If I’m not mistaken, Marvel leads DC on that front, as the last several years has seen the New York-based publisher produce titles like Ms. Marvel, Black Panther, Captain America (Sam Wilson), Spider-Man (Miles Morales), Nova, Red Wolf, Spider-Man 2099, and Devil Dinosaur & Moon Girl. Meanwhile, over at DC, the company’s only books in recent years with a Person of Color in the starring role are Dr. Fate and Cyborg. The powers that be at DC cannot be ignorant of the demand for more racially diverse titles. In fact, this awareness is probably a significant reason why the company will soon be adding a new title to it’s publishing schedule, New Super-Man. The title will see a Chinese teenager acquiring some of Superman’s powers:
Starring 17-year-old Kenan Kong, the book (which debuts July 13th) will be written by Chinese-American writer Gene Luen Yang (who recently finished a stint as the writer of the main Superman title) and drawn by Viktor Bogdanovic. Yang appears to have invested a good deal of thought into crafting the backstory of the character:
“My mom’s family left Mainland China when she was just an infant. She spent most of her childhood in Hong Kong and Taiwan. My dad was born and raised in Taiwan. My family hasn’t lived in China for at least a generation. I’ve only visited China twice, so my understanding of Chinese culture is through echoes.”
“I would be writing about Chinese life as an outsider, but some American readers would assume that I was an insider simply because of my last name,” he continued. “It seemed like a situation fraught with peril.”
He decided to move forward with the project by taking his own advice about reading and writing “outside of their comfort zones.”
He did come up with some rules for naming the character:
- The name would need to be a plausible Chinese name.
- The name’s meaning should relate to the character’s journey in some way.
- The English version of the Chinese name should be derived using Pinyin. There are different ways of Romanizing Chinese. A lot of what we see in American Chinatowns uses a system called Wade-Giles (or is “Wade-Giles-ish”). Pinyin is now the standard in Mainland China, so that’s what I want to use in the book.
- The English version should have the initials K. K. I want to use this as a mnemonic device to help readers connect the new character to Clark Kent. I can’t use C. K. because there is no hard c in Pinyin. The Pinyin c is pronounced “ts,” like in “cats.”
- The English version should be immediately pronounceable by American readers who haven’t studied Pinyin. This means I have to avoid certain letters like x (pronounced kind of like “sh” in Pinyin) and q (pronounced kind of like “ch”).
- The Pinyin version cannot sound Japanese.
The last rule was added later after some confusion with the initial name idea.
“What would I think if I were a casual comics reader and I encountered an Asian super hero named Kenji Kong as a supporting character in a couple panels of a DC comic, without any context for the name? I’d probably assume some non-Asian writer had confused Asian cultures. I was only thinking about how I’d make this character and his name work in the particular story I was going to write… I had to change the name.”
I think this is a really good idea. Asian characters are woefully underrepresented in comics (even moreso than Black characters), and this is a good step in remedying that issue. I’m reminded of the psychological benefits of kids being able to identify with elements of the media they consume, so I can imagine this could potentially excite young Asian readers. And if the new Super-Man doesn’t excite them, perhaps they’ll enjoy reading about the Chinese Justice League, which will feature Chinese versions of Batman and Wonder Woman (they debut in issue #2).
May this book have a long and healthy run!