the speculative fuel is the fact that Cretton will be directing a new Marvel show for Disney+. Could this be a reboot of Iron First from the 2017 Netflix show now in Disney+/MCU continuity (Adams, 2022)? The character who is really stoking the speculative flame and who we are interested in is Lin Lie as Iron First.
In the finale of the Iron Fist: Heart of the Dragon (2021) series, we saw Danny Rand relinquish his Iron Fist powers in order to best the crisis threatening the world. The powers have now been given to the egg, Gork, who will eventually be reborn as Gork the Undying, the new holy dragon of all heavenly cities in the Marvel Universe and take the place of Shau-Lao the Undying, the dragon who granted Danny Rand his Iron Fist abilities. Marvel announced it was replacing Danny Rand with a new Asian Iron Fist at the end of October 2021. The character would be rebooted in a new five-issue Iron Fist series led by an
all-Asian creative team, with writer Alyssa Wong and artist
Michael YG (Adams, 2022).
In October 2021, Marvel released a teaser image referencing John Romita, Sr.’s panel from The Amazing Spider-Man #50 with presumably Danny Rand, walking away from a trashcan with the Iron Fist costume hanging out of it. In the ground by the trashcan, sharp green shards can be seen, leading fans to speculate that the character, Lin Lie, aka Sword Master, could have something to do with the new Iron Fist (Blum, 2021). On February 16, 2022, the first issue of the new Iron Fist series was released and confirmed speculations that Lin Lie, formerly known as Sword Master, is the new Iron Fist.
This was a surprising revelation as Sword Master is a brand-new character. Sword Master first appeared on the cover of War of the Realms: New Agents of Atlas #1 (May 2019) (see Comics) and made his first appearance in the next issue. In this series, a superhero team of Asian descent is formed with existing Asian superheroes Shang-Chi, Jimmy Woo, Amadeus Cho, and Silk, along with new Asian superheroes: Luna Snow, Crescent & Lo, Aero, Wave (the first female Filipina superhero), and Sword Master.
Sword Master’s origin:
From Shanghai, Lin Lie is the son of an archaeologist who mysteriously went missing one day, along with Lin’s brother. Taking up the Sword of Emperor Fu Xi, a bright green divine star-forged weapon, left behind for him, Lin searches for his missing family only to be pursued by hordes of demons from Chiyou (蚩尤).
In the Death of Doctor Strange: White Fox #1 (December 2021), Lin Lie fights Chiyou. After breaking his sword, he is thrown from a cliff, seemingly to his death, though no trace of him can be found, even through magical means (Adams, 2022). Hence speculators thought the green shards in the teaser were pieces of Lin’s sword.
Then Lin suddenly shows up in 2022’s Iron Fist as Iron Fist.
“While Sword Master is a surprising pick for Iron Fist, he provides the perfect opportunity for Marvel to reshape the core elements of the character’s mythos, while also introducing readers to another side of its comics universe” (Marston, 2022b). The opportunity only widens when you realize that Sword Master was trained by Shang-Chi, a character whose mythos has undergone its own culturally relevant reshaping.
Current Shang-Chi series writer, Gene Luen Yang, reprised the comic character using his own Chinese heritage and helped to include multiple references to Chinese mythology in the Shang-Chi movie. Sword Master provides Marvel with an opportunity to connect Iron Fist meaningfully to Chinese culture through Lin Lie, where aspects of its mythos originally came from (Chin-Greene, 2021). We look forward to seeing what direction Alyssa Wong takes Iron Fist in the comics! And we don’t have to wait too long as Iron Fist #2 is due to release tomorrow on March 23. In it, readers can expect to dig further into Lin Lie’s path to inheriting the mantle of the immortal Iron Fist and his ongoing relationship with Danny Rand.
Ms. Marvel and Iron Fist represent the new wave of diverse superheroes who are carrying their characters’ legacy in new and refreshing ways. We aren’t just getting diverse characters; we are getting diverse characters written by diverse people. We are getting writers that understand the background and culture that their characters are supposed to be based on, writers who can write as an insider rather than an outsider looking in (Bacon, 2021). The result is authentic and relatable stories that are not only entertaining but great resources for schools.
To sum it up, I’m stoked to see these two Asian superheroes at the forefront, and you should be too!
I’ve been working on Comics and Classrooms 2, and while researching information for the article and generally being engaged in the comic collecting hobby, I’ve gone down the rabbit hole. I now have several articles in progress (and a comic-related workshop that I can hopefully share soon!). I’ve also signed up to be a member of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund’s League of Graphic Novel Educators and look forward to learning more about using comics and graphic novels in education from experienced teachers and researchers!
- Joshua Lim
Adams, T. (2022). Is the Shang-chi director's Disney+ series an iron fist reboot? Marvel. Retrieved from https://comicbook.com/marvel/news/shang-chi-director-disney-plus-series-iron-fist-reboot/
Bacon, T. (2021). Marvel's New Iron Fist Can Redeem The Hero's Problematic Past. Marvel. Retrieved from https://screenrant.com/new-iron-fist-marvel-danny-rand-problematic/
Blum, J. (2021). Iron fist: Marvel teases major news about Danny Rand's future. CBR. Retrieved from https://www.cbr.com/marvel-iron-fist-no-more-danny-rand-future/
Chin-Greene, J. (2021, November 14). Why Marvel's next iron fist should be sword master. ScreenRant. Retrieved March 21, 2022, from https://screenrant.com/marvel-comics-new-iron-fist-sword-master/
Marston, G. (2022a). Ms. Marvel Kamala Khan's comic book origins and superpowers explained. gamesradar. Retrieved from https://www.gamesradar.com/kamala-khan-ms-marvel-powers-marvels-avengers-marvel/
Marston, G. (2022b). The New Iron Fist is just who we thought - but the mystery of his powers continues in Iron Fist #2. gamesradar. Retrieved from https://www.gamesradar.com/swordmaster-new-iron-fist-theory-marvel/
Marvel. (2022). Danny Ran in Comics Full Report. Marvel Entertainment. Retrieved from https://www.marvel.com/characters/iron-fist-danny-rand/in-comics
Sparkle, B. (2021). Shang-Chi: 10 things you didn't know about his connection to iron fist. CBR. Retrieved from https://www.cbr.com/shang-chi-connection-iron-fist/