Review: Secret Identities

I first heard about Secret Identities from angry asian man, who is made of win. I tracked down a couple of the previews on Youtube where comic panels had been voiced over. The whole list can be found here.

In fact, Secret Identities was so well-marketed that even though I pre-ordered it through a local bookstore, I couldn't get my grubby little mitts on it until a month after it had come out, because the shippers kept running out of copies! To me, it was a very good sign, and I was hopeful that it was worth the wait.

Was it?

Oh yes.

Every page was worth the whole month.

When I first heard of the idea - an Asian-American Superhero Anthology - I was intrigued. I don't really like how these things center around America. I understand that the Asian diaspora reaches across and is most acknowledged in America, but Asians don't only live in America. There is a piece which is set in the Phillipines, with a set of siblings who share the same father. I have a strong feeling that the father is white though, which makes the two of them from Asian countries half-white.

However, most of the stories are set in a fictional city called Troy, where, it seems, the rate of superheroes is pretty high! (Much like how the crime rate in Gotham is so ridiculously high because it's just Batman handling all the work, right.)

I was disappointed also with the lack of South/Central Asians compared to East Asians - there was a page with one man in a turban and one woman with glasses and a hijab form I was familiar with (in Malaysia we call it the tudung, I don't know what others call it). The last panel was particularly moving: "if they only knew what I was really capable of .... they'd be amazed."

I'll admit: I cried a lot. The first story that actually moved me, deeply, was the one based off James Kim. He and his family had been stranded in the snowy Oregon wilderness, and he went off to get help. He never came back. A helicopter pilot found the family car by following a 16-mile trail of footprints in the snow. Parry Shen and Sarah Sapang paid tribute to him by transforming him into a superhero, the Match ... whose story is told by his grown-up daughter to her son as she explains to him the most heroic thing her father did, which wasn't any of his touted adventures.

After crying that first time, I went back and re-read the whole book (I finished it within a couple of hours, it's not that hard) and found more things to cry about - the couple of sets based on Act 9066 (which ordered the internment of American-Japanese citizens), for example. I have a huge problem with Japan erasing the atrocities it committed from its history books (just as I have a huge problem with China's censorship), but I have to admit that I find stories related to 9066 fascinating. Part of it is because something similar happened to the Chinese in Malaya, when the Japanese invaded. Part of it also because because it hails back to the problems of being judged by skin colour, what I look like - even though I've never actually felt it, I know that I could, all too easily. The 9066 sequences reminded me of these feelings.

Secret Identities covers a wide spectrum of class - poor immigrants arriving in America to make their way ("Twilight" and "the Wallpasser") to upper-middle-class who are intent on sending their children to Troy Academy ("A Day At CostumeCo"). I was very pleased that at this variety, because it really went to show that there are those of us just arriving, with different circumstances, and those of us who have already settled, for generations, even, and are pretty much Americans.

Not only that, but some of the sequences also drew on popular stereotypes in Asian culture! "Sampler"'s heroine works in a laundromat. OMG. A laundromat! And using the stereotypical setting, we get a heroine who is really in the right place for her powers to manifest and be really freaking useful! The main character of "A Day at CostumeCo" is embarrassed to manifest her powers because it harks to Sailor Moon transformations. I shit you not.

Many of these stories do not draw directly from specific Asian cultural ... stuff (I have no other word). A couple do, such as "You Are What You Eat" which deals with some superstitions (okay, observations) on food types, and "Long". The latter threw me off, because I wasn't sure what I was supposed to be seeing. I thought, holy crap, buck-toothed and chinky-looking, just, what? and I had to admit that it was very, very, very cute.

Tributes are paid to Bruce Lee in dealing with the side-kick phenomenon that plagues Asian superheroes, like Kato - "The Blue Scorpion & Chung" is directly inspired by the Green Hornet, although dealing more with the interactions between vigilante and chauffeur: the unintentionally racist boss and his long-suffering, self-sacrificing sidekick, and we get a tantalizing look into Chung's ideals and motivations, while mourning his status.

Secret Identities doesn't deal with gender much, and female superheroes don't get as much airtime. I dislike the depiction of the women in "Trinity" who have fairly typical hypersexualized costuming. In "You Are What You Eat," Ting looks like a fairly normal young woman, but also having trouble with her weight (as in, she doesn't want to be fat). Section 3's introductory page features a fat woman using her weight to stop a robbery - it probably means well, but in a sense still plays on fat = comedy. But not all the superheroines are drawn to attract the Male Gaze, which was a very pleasant departure.

My favourite sequences, hands-down, is "The Citizen". Superman-esque sass-talkin' no-shit-taking Japanese-American hottie? Check. Obama cameo? Check. I love how Murakawa comes rights out and says it, "who sent you?" "Pardon?" "You're black." - panel shift to Obama - "and I'm pushing universal healthcare." Obama with a gun cameo? Check. Obama & The Citizen taking on flying nazi gremlins? Motherfuckin' check. I do not fail to note that Obama has a woman as an assistant as well. Who is also shooting said flying nazi gremlins. It's pulp fiction utopia love.

This anthology features a vast range of talent - sixty-three contributors, all Asian. The stories range from just everyday fun to human stories to deeply politically thoughtful commentaries. George Takei loves it. So does Margaret Cho.

I... honestly can't see how someone could pick this up and not love some aspect of it.


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