Our Own Personal Superhero: Gene Luen Yang and The Shadow Hero

- | 4

Since The Millions interviewed Gene Luen Yang four years ago, he has been writing and drawing prolifically. His graphic novel Level Up portrayed a young Asian American man destined for medical school who secretly dreamed of playing video games. His next project was the epic Boxers & Saints, a diptych that follows two characters living through the Boxer Rebellion in China. The two intertwining Boxers & Saints graphic novels—they were sold as a set—string a coherent narrative from a complex period of history at the turn of the 20th century as the crumbling Qing empire tussled with European colonial powers. Yang’s clean line drawings bring order to the chaotic events, and all of the characters in the story are fallible and believable.
What unites Gene Luen Yang’s varying projects is his ambition. In many ways, Yang has taken on the task of bringing untold stories from Asian and Asian American history to readers in the U.S. And remarkably, he moves easily between literary works and popular culture, because while he was busy finishing Boxers & Saints he was also writing comic book adaptations of the popular Avatar: The Last Airbender animated cartoon. He did so not just out of love for the series but also in response to the live action movie by director M. Night Shyamalan, who cast a Caucasian boy for the leading role of Aang, and generally weakened the role of Asian culture in the story. (The movie was widely panned.) That Yang was willing to continue an extremely successful and already fully realized universe in The Avatar demonstrates his willingness to take risks and to collaborate.
Gene Luen Yang is not the only Asian American writer exploring myths and superheroes. Korean American author Chang-Rae Lee also depicted the Japanese colonization of China in his exquisitely written novel The Surrendered, in which the character Hector Brennan possesses the immortality of a god yet becomes mired in his own, very human failings. The novelist Charles Yu’s short story collection Third Class Superhero examined superpowers with humor and sensitivity, and his follow-up How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is in many ways the capstone of the genre of meta-science fiction. A walk down Artist Alley in any comicon will introduce you to numerous skillful Asian American comic book artists hocking their wares in what is slowly becoming a more diverse profession.  
Gene Luen Yang’s latest effort is The Shadow Hero, a graphic novel no less ambitious in scope than his previous works. Yang came up with the story after learning about one of the first Asian American artists to work in the comic book industry, Chu Hing. Chu Hing worked during an efflorescence of comic book stories during World War II, and created a series called The Green Turtle to support the struggles of America’s ally against the Japanese—China. The Green Turtle, a super hero who fought against the nefarious Japanese with his side-kick Burma Boy, never revealed his face or his origin story in the comics. There is also little biographical information about the creator Chu Hing himself, and the series was canceled after only five issues.
Working from the original texts, Yang resurrected The Green Turtle with a fully fleshed-out origin story and adventure in The Shadow Hero. The main character Hank is now a Chinese-American boy growing up in Chinatown in the fictional coastal city of San Incendio. His parents own a dry goods shop, and he is happy working beside his father as a stockboy. Yet his mother has bigger ideas for her son. While being robbed, she is rescued by a superhero named The Anchor of Justice, and she decides that her son should grow up to be just like him. The only problem is that Hank has no super powers. After a series of comical ordeals in which she tries to inspire him, Hank only gains powers after his father is murdered by a Chinatown kingpin. It turns out his father had made a deal with a turtle spirit from mainland China, and young Hank can inherit the spirit and ask it for whatever powers he desires. Hank then sets out to avenge his father’s death, confronting gangsters, kung fu vixens, and corrupt police along the way.

In The Shadow Hero, Gene Luen Yang collaborated with Singapore-based illustrator Sonny Liew, and it becomes apparent why this was a wise choice after a few pages. Sonny Liew’s panels pop with vitality, and he has mastered the flow of sequential action with original paneling and styling. The book crackles with Yang’s slap-stick humor—so difficult to portray in comic book art—and the characters feel fully imagined. Hank’s mother in particular is a complex, flawed, and totally believable character and Sonny Liew’s drawings of her are charming. 
However, certain elements which made Yang’s other works so enjoyable are less compelling in this volume. The story moves along at a nice clip, and there are glimpses of Watchmen-creator Alan Moore’s influence in Yang’s treatment of The Anchor of Justice. But it is not exactly clear what 1940s America thinks of superheroes—are they vigilantes or saviors? Also, the racist stereotypes that made Yang’s bestselling graphic novel American Born Chinese so provocative are not quite as well considered in this story. To be sure, racism against Chinese Americans abounded in the 1940s, but they could perhaps have used more elucidation in this text than they receive.
Those are minor quibbles because there is only so much you can pack into an origin story. To truly appreciate The Shadow Hero, you need to apply two more lenses. The first lens is provided in the book itself and the second lens relates to Yang’s greater oeuvre as an author. At the end of the text, the book includes an issue of the original Green Turtle as created by Chu Hing in the 1940s. It’s not an especially interesting story—the Green Turtle wins the day by firing “2,000 rounds per minute” into the “Japs”—but in several panels there is a peculiar black shadow that hovers over the superhero. Chu Hing apparently never explained what the shadow is. It’s amazing that Yang developed a credible explanation for it and created a logical structure that incorporated the other elements of the original Green Turtle. He was, in short, able to develop a new story while adhering to the limited parameters of the original, and this is nothing short of remarkable. It’s like coloring within the lines of a Jackson Pollock painting.

The second reason why The Shadow Hero is worth reading is that it has the elements of an enduring Asian American superhero story. Yang’s comic leaves enough avenues for future explanation that he could comfortably create more volumes in this series. (I wouldn’t mind if he incorporated the Green Turtle’s cool jet from the original comics.) There is still a disturbing lack of published entertainment created by ethnic minorities that feature characters driving forward the narrative with agency. 
Gene Luen Yang is enabling a generation of Asian Americans—or, let’s be specific here, because the community is diverse, Chinese Americans—to imagine their own stories. And he has set a very high bar. He writes serious, contemplative works, he entertains, and he is an excellent line artist who is humble enough to put down his own pencils and to allow someone else to draw it better. He takes risks that don’t always pan out, but he shows the courage to take on widely differing projects across a variety of genres. One day perhaps, we’ll all have our own personal super heroes, and if they are as thoughtful, humorous, and principled as the Shadow Hero, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Sweep, Harvest, Gather: Mapping Metaphors to Fight Surveillance

- | 3

How do we use language to describe surveillance? As an organization that promotes literature and defends freedom of expression wherever it is threatened, PEN is especially concerned about the effect of mass surveillance on creative freedom. We fought U.S. government surveillance all the way to the Supreme Court in the case Amnesty v. Clapper, and our report “Chilling Effects” documented that U.S. government surveillance is causing one out of six writers to self-censor their research and writing. We may never know how many ideas are being lost every day because of these programs.

Judges and legislators are increasingly confronted with the need to understand new surveillance technologies, and often resort to metaphor to do so. The Oxford English Dictionary defines metaphor as “a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else, especially something abstract.” The use of metaphors can result in quite strange decisions, as Noam Cohen noted in a December 2013 New York Times article, when Supreme Court Justice Scalia tried to illustrate how preposterous it would be to liken a tracking device on the bottom of a car to a miniature policeman hitching a ride in the case U.S. v. Jones. The inappropriate use of metaphors can distract from the fact that real lives are affected by them. “Metaphors in law are to be narrowly watched,” once warned Justice Benjamin Cardozo, “for starting as devices to liberate thought, they often end by enslaving it.”

To better understand how metaphors are being used in coverage of surveillance, PEN embarked on a study of articles by journalists and bloggers. Over 62 days between December and February, we combed through 133 articles by 105 different authors and over 60 news outlets. We found that 91 percent of the articles contained metaphors about surveillance. There is rich thematic diversity in the types of metaphors that are used, but there is also a failure of imagination in using literature to describe surveillance.

Over 9 percent of the articles in our study contained metaphors related to the act of collection; 8 percent to literature (more on that later); about 6 percent to nautical themes; and more than 3 percent to authoritarian regimes.

On the one hand, journalists and bloggers have been extremely creative in attempting to describe government surveillance, for example, by using a variety of metaphors related to the act of collection: sweep, harvest, gather, scoop, glean, pluck, trap. These also include nautical metaphors, such as trawling, tentacles, harbor, net, and inundation. These metaphors seem to fit with data and information flows.

Yet we have also learned that George Orwell’s novel 1984 continues to dominate literary metaphors with respect to surveillance; indeed, it was the only book referenced in our study. His dystopian work, written in 1948, described a totalitarian state ruled by Big Brother. Nineteen Eighty-Four in some ways describes the repression experienced by our writer colleagues in countries such as Vietnam, Iran, China, and Syria. On our caselist, which we use to advocate on behalf of threatened writers, these countries account for 58 of the 92 writers persecuted for their use of digital media.

But scholars and activists have observed that relating U.S. government surveillance regimes to Big Brother overstates the case, because the U.S. is a more open society than the one 1984 describes and, despite the NSA’s overreach, the country should not be labeled authoritarian. Scholar Daniel J. Solove, for example, pointed out in a seminal article that Kafka’s novella The Trial is probably better suited:

We are not heading toward a world of Big Brother or one composed of Little Brothers, but toward a more mindless process — of bureaucratic indifference, arbitrary errors, and dehumanization — a world that is beginning to resemble Kafka’s vision in The Trial.

Other activists prefer to use Jeremy Bentham’s notion of the panopticon, an institution that allows those with power to create the perception that their subjects are under surveillance at all times. But for journalists and bloggers, the rich variety of literature that has tackled surveillance — from science fiction to modern novels — is rarely invoked. Orwell is the reigning king of the surveillance state.

What do these results mean? The fact that 91 percent of articles contain metaphors suggest that writers will continue to use metaphors to help us understand advances in technology. They also use a diverse range of metaphors. However, as advocates develop new messaging on surveillance and look to literature for inspiration, they should not stop at Orwell: there are many more literary treasures to be explored. The human rights community and, now, private businesses are emphasizing the importance of encryption and digital hygiene to protect against government intrusion. Soon we will need metaphors to explain how these tools work, and how they might be abused.

As security expert Bruce Schneier has observed, people “tend to base risk analysis more on stories than on data. Stories engage us at a much more visceral level, especially stories that are vivid, exciting, or personally involving.” Choose the wrong story, and you can overstate the risk. This means journalists should be vigilant in deciding which literature should serve as metaphors.

As we grapple with new technologies and continue our work to fight illegal government intrusion into our privacy, we’ll have to think carefully about how to explain complex, high-tech programs in an easily comprehensible way. Literature is a logical resource for finding metaphors. Aaron Santesso and David Rosen, for example, have shown that the Eye of Sauron in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings better captures the current surveillance state, but so too do plays by Shakespeare, such as The Tempest. Our study suggests we need better metaphors while not losing sight of the implications of government action that affect real human beings. Meanwhile, we’ll continue fighting bulk surveillance in the courts and promoting legislation that respects privacy and enables creative freedom to flourish.

You can view an interactive report of our study here.

Now She Has a Name: When a Serial Killer Visited My Small Town

- | 3

Until the day the golfer spotted a dismembered head in the cool waters of Stony Brook, the scariest beast in Hopewell was the New Jersey Devil. As elementary school students, we were shown videos of the Devil rampaging flocks of sheep and terrorizing farmers in the Pine Barrens. This was frightening, to be sure, but the Pine Barrens were several hours by car southeast of Hopewell (pop. 2200) and the videos never showed the Devil’s face owing to budgeting constraints, as the filmmakers could not afford any special effects. Plus we had a professional hockey team named after him — the Devils — and they were an inspiration to young children, not a menace.

I remember receiving the news about the head late one night in a house in the Sourland Mountains in 1989. My friend George and I were locked in a fierce battle of Nintendo Ice Hockey, the chief variables of the game being to decide whether to choose a slow, plump player, who could shoot the puck hard and check anything in his path; a skinny player who was extremely lithe but who had a weak shot and could be easily bumped off his skates; or a medium-sized player who was a compromise between the other two body types. It was an addictive formula, and one that Nintendo continues to exploit in its games today. Anyway, we were engrossed in this battle when George’s parents mounted the stairs and solemnly told us that a severed head had been found in a creek by the Hopewell Valley Golf Club, and added that they had locked the doors and we’d been up late enough playing-your-games-and-you-should-get-some-sleep.

We did not sleep that night, of course. The thought of a head without its body was something that had never occurred to us, and we were old enough, about 10, to know that someone had killed this body before lopping off its head. We consoled ourselves, as our world views splintered and cracked, by watching The Ultimate Warrior thrash his opponents on the World Wrestling Federation until the sun pried open our dreary eyelids.

The local news followed the story of the severed head closely, and blood tests eventually revealed that it contained the AIDS virus. In 1989, AIDS was associated with two things, gays and blacks, and we believed you could contract it by cutting your head on metal and that the symptom was a long white hair on your tongue and throat. This only compounded our sense of terror: a dismembered head with a misunderstood virus.

The place where the head had been found was more bizarre, the seventh hole of an idyllic golf club. My family didn’t belong to the club, but I had been there with friends to swim in the pool, which had a deep-end colored a malevolent blue, so bottomless were its waters, and lifeguards that sneered as they twirled their whistles around their fingers. In my memories, the swimming pool is always sun-dappled and solar flared — enough to please J.J. Abrams — because we only went swimming on sunny days. Hopewell was a small town, and safe and complacent with its five churches, its family-owned deli, sport hunting shop, and pharmacy. It had once been a hotbed of the Ku Klux Klan, and before that a scene of fierce resistance during the Revolutionary War. Charles Lindbergh’s baby had been kidnapped from a second story window, and then discarded in the woods just outside town, but by the late 1980s Hopewell had become a desirable backwater with its ample green spaces, acres of woods, pristine creeks, Harvest Festival, and Memorial Day parade, where kids of all colors could roam freely without fear. We would ride our Huffies and Schwinns by the golf course, right over the spot where Stony Brook, the stream in which the head had been found, dipped beneath the road.

As time went on, and the head was never claimed, rumors began to circulate, and always seemed to end in one of two possibilities: the Mafia or a serial killer had done it. Serial killers were, of course, far scarier to a 10 year old than the Mafia. Unlike the Mafia, which (television had us believe) followed a moral code, serial killers were imbued with their own unique compass. As a kid, my main concern was to find out how many other killers were out there, because that would promote my survival. My parents reassured me that we were safe — what else could you say to a child about such a thing? — and I would believe them until the sun went down and our home filled with shadows. But there were deeper questions, too: Why hadn’t anyone noticed that a head was missing? Wasn’t the family looking for the head? The thought that no family member cared enough about this person’s head to claim it back was even more terrifying. If your family can’t search for your missing head, then what good are they, in the end?

Most of my questions about the head were fed by what my parents called “an active imagination,” but in hindsight the threats were never were too far away. While vacationing at my grandparents’ cabin in Wisconsin, my mom hid an ax under the bed because the bodies of slaughtered children had been turning up in the woods, before Jeffrey Dahmer had been caught; my best friend in Hopewell had once lived in Arkansas down the street from the mother of John Wayne Gacy, a serial killer who had apparently visited her regularly as my friend rode his bigwheel tricycle down the street.

Much later, working with asylum seekers in South Africa, I regularly met men and women from the Democratic Republic of Congo who fled war-torn areas where roving militias dismembered the bodies of civilian victims. The difference was that the practice was fed by a heady mix of psychotropic drugs, psychological warfare, and perverted interpretations of animist traditions. The scale of such murders was terrifying, but there were reasons in place. It was war and the militias feared the spirits of their victims. There was a certain logic.

As a Nigerian-American, I’ve also become accustomed to a few stereotypes, most of which revolve around Nigerian email scams, but also the selling of body parts. Not just internal organs, but arms, legs, feet, little fingers. (Just watch the South African film District 9, and you’ll see Nigerians who get off on dismembering people and also having sex with aliens from outerspace.) But again, there is a sort of reasoning to that illicit traffic. The bodies for these occult rituals are sliced apart for spiritual purposes, not as ends unto themselves.

Last week, after a 24-year search for more information about the head, the New Jersey State Police finally discovered the identity of the victim. She was a prostitute who had changed her name no less than 15 times, and she was identified by DNA tests that matched her with her aunt, who had filed a missing persons report with the police in 2001. Her name was Heidi Balch. She is believed to have been the first victim killed by Joel Rifkin, who confessed to murdering someone with the name of one of her aliases in 1993, and who had been sentenced to 200 years in prison after killing 17 prostitutes on a rampage. Rifkin claimed to have begun murdering prostitutes because he had contracted AIDS from one.

The HIV virus was the main character of South African author Kgebetli Moele’s 2009 novel The Book of the Dead, and the protagonist moved from victim to victim boasting of its conquests. It was not Moele’s best book — that would be Room 207, a must read — but it was chilling to read how the virus thrived on intimacy and broken relationships. Revenge was never the point of the virus in that story: it lived only for the sake of living. Rifkin, by contrast, claimed to be butchering for revenge and not for pleasure. In this, the fictional virus holds the moral upperhand, for it doesn’t pretend to be serving some larger purpose.

Like science fiction, serial killers twist our values on their head and allow us to reflect back on ourselves — What would happen if our planet had two suns instead of one? Or if we communicated through telepathy? — and, in the case of serial killers — what if you didn’t care if you killed someone? Or took pleasure in the killing? Serial killers are big business. Their psychological profiles and crafty, nefarious plotting can be patiently examined in a television series like Dexter or Bates Motel and people will watch them.

Only after I read the news about the discovery did I realize how long I had suppressed even thinking about the murder. For two decades, I now realized, I had been holding my breath as we drove along the road past the golf course; and all that time the head loomed spectral and ghoulish in the crenellations of my mind.

The New Jersey State Police managed to trace Heidi Balch’s identity by searching records of prostitution offenses at the time. If my consciousness was first shattered in 1989 when they found the head, it was this fact that shattered it again. Heidi Balch was killed because she had been pushed, by will or by circumstance, to the margins of our society to the extent that her very livelihood was a criminal act. Rifkin, Dahmer, and Gacy preyed on the weak and marginalized. It’s hard to imagine a sober conversation about legalizing prostitution in America today or empowering sex workers with rights, especially when abortion laws are becoming still more restrictive. Heidi Balch was unclaimed and nameless for 24 years. Now we know her name, but if she were alive today what would prevent us from forgetting her again?

Image Credit: Weekly World News, May 23, 1989.

Not Your Mother’s Book Club: The Oil Barons Society of Texas

- | 11

In a South Texas parlor room, 10 men eagerly hold shots of bourbon in their hands. The television isn’t on, there are no fantasy football reports in sight, and no fraternity pledges cower in the corner. Together they raise their glasses and down the whiskey in one go.

“Alright,” one says, “who has something to say about Rich Dad, Poor Dad?”

This is the Oil Barons Society, an exclusive, men-only book club in San Antonio. The discussion that follows is lively and cuts across political leanings. The leader of the discussion, Scott Gillette, is a management analyst who favors an entrepreneurial reading of the book, but three of the members are government employees who argue that the author profits from the desire for financial security without providing any effective tools to achieve it. Typical for most book clubs, the discussion eventually gets derailed as people speak longer than their allotted turn and quibble over small differences. But most of the members, or Barons as they’re called, leave enlightened and surprised by the discussion, and they’re ready to do it again.

The Oil Baron Society was founded three years ago by Matthew Shaddock and Tanner Neidhart, a school teacher and a lawyer, respectively. “I found it weird that in today’s society,” Shaddock explains, “an all-girls activity was okay, even seen as positive — think of the Girls Night Out. I figured men should be just as free to do the same thing, celebrate manhood and be manly. I figured that a guys’ book club would be a good excuse to get together, drink some beers, and talk intelligently.”

Neidhart came up with the name and they soon adopted a tongue-in-cheek correspondence with the language of Gilded Age Texas, smacking of top hats and monocles.

“As usual, discussion was lively,” the November meeting minutes record. “Topics covered included the American military, our involvement in overseas conflicts, military culture, and the writer’s political slant. Baron Peterson’s absence due to military deployment in the Afghanistan theatre was duly noted and oft-mentioned.”

A random sampling of their titles by mostly male authors includes The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, Killing Pablo by Mark Bowden, and Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin.

Driving the club is not just a celebration of masculinity but a search for it. According to John Peterson, the doctor currently posted in Afghanistan: The Oil Barons “is a big idea that struggles with something that any young man in his twenties and thirties deals with. What makes a man? What kind of man do I want to be?”

San Antonio does offer intellectual stimulation and isn’t a cultural desert. The city boasts a world class art museum and celebrated cuisine, where it’s common to awake with a breakfast taco and nibble on Asian fusion for lunch. But men tend to congregate around sports and not books, and life after college anywhere can be devoid of intellectual discussion.

“Seven of the 13 friends I contacted about the idea met and formed the Oil Barons Society at my house in January 2009,” Shaddock says. “The other six wrote back things like ‘book clubs are lame’ and ‘have fun reading the Oprah books.’”

There is no stereotypical Baron. Their professions vary significantly: a real property title searcher, a home renovator, two prosecutors in the district attorney’s office, two Air Force doctors, a management consultant, two high school teachers, and an employment lawyer. They are overwhelmingly professionals but not all of them follow sports, and as brainy as their jobs may sound, several members didn’t read regularly before they joined the club. “Before I joined I didn’t do a whole lot of reading,” jokes Ashley Penix. “In fact, hardly any at all. I like to say, ‘I don’t always read books, but when I do, it’s for the Oil Barons Society. Stay knowledgeable, my friends.’”

The Barons have few rules other than opening the evening with a shot of whiskey, which helps enliven the discussion. This absence of strictures explains why their most strained period happened when they sought to define who, exactly, they were by drawing up a Constitution. Last year, they rented a house in the hill country outside San Antonio and began to hash out the text, but the debate became so heated that three Barons stormed out and drove back to the city. “We found out later that this was much like the actual signing of the Constitution,” one Baron explained. “Sure it was dumb to get upset over, but I think all of us carry a true ownership in the prosperity of the Barons.”

Several of the members already have young children or are expecting children in the near future, making this “the biggest challenge,” according to Alan Petner, as people find it more difficult to accommodate the meetings. The Oil Barons may be a manly take on the Girls Night Out, but the search for companionship will naturally be replaced by the duties of fatherhood.

Another challenge is that the membership is composed of various backgrounds, but the group has struggled to lure other ethnicities. Shaddock teaches history in a local high school with a mostly Latino student body and coaches its soccer team. “It’s not completely lost on our members,” he says. “We’ve definitely talked about it frequently in the past, whining that we’re all WASPs or white Catholics. But we are diverse in many ways. We have top one-percenters, Barons whose parents were blue collar, and Barons from outside of Texas.” The one Latino Baron left the club because of personal commitments.

Recently, the Oil Barons Society has evolved into something more than a book club, now having incorporated activities that complement the readings. “We read Friday Night Lights and went to a high school football game,” explains Scott Gillette, “and we read The Gun by C.J. Chivers and went to the gun range.” These are not necessarily exotic activities in Texas, but not every Baron likes to shoot guns or watch football games.

The Barons have started inviting the featured authors to attend meetings or to join by phone, so far without success. They are also considering dues payments so that they can rent a special Baron Cave, and have any number of other creative ideas, as may be expected from 20- and 30-somethings with ambition.

For now, the culmination of the regular Baron meetings is the annual Baron Ball, held in the former castle of a cattle king that was recently refurbished. The Barons proudly display the year’s book list under their official crest, serve up brisket and chili, and play multiple rounds of beer pong — partners and friends included — and it’s hard not to feel that something different is happening in Texas.

“When I joined it was just a ‘book club’ and sounded like fun and general camaraderie,” says Ashley Penix. “It then turned into something more special, and took on a life of its own. It’s nice being part of something that is unique.”

Photo credit: Mathew Shaddock. Oil Barons Society crest designed by Evan Long.