The New Super-Man monthly comic book series ends this Wednesday with issue #24. I’m a little sad, sure, but mostly I’m grateful. For the last two years, I got to play in a new-ish corner of the DC Universe. I got to write about two Cities of Tomorrow, one real (Shanghai) and one make-believe (Metropolis). I got to create a Bat-Man character in the mold of Sammo Hung. I got to explore the overlap between an American icon – Superman – and modern Chinese culture.
And I got to work with some amazing, amazing artists. Viktor Bogdanovic expertly laid the visual foundation for the Justice League of China. Billy Tan (who actually lives in Shanghai – how awesome is that?!), Brent Peeples, and Joe Lalich all put a piece of their own souls into our characters. Bernard Chang and Philip Tan created incredible, poster-worthy covers. David Sharpe, Hi-Fi, Richard Friend, and all the other inkers, colorists, and letters who worked on the book made it deep and bright, dangerous and full of hope.
I am so, so grateful.
HOW IT STARTED
When DC first approached me to do a monthly book about a Chinese Super-Man, I thought, “What?! That sounds like the dumbest idea ever. I want nothing to do with that!”
To be honest, it sounded like a grab for Chinese movie money. But after some longer discussions, I realized DC was going for something deeper. I found out that it began as Jim Lee’s idea. He really wanted an Asian member of the Superman family.
I have to confess, I’ve been a Jim Lee fan since I was in high school. I’ve got a long box of Jim Lee X-Men comics back home. It’s hard to say no to your idol, you know? So I said yes.
I began looking for that Superman/Chinese culture overlap. I started with Superman’s S, and I found the S shape in two places. First, in the traditional Yin Yang symbol, an S is formed where the Yin and Yang meet.
Second, there’s another symbol that’s often used in Taoism called the Bagua. If you frequent Chinese restaurants – the kind where they set the tables with chopsticks instead of forks – you’ve probably seen it. The Bagua made up of eight sets of lines, called Trigrams, and there’s a numerical order to the Trigrams.
If you trace your finger from the first Trigram to the last, you move from Earth to Heaven. You also make an S, so the S connects Earth with Heaven. (If you want a full explanation, read the book! Especially issues #7-8.)
I had some concepts to build on.
In old-school superhero stories, the good guys are always good and the bad guys are always bad. Yin is always Yin and Yang is always Yang. But that black-and-white way of thinking doesn’t really work anymore. To a modern reader, it feels inauthentic. Especially in the Internet age, when stuff gets exaggerated and caricatured in 140 characters or less, black-and-white thinking can be toxic.
To my mind, the wisdom in the Yin Yang symbol is in the two dots. In the white Yang, there is a black dot (which, incidentally, looked to me like one of I-Ching’s lenses) and in the black Yin, there is a white dot. Yin and Yang contain each other, and they have to be balanced. That became the foundation of the entire series.
Early on, we wanted Kenan Kong, the New Super-Man, to have a martial arts master. My first choice was Bronze Tiger, but that didn’t work out.
Then I came across I-Ching. I-Ching first appeared in Wonder Woman #179, published in 1968. He’s this short, blind Chinese guy who trained Wonder Woman in kung-fu after she lost all her Amazonian powers. (I know. The 1960’s were a weird time for superhero comics.)
There are lots of problems with the character of I-Ching, not the least of which is his name. “I-Ching” is actually the title of an important text in Taoism, so naming a Chinese character “I-Ching” is sort of like naming a European character “Bible.” Not the best idea.
But I figured I could strengthen that link to Taoism into something meaningful. The concept of balance is super-important in Taoism, so what if we made I-Ching the embodiment of balance? (Like I said, his sunglass lenses looked like dots, so we were halfway there already.)
If I-Ching is balance, then we’d need a character who embodies a lack of balance, and that turned out to be All-Yang. Balance requires that you embrace the pieces of yourself that are weak, right? All-Yang would have to be a rejection of all weakness.
In Issue #1, Kenan starts off as a thoroughly unbalanced individual. The first eighteen issues are about him finding balance — or at least beginning to find balance. I-Ching and All-Yang, balance and unbalance, tug at him throughout.
I’m going to talk about religion for a bit. If you’re not into the topic, just skip to the next section. (And I get it. Religion can bring out the jerk in people.) Learning about Taoism was one of the unexpected benefits of working on the New Super-Man series. I’m not Taoist, so after we decided to bring in I-Ching the character, I began to read.
To be honest, I didn’t really connect with I-Ching the book. It’s old and lots have people have found lots of meaning in it, so I’m sure it’s me. I did, however, connect deeply with the Tao Te Ching, another sacred Taoist text.
I’m a practicing Catholic, and my faith tends to go through ebbs and flows (like my life in general, I guess). I was ebbing when I started working on the I-Ching storyline. Reading about the Tao — the Way — and its similarities to the Greek concept of the Logos was incredibly heartening to me at a time when I really needed it. I’m always looking for that overlap between East and West, not just for New Super-Man, but for my life.
For me, the experience highlighted one of the benefits of reading about other folks, other belief systems, and other ways of life. Learning about other people’s traditions can sometimes give you a deeper, more-nuanced appreciation of your own.
You know what I realized about a year into the New Super-Man gig? I was actually writing about America through Kenan Kong.
A few months before we began working on the title, the New York Times published an op-ed by an Asian writer arguing that superheroes can’t be Asian. (If you’re interested, you can find it here: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/26/opinion/that-oxymoron-the-asian-comic-superhero.html) Supposedly, superheroes are so essentially American that you can’t translate them into other cultures.
There was a lot of backlash, of course, and I definitely had that op-ed in mind as I started to write the first issue of New Super-Man.
When we were in the discussion stages, we made the decision to start Kenan off as a bully. It was an oblique tribute to the Clark Kent Superman, who was kind of a jerk when he first debuted in 1938. As Geoff Johns said during our first story meeting, Kenan’s character arc would basically move from Golden Age Superman to Modern Day Superman.
But as I began to write, I realized that my feelings about Kenan Kong mirror my feelings about America. When you look at America’s history with China — when you look at America’s history with people and nations of color in general — America has been a bully. It’s undeniable. Yet, as an American, as someone who is thankful for so much about this country, I have to believe that America can be a hero, too.
That’s exactly how I feel about Kenan Kong. He starts off as bully, but I have to believe he can be a hero, too.
So maybe that New York Times op-ed was right. Even when I try to write an Asian superhero, I end up writing about America.
DETECTIVE COMICS #1
The editors and I talked about this particular idea for a long while before pulling the trigger on it. Detective Comics #1 — the first issue of the title from which the DC Comics company gets its name — features a yellow peril villain on the cover.
There’s some debate as to whether it’s Chin Lung or Fui Onyui, two characters from two different story arcs in the issue. Regardless, it shows just how intertwined racism is with the history of American comics.
New Super-Man is a part of Rebirth, DC’s soft relaunch in 2016. Rebirth’s big project was to show that, despite all the relaunches and multiple universes, the company has been telling one big story from the very beginning. DC wanted to bring past and present into a single, unified mythology. That means that every issue, every story from the 1930s until now “matters” in some way.
How do you do that without acknowledging that DC debuted with a straight-up racist image? By having Chin Lung/Fui Onyui show up in New Super-Man, we could talk about the past explicitly, on-panel.
We didn’t want it to be all about guilt over an ugly past, though. DC Comics has gone from debuting with a cover that dehumanized Chinese people, to taking their most important symbol, the Superman S, and putting it on the chest of a Chinese superhero. Chin Lung/Fui Onyui appears at the very end of New Super-Man #8. That issue was written by a Chinese American writer and illustrated by a Chinese art team. To my mind, it shows how far DC has come, how far we as a society have come. Things aren’t perfect, of course, but (this is a very “Superman” way of looking at the world) they’re better in so many ways, and that’s a reason for hope. I’m proud to be a part of today’s DC Comics.
The vast majority of our fans have understood what we were trying to do. Some were shocked, but they were also intrigued and supportive. I hope we lived up to their expectations.
Like I said, I am so, so grateful. I’m grateful to my editors, especially Paul Kaminski whose wisdom and story sense guided the series from the first issue to the last, and Jessica Chen who came aboard a little later but was critical to the final few storylines. I’m grateful to the leadership of DC Comics for taking a risk that I initially wanted to avoid.
And most of all, I’m grateful the book’s readers. DC Comics was originally going to end New Super-Man six months ago, with issue #18. Because of your support, we got six more issues. Six more! One was written by the uber-talented Mariko Tamaki, and the other five gave us space to introduce Dragonson, the North Korean Aqua-Man. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
This is definitely not the end of Kenan Kong and his teammates. They are now a permanent part of the DC mythos. (How crazy is THAT?!)
Also, the first three trade paperbacks are available right now, with a fourth on the way.
It’s not the end of my work at DC Comics, either. Next up for me: