Updated: Jul 31, 2022
Written By: Joshua Lim
Published: December 28, 2021
Reflecting on this past year, I realize I have had the privilege of gaining something positive from the constant lockdowns; I discovered comics. Being a 90s kid meant that the comic book collecting boom of the same time would lead to a plethora of superhero shows available on television to watch throughout my childhood. Shows like Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995) and Justice League (2001-2004) got me hooked on the superhero mythos. Besides watching shows and movies, I never got into the comic
book source material and like DC’s reign over screen time, my interest in superheroes would fall. It wasn’t until the summer of 2021 did I buy my first comic, where being stuck inside meant that reading would become an even more common pastime. I bought a variant cover of Detective Comics #1027 that shows Batman and Robin’s Golden Age design in the background of their modern counterparts.
My entry into the hobby isn’t an isolated phenomenon, as 2021 saw one of its biggest increases in sales since the 90s comic boom. The pandemic-induced nostalgia plus the search for entertainment in the confinement of ours home attributes to one half of the reason for comic’s growth. Memes have even added to the new interest in old comics. The other half can be attributed to cinema, television, and technology, particularly due to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and the DC Extended Universe (DCEU). For over the past decade, the MCU has led to Superhero films hitting all-time grossing highs on the big screen and hitting viewing records on the small screen.
Streaming platforms such as Amazon Prime Video, Disney +, and Netflix are prime suspects. Superheroes have crossed over with video games (beyond their own game titles) and vice versa. The picture to the right is one of the six-issued Batman and Fortnite crossover comics of 2021. Comics themselves are now more accessible than ever, with online versions available for our home-bound selves. Superheroes have gained back and eclipsed their prominence in today’s pop culture. With the MCU’s Phase 4 plan and DCEU’s Phase 3 plan, it seems like superheroes are here to stay.
On April 6, 2021, the market exemplified is growth with the all-time highest sale for a comic, Action Comics No. 1 the first appearance of Superman, selling for 3.25 million
USD on April 6, 2021 (Press, 2021).
On September 10, 2021, the record
was broken again. This time Amazing Fantasy No. 15, the first appearance of Spider-man, was sold for 3.6 million USD (Kit, 2021).
Comics haven’t been hotter since their time on the press!
If you’re reading this, you’re probably an educator and wondering how this connects with school or education at all. Well, I can tell you that superhero comics and comics, in general, are “novel” tools for connecting with students and supporting their learning. At the very least, this will be an informative post to help you keep up with the likely interests of your students.
The Role of Superheroes in a classroom
Kraska (2015) says it best, “When we read comics or try to understand superheroes, particularly as children, we develop our emotions, reading ability, and morals.” Superheroes can be introduced to our youngest readers. For example, Marvel’s book series World of Reading is for level 1 readers. Books like like “Captain Marvel: What Makes A Hero” and “Powers of a Girl” celebrate female superheroes and are suitable for young children and young adults respectively.
The concept of superheroes can also impact pretend play. It is not an unusual sight to see a child pretending to be a superhero battling imaginary supervillains and saving the world. Pretend play is an important part of a young child’s development. Play helps develop one’s theory of mind, a crucial social-cognitive skill that involves thinking about differences in perspectives and understanding others’ emotions, desires, beliefs, and knowledge (Cherry, 2021).
Furthermore, while reading comics, children can use superheroes and villains to take various perspectives on a situation and test the consequences of actions (Kraska, 2015). The character dialogue in the often exaggerated moralistic and ethical dilemmas can help develop children’s emotional vocabulary. Perhaps most important is that superheroes are role models. Some have compared superheroes to ancient legends, Greek mythology, and classic fables in that they all share the characteristic of being able to teach lessons to their audiences (Sha, 2020). Superheroes act as positive role models and beacons of moral goodness. After all, they are heroes.
"I grew up with superheroes as some of my finest role models. Spider–Man taught me responsibility, the X–Men taught me acceptance, Superman helped instill in me a sense of justice and looking out for those weaker than me."
- Michael R. Underwood, Uncanny Magazine (2015)
They create a foundation for kids to identify with them, to reflect the best traits of their idols and trace their steps (Masin, 2018). It is common for superheroes to use their moral compass and choose to fight or not. In general, kids learn about courage, self-sacrifice, self-control, and willpower. They teach kids to stand up for their peers and to protect others. Superhero teams like the Avengers teach kids about the importance of teamwork, communication, and respect for others’ abilities and opinions (Masin, 2018). For older readers, ethically complex and grey areas provide opportunities to observe how their role model problem-solves. Clinical psychologist Robin Rosenberg wrote an article titled, Psychology Behind Superhero Origin Stories (2013). In it, she explained that superhero stories help us in “finding meaning in loss and trauma, discovering our strengths and using them for a good purpose.” She says that superheroes undergo three types of life-altering experiences that we can relate to: trauma, destiny, and choice. Superheroes inspire us through their altruistic acts and perseverance through adversity.
“Superheroes are meant to inspire. They represent someone we are not, or someone that can do things that we can’t. They can provide an escape into a world where someone is there for us even when our protectors or our medical and social institutions have let us down.”
- The Formal Review (2020)
Are our Superheroes Inclusive and Relatable?
Relatability allows people to connect and empathize with the characters. Relatability is why the great Stan Lee wrote Spider-man as a teenage boy with personal troubles. Stan Lee later added that Spider-man being one of the only fully masked superheroes at the time added to the character’s relatability. “You could be any kid. You could be black. You could be Asian. You could be Indian. You could be anything and imagine you were in that costume. So, I think that made it relevant to everybody everywhere, and that was accidental” (StanLeeMonsters, 2009). In 1962 Marvel Comics infamously hated Lee’s pitch for Spider-man, stating that teenagers should be sidekicks, people are scared of spiders, and that heroes shouldn’t have any problems. Boy, were they wrong. After first appearing on issue fifteen of the dying series Amazing Fantasy (the same book that holds the record of 3.6 million USD), Spider-man’s relatable story garnered its titled series, The Amazing Spider-Man. Spider-man is now one of the most popular and iconic superheroes of all time!
Question: Can we be inspired if we can’t see ourselves reflected in our favourite superhero or in any superhero for that matter?
The importance and strength of diversity are well-known concepts in the education world. We also know the importance of having diverse role models and how they increase the likelihood of success and motivation for under-represented groups. As an educator, you may be skeptical of the usage of superheroes and comics in your classroom due to their historic lack of diversity and even outright racism. You would be right to be skeptical. The further back you go from the Modern to Copper to Silver and finally to the Golden age of comics and beyond, typically the worse it gets for positive inclusivity. Much of this can be attributed to the racism and xenophobia of the time. DC and Marvel Comics were founded in the 1930s and have remained as the industry’s giants.
It’s important to note that there were progressive stories in the past. The X-Men are an allegory for civil rights. Mutant-based discrimination can be used to tell stories about racial inequality, homophobia, and general bigotry (Parks, 2015). In the Golden age of comics, Superman, another of the greatest superheroes of all time, exemplifies being a role model. Superman debuted in 1938 in issue 1 of Action Comics. As Farooqi (2019) explains, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster are children of Jewish immigrants who faced anti-Semitism and general discrimination as non-white immigrants. They created Superman as a projection of their wishes for a better society and to defend a non-Aryan stance. One of the most famous images have Superman attacking Hitler while telling him just that (Farooqi, 2019).
Asian Influence on Comics: The Case of Shang-Chi
Eastern-Asian concepts have notably been used as common inspiration for comics. Mendez Hodes (2021) explains that such concepts have perpetuated problematic stereotypes of Asian martial arts and culture in many ways. But Asian martial arts and culture are real, so “how can creative media represent the latter without tripping over the former?” (Mendez Hodes, 2021).
Shang Chi is a superhero whose past exemplifies stereotypical depictions and current iteration, a tasteful way to depict an ethnic character. Yes, the same Shang-Chi, played Canadian actor Simu Liu. Despite the movie making history by being the first Marvel film with an Asian lead, Shang-chi hasn’t always been the character we know from the 2021 movie. Shang-Chi was created by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin and first appeared in Special Marvel Edition #15 in December 1973. The character achieved popularity in the comic book Bronze Age of comics, roughly between 1970-1984 (Martson, 2021). After his initial appearance, the comic was retitled The Hands of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu. The character’s name “Shang-Chi” came from Englehart’s study of the I Ching (an ancient China classic). Englehart combined the romanized concepts "shēng" (the 46th hexagram) and "chi" (life energy) to make the name, and it would be years before Englehart learned his pronunciation was wrong (Francisco, 2021b). Though well-intentioned, we see why Mendez Hodes (2021) recommends including Asian collaborators on an Asian-related project. Shang-chi is a paradox; a cult icon and one of the few ethnic superheroes, but also unknown by mainstream audiences (Francisco, 2021b) – pre-movie, that is. Englehart says, “Around the second issue, kung fu exploded as a cultural phenomenon” (Francisco, 2021b) which helped Shang-Chi’s popularity. The character’s popularity would go on to die with the kung fu craze of the 80s and was relegated to occasional guest appearances and references (Marston, 2021).
The main problem with Shang-Chi is actually his father and the series antagonist, Fu Manchu. The character is based on British writer Sax Rohmer’s book series, Dr. Fu Manchu. Rohmer’s depiction was outwardly racist. See the first description of Fu Manchu from the Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu (1913):
“Imagine a person, tall, lean, and feline, high shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes … Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present … Imagine that awful being, and you have a picture of Dr. Fu Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.”
Francisco (2021a) states that “[Fu Manchu] descends from a centuries-old archetype created out of suspicion and contempt toward an entire people.” It didn’t help that Fu Manchu’s popularity came when China and Japan were starting to develop as superpowers. Fu Manchu’s story supports Yellow Peril and the mysticism of Asian martial arts and has continued to do so in the Shang-chi series. Englehart would later go on to admit that “Fu Manchu is problematic, he was problematic then, and he’s problematic now. But that’s what we did in order to get the book out.” (Francisco, 2021b). This problematic archetype is why Shang-Chi movie director Destin Daniel Cretton, and screenwriter Dave Callaham, wanted to avoid the characteristics that trended towards Yellow Peril and make this villain seem more human (Francisco, 2021a).
Both Destin and Dave come from mixed Asian heritage and made the easy decision for Fu Manchu to become Wenwu.
Current writer for the most recent Shang-Chi comic series and aid to the 2021 Shang-Chi movie, Gene Luen Yang, says the following on the modern changes to Shang-Chi’s story:
“We tried to make his supervillain dad more sympathetic, but we wanted to lean into a family drama. Everybody can relate to family drama. So we wanted to lean into the tension between him and his dad, and we also wanted to give them a bunch of siblings that he could both support and squabble with” (Schilling, 2021).
In reference to the titular character Yang says that “Shang-Chi himself, doesn’t totally fit the Marvel mould” and that the early Shang-Chi comics “weren’t structured in a way where you’re meant to identify with” (Schilling, 2021). The current creative team behind that latest Shang-Chi comic series connected with their own cultural heritage to make the character more relatable. The current team all come from Chinese descent: writer Gene Luen Yang, artists Dike Ruan and Phillip Tam, and editor Darren Shan. For example, the creative team used the idea of five elements: fire, earth, metal, water, and wood, from traditional Chinese medicine. Shang-Chi’s family runs the Five Weapons Society organization, and the five weapons correlate with the five traditional elements. At the same time, Yang states that “we wanted them to make [Shang-Chi] more of a character that we could all relate to regardless of our readers’ cultural background. We wanted them to be able to relate to Shang-Chi” (Schilling, 2021). One of these changes involved adding more familial drama by giving Shang-Chi siblings and keeping his dad as a supervillain but without the Fu Manchu part. Shang-chi is an example of the successful integration of Asian elements. (For more information on Shang-Chi’s evolution and movie depiction, I recommend reading the three-part review from Inverse).
The integration of manga (Japanese-style comic books) and anime (Japanese cartoons) concepts in traditional superhero media have had multiple successes. Comic book writer, Ben Dunn, used his childhood experience of growing up in Taiwan and reading Japanese manga to create Marvel’s Mangaverse series from 2000 to 2002 and 2005 to 2006.
Similarly, in 2021 Lucasfilm teamed up with the seven anime studios, including Production I.G. and Trigger, to produce “Star Wars: Visions.” This Japanese anthology features nine short films with original characters and stories that provide a unique perspective on the Star Wars universe (Chin, 2021). This also isn’t the first time Western organizations have dabbled in the world of anime and manga. In 2019, Marvel’s film Spider-Man: Far From Home promoted the anime Golden Kamuy. In 2021, Marvel’s film Eternals did another special promotion with anime Sword Art Online. These promotions featured collaborative posters and trailers (Dempsey, 2021). Manga and manhwa (South Korean-style comics) are directly making their way into the Western comic world, with reproductions in Western comic form! The successful collaborations makes me hopeful that Western comics will increasingly incorporate authentic, diverse content.
As good as past writers’ intentions may have been, they tended to trip themselves up when they tried to be the voice of minority rights. But superheroes and comics have come a long way since 1930. In the latter half of the 20th Century, DC and Marvel Comics have hired creative teams from marginalized positions to create relatable content. You may recall seeing news headlines about Tim Drake, Robin, one of Batman’s sidekicks or Jonathan Kent, Superman’s son, coming out as bi-sexual in Batman: Urban and Superman: Son of Kal-el, respectively earlier this year.
Projects like DC: YOU, DC: Pride, and Marvel Voices have led to more multicultural and diverse characters and stories. Some even challenge past problematic history and current events. Superheroes are trending towards broader inclusion ranges, from alternate storylines, re-incarnations, revisions, retcons, and additions. The MCU and DCEU have also taken artistic liberties to use diverse actors to play traditional superheroes.
In particular, MCU’s phase 3 and 4 "multiverse" focus have opened the gates for these stories. Marvel’s 2021 “What if…?” television series based on the 1977 comic series of the same name directly plays on such alternatives. 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse features a black Spider-man, Miles Morales, one of the most popular Modern age superheroes alongside other alternate spider-people and pig. The next Spider-verse movie set to premiere in 2022 draws from the 2014 Spider-Verse comic series, and I am personally excited to see more Spider-people like Pavitr Prabhakar (Indian Spider-man) and Miguel O’Hara (Irish-Mexican aka Spider-man 2099). These alternate stories continue to show that diversity makes for good stories and is desired.
There have been superhero stories that have dealt with real-life issues. For example:
The Invincible Iron Man #120 to #128 (1979) saw Tony Stark battling alcoholism.
Green Lantern Special #1 & #2 (1988) saw John Stewart and Hal Jordan facing racism.
Amazing Spider-Man: Skating on Thin Ice, Double Trouble, Hit and Run, and Chaos in Calgary (1990) saw Spider-man confronting the issue of drugs in four anti-drug comics published in Canada in alliance with Drug-Free Canada.
Captain America: Marvel Knights Vol.1 (2016) saw Captain America responding to the tragedy of 9/11 while also fighting against rampant xenophobia and religious hatred. Marvel Champions #24 (2016) saw teenage superheroes dealing with the issue of gun violence in schools.
In May of this year, DC authentically honoured Asian-ness in DC Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration. The oversized comic features old and new Asian DC characters in eleven relatable stories. “Whether it’s a coming-of-age story for young heroes, diving into identity issues, feeling a need to assimilate, or dealing with microaggressions and racism, all touch on the importance of representation” (Chen, 2021). As co-writer Bernard Chang says, “This project did not arise as a ‘reaction’ to the recent increased wave of violence against the Asian-American population, but its timing has never been more important” (Chen, 2021). I mean just check out the awesome panels from the comic to the right.
But, as much as we love superheroes and their increasingly relatable characters and stories, they are still based on fantastical concepts. The use of fantasy elements to mask real-life themes is both beneficial and detrimental. Unfortunately, reality’s problems are often not as apparent as rampaging 100-metre-tall monsters that announce the desire to destroy the world. Luckily modern comics are increasingly centred around real-life issues.
Comics like Yasmeen are solely about real-life issues and experiences. Written by Saif A. Ahmed, Yasmeen is about the experience of a 16-year-old girl living in Iraq. After the traumatic experiences of being captured by ISIS terrorists and sold as a slave, Yasmeen reunites with her family in the United States. Now she must learn to survive in a society that both fears and hates her while overcoming the horrors of the past.
Despite the lengths superheroes and comics have improved, I think it’s safe to say they still have problems. Many characters still have unrealistic body shapes and proportions and inappropriate content for a classroom. Like all literature and resources used in a school, you should examine them yourself to determine their appropriateness for your class. Best of all, Gene Luen Yang, who happens to have been a high school teacher of seven-teen years, himself says, “I think comics are an amazing tool for education” (Schilling, 2021). Yang says that comics have been avoided in the education world and that it was primarily due to a book that came out in the 1950s called Seduction of the Innocent. The book argued that comics caused juvenile delinquency and, as a result, have been avoided for decades. During his Master’s of Education program, Yang found out that comics are one of the most powerful visual tools. “Out of all the visual storytelling media – like film and television and animation – comics is the only one where it puts control over time in the hands of the reader. A comic can go as fast or slow in the reader’s mind as the reader desires” and that no other visual media allows you to do that (Schilling, 2021).
My goal in writing this post is to make educators consider diversifying their classroom library with comic books. Superheroes are entrenched in today's pop-culture and are another area where you can more closely connect with your students. I should add there are also some great reads for yourself, like the current ACENet spotlighted book and five-time Eisner winner, Monstress by Marjorie Liu.
Don't forget to check out our Comics page to see more comics with Asian characters and stories that deal with real-life issues. For more cataloged literary resources, click here or on one of our sectioned resource pages.
If you're interested in writing an ACENet blog article, contact us at ACENetCanada@gmail.com.
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