(BRIDGET DOWNES / THE STATESMAN)
The symposium looked to expose the tendency for comics to use racial stereotypes in their characterizations of Asians. (BRIDGET DOWNES / THE STATESMAN)

On Wednesday, April 23, Stony Brook University held a free symposium on Asian Images in Comics and Graphic Narratives creatively titled “Marvels & Monsters.” This day-long convention centered on the Marvels & Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in U.S Comics 1942-1986 exhibit, will stand in the Charles B. Wang Center until July 27 of this year. As the name suggests, the exhibit focuses on the portrayal of Asian characters in comic books during the early 40s to mid-80s, specifically during the periods of World War II and the Cold War.

The symposium’s guided tour began around 10:15 a.m., a half an hour after it was scheduled to start, because the curator of the event, Jeff Yang, was stuck in traffic.  After arriving, Yang led a moderately sized group of onlookers around the exhibit, showcasing his veteran status as a communications professional with informative insight on the exhibit’s contents.

Each stop of the exhibit focused on a different type of Asian character portrayed in comic books, which were released during a time when there was increased hostility towards Asian foreigners and anyone who was seen as a threat to the harmony of American society. The portrayals of Asian characters in this exhibit are linked to the way contemporary American’s perceive Asians. Yang made it clear how some of the most common Asian stereotypes, such as yellow skin color and extreme brilliance in math, are rooted in popular comic books.

On the final stop of the tour, Yang informed the crowd about how Asian characters have been projected as a manipulating force with the power to sabotage American way of life while remaining in a state of cultural and social isolation. He concluded with the notion that one of the most recent portrayals of this “Manipulator” character in mainstream media was in Iron Man 3, with the antagonist being Mandarin.

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The Keynote speaker of the event was Boston College English professor Min Hyoung Song. Song took to the podium after receiving a warm welcome from Jeffrey Santa Ana, assistant professor of English at Stony Brook University.  The title of Song’s lecture was “Korean Americans and the Visual Field of Asian American Graphic Narratives,” although he jokingly mentioned how he wished to have named it “What is a Child?”.

The new title would have fit the discussion quite well, as the majority of Song’s ideas stemmed from the notion that Asian American comics tend to have a particular emphasis on emerging adulthood—a state where the character is stuck between a time of being labeled as neither a child nor an adult.

Near the beginning of his lecture, Song referenced a comic work by Derek Kirk Kim named “Tune.” In this work the character, Andy Go, embodies this idea of emerging adulthood. Song continued by addressing the audience with an image that showed the spectrum of how cartoonish an artist can make their art look. He also stated that the more cartoonish the art in a comic is, the more the reader is able to relate to it.

Song got to the meat of his lecture when he began discussing his experience with people who do not see themselves as adults despite the fact that they are older than 18. He addressed the idea that many younger people do not label themselves as adults because they are still reliant on their parents for money, and that people in their mid-20s do not consider themselves adults yet because in doing so they mark themselves as being part of a life that full of commitment and overwhelming work.

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After raising the question of “what is a child?” Song segmented into a study done by Phillip Atiba Goff of UCLA. The study demonstrated that on average, African American boys are typically seen as being older than they actually are while Caucasian boys are seen as younger. This denies these African American children the right to be a child and make mistakes. From this, his lecture transitioned into a discussion of how multiculturalism has increased in comic books over the last few years.

The interesting topics that Song highlighted were what the audience was looking for. Numerous audience members, who were taking notes on the free notepads provided to them at the front desk of the symposium, asked various questions surrounding the ideals Song covered. Although Song was not able to fully answer every question, it was clear why he was chosen as the keynote speaker for the event. His enthusiasm for the field of comic works manifests itself into a character who is willing to inform others of different ways comics can be interpreted, but someone who is also open to different points of views from which he can learn.

The keynote lecture was followed by a free lunch for anyone who was interested. The symposium continued with sessions throughout the rest of the day, which covered the topics of “Yellowface in Cloud Atlas,” “Asians in the West: Yesterday’s Global Slavery” among others. There was also a session that included well-known comic artists Kim and Lisa Lim. Ricardo Laremont, professor of political science and sociology at Binghamton University, was the final session speaker to go on with his talk titled “After the Arab Spring Revolts: Political and Security Consequences for North Africa and the Sahel.”

The closing remarks came in a timely fashion, and the audience left with an acquired knowledge about how comic books have the power to do more than simply entertain people. They can cover political conflicts, economic issues can and even create stereotypes for a race of people. In the end, it is important to remember that one of the main intent of comic books is to inspire future writers and artist who have a passion for making 2-dimensional worlds come to life.

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