It’s Memorial Day, during which we celebrate those who have fallen fighting the good fight and those who still wage it. May is also Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, so we’ve decided to list a few Asian superheroes we think deserve a bit more recognition. People of Asian descent are woefully underrepresented in Western superhero comics. The inspiration from this mostly comes from the recent passing of one Ryan Choi, who wore the size-changing belt of the Atom during the run of an excellent but short-lived 2006 series and a little while after. He may be gone now but characters like Choi are scarcer than other ethnic superheroes, which is why they deserve to be appreciated when they’re around and remembered when they’re not. The list below covers some of our favorites. We know it’s not exhaustive, but it’s not supposed to be. Sound off in the comments with the characters you feel deserve more attention.
First Appearance: Yellow Claw #1 (October 1956).
Jimmy originally started as an FBI agent tasked with taking out the Fu Manchu-style master criminal Yellow Claw. (Um, yeah…) He later wound up in SHIELD, the Marvel’s Universe’s super-spy agency.
Best Shot at the Big Leagues: Woo actually led a team of super-powered heroes called the Avengers in the 1950s (in What If #9) way before Thor, Iron Man and the rest took up the mantle. He then came back in a big way with the Agents of Atlas series in 2006, which resurrected characters from 1950s era Marvel.
Wince-Inducing Moments: When Marvel was cashing in on the 1970s Godzilla craze, Woo was on SHIELD’s Godzilla Squad. Chinese, Japanese, what’s the difference?
What’s to Love: Jimmy’s a throwback to the slick, hardnosed style of secret agent and he’s the leader, not the stereotypical smart guy or kung-fu master. Also, he gives orders to a giant talking gorilla. Win.
First Appearance: Uncanny X-Men #244 (May 1989)
The child of Chinese immigrants who were murdered by hitmen, Jubilation Lee joined the X-Men during a period of time when the whole world thought they were dead.
Best Shot at the Big Leagues: Jubilee ran with the X-Men for many years and later went onto the high-school-centric spin-off a. Her sidekick relationship with Wolverine riffed on Batman & Robin, putting her next to Marvel’s most popular character. She also got tons of screen time on the 1990s X-Men cartoon.
Wince-Inducing Moments: Let’s start with her hilariously clichéd powers. She could set off mini-explosions, because, y’know, gunpowder and fireworks came from China. Even if you’re not mad at that, the fact that she was a rollerblading mall-rat who followed Storm, Rogue and other female X-Men from a shopping trip has gotta sting.
What’s to Love: Despite the questionable powers and background, Jubilee injected some youth into an older, angsty X-Men line-up when they needed it.
First Appearance: Legends of the Dark Knight #120 (August 1999)
Cassandra Cain is the daughter of two expert assassins, David Cain and Lady Shiva. Daddy trained her to be the perfect killing machine, ignoring basic life skills like talking or reading. She wound up in Gotham as a teenage girl.
Best Shot at the Big Leagues: Cassandra became part of the Bat-family during the No Man’s Land story arc in the late 1990s. She worked closely Oracle/Barbara Gordon (a former Batgirl herself) and extensively with the Bat himself.
Wince-Inducing Moments: An utterly stupid heel turn made her a villain during the One Year Later continuity shift. She suddenly became the leader of the League of Assassins and gave grief to former partner Robin. Brainwashing, smainwashing; this was an incredibly bad decision that ruined what had once been a well-crafted character.
What’s to Love: Cassandra’s one of the best hand-to-hand fighters in the DC Universe, having defeated Lady Shiva, often referred to as the world’s most dangerous woman. The proximity of Asian-ness and martial arts expertise may make eyes roll, but her initial portrayals as a naïve, maladjusted and mute teenage girl that also happened to be a cold-blooded combatant gave her a nice bit of paradoxical complexity.
First Appearance: Outsiders #1 (August 2003)
The statuesque former bouncer first appeared as part of Nightwing’s team of Outsiders, providing the muscle and attitude for the group of heroes who took the fight to the bad guys.
Best Shot at the Big Leagues: The Outsiders teams she was on was taken over by Batman. Readers later learned that Grace was part-Amazon, but from the Bana-Mighdall tribe not the Themyscryian tribe like Wonder Woman.
Wince-Inducing Moments: She was revealed to have survived a child-prostitution ring before her powers kicked in, but the writers who handled Grace never really pinned her down to a specific ethnicity. She was just, y’know, Asian… of the brownish-yellow variety.
What’s to Love: Grace was a bit of a lusty rabble-rouser who wasn’t shy about hooking up with fellow heroes. She did enter into a more serious relationship with Thunder, one of Black Lightning’s daughters. Let’s see: overcoming child abuse, ass-kicker with Amazonian heritage and a fun-loving bisexual? Why is this character in limbo, then?
The All-New Atom (Ryan Choi)
First Appearance: Brave New World #1 (August 2006)
Choi sprang from the mind of comics genius Grant Morrison, envisioned as a Hong Kong theoretical physics professor who was filling in the teaching shoes of Ray Palmer, the second Atom. He eventually found out Palmer’s superhero identity and became a size-changing crime-fighter in his own right.
Best Shot at the Big Leagues: Choi never seemed meant to sit in that tiny floating chair at Justice League headquarters. Still, the weird fringe of the DCU was a natural fit for him and his series included a memorable date with Wonder Woman nemesis Giganta, along with a recurring role for campy 70s character Lady Cop.
Wince-Inducing Moments: Choi died a controversial death at the hands of Deathstroke and his cronies in the recent Titans: Villains For Hire special. I mean, shoving the guy’s tiny body into a matchbox?
What’s to Love: Under writer Gail Simone’s tenure, Choi’s adventures were filled wacky head-spinning ideas like an invading micro-culture that lived on his dog’s body and the idea that constantly changing size and bending the rules of physics was fraying the reality of the town he lived in.
Shang-Chi, Master of Kung-Fu
First Appearance: Special Marvel Edition #15 (December 1973)
Shang-Chi came about in an arranged marriage when Marvel got the licenses of the Fu Manchu novels by Sax Rohmer and the Kung Fu TV series that starred David Carradine. The character was invented to take advantage of both properties, standing in for Kung Fu’s Caine, while being given a backstory pegged to the infamous Yellow Peril uber-criminal Fu Manchu.
Best Shot at the Big Leagues: Shang-Chi benefitted from the 1970s martial-arts mania and appeared in two high-selling, ongoing titles for much of the decade. He later joined in with a loose assemblage of Marvel’s street-level heroes called Marvel Knights, along with Daredevil, Luke Cage and others.
Wince-Inducing Moments: Man, where does one start? The curry-powder yellow coloring that was used for Asian characters back in the day? The fact that he wore only one haircut and one set of clothes for, like, a decade? Shang-Chi never got much in the way of character development during his most popular days, either, remaining pretty one-dimensional until more recent takes on the character.
What’s to Love: He’s basically the Bruce Lee of the Marvel Universe and can hold his own against anyone with superpowers. The Master of Kung-Fu series–especially the Doug Moench/Paul Gulacy run–did boast some great, intricate fight scenes, though.
First Appearance: Amazing Fantasy #15 (January 2006)
The Korean-American teen genius popped up in an anthology series but wound up becoming the Hulk’s new buddy during the Planet Hulk and World War Hulk storylines.
Best Shot at the Big Leagues: Amadeus is routinely called the seventh-smartest person in the world and has outwitted big brains like Reed Richards. He’s able to calculate quantum possibilities, pretty much making him a master strategist. Cho rolled with Hercules for a long while in The Incredible Hercules and just got his own series where he inherited Herc’s mace.
Wince-Inducing Moments: Y’know, maybe it’s because creator Greg Pak took into account the missteps made before him, but Amadeus’s stories have by-and-large been free of the tone-deaf gaffes that plague other characters. Even the brainiac aspect of the character–which could smack of “Asians being good at math”–works without relying on a stereotypical undercurrent.
What’s to Love: A skinny 17-year-old wielding the mace of Hercules and running a mythologically-funded corporation with Bruce Banner working for him? Yes, please!