Monday, February 01, 2010

Race & Comics

There are comics out there in which the creators address race issues head-on. Frequently (though certainly not always) that stems from the creators' own experiences. Lalo Alcaraz's La Cucaracha and Tak Toyoshima's Secret Asian Man are prime examples of current comics that are largely defined by race relation issues. Nothing wrong with them, certainly, but they do indicate -- or at least strongly suggest -- that we're not in a 'post-racial' society yet. It's still a topic that's worthy of discussion.

Which is why I'm going to bring up Ethan Young's Tails.

According to the website, "Tails follows the semi-autobiographical misadventures of Ethan: a young, quirky Asian vegan struggling to become a cartoonist while taking care of a horde of cats." However, that Ethan is Asian is a minor point and doesn't really have much impact on the story itself. Back in August, though, Ethan (the creator, not the character) posted this on his blog...
I recently received a comment concerning Ethan’s ethnicity, which read, “I didn’t realize Ethan was supposed to be Asian.” Just in case you all didn’t realize (or didn’t read the description in the ‘About’ section), yes, Ethan is intended to be Asian. However, it was never emphasized in either the story or the illustrations, so don’t feel bad. I always thought that giving Ethan thick black hair and slightly smaller eyes was evidence enough, but I’ve been drawing this character for so long, I’m not the best judge. And I’ll admit, there are certain pages where Ethan looks very Anglo...

How many of you have read ‘American Born Chinese’ by Gene Yang, where the main character wishes he was a white kid? Or ‘Shortcomings’ by Adrian Tomine? These stories really hit home, and capture the self-doubt, self-loathing, self-deprecating self-image that a lot of Asian-Americans have. I went through that stage myself. Over it now...

Young went on to ask what readers thought about Cartoon Ethan's ethnicity. What race did they think he was, what kind of thoughts they had regarding the character or the comic, etc. I followed up with Young a while later and he relayed that the results were about what he expected: about 1/3 of readers thought Cartoon Ethan was Caucasian, 1/3 saw a distinctly Asian influence of some kind and 1/3 never thought about it one way or another. (I fell into this last camp since, as I noted at the time, Cartoon Ethan's ethnicity was about as important to the story as what kind of cat Garfield is.)

I pressed Young for a little more information about his racial background informed his creative process. He noted that he never really was on the receiving end of too much racism, though he definitely did get the occasional "chink" and "go back to your own country" comments. Enough at least that he didn't feel 100% accepted as an American. That, it should come as no surprise, informs his work. Cartoon Ethan is deliberately intended to be "cool, hip and relatable" in the manner that Young aspired to growing up and, whether Cartoon Ethan was Asian, Black, Caucasian, or whatever, that mindset is still informed by Young himself.

Interestingly, Young added that readers felt Cartoon Ethan's parents were much more confusing because they appeared distinctly Caucasian in relation to Cartoon Ethan. But his work on the comic was months in advance of when things were getting posted, so he didn't have any immediate plans for changing anything.

Last Friday, though, Young posted this...
Because of all the constant confusion to whether or not Ethan’s parents are actually his birth parents (people keep mistaking the grey hair for blond), I’ve colored in his parents’ hair so that the resemblance is more visible (go back and re-read some of the pages if your interest is piqued). The parents look more Asian now, so stop asking me if Ethan is adopted =P

Although the old pages are no longer available online, I used some of my wickd Google-Fu skilz to get you the chance to glimpse a before and after...

Which especially interesting in light of the natural progression Young's art has taken. He noted that, "If you'll look through some of the 'Tails' archives, like Prologue pg 1, Ethan has a single line with a pupil to represent his eyes. That, to me, comes across as more Asian. Over time, I found myself using that technique more and more, simple because I found that I liked it better." He's experimented a bit since then but when I was talking with him, he was working on Chapter 8 and felt that was the look Cartoon Ethan was ultimately settling in to. However, since Chapter 6 has only just started posting, readers won't see that for a little while yet. Which likely helps to explain the retroactive change to Cartoon Ethan's parents.

Another bit from Young...
People always used to ask me, "Where are you really from?" That question always irked me -- because I know people don't necessarily intend on being offensive, they're just interested in my heritage (either that or they're investigating my background). So, I bascially wanted to make Ethan Asian, yet not call attention to it because he was American. As President Obama said, "There is no White American, or Black American, or Hispanic American or Asian American, you are an American." (Or he said something like that, it's hard to remember...) In short, i didn't want to call attention to race, yet I didn't want to ignore it.

I don't really have a simple, happy conclusion to this post. Even saying something like, "Race is a complex issue and has no easy answers," is a rather trite point to make. I really enjoyed reading Tails before any of this came up. And after it did, it didn't really impact how I read the story. But it does provide an interesting backdrop, and makes for some interesting discussion and observation points with regard to comics and race in general.

Just something for folks to mull over.

1 comment:

hcduvall said...

I just wanted to say I appreciate the tone of this post.

“I didn’t realize Ethan was supposed to be Asian.” and Ethan Young's approaching his comic with is as close to post-racial as I think we can reasonably be, that race is not a topic to be ignored, while not necessarily the topic. Which is a refreshing change from the common attitude that does want to ignore race--exemplified when even well-meaning by Chris Matthews's comment after the State of the Union address about Obama that "I forgot he was black tonight."