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Monday, December 14, 2015 

Albert Ching doesn't want an Asian Iron Fist, but still wants forced diversification?

CBR's Asian-American columnist Albert Ching wrote about why he'd rather there not be an Iron Fist of an Asian background. I'd like to think he's one voice on the pretentious news site who's making sense, but upon further reading, I've concluded that despite his on-the-surface disagreement with forcing "diversity" upon the costume of Roy Thomas and Gil Kane's famous martial artist, he still backs all this PC crud nevertheless, and, his argument appears based on how the creations are being adapted to film and TV. His article starts with this:
I am an Asian-American pop culture enthusiast who longs for greater diversity in all respects, and greater representation of my own culture on screen and in comics, where Asian-Americans are often much too difficult to find. It's a major problem and something I've opined passionately about for years, including on this site.

But I don't want an Asian-American Iron Fist.

Yes, we need more Asian-Americans in live-action superhero fare and pop culture in general. Yes, we need more non-white male lead characters in superhero fare. But making the first Asian lead of a Marvel or DC Comics-based project a character primarily identified for proficiency in martial arts would be a move that could potentially further stereotypes and restrict progress for Asians on screen.
Maybe so, but it's not like there haven't been white martial artists on screen in the past, so a martial artist alone wouldn't be a problem. What would be is changing the character's race completely, a la how the modern comics editors are doing it, by throwing out the white protagonist as though they were inferior to start with, or as though they're suddenly worthless.
Iron Fist is a complicated character. He was created in 1974 by comics legends Roy Thomas and Gil Kane, and introduced by Marvel Comics during a period where the publisher was looking to capitalize on the success of martial arts films. Like most Marvel characters up to that point, he's a white male -- despite the fact that the stars of those martial arts films were not. That became a part of his story, with Danny Rand seen as an outsider in that world, and the "Mighty Whitey" trope was deliberately subverted during Matt Fraction, Ed Brubaker and David Aja's acclaimed run on "Immortal Iron Fist," which established Danny as one of multiple Immortal Weapons -- not simply a white guy who was better than all Asians at something that had been part of their culture for centuries.
Ching forgets to note that a lot of those martial arts films at the time were produced in Asia, and since when was Danny Rand ever portrayed as better at his skills in every way than his Asian counterparts who taught him those skills? That's ludicrous, and besides, he was never portrayed as infallible in the past tales of the 1970s-80s, if that's what Ching's suggesting. And as the following signals, he's still stuck firmly on the "diversity at all costs" mentality:
It's likely that Marvel Television and Netflix are close to announcing a lead actor for "Iron Fist," which will debut as the fourth Marvel-based Netflix series following the currently in production "Luke Cage." Just this week, Scott Buck was confirmed as the showrunner for the series, the first firm announcement connected to the show. There has been a very positive campaign for the live-action Iron Fist to be cast as an Asian-American actor, with sites such as Nerds of Color leading the charge, and fans offering up several richly deserving potential candidates for the role. The argument, and it's a sound one, is that casting an Asian-American Iron Fist would be a way of course-correcting what could be a problematic character -- something of a "white savior" -- while also adding much-needed diversity to Marvel's live-action roster.

What troubles me is that this is the only superhero character that has received a groundswell of support for casting an Asian-American actor. There's a huge number of major Marvel characters who could have easily been cast as Asian-Americans, and as far as I can tell, no one considered it seriously. Why not an Asian-American Daredevil, Star-Lord, Jessica Jones, Hawkeye or Doctor Strange? When a character like that is cast as an Asian-American, it'll be cause for celebration. It's happening right now in Marvel Comics, with Amadeus Cho as Greg Pak and Frank Cho's thoroughly non-stereotypical "Totally Awesome Hulk." While increased visibility for Asian-Americans is a good thing, the idea that Iron Fist is "the" character to make Asian-American feels like further locking a population into a single perception, where the primary utility of an Asian in action-driven entertainment is to be good at martial arts.

To be very clear, my stance isn't driven by a stodgy devotion to the source material. I'd prefer it if Iron Fist weren't Asian-American, but that doesn't mean I think the character has to be white. A Black Iron Fist, Latino Iron Fist or Middle-Eastern Iron Fist all could be compelling, would similarly add diversity and further challenge established perceptions of the character, and what a Marvel superhero represents. Also, there would be no issue with an Asian-American Iron Fist were it not to be the first major Asian-American superhero in a modern comic book-based property. If we already had, say, an Asian-American Ant-Man, an Asian-American Iron Fist would send an entirely different message at that point. Marvel has made great strides on its "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." TV series, which stars two Chinese-American performers in non-stereotypical roles as major parts of its ensemble -- Chloe Bennett as the superpowered Daisy Johnson/Quake, and Ming-Na Wen as Melinda May -- and DC is on the verge of introducing a Hawaiian Aquaman with Jason Momoa, but there still isn't a major headlining superhero played by an actor of East Asian descent, creating an opportunity to do something progressive and unexpected.
Let me get this straight. Thomas and Kane were wrong to make Danny Rand white? I'm sorry, but Ching has fallen back into the PC mindset that past white creations must have their races changed, and were unwelcome to start with. Nor does he consider that his stance could be insulting to the many decent writers and artists out there who worked hard to realize the creations years before. And he doesn't even consider that there had been some early Asian characters with serious presentation too, like Sunfire, Colleen Wing and Shang Chi, the latter who's the star of Master of Kung Fu. If he feels Asians need spotlighting, why doesn't he cite any of those examples? In fact, why doesn't he complain about how Marvel's been unable for many years to reprint the early MOKF tales because of copyright issues with the Rohmer estate?

I also find his inference of "stodgy devotion" insulting. It's just an attack on purists. I wouldn't be surprised if he also thinks that DC should change Superman's skin color along with Wonder Woman and Batman. They came close, of course, in the mid-2000s post-Identity Crisis, by changing the skin color/race of 3-4 minor heroes, Atom, Firestorm, Blue Beetle and even Manhunter? Even now, they're still doing it, changing the race of Aquaman on TV, along with Wally West as a rebooted Kid Flash in the comics, and it looks like this'll be the case in the TV program too. There's just no shortage of this obsession with race and gender. "Progressive" is not the positive direction they think it is at all unless they prove they can create new characters.
It's not just a martial arts thing, either -- yes, martial arts are a major part of Asian culture and there's no reason to deny or diminish that. It's not the only part of Asian culture, though, and in action-based genres, it frequently feels like the only part Asians are allowed to participate in. And while many comics characters use martial arts -- Daredevil, Batman and so many more -- there's no denying that, outwardly, it is "the" main trait of Iron Fist. That's not fair or accurate, as there's plenty more to the character, who's also a Hero for Hire, an Avenger, a lifelong friend and partner to Luke Cage and a soon-to-be Defender. But he's defined by martial arts much more than other superheroes who just happen to use martial arts -- and it's problematic if that's the first lead white comics character to be readily accepted on screen as played by an Asian-American.

I'm keeping an open mind about whatever Marvel and Netflix choose to do with Iron Fist. Given the stellar track record established by "Daredevil" and "Jessica Jones," the two entities likely know exactly what they're doing and how to make "Iron Fist" a high-quality product. If Iron Fist is cast as an Asian-American, it will still be a victory for diversity and representation, even if it's not quite the victory I'm hoping for. An Asian-American Iron Fist could very well be very good -- but when it comes to pushing for greater diversity and greater representation, there's no reason to settle for "good enough."
At this point, it's beginning to look like a joke, and definitely in the comics proper. It's not a substitute for entertaining storytelling, and if nobody's asking for a change in the racial background of non-comics related products on TV, then why should they be asking for superhero comics themselves to undergo such changes? Ching is just making himself look like he's got no respect for whites, and that includes all those responsible for introducing those past white heroes decades before.

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