The Vilcek Foundation Newsletter
The Vilcek Foundation Newsletter
As we begin to prepare for the upcoming 2011 Vilcek Prizes, which will be awarded in the fields of literature and biomedical science, we are pleased to present our summer newsletter, with an appropriate focus on the literary arts, specifically, an often-overlooked genre ⎯ comics. It also marks the first time we’ve dedicated an entire issue to a single topic. For that innovation, we have to thank Joyce Li, our Events and Programs Assistant. In fact, she conceived, developed, and wrote the entire issue, and we applaud her tremendous initiative.
During the golden age of comic books and superheroes, generally considered to be the period from the late 1930s through the 1940s, immigrants and the immigrant experience played a vital role in shaping this unequivocally American slice of pop culture. Many of the beloved superheroes of the genre, such as Superman and Batman, were created by immigrants or first-generation Americans in the 1940s; as such, they embodied an idealization of American values. In their alter egos, comic book characters were often foreign, withdrawn, and isolated; but as their superhero selves, they became bold defenders of truth and justice. Now, in this newsletter, we are pleased to showcase the continued influence of immigrants in American comics.
It begins by introducing the work of Jeffrey Yang and his co-editors on Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology, which shows that the dual identity of the superhero remains, to this day, an enduring and comforting image to many immigrants and first-generation Americans. Collaborating with more than 50 Asian and Asian American writers and artists, Yang and colleagues have compiled an anthology of original superheroes that reflects on and honors the history and unique cultures of Asian immigrants in America, and commends their sacrifices.
Next, we take a look at both sides of a dual identity in our interviews with writer/artist Greg Pak and his creation Amadeus Cho. They share with us their thoughts on multiculturalism in a 2-D universe, one populated with every imaginable race, ethnicity, gender, religion, planethood, and heavenly status.
Finally, in our last feature, we are delighted to present, in her own words, the story of how French-born Françoise Mouly came to the United States in the early seventies. Now a quintessential New Yorker, in her career she has transformed the American comic arts more than once: first as the founding editor of the underground graphics magazine RAW; then as Art Editor of the New Yorker, where she carried on its venerable comic traditions; and, now, as the publisher of cartoon books for children. We know you’ll enjoy hearing the details of her own transformative arrival in the Big Apple.
This single-focus newsletter, we know, marks a departure from our newsletters of the past, but we believe it continues to demonstrate our commitment to explore the many ways that immigrants contribute to the cultural enrichment of the United States. More importantly, we hope you have fun reading it!
“There’s this guy we know ⎯ quiet, unassuming, with black hair and thick glasses. He’s doing his best to fit in, in a world far away from the land of his birth. He knows he’s different and that his differences make him alien, an outsider, but they also make him special.”
This, write the editors of Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology, is the story of Clark Kent, the mild-mannered reporter better known as Superman. But this description of Superman’s psyche is also what has made the incognito superhero a poignant figure for many immigrants and minorities.
“For the people who straddle worlds,” said Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Yang, “we have always felt deeply connected to the idea of what it meant to live the double identity and double life that is represented by the superhero.”
It is for this reason that Yang teamed up with co-editors Parry Shen, Keith Chow, and Jerry Ma ⎯ all self-described geeks and fanboys ⎯ to create Secret Identities, the first anthology of original Asian and Asian American superheroes, published by the nonprofit firm The New Press, in the fall of 2009. The thick paperbound volume features 26 original stories and character sketches, the result of cross-disciplinary collaborations between more than 50 Asian American writers, artists, journalists, filmmakers, actors, and comic professionals.
The stories presented in Secret Identities vary widely in tone, style, and subject matter, but all draw upon the unique history of Asians in America for their inspiration. Stories such as “Driving Steel,” a tale about a Chinese laborer on the First Transcontinental Railroad with peculiar powers, and “9066,” about a Japanese-American superhero stripped of his crime-fighting privileges and incarcerated in an internment camp during World War II, acknowledge the enormous sacrifices and cultural barriers Asian immigrants have faced in America. Other stories offer a lighthearted look at contemporary issues, such as “Justified,” wherein an Asian American superhero contends with his well-meaning but prejudiced peers about where he’s “from.”
The stories focus on the contributions of Asians in American society, but the anthology itself aims to showcase the talents of top Asian American writers and artists in the comics industry, among them Cliff Chiang, Christine Norrie, and Gene Luen Yang. And while there is a disproportionately large percentage of Asian and Asian American writers, artists and fans within the comics community ⎯ as evidenced, in part, by the inaugural Asian American Comicon convention in New York City last year ⎯ Asians themselves were not well represented between the covers of those beloved four-color comics.
“The [Asian comic book characters] that did exist were lame; they were one-dimensional, stereotypical, and without the breadth and scope of the comic book heroes of DC and Marvel,” said Yang. “Three of us [editors] have kids; we were in the process of creating another generation, and we recognized sharply how important it was to us that these kids grow up with characters that spoke to them. If no one [else] was willing to do it, why not us?”
Thus far, Yang and his co-editors have met with great success. Following its debut in the fall of 2009, Secret Identities became one of the best-selling titles of The New Press’s seasonal list, and it has met with robust demand as a required text for high school and college-level history, English, and Asian studies classes. The volume, which comes with a downloadable teaching guide, is valuable as a classroom tool, placing stories that are not widely taught into the hands of educators. The editors, too, have been active in this arena, traveling to college campuses, high schools, and student conferences to speak about the creation of the anthology and to lead their unique “Build a Hero” workshops, which encourage participants to create a superhero based on their own cultural background and experiences.
Yang and his co-editors hope to build upon the success of Secret Identities with a second volume, Shattered. Currently scheduled to be released in the spring of 2012, Shattered will pick up where Secret Identities leaves off, with storylines that connect the characters of the first volume together within a larger universe. “We hope to continue upending and recontextualizing stereotypes and ideas of Asians into something that is 3-D, funny and entertaining,” says Yang. “Something human that people can actually connect with.”
At first glance, there are a lot of similarities between Marvel Comics writer Greg Pak and teen genius Amadeus Cho. Both are first-generation Korean Americans. Both live in New York City. Both Tweet quite a bit.
But while Greg has been promoting his latest film, Mister Green, at film festivals around the world, Amadeus ⎯ protégé and best friend of Greek god Hercules ⎯ has been reluctantly promoted from sidekick to Prince of Power. In the wake of Hercules’s reported death, he’s inherited the god’s adamantine mace, along with the expectations that he will save the universe from an impending, chaotic doom, and searching for a friend that everyone presumes to be dead. Also, Amadeus is the seventh smartest person in the world.
Created in 2005 by Greg as a side character in Marvel’s World War Hulk series, Amadeus quickly became a fan favorite, appearing regularly in the Incredible Hercules series. Currently, Amadeus is starring in his own miniseries, titled Heroic Age: Prince of Power. The Vilcek Foundation was fortunate enough to score interviews with both Greg and Amadeus, although for some reason, we couldn’t get the two of them in the same room at once…
VF: What was the inspiration for creating Amadeus Cho? Is he modeled on anyone in particular?
GREG: Back in 2005, Marvel editor Mark Paniccia had the brainstorm of having up-and-coming writers reimagine characters based on old Golden Age [the period 1938 – 1954] names that Marvel owned. I picked Mastermind Excello from the list because I loved the hyperbolic vibe. As I rolled it around in my head, I came up with the idea of a kid who won an intelligence contest sponsored by the Excello Soap Company. And when the name Amadeus Cho popped into my head, things really started to come together.
Amadeus ended up winning a fan-favorite poll at Marvel.com. We then found a way to reintroduce him during the World War Hulk storyline I was writing in 2007. And then I teamed up with the brilliant Fred Van Lente to write the Incredible Hercules series, which followed Amadeus and his best friend Hercules (yeah, that Hercules) as they drove every mortal and immortal on the planet kraaazay.
VF: Breaking stereotypes ⎯ Amadeus’s supergenius comes from his “natural ability to identify the variables and quantum possibilities in any situation and use this information to adjust the outcome”: Doesn’t that just mean he’s essentially really good at math? Were you intending to break stereotypes when you created this character?
GREG: Sometimes you deal with stereotypes by playing against them. Around the same time I created Amadeus, I introduced a big, lunkhead S.H.I.E.L.D. agent named Jake Oh who was pretty much the opposite of the model minority myth. But it’d be stupid to never let myself write a smart Asian person because I was scared of playing into stereotypes. So, with Amadeus, I grabbed the bull by the horns and made him the smartest kid on the planet. But at the same time I overturned other key parts of the model minority myth by making Amadeus the opposite of obedient and inscrutable and emotionally withdrawn. He’s entirely scrutable ⎯ basically expressing every emotion he has. And he’s so ludicrously sure of himself that he’s completely antiauthoritarian and has next to no impulse control. That makes him an incredibly fun character to write ⎯ and also sets him up for all kinds of emotional growth. In an interesting way, making him so cocky at the beginning lets him become incredibly vulnerable and appealing as he blunders towards his inevitable comeuppances along his hero’s journey.
VF: How does Amadeus’s Asian heritage affect his career and his outlook? What’s the story with his parents?
GREG: Amadeus’s Korean background has been explicitly mentioned just a few times during the course of the storyline. But on another level, it imbues everything he says and does. It’s just part of who he is, the same way it is for every Asian American kid walking the planet. He doesn’t roll out of bed thinking, “Hey, I’m ASIAN!” first thing every morning; but in a million different ways, his background has laid the groundwork for how he sees and reacts to the world.
Amadeus’s parents were hard-working first-generation, immigrant Korean Americans who were murdered by mysterious agents searching for Amadeus. I imagine that like many children of immigrants, Amadeus grew up with enormous, unspoken feelings of admiration, obligation, and protectiveness regarding his parents, deeply aware of their sacrifices and the daily frustrations and indignities they suffered as immigrants. Now, on top of that, Amadeus bears the terrible burden of feeling responsible for their deaths.
But all of that together may be a huge reason why Amadeus is so blindly devoted to his friends. All of that protectiveness he felt towards his parents is now devoted to anyone he cares about. Early in Amadeus’s career, he became the Hulk’s biggest fan, and one of the few people crazy enough to side with the Green Goliath when he declared war on the heroes during World War Hulk. Now Amadeus will do anything and everything ⎯ literally moving Heaven and Earth ⎯ to bring back his best friend Hercules in the Heroic Age: Prince of Power miniseries.
VF: You studied political science at Yale, history at Oxford, and film production at NYU; how does your diverse academic background help you with your writing?
GREG: Studying political science and history in college and grad school has absolutely been a big help to me as a writer. For the Planet Hulk series, I had to create an entire alien world, developing its ecology, geography, zoology, history, politics, culture, and religion. Basically, everything I’ve ever read in my life came in handy for that project. For other projects, my training in history and political science helped me do the research necessary. For example, the Magneto Testament miniseries took place during the Holocaust, and I felt an enormous responsibility to render the historical background and details as accurately as I could. By the end, I had a six-foot shelf of books and reference material for the project.
VF: Any plans to develop The Citizen character that was created for Secret Identities?
GREG: Yes. I can say no more.
* * * * * *
After speaking with Greg Pak, we then caught up with Amadeus Cho. He’d like you to believe he’s just your average teenage Korean American supergenius sidekick with a spiffy new power suit, but according to Greg, Amadeus has the natural ability to identify the variables and quantum possibilities in any situation and use this information to adjust the outcome. As the Prince of Power and presiding CEO of the Olympus Group, the New York-based corporate entity representing Zeus’s earthly assets, he’s currently searching for his best friend Hercules, believed to be dead, and starring in his own Marvel Comics miniseries Heroic Age: Prince of Power.
VF: How do you feel about being a hero of the mind rather than a hero of strength?
AMADEUS: Dude, when you put it that way, you make me sound like some kinda ... I dunno. Look, reliable sources tell me I look awesome in this suit, so whatev.
VF: How comfortable are you with the idea of becoming the Prince of Power, even if you find Hercules?
AMADEUS: Look, Athena’s the one who gave me the title, and now she’s basically a huge traitor and backstabber, so I don’t really care. I just wanna bring Herc back. If he wants to be the Prince of Power, cool. But I’m keeping the suit.
VF: What is this suit that you keep talking about?
AMADEUS: I used to run around in an army jacket and jeans ⎯ kind of my Bruce Banner homage phase. But when I became the CEO of the Olympus Group, I got my hands on a 100 percent Tibetan Alpaca organic fair-trade, free-range, whole-grain non-GMO nonconflict etcetera, etcetera business suit. With green shirt and skinny yellow tie. I leave the shirt tucked out, ‘cause I’m sixteen and I think that’s cool. And I look awesome.
VF: As a first-generation Korean American working with the gods of the Greek pantheon, do you ever feel like you’re caught between cultures?
AMADEUS: Actually, I’m second generation, right? My parents immigrated here, so they’re first generation; and I was born here, so I'm second generation?
VF: Actually, since you were the first generation born on American soil, you could be considered first generation, too. Smarty pants.
AMADEUS: Anyway, yeah, I guess, but I’d say Herc’s really the fish out of water here. I mean, with the exception of the ol’ brain, I’m pretty much an average American kid. But he’s a freaking three-thousand-year-old, bearded, skirt chasing ⎯ and wearing ⎯ god, right? Crazy as it sounds, the cocky Korean American supergenius is the everyman in this picture.
VF: Do you ever feel like your coworkers don’t take you seriously because they’ve got a few millennia on you?
AMADEUS: All the time. But then they need someone to reset their PRAM, and they shut their pieholes pretty quick.
VF: How’s your relationship with Greg?
AMADEUS: Dude kinda creeps me out. He’s always just lurking around, typing. Clickety clackety, clickety clackety. Gets on my nerves. Hang on, wait. You can edit that bit out, right? He’s awesome, seriously. Great guy.
VF: Why did your parents come from Korea to America?
AMADEUS: You know, I never asked them. And since they got murdered as part of my freaking origin story, I guess I never will. Thanks, Pak.
VF: What are the coolest perks of being CEO of the Olympus Group?
AMADEUS: Billions and billions of dollars at my fingertips?
VF: With your natural ability to identify the variables and quantum possibilities etcetera etcetera, is there anything that comes hard to you? How do you factor in human irrationality?
AMADEUS: Actually, here’s a little secret: I almost never try to figure out what people are gonna do. I just run the numbers on the results after they do it. If everyone was as smart as me, maybe I actually could figure out what they were thinking, because they’d be making rational choices. But most people do incredibly dumb stuff all day long, and I can’t keep track of how many different ways that can add up.
VF: Drinking the ambrosia that grants immortality: Have you really thought this out carefully?
AMADEUS: Yes. No. Shut up. Look, sometimes you have to try to lay claim to the powers of a god in order to save your best friend from being lost forever across an infinity of time and space.
VF: As the seventh smartest person in the world, and corporate leader of the Greek gods, what’s next? Any plans for college?
AMADEUS: College? Wow. Hadn’t thought about that in a while. Herc would actually probably rock that better than me. He probably has a toga and everything. Okay, I’m intrigued. But first I’m gonna try not to let the Chaos King obliterate existence itself (which you can read about in the Chaos War miniseries starting in October). If any of us are around after that, I’ll let ya know.
Anyone even glancingly interested in American comics has come across the doings of Françoise Mouly in some form. Since Mouly arrived in New York City in the 1970s, taking a year off from completing her architectural degree in Paris, the innovative French-born immigrant has left her impression on the entire spectrum of comic arts.
Mouly was first introduced to American comics in 1976 when she met future-husband Art Spiegelman, a Swedish-born artist who’d later produce the ground-breaking, Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, MAUS. After working as an inker and colorist for Marvel Comics, Mouly purchased a printing press and founded, published and designed the seminal RAW magazine. RAW was a compendium of alternative comics for adults during a time when comics were almost synonymous with the superhero genre and considered to be a children’s entertainment only. RAW’s high-end design in a medium known for cheap production, along with its sophisticated literary, graphic, and fine art selections, cemented its cutting-edge vision and signaled a maturation of the genre.
Mouly published RAW for a decade until, in 1993, Tina Brown, then Editor of The New Yorker, hired Mouly as the Art Editor. Today, Mouly has been responsible for over 800 covers during her tenure, including several instantly iconic covers, such as Barry Blitt’s 2008 “Politics of Fear” cover that satirically featured the Obamas engaging in a ‘terrorist fist jab’ in the Oval Office; and the evocative post-9/11 cover, which she created with Spiegelman.
In 1998, Mouly created a RAW Junior division and published Little Lit, hardcover anthologies from 2000-2003, and then launched the TOON Books in 2008. The collection of TOON Books is a series of hardcover books for emerging readers that use the universally appealing language of comics to nurture literacy skills.
In the following text, Mouly recounts the details of her first night in Taxi Driver New York; the days when almost everyone smoked; and getting caught by the INS, as told to Joyce Li of the Vilcek Foundation. And while Mouly never did finish her architectural degree, the accomplishments of the recently named Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres will not be soon forgotten.
* * * * * *
I landed in New York City on September 2, 1974. I had no great love or interest in America at that time – it was quite the opposite, actually. America already meant a form of cultural imperialism to my generation - the May 1968 generation - but it was the cheapest destination an ocean away, and I thought I spoke English. From the airport, I arranged to be taken directly to a place where I had made a reservation for the night – it was called the YMCA, and it had been listed in my guidebook as a youth hostel.
Now, this was 1970’s Taxi Driver New York City. The YMCA was a 14-story brick building in midtown, but the inside looked like a prison, with armed guards and clerks behind Plexiglas. The people working there immediately said to me, “You don’t belong here,” – it was for men only, men that were down and out - but I had no budget to go anywhere else, certainly not that night, so I kept saying to the woman behind the counter, “Excuse me, I made a reservation, and I want a room.”
She kept telling me I had to leave, but I refused because I could not afford to take a taxi and go hunt for hotels (I think the YMCA was something like $7/night). Eventually, I made such a pest of myself that she called the manager, who agreed to let me stay the night – but he explained they would have to lock me in my room during the night so that nobody could come in, and I could not go wander the halls.
An elevator was cleared out for me, and I went with the manager and two armed guards with their hands on their guns. They had a women’s floor, but it was fully booked that night, so they had to take me to a room on one of the men’s floors. It was exactly like a prison: they had me wait in the elevator while the manager and the guards got out and made all the men get out of the corridors. The guards went banging on the doors yelling, “Stay in, stay in!”
Then they said, ‘Now we have to take you to the bathroom’, so they repeated the whole process again, this time taking me to the women’s floor. That bathroom had a strange and intense scene, with a woman washing her underwear in the sink with toothbrush and toothpaste, and another, haggard, just singing to herself.
Finally, I was brought to a tiny room with a narrow bed and barely enough room to stand next to it. The manager said, “OK, that’s it. We’re locking you in. We’ll come get you in the morning.” As soon as the door was bolted from the outside, I thought, Oh my god, what am I doing here?!
The next morning, after they liberated me, I went outside and started walking. As it turned out, I was walking down Tenth Avenue, by Lincoln Tunnel, and it was totally bombed out and devastated. There were no stores, nothing but a lot of potholes, prostitutes, drug dealers – a lot of street activity.
I was completely paralyzed with fear and unable to figure out what to do next. I had, at that moment, while walking down Tenth Avenue in this desolate landscape, the intense realization I could get murdered right now, and no one would know.
It was so terrifying that it was liberating. I was 18 years old at the time, and suddenly aware that I was answerable only to myself. If I were to die, the only one it would be happening to would be myself. No one would even know whose corpse this was. It would take months before they could ID me and my family would even be notified. Whatever I do, it is mine to do. And that moment of raw terror is something I have referred back to a number of times in my life. Having survived this is probably a source of my strength. It helped me when I decided to go into the unknown, to go down paths not traveled by others.
* * * * * *
Later on, I moved from the YMCA to the Salvation Army – a real step up in the world – because the Salvation Army ran a home for young, working women called the Evangeline. Once I was there, I had to contend with things that were difficult for me in other ways, such as people being friendly.
When I was in the elevator at the Evangeline, people would say, ‘Hi, how are you, do you have a roommate, where are you from,’ and all those types of questions. This was torture, because I couldn’t speak well enough to make small talk. Still to this day 40 years later, small talk is difficult: I have a hard time using language to say nothing.
Through a roommate at the Evangeline, I found a job selling cigarettes at outdoor kiosks on 23rd Street and at Grand Central Station, and, before I knew it, I had two other jobs. I was making models for Kajima International, a Japanese architectural firm; and I had a silent part in an avant-garde play by Richard Foreman, “Pandering to the Masses.”
Selling cigarettes was a great job for me, because I didn’t have to talk much and I was perfectly happy to be silent. People would queue up; behind me was a rack of cigarettes, [and] before I knew it, I was able to guess, and I would have my hand on the right brand before the customers even asked. Because of advertising, you could tell fairly accurately what brand people were going to ask for.
Construction workers in hard hats smoked Lucky Strikes; a lot of black people smoked Newports; the nerdy, intellectual type tended to smoke Vantage or Parliament. MORE was a long and narrow cigarette, marketed toward the kind of woman who got her hair done up and wore nail polish. The only people who were hard to tell apart were those buying Marlboros or Winston: they were marketed to the same demographic. It was a great way to learn about American society, and the phenomenal diversity of people in New York, especially since, at the time, more than half of the people smoked.
* * * * * *
I returned to Paris to resume my Architectural studies when my visa ran out – it had been a three-month visa, and I had stayed for over a year. The first thing I did when I returned to Paris was to go to the café where I used to hang out. I found the same people, at the same table, having the same conversation. I kept trying to tell them, ‘Oh, I have been to New York, and I have done this and that that,’ but they weren’t interested. I could not seem [to] communicate what I had gone through, and I couldn’t make myself fit back into that groove.
So I did whatever I could to make enough money and get back; I had fallen in love with New York by this point, and I had already taken a lease on the loft, the same place we’re in now. I went back and forth for a few years, going, and I kept overextending my visa. Eventually I was caught by immigration.
That time, when I arrived at JFK, the immigration officer took me aside. My luggage was pulled out and uniformed INS personnel went through all my stuff in front of me, pulling out love letters from Art and letters of recommendation from Kajima – I had already met Art at this point, and he was waiting for me to return. They were reading Art’s letters aloud, wonderful love letters full of drawings and cartoons. They were quoting the letters aloud and laughing, making fun of the letters and of me.
I was sputtering ‘You can’t do this!’ And the immigration officer turned to me and slowly said, ‘Lady, you are in a no-man’s zone here. You are not an American citizen, so you are not protected by American law, and you are not protected by your consulate, so we can do whatever we want.’
It was late Friday evening by the time they were ready to deport me. A judge was needed to sign the deportation order, but he had already gone home. So I was released, found Art, who had been waiting for me all this time, and, after a frantic weekend trying to get legal advice, I appeared before a judge on Monday morning.
The judge asked, ‘Is there anyone willing to post a bond for this person’s release?’ Art raised his hand, and the judge set the bond at some enormous amount, something like $5000, and I remember blurting out, ‘Judge, I can’t earn $5000 in three months, I’m not even allowed to work! Can you please lower it?’
And he actually did lower it, to about $2000, but it was still a large amount (it would be about $7,500 now.)
Nevertheless, I was released into the custody of my boyfriend – he literally bought me from INS - and we spent the next two months desperately trying to find some way to get my situation legalized with the help of a volunteer lawyer. In the end, I couldn’t get a visa any other way than for Art and I getting married, so we did, and that was the end of my life as an illegal immigrant.