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In essays on the subject of centricity, I've most often used the image of a geometrical circle, which, as I explained here,  owes someth...

Saturday, June 19, 2010


The best-known indirect product of both actitives is what we loosely term "recreation," though one will immediately get different theoretical answers as to why humans need, or think they need, such recreation. Between games and literature, however, looms the shadow of didacticism, for while games are difficult to structure (honestly) in order to deliver a message, it can be done with varying degrees of subtlety in literature. This lends to literature the appearance, if not the actuality, of having a "useful purpose" in culture and/or society, and the most "useful" forms of literature are usually those which have or are thought to be works of *thematic realism* insofar as they comment with the same varying degrees of subtlety on man's real-world situation.-- me, EARTH SHATTERING CHANGES AT THE LAST MINUTE.

In this essay I reflected that the current trend at DC and Marvel to kill off heroes in gory or disturbing ways was basically a new permutation of an old trend, which involved comics-authors "compelling quick identification through making travesties of the fictional characters' lives." My main example was a Silver Age Superman story focused on "The Last Days of Superman," in which the Man of Steel succumbs to a mysterious ailment that prompts all his friends and relations into orgies of grief, until the last-minute reprieve that saves his bacon. But I could have chosen any number of other Golden or Silver Age stories that reduce the heroes to travesties of their normal identities.

Just as (according to Bataille) taboos exist in order to be transgressed, heroes exist in order to be travestied. This has nothing to do with anything relating to concepts like "masculine incoherence," for it applies as much to Wonder Woman as Superman. True, the superhero can turn the tables and restore his or her own identity rather than depending on luck or good fairies to do it, but the recent trend toward killing heroes outright-- in sure and certain knowledge that death no longer has dominion within the superhero genre-- is essentially a new form of compelling kinetic identification.

This is why I don't quite understand the fannish furor against the recent death of Asian-Atom Ryan Choi. I only read a couple of the Gail Simone ATOM books and didn't find the title interesting, but it seems that for many fans, the new Atom, whose title failed after 25 issues, became a cause celebre in terms of his being a non-stereotypical Asian hero, as seen in this essay from the blog "Reappopriate."
The blogger "Jenn" admits that she is aware that a lot of comics-characters only die temporary deaths these days, giving the example of the recent return of the Jason Todd Robin, and that therefore "it’s quite possible that Ryan Choi will be back."

Nevertheless, she says: "I tend to agree with the notion that D.C. Comics sets a dangerous precedent for so casually eliminating one of the few prominent Asian American superheroes when he appears no longer necessary."

But how can it be a precedent-- presumably one directed against minority heroes-- if the Ryan Choi Atom is but one Asian amidst a long list of Caucasian heroes who have temporarily died and come back (Superman, Jason Todd, Metamorpho) and is presumably now standing around the halls of Turnaround Purgatory (or whatever Grant Morrison called it), chatting with Hawkman and Hawkgirl as they all wait for some writer to resurrect them.

Some fans have correctly noted that Ryan Choi is being treated no less shittily than any other DC hero, but even this misses a larger point. Such a view puts credence in the notion of a pristine Silver Age ideal in which heroes were good and pure and never suffered humiliation and death.

In fact, humiliation and death were always present in the Silver Age: they were merely camoflagued or worked out in highly symbolic form. I remember that as a young fan I wrote an aggrieved letter to DC Comics, complaining that almost every cover seemed to show Superman "dead, dying or scared to death." The emphasis on humiliation and morbidity evidently disturbed me back then.

It doesn't disturb me now. I recognize the pattern of "death and resurrection" as a valid mythic pattern in current superhero comics, even if I must admit that the Geoff Johnses and their ilk are generally incompetent to get any worthwhile mythicity out of the pattern. But to pursue my game analogy above, the game can be good no matter how bad its players are.

Thus I'm afraid I can't agree with many of the well-intentioned fans who want a Ryan Choi to be immune to this game-pattern because he stands as an example of a non-stereotypical Asian superhero (or even seems to, since Jenn was actually fairly critical of Simone's portrait-of-the-Asian-as-a-superhero). I don't know that DC Comics *isn't* replete with closet racists, but I know that expecting a minority character to be immune to the current patterns of the superhero game, because he seems to validate a didactic standard, is the worst kind of tokenism.

And who knows? Death may actually make people like Ryan Choi better than they did the first time around...


Todd C. Murry said...

I'm not throwing my hat into the ring of outrage myself, mind you, but I think you're missing the point that the collective affronted are making. My understanding of the broad argument is that the deaths aren't random, but a pattern of restoring the "original" silver age incarnations of characters, which has the effect of trashing everybody's favorite DC thing (the only thing they do "better" than Marvel), which the pattern of legacy heroes (the turning over to another generation of hero that will be accepted as the legitimate heir to the cowl or mask or whatever). The extra step made by the people you are talking about is that they note that this sets the cultural egalitarianism clock back to the mid 50's, when superheroes were all white. Si it is the pattern of regressiveness that they take issue with, not the killing of an Asian-American character as part of a cycle.

Gene Phillips said...


I've been following some of these "regression" arguments online, and I just don't think they make any sense except in terms of knee-jerk reaction.

Some of the less knee-jerk posters have observed, as I did, that DC tends to temporarily kill off a lot of its heroes regardless of their ethnicity. They've also noted that very few heroes sell well for DC if they're not connected to either the Superman, Batman or JLA franchises. Thus it's impossible to state with certainty whether or not the hardcore fans are avoiding minority characters or just new characters generally.

I agree that DC has established a well-received pattern of creating nonwhite characters who inherit roles, as with Ryan Choi, Jakeem Thunder, Mr. Terrific and Batgirl. However, that pattern doesn't exempt any of them from the rules of the game: at any time, they can be killed to suit the desires of a writer or editor. From what I can tell, odds are that it will be a stupid and trivial death, because most of DC's writers don't seem to be able to execute well-conceived death-scenes (call it the Gerry Conway Syndrome). But as long as death sells comics, heroes will be killed.

Now, one can say, "If DC was really committed to diversity they'd arrange to bring in a Hispanic Atom to replace Choi, rather than "the old white guy.'" But comics are a business, and it's to be expected that if a new version of a character flops, the old one will be brought out of mothballs for reasons dominantly to do with exploiting any given character's potential.

Of course it'll probably be immaterial in the specific case of the Atom. The chances are not good that his new series in ADVENTURE will sell markedly better than any other incarnation of him, or better than that of Choi for that matter.

That's why I think it quite possible not only that Ryan Choi will be revived but that DC may have killed to see whether or not his fatal absence would make the fannish heart grow fonder.

Most of the other complaints about regressiveness-- Batgirl, Firestorm, et al-- strike me as no better thought out, but I'd have to deal with each in their turn.

Thanks for a courteous exchange.

Unknown said...


First of all, thanks for the linking (and letting me know about it)!

I think the regression argument is interesting, in the sense that you are right -- it's not a DELIBERATE act of racism on the part of D.C. to commit an anti-minority purging of the DCU. I don't think anyone is accusing D.C. writers or editors of hiding white pillow cases in their briefcases. But, there does seem to be a push towards bringing back Silver Age incarnations is the unfortunate side effect of reversing their recent diversity efforts.

The purpose of my original piece was not to call D.C. racist. I do think Ryan Choi will be back, primarily because his death seems so ill-executed and rushed. The purpose of my post was to acknwoledge that Ryan Choi is, for better or for worse, a symbolic character for Asian American fanboys/girls. I wasn't particularly thrilled with Choi's treatment by Simone in his title, but I did appreciate that D.C. was willing to try to tackle issues of Asian American identity in his books.

In the end, I think much of the reaction is fannish anger, but just because it is anger, doesn't make it misplaced. There should be some acknowledgement on the part of fans that characters are important to them, and that their deaths should be meaningful. Asian Americans are reacting negatively to Ryan Choi's death specifically because he's APIA. We're not saying he should be immune to comic book deaths, we're protesting the seemingly insensitive and inconsequential death that he suffered particularly considering he is one of the only APIA superheroes to have their own title.

Ryan Choi was specifically sold to fanboys -- particularly APIA fanboys -- based on the uniqueness of his race and ethnicity. If he's going to be killed, I think we would have liked to have there be some discussion from the writers (either in the book or in interviews) about what that would mean to the APIA community.