It’s hard to think of a more perfect synecdoche for the American superhero comics industry than C.B. Cebulski, recently named editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, admitting his first day on the job that he spent more than a year writing comics under the name Akira Yoshida in what we’ll generously call a Japanese idiom.
Cebulski, of course, is not Japanese.
According to comics columnist Rich Johnston, who broke the story through industry news outlet Bleeding Cool, Marvel talked up “Akira Yoshida” as though he was a one-in-a-million prodigy; “He was someone from non-English speaking country who could write well for an American audience — something Marvel had struggled with in the past when seeking authentic voices,” Johnston recalls being told.
“Yoshida” was writing Japanese-flavored work for Marvel about the villainous ninja clan called The Hand in 2004 near the beginning of a manga boom in the US book market. Manga had become especially popular among younger readers and women; Cebulski’s tenure as editor of Marvel’s manga efforts—the company welcomed him to the fold as “C.B.-san” in a press release—had not brought the company the new market it expected.
As a fake Japanese man, Cebulski got quite a bit of work set in Japan and about Marvel’s Asian characters, of whom there are many. The Hand are a creation of writer-artist Frank Miller; other Asian or Asian-ish characters are the work of Don Heck, Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby and others white artists. Some—Miller especially—have worked to bring Japanese work to American readers and to absorb not just stereotypes but artistic substance from Japan’s own venerable comics traditions; assessing their accomplishments alongside the work of their peers in Japan is complicated.
But only Cebulski managed to create an Asian character who literally drew a paycheck for him.
Cebulski started out working on a Manga-ish series called Darkstalkers for Canadian artist Pat Lee’s now-defunct company Dreamwave. When he got to Marvel, Cebulski gave a lengthy interview in character as Yoshida, saying he’d been introduced to American comics by his father, who worked in “international business” and would bring them home to Japan from trips abroad.
People claimed to have seen Yoshida in Marvel’s offices; according to Johnston, that person was a Japanese translator. For years, editor Mike Marts swore blind he’d eaten lunch with Cebulski’s pseudonym; he, too, may have dined with the translator.
Orientalism—the patronizing depiction of Asian and Middle Eastern cultures in Western literature—is older than C.B. Cebulski; it’s older than Marvel Comics, too. It’s certainly older than pulp characters that filled matinees and newsstands in the 1930’s but it might be worthwhile to start with those rather than trudge all the way back to Kipling and Sax Rohmer, because the pulps are where comics were born.
The Shadow learned how to render himself invisible “years ago in the Orient.” Doc Savage found himself embroiled in some plot or other in Asia or on the Arabian peninsula about twice a week. Flash Gordon battled a space emperor with long, thin mustaches called Ming the Merciless. The Green Hornet’s martial artist houseboy Kato was so much cooler than the Hornet himself that the role catapulted Bruce Lee to stardom when the character got a TV show in the 1960’s, but (white) billionaire playboy Britt Reid was in charge in the 1930’s and he stayed the boss until very recently.
That’s not to say that these characters and stories aren’t fun. They’re loads of fun. Orientalist window dressing is one of a dozen expedient narrative gimmicks to get the reader to buy Shiwan Khan’s piranha-infested moat or to explain away ridiculous nonsense like the neato power to read minds. It’s effective because the reader is likely to think, “Oh yeah, that sounds like something that would happen in a mysterious place where I don’t speak the language.”
The problem with that narrative device and not with, say, a time machine, is that there are people underneath it, with stories that aren’t about piranhas. Some of them even create comic books in a distinct tradition.
Though they share DNA, contemporary superhero comics differ from pulps in that they are about a whole new class of character, rather than a wealthy eccentric who makes the New York crime blotter more exciting. Among superheroes, Orientalist caricatures are presented alongside aliens, demigods and robots—this guy has claws that come out of his knuckles, that one is a despotic cyborg from outer space, and that one… well, that one’s Chinese.
Marvel has tried to smooth this sort of thing over but it’s hard to know which way to jump; the grief the company caught for casting a white woman as Doctor Strange’s mystic mentor The Ancient One is probably nothing compared to the wrath that would have rained down on it for casting a person of Asian descent in the role. And, largely for the worse, the Mysterious Asian is integral to Disney’s precious proprietary stockpile of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko creations. Most people have forgotten that Mickey Mouse is, at base, a blackface caricature; it will take a while longer to forget that Iron Man spent many, many issues fighting The Mandarin.
Authorial impersonation is practically its own genre of prank, and it exists on a continuum of outrageousness from clever commentary to queasy appropriation, depending on who is doing it, how, and why. Stephen King, on being told that the horror market could only sustain a single book a year bearing his name, consigned his pulpier efforts to a lesser byline, Richard Bachman. J. K. Rowling, anxious to keep writing murder mysteries after her first attempt failed to elude the shadow of Harry Potter, began publishing mystery fiction under the name Robert Galbraith.
These deceptions are harmless, even instructive—King’s second name became such an open secret that he developed a distinctive style for it. Rowling ignited a conversation about whether or not her work would have been received as well had it had a woman’s name on the cover instead of man’s (it probably would have, so long as it wasn’t Rowling’s own; the best authors in the mystery genre are and have nearly always been women).
But there are less comfortable examples. A poet named Yi-Fen Chou published a poem called “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve” that was selected for the 2015 Best American Poetry collection; Chou turned out to be a white man named Michael Derrick Hudson, who was hoping he could get his poem read more closely if he could convince editors it was the work of a person belonging to an underrepresented minority. Yale’s Joe Scanlan, who is also white, created the character of a black artist named “Donelle Woodford” to whom he credited some of his own collage work, and who was played by black actresses who wrote the character with him. In an interview he said he’d hoped the project would prove that “a white man and two black women can acknowledge their unequal power relations and still decide to happily work together, because something might be accomplished that is greater than that inequity.”
Cebulski’s deception is a sort of hybrid of those two pranks, combining Hudson’s invidious aspirations with Scanlan’s theatrical flair, and all in a professional context far shorter on irony than the conceptual art world.
The notoriously tyrannical Bill Jemas, at the time occupying the editor-in-chief job to which Cebulski has just been elevated, would surely have fired Cebulski, whose small, experimental imprint that wasn’t working, for writing comics freelance under his own name. Marvel editors weren’t allowed to write for their colleagues, either.
So Cebulski created a character who, in hindsight, looks about as plausible as Ming the Merciless: an Asian guy who writes in an exactly American style and makes a lot of mistakes about Japanese culture, which supposedly produced him. From his position overseeing Marvel’s attempts to reach American fans of Asian culture, Cebulski would have understood the demand among editors for competently written stories that could exploit the growing popularity of manga, and he really had lived in Japan.
It was a bad decision, but one that made a certain amount of tactical sense: That land over there, where I don’t speak the language and mysterious things often happen—perhaps it produced this extremely implausible person who appeared out of thin air with the ability to decorate Western comics plots with detailed manga window dressing.
Pulp characters have been through a number of resurrections; they’re quite durable, like superheroes, but they’re also troublesome. They are different from superheroes, who live in fantasy worlds with rules that don’t resemble out own at all. Both are inextricable from the need for a faraway land filled with villains, heroines, and magic, but pulps are, perhaps, a little more honest about where that desire actually points: The reader believes deep inside that this land is somewhere close by, on earth, if we could only reach it—not in the shadow dimensions or on a distant planet. Our neighbor who talks funny—we think he’s a cartoon villain with a long mustache. This sort of belief is, I would say, a primal, fundamental cruelty, not a product of culture.
It is an evil, not to put too fine a point on it, that lurks in the hearts of men.
Cebulski’s grift succeeded because it depended on his readers—and, apparently, some of his bosses—to approach Yoshida they way they would a foreigner, with an expectation of the exotic and a patience for amateurism. “It wasn’t transparent, but it taught me a lot about writing, communication and pressure,” Cebulski told Johnston. “I was young and naïve and had a lot to learn back then.”
There should be space for marginalized artists, and it shouldn’t be taken away so that white people using pseudonyms can benefit from low expectations while they learn about communication. But it’s worth understanding why Cebulski was able to do this so easily in the first place: This isn’t a problem with comics. It’s a problem with people who love them.
And with people generally—me, for example. I love the pulps. I love the old ones and I like reading the new ones and every time I pick up a new reimagining filled with the exploits of some problematic old hero, I hope that the author will have been able to rescue him from the embarrassing menace of Shiwan Khan, Fu Manchu, Ming or Akira Yoshida.
These villains were invented to be inscrutable and sly, and it turns out they are wilier than ever their inventors intended—they keep on killing the Shadow, Doc Savage and the Green Hornet with Western bigotries that look paler and less appetizing each time. We know how to read old adventure stories, forgivingly or prosecutorially as we see fit, but we don’t quite know how to write new ones yet. We can create new characters, but we can’t escape our influences, whether or not they’re racist. Try to purify art, and you’ll destroy it. Start over with a different set of matinee idols, and they will turn out to have feet of clay, as well.
Frank Miller proposed an interesting solution to some of these tensions with Sin City, a hard-boiled detective series that incorporates the visual grammar of manga. His peers Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, too, have spent twenty years tirelessly trying to find progressive expressions for old adventure novels for their League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, turning the original white savior, Ayesha from H Rider Haggard’s “She,” into a cold-blooded villainess while making Jules Verne’s terrifying Captain Nemo into the patriarch of a heroic dynasty of stateless Indian nobility. These are answers to the questions of appropriation and racism that come not just from careful study of art, but from moral reflection, as well.
The writer Garth Ennis reworked the Shadow recently, setting most of his story in meticulously accurate historical renderings of of China and Japan, with the Shadow himself the weird foreigner. It’s a clever inversion, drawn by Aaron Campbell; while it doesn’t work completely, Ennis has an unobstructed vision for what makes the Shadow tick, and that gives the tale a foundational honesty that has a greater capacity to redeem its beloved lead character than all the self-righteous think pieces on the internet.
It’s this: One of the villains, a likable Chinese gangster named Kondo, knows the Shadow from before he was Lamont Cranston. What secrets, Kondo asks him during their showdown, did the Shadow learn when he learned to cloud men’s minds?
“Whoever it was. Wherever they took you,” Kondo asks. “What the hell did they make you into?” Knowing his enemy is about to die, the Shadow finally tells him the whole truth.
“They taught me to recognize evil in the hearts of men,” he says, “by looking into my own.”