How Chinese Opera and American Comics Are Alike

February 27, 2013 by  
Filed under Gene's Blog

I gotta be honest.  If you grew up on American pop music like me, Chinese opera can be hard to take. To Western ears, traditional Chinese singing can sound awfully whiny, like the singer is performing in spite of a mild head cold.

While working on Boxers & Saints, however, I developed an appreciation for the ancient artform.  I’ve already written about how Chinese opera was the pop culture of the Boxers, kind of the way superhero comics are the pop culture of modern-day geeks.  The similarities go beyond that.

First, color is immensely important in both genres.  It’s well-documented that most American superheroes dress in primary colors while villains prefer secondary colors.

In Chinese opera, the color of an actor’s mask externalizes a character’s personality.  Red indicates courage, black impartiality, blue stubbornness, yellow treachery.

Second, both genres feature stories with lots of well-choreographed battles.

Batman vs Superman

Finally, primates are incredibly popular in both genres. DC Comics has a history of putting gorillas on comic book covers.  Here’s a clip of the Monkey King, probably the most popular character of the Chinese opera, doing his Monkey King thing (the most impressive part is at 0:19):

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5 Responses to “How Chinese Opera and American Comics Are Alike”
  1. PLUGO says:

    Also keep in mind the super-power of the quick-change!

    There is a Kung Fu tradition behind the face-change that has deep roots in traditional Opera.

  2. Linda W says:

    Wow. Thanks for the great clips. Since I just finished reading the Avatar (The Promise) graphic novels you scripted and watched all three seasons of Avatar, I can’t help thinking about Zuko donning a mask to be the Blue Spirit (from the series) and other aspects that undoubtedly follow the pageantry of Chinese opera. And of course you wrote about the Monkey King in American Born Chinese.

    • gene says:

      Interesting you would bring up Zuko’s Blue Spirit mask… I was working on the end of the Boxer Project and Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Search at the same time. Idea bits bled from one project to the other. :)

  3. Tsz says:

    I saw the superheroes Chinese opera cross over sketches that you did. They are fantastic! I shared them on a Chinese opera theme blog that I run crediting you of course and with a link to this post. I hope you don’t mind. If you do I will take them down.

    I am curious if you will make any more of those sketches because I’d love to see female warrior characters being portrayed. Or as you probably already know cross dressing in Chinese opera performance is very common, I’d love to see your take on that.

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