I’ve learned something reading Terry and the Pirates: There’s no way around the yellow peril in the Golden Age. Good comics sometimes have racist renderings in them.
IDW’s Library of American Comics is reprinting Milton Caniff’s 1934-1946 Terry and the Pirates with archival material and even a nice ribbon bookmark. The strip features boy adventurer Terry Lee and manly journalist Pat Ryan journeying through China. The Sunday strips are in color. The books’ ratios recall a time when newspapers’ daily strips were higher quality than comic books. Pat is kinda wooden and Terry’s wide-eyed surprise and sweater are creepy sidekick. But, as Jules Feiffer notes in The Great Comic Book Heroes: “Who cared about [heroes], when there were oriental villains around?” (1965: 16).
Enter the Dragon Lady, stereotypically duplicitous and ruthless but also a pirate captain and, later, a nationalist leader. She has an anti-hero frisson. Terry and Pat’s guide Connie, though, is thoroughly embarrassing racist stereotype, buckteeth, dialect and all. In another setting, I might think that Connie was a different species, the only one of his kind. No other Chinese character looks like him; very few say things like, “Little missy get bump on noodle in big boom-bust” as he does in volume 2 (Caniff, 234).
Still, Caniff researched his work meticulously. He had Chinese-American fans and informants. He wrote sympathetically about people struggling with British and French colonialism as well as the Chinese resisting the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. In volume 2, just months after the Rape of Nanking, the Dragon Lady gives a four strip speech exhorting an overthrown warlord’s followers to join her in fighting the Japanese. (226-7) Caniff’s views annoyed 2 of his publishers who were prominent isolationists. New York Daily News‘ Joe Patterson told Caniff not to write about the war in China. In response, Caniff began using, “the invader,” instead of, “Japanese” (26).
But as Caniff was depicting the Second Sino-Japanese War, World War II revived the oriental villain. And this time the oriental villain was Japanese.
Until the war we always assumed he was Chinese. But now we knew what he was! …. He often sported fanged bicuspids and drooled a lot more than seemed necessary. (If you find the image hard to imagine I refer you to his more recent incarnation in magazines like Dell’s Jungle War Stories where it turns out he wasn’t Japanese at all: He was North Vietnamese. At the time of this book’s publication the wheel will, no doubt, have turned full circle and he’ll be back to Chinese.) (Feiffer, 47-8)
I’ve heard the arguments about these stereotypical depictions―they are of their time, they’re comedic and shouldn’t be taken seriously. But from Connie to Jar-Jar Binks*, what denigrates humanity more than comic relief? It’s easy to say that readers should overlook Connie’s rendering as the conventions of a more racist time or because of Caniff’s groundbreaking work chronicling and humanizing the turmoil in China. It’s just as easy to dismiss the whole strip as racist while we progress on our upward trajectory, rocketing into the future. But one doesn’t cancel out the other. They exist side by side.
What’s striking about comics like Caniff’s is not just the historical curiosity of the stereotypical depictions. It’s the ways those depictions could exist now. And it’s the way that right now we are doing something that people will find as painful as Connie, and we just don’t know what it is.
Grant Morrison’s recent DC Asian superteams skirt the edges of that knowledge. I like Morrison, but Mother of Champions is painful. A member of Chinese superteam The Great Ten, Mother of Champions’ passive, squickening power—one that’s more a curse than anything the X-men agonize over—is birthing twenty-five supersoldiers every three days. Worse yet, her sexual activity is often referred to as “breeding” and her children are often referred to in animal terms as, “a litter.” A Chinese woman whose power is breeding for the state? It could be a criticism of the Chinese government, but it’s not well-grounded enough to be. Besides, reproduction is used so often to freak out fanboys that any insect mother depiction, let alone of a Chinese woman, is sketchy. Mother of Champions apparently picks her donors. Maybe it’s an attempt to give her some agency. Still, I wonder if she decapitates them when she’s done?
Meanwhile, manga fans dislike Morrison’s Japanese superheros for DC’s latest hero-culling event, Final Crisis. They’re troubled by the depiction of Japanese men as shallow fashionistas and superhero names like, “Most Excellent Superbat” and “Shy Crazy Lolita Canary” that are more like an idea of Japanese in translation than Japanese in translation–or even “engrish.” Worse yet, the names come across as a gesture towards speech like Connie’s, a gesture I don’t think Morrison intends.
That said, Caniff’s drawing of Connie is much more offensive than any of Morrison’s designs. Morrison’s superteams don’t have buckteeth or “skin the color of ripe lemons,” (Feiffer, 16). But Caniff’s work is also more grounded in the reality of the people and places he’s depicting. So what do we do with that? Or the fact that Connie’s comic relief and the old slanty-eyed, long-fingernailed yellow peril might distract us from recognizing perilous depictions here in comics’ postmodern age?
*To be fair, Connie has more redeeming characteristics than Jar-Jar Binks.
“How Carol Borden toyed with those drab ofay heroes: trap set, trap sprung, into the pit, up comes the water, down comes the pendulum, out from the side come the walls. Through an unconvincing mixture of dumb-luck and general science 1, the hero escaped, just barely…”