Creating Southeast Asian Superheroes for the next generation

With great power comes great responsibility.
— Spider-man

One of the subjects we're regularly asked to discuss at conventions and conferences is “Southeast Asian Superheroes,” a subject that author Nor Sanavongsay and I are deeply interested in.

Growing up in the 1980s in America, we were surrounded by many amazing, astonishing and incredible superhero stories just as they were starting to hit their stride. It was over a decade since the Batman show, but it was still on in regular reruns. The Super Friends had been on since we’d been born, but would draw to a close by 1986. This was the time we’d see some amazing stories first come into print, such as The Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, The Crisis on Infinite Earths, Secret Wars, G.I. Joe and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. There were no shortage of heroes and stories being told and reinvented and these captured our imagination as we rebuilt our lives in the US. By the time we were regularly reading comics, the X-Men were starting to become a powerful, if sometimes problematic allegory for the Civil Rights movement.

Although Superman has his roots as a stand-in for the Jewish experience, many in our community could relate to having to feel like a schlub no one respected just to fit in to a home that we hadn’t been born in. But Clark Kent still wanted to use his powers to do good in the world. He wanted to stand for something, and in many ways he embodied the American promise that even if you were, in many ways, always an alien, you could still do your best to help as many as you could. That aligned with Lao values, and really, the values of so many other communities who have made their way to the US.

That being said, the idea of superheroes also represents an interesting set of questions for Southeast Asians. In preparing for our talk, we had questions about how different communities would or wouldn’t embrace the idea of superheroes, and what would they expect of them?

In many Southeast Asian nations, you would ask: Would our superheros be endorsed by the authorities, or would they be seen as vigilantes operating outside of the law? How would we feel if they were part of the system, or if they jumped in because their community was just too remote to be adequately served by the authorities?

Would we accept a pulp fiction-style superhero who flat-out executes criminals without judge or jury, or would we say that’s offensive to our traditional sensibilities, no matter how much the bad guys have it coming?

What types of threats would they go after? Criminal syndicates and gangsters? Foreigners and aliens trying to steal valuable resources? Monsters from outer space or ancient legend? There were so many possibilities to consider.

Origin stories for Southeast Asian superheroes were a subject of debate because for Lao and others, many of the classic roots stories for superheroes seem highly implausible. There’s very little opportunity to be exposed to mutagenic radiation, and there isn’t quite the culture where “wealthy industrialists trying to fight crime on the streets in disguise” seems likely, for example. We did have a good laugh considering the origins for characters like Wolverine or Hellboy, where everything he knows about himself could constantly change every other year. In the aftermath of the Secret War, stories like those aren’t that far fetched for many of our families.

One of the prevailing concerns is that in the aftermath of the colonial era, it’s still very difficult to find our own legends and traditions in our own words, on our own terms. Finding the research for the legendary heroes of our past really takes a great deal of commitment, because so many translations and interpretations are often quite incomplete. In extreme cases, the translations have been known to leave out exactly the bits that everyone would find interesting. Or else the translation has such tortured and inconsistent language that it might as well be unreadable. Fortunately, we’re seeing a wave of writers and artists who are trying to address that for the next generation.

One area that’s also a challenge is encouraging the creators of Southeast Asian superheroes to avoid cliches and overused tropes, or lazy origin stories. We’d also hate to see them written in a way that their culture has no bearing on their behavior. Does that mean we go so far as having the Southeast Asian superheros constantly taking off their boots before entering a building? Most likely not. Nor are we likely to see conversations like “Are you going to send him to prison? No, he’s lost so much face, that’s punishment enough.”

But at the same time, other taboos in our culture can set some interesting limits or create interesting opportunities that would set them apart from their international counterparts. How would they operate as a team? Or would they prefer to do things solo? How are they tied to their temples or schools? Would they be conflicted if the crisis was taking place during the new year or during a lunar eclipse? There are some intriguing possibilities.

To date, Marvel and DC comics have had a shaky history presenting interesting and original Southeast Asian superheroes to the point that I almost didn’t want to really see them trying anymore. You had some who were just flat-out dragon lady martial arts assassin caricatures. Others were the children of prostitutes during the war, or looking for revenge on American G.I.s in the states. One was the “Celestial Madonna.” Many of them had an odd habit of getting killed off and brought back repeatedly, which, granted, is par for the course for being a superhero. Then there’s the Cambodian American Kevin Kho, who got transformed into the One Man Army Corps, then apparently knocked into a transdimensional portal by a dweeb named Captain Boomerang. Which hardly seemed fair, but “Comics, everyone!”

In any case, this is just a snapshot of some of the things we’re looking at. We’ll discuss this subject more in the near future, but I hope it provides a fun sense of the possible.

Bryan Thao Worra