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Diversity Drives The Story In The Latest Incarnation Of Superman

Jul 13, 2016
Originally published on July 13, 2016 8:18 am

If you've stepped foot in a comic book store in the past few years, you'll have noticed a distinct shift. Superheroes, once almost entirely white men, have become more diverse.

There's been a biracial Spider-Man, a Muslim Ms. Marvel, and just last week, Marvel announced that the new Iron Man will be a teenage African-American girl.

Joining this lineup today is Kong Kenan, a Chinese boy who, as part of a reboot of the DC comics universe, is one of four characters taking up Superman's mantle.

"Kong Kenan inherits some of Clark Kent's powers," says Gene Yang. He's one of the writers on DC's New Super-Man. "These powers will change him; they'll change him both physically and morally."


Interview Highlights

On working different cultural references into the world of Superman

Superheroes in general and Superman in particular is so American — you know, Superman's supposed to fight for truth, justice, and the American way, We wanted to take these values and stick them into a different cultural context. So we want to show how some of these things that define the original Superman might be particular to American culture and some things might be universal.

On why it's taken so long for superheroes to diversify

I think there's this tension that sits right in the middle of the superhero genre. It's a tension between nostalgia and the future. Superheroes from the beginning have been about the future — you know, Superman, the first superhero, is known as the Man of Tomorrow — but at the same time, so much of the appeal of superheroes is nostalgia. You know, I feel it. I grew up reading superhero comics, so I definitely feel an attachment to these characters I grew up with. And they're largely white, heterosexual males.

On whether those white superheroes resonated with him as a child

Yes, absolutely. I think about it now as an adult, and I wonder if one of the reasons I was drawn to superheroes is because of this double life that a lot of them lead, like Clark Kent is also Superman, and he actually is negotiating between two different cultures, he's negotiating between American culture and Kryptonian culture. And I think in a lot of ways that kind of mirrored the reality I was living in. So even though they didn't necessarily look like me, I felt there was something about that duality they were living that reflected my reality.

On getting backlash for making Superman Chinese

We've gotten a little bit online — but I definitely think we've gotten a lot more support than we have backlash. Some folks are a little bit cynical about the current push towards diversity. And I could see that if you were doing diversity for the sake of diversity. But if you're using diversity for the sake of story, I think that's a really valid, craft-driven reason. These are not after-school specials, you know what I mean? They're just authentic reflections of a three-dimensional character.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Comic books are getting with the times. Superheroes, once almost entirely white men and boys, have become more diverse. There's been a biracial Spider-Man, a Muslim Ms. Marvel. And just last week, Marvel Comics announced that the new Iron Man will be an African-American teenage girl.

Joining this lineup today is Kong Kenan, a Chinese boy who is one of four characters taking up the mantle of Superman. And that is part of a reboot of DC Comics's entire universe of superheroes. Gene Luen Yang wrote "New Super-Man" issue number one. And he spoke to us about the evolving face of superheroes. Good morning.

GENE LUEN YANG: Good morning. Thank you so much for having me, Renee.

MONTAGNE: We're glad to have you. And why don't we start with the comic book that you wrote? Give us a thumbnail of the new Superman - him and also a little bit of the plot.

YANG: Kong Kenan inherits some of Clark Kent's powers. And the exact nature of that inheritance we cover in "Super-Man" 1. And these powers will change him. They'll change him both physically and morally. Kenan starts off as kind of a jerk. And after he gets these powers, he's going to be challenged to not be so jerkish.

MONTAGNE: Now, it is set in China. And there are a couple of little small cultural situations that seem particularly Chinese. The father of one of the other kids is the head of an airline, which, in America, would be a nice idea. And there, it appears to be this privileged position that has a lot of negatives.

YANG: You know, superheroes in general, and Superman in particular, is so American. You know, Superman's supposed to fight for truth, justice and the American way. And we wanted to take these values and stick them into a different cultural context. So we want to show how some of these things that define the original Superman might be particular to American culture and some things might be universal.

MONTAGNE: Let's talk about these other characters a little bit. Why did it take so long for this diversity to reach these classic comic heroes?

YANG: I think there's this tension that sits right in the middle of the superhero genre. And it's a tension between nostalgia and the future. So superheroes from the beginning have been about the future. You know, Superman, the first superhero, is known as the man of tomorrow. But at the same time, so much of the appeal of superheroes is about nostalgia.

You know, I feel it. I grew up reading superhero comics, so I definitely feel an attachment to these characters that I grew up with. And they're largely white heterosexual males.

MONTAGNE: So you're a Chinese-American kid. Did that work for you?

YANG: Yes, absolutely. I think about it now as an adult. And I wonder if one of the reasons I was drawn to superheroes is because of this double life that a lot of them lead. Like, Clark Kent is also Superman. And he actually is negotiating between two different cultures. He's negotiating between American culture and Kryptonian culture.

And I think in a lot of ways, that kind of mirrored the reality that I was living in. So even though they didn't necessarily look like me, I felt like there was something about that duality that they were living that reflected my reality.

MONTAGNE: Have you gotten any backlash about a Chinese Superman?

YANG: Yeah, we've gotten a little bit online. But I definitely think that we've gotten a lot more support than we have backlash. Some folks are a little bit cynical about the current push towards diversity. And I could see that, if you were doing diversity for the sake of diversity. But if you're using diversity for the sake of story, I think that's a really valid, craft-driven reason. These are not after-school specials. You know what I mean? They're just authentic reflections of a three-dimensional character.

MONTAGNE: Gene Luen Yang is the writer of "New Super-Man" issue number one. Thank you very much for joining us.

YANG: Thank you for having me. It was wonderful to talk to you, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.