So let's talk about comic book characters you'd ask to prom, then about World War II propaganda.
Contrary to expectations, I wouldn't ask Batman to prom. I want to be Batman, not slow dance with him. My comic book prom date, if I had actually gone to prom, and if he wasn't fictional, and if I wasn't a decade too old to go to prom — work with me, here — is Amadeus Cho. Amadeus is this adorable floppy-haired, teenage, hyper genius with a cute slacker-hero wardrobe and a coyote puppy. Yes. Coyote puppy. He's the seventh smartest person in the Marvel Universe, and he carries around a coyote puppy in his hoodie. If you can't at least sort of understand why this is delightful, I'm not sure we can be friends.
Amadeus is the fairly recent creation of Korean American writer/director Greg Pak; Amadeus is also Korean American. Amadeus is a super genius who is not stereotypically nerdy. Again: slacker protagonist in a teen rom-com flick wardrobe, cute hair, strategically adorable puppy. He doesn't even wear glasses, okay? This is not a super serious dude who needs to lighten up and learn how to have fun. Amadeus is more of a trickster figure, clever and charming with an impish streak. I bet he would be super fun at prom. Now that I think of it, he'd probably be way more fun at prom than brooding teenage Bruce Wayne.
Amadeus manages to defy the stereotypes associated with Asian male characters, while still being highly intelligent. Despite the fact his arguably defining feature (it's his superpower!) is part of the usual Asian stereotype, Amadeus isn't the typical socially stunted, graceless Asian caricature that appears in a lot of Western media. Amadeus feels like a character, not like a trope or a joke. This is great for a lot of reasons, but since comics and convention/cosplay culture are so entwined, one of the wonderful things about Cho is that he presents a cool cosplay option, and as I've mentioned before, there aren't a lot of those for Asian dudes.
My boyfriend Ziggy and I read a lot of comics together, and we're both big Amadeus fans. Ziggy is kind of like a non-comic-book version of Cho, a grown up boy genius, but then it's unfair because he also does karate. He's also Asian American, so for our first ever Dragon Con, years ago, it made perfect sense for us to cosplay as Amadeus Cho and his in-universe girlfriend, Delphyne Gorgon.
When we found out Amadeus was going to be part of the Runaways — a young superhero team — we were stoked. The upcoming comic is part of the Battleworld story event Marvel is doing, which is the kind of thing that's hard to explain to non-comic people without getting blank stares and feeling sheepish. It's basically an in-story massive crossover event that involves a patchwork of various continuities and timelines. At the end of all this, allegedly, there will be a new OFFICIAL Marvel Universe continuity.
Look, I don't know. It's an alternative reality, kind of sort of, but it's an alternative reality that's going to eventually turn into the new default "true" story reality. Just go with it.
So, exciting! Things are happening! Woo!
Then the Runaways cover was released.
These are some official Marvel images of what Amadeus Cho looks like.
Action hero walk:
But this is the new Runaways cover with Cho in the middle:
If your first thought is "Why does Cho all of a sudden have super round glasses, no actual eyes, and buckteeth?" then your reaction is exactly the one we had. Congratulations! You can feel weird and uncomfortable with me. Let's go get some punch.
The slanted slits for eyes paired with the big round glasses, the buckteeth — the buckteeth, okay, I think, for me, the most puzzling thing is the buckteeth.
Specifically, this cover feels like a visual call out to World War II propaganda posters depicting Japanese Prime Minister Tojo. Tojo did in fact have very round glasses, so that's what the grossly racist caricatures to follow used to identify him. The Allies were very into racist depictions of Tojo. Here, read the wiki.
Look at this. Or this. How about this? Oh, and you guys remember how the United States put a bunch of Japanese Americans into concentration camps, right?
So what is this doing on a comic book cover in this day in age?
I tweeted the creator of Amadeus Cho, Greg Pak, and received no response. Given that Pak isn’t writing this particular comic, I wasn't really surprised. I wanted some sort of answer, but I wasn't surprised that I didn't get one.
My intention here is not to hate on the artist of this cover, or the writer of this comic. Stanford Greene, the artist, is actually really good and I even like this cover, minus the character design for Cho. I've browsed his DeviantArt account, and there's a ton of awesome stuff there.
This is a talented dude, but I checked his art out in part because I wanted to see if he routinely depicted characters with buck teeth, like maybe that's just his style. But it's not. I checked his art to see if he usually draws people with open eyes and yet no eyeballs. Nope. I realize not everyone on the Runaways cover has big open eyes. But the eyes on Amadeus are the only ones at that angle, the only eyes that suggest they open yet are still slits.
I don't know the artist's heart. I don't know his intent. I don't know if the writer, Noelle Stevenson, suggested this particular look, and I don't know the writer's heart either. I don't know that anyone involved in making this has any idea what it looks like. I really have no idea how this happened, and I want to be clear that I'm not calling anyone out. All I know is this: that cover makes me uncomfortable. It makes Ziggy uncomfortable. It makes me really, really dubious about the contents of the story within. It makes me feel alienated, just as a minority. How alienated would I feel if I were Asian, and looking at this cover? I'm guessing really alienated, you guys.
And look, maybe there's a really good reason to deliberately invoke WW2 propaganda. This is a different continuity! Maybe this is a world where the Axis powers won, and everyone has terrible glasses! Maybe Amadeus is, like, an illusionist wizard here and he's deliberately looking like that because he's fighting someone in a mind chamber using only Dr. Seuss illustrations! Maybe he's fighting an evil matter-manipulating mutant racist who thinks Amadeus is Japanese and is making him look like that? Maybe somehow then dinosaurs make everything better?
I don't know. But even if there is a totally justified in-story reason for his radical make over, even if the look he's sporting there is some sort of disguise, why would you make that artistic choice and then put it on the cover? Regardless of intent or awareness, this cover potentially makes anyone with a passing knowledge of WW2 visual history uncomfortable. It risks making the Asian audience feel mocked, hurt, marginalized. It’s not always about what you say or why, but how it makes people feel.
This comic isn't out yet, but how many people had to look at this art and okay it before it was released on the internet? How many people either don't know any better, or worse yet, just don't care? How many people, potentially, are completely unaware of their ingrained racism that it doesn't occur to them that this image is a bad idea?
You take one of the few Asian guys in Marvel Comics, and basically the only one who doesn’t know karate, isn’t condemned to sexless-Asian-guy-hell, and isn’t a Chinese houseboy whose only superpower is bringing Dr. Strange his breakfast. A cute and stylish character that, for his entire publication history, has not conformed to racial stereotypes.
And you give this character, of all characters, slant eyes, buck teeth, and Hideki Tojo's glasses.
Why? Why would you do that? Seriously, Marvel. I'm not going to say I'm outraged or we should all stop buying comics or something. I'm just puzzled. I don't get it. I want there to be a good reason for this, but I'm not sure there can be. I want to believe that everyone involved has good intentions and this was just some sort of weird mistake. I really do.
But still: How did this happen?