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Marvels & Monsters and Alt.Comics, the current tag team exhibition at Museum of Chinese in America, offers a one-two punch that unmasks the American comic book industry’s often conflicted relationship with Asians and Asian-Americans. Organized by Jeff Yang and MOCA, the exhibitions, which run until February 24, 2013, are smart and accessible, and MOCA gets a special nod for maximizing its limited space to the greatest effect. I recommend you see it.
On the surface, the joint exhibition in many ways functions as eye candy. I love the exhibition’s use of hot pink and neon yellow as an installation element for the wall text and museum labels. Another telling detail is the broad yellow band the museum painted on the gallery walls. The black and white images just leap off the walls. For the drawing enthusiast, the installation features an array of drawing styles and approaches. Though pleasing to the eye, the shows are by no means lightweight as they outline the complex relationship between Asian Americans and comic books.
Marvels & Monsters examines the racist, xenophobic, and paranoid depictions of Asians and Asian Americans in postwar America. By stark contrast, Alt.Comics presents depictions of Asians from the perspective of Asian-American artists. The unifying theme between the two shows is a sense of Asian as alien, or what we often term “the other.”
Marvels & Monsters is drawn from science-fiction author and cultural studies scholar William F. Wu’s personal archive, which was recently donated to the NYU Fales Library & Special Collection. From World War II to the waning days of the Cold War, Wu amassed one of the biggest collections of comic books featuring images of Asians and Asian Americans. This comprehensive archive provides a unique opportunity to see how America perceived Asians during one of the most tumultuous times in modern history. It’s not pretty.
The museum does not exhibit the original comics from the Wu Collection, but digital prints, which appear on canvas, as well as foam core cutouts. And it does not disappoint. The installation is colorful and text heavy. Bright colors, text bubbles, and illustrative panels abound, while the layout of the exhibition brought to mind the comic book itself.
Jeff Yang and MOCA organize the exhibition into several key archetypes, which include “The Kamikaze,” “The Temptress,” “The Lotus Blossom,” “The Manipulator,” “The Alien,” and “The Guru.” The representations are grotesque and absurd: Asians in these postwar comics have protruding faces, big ears, and elastic lips. The images are placed within historical context and are juxtaposed with insights by Asian-American artists and writers. The text is incisive, witty, and personal. It provides an effective counterpoint to the rogues’ gallery of racist images.
Alt.Comics picks up the conversation where Marvel & Monsters leaves off. It showcases some of the most prominent artists working in the independent scene today, as they subvert, challenge, and usurp stereotypes. Among them are Larry Hama, GB Tran, and Alex Joon Kim.
The installation contains preliminary drawings, comic book panels, note cards with story arcs, sketches, and other types of original works on paper, as well as digital reprints, and a bookcase featuring original titles. The installation also features some early childhood drawings by the artists, seemingly to give the body of work some context.
Compared to the gross caricatures found in Marvels & Monsters, Alex Joon Kim draws people as generically as possible. His characters could represent any race, or no race in particular. By contrast, the protagonists in Gene Luen Yang’s drawings read as Asian, but they are as American as apple pie.
One of the great pleasures of Alt.Comics is how it offers a window into the creative process of the individual artists. From preliminary sketches to realized panels, we see how these artists get from point A to point B. The best example is GB Tran’s display, which chronicles his notes, preliminary sketches, and biographical comments for his sprawling, multigenerational epic, Vietnamerica.
New York City’s Hama also stands out in the show. MOCA presents an exquisite selection of his black-and-white ink drawings, which recall the swashbuckling samurai epics of Akira Kurosawa. His drawing style looked familiar, but I could not place it. It was only after I read some press material did I learn that Hama was one of the key creative forces behind two of my favorite comic books as a kid: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero and The ‘Nam. As a kid, I used to emulate his cover art in my sketchbooks.
Marvels & Monsters and Alt.Comics both helped to rekindle an early love affair I had with the medium.
Marvels & Monsters and Alt.Comics continues at the Museum of Chinese in America (215 Centre Street, Chinatown, Manhattan) until February 24, 2013.