When I was growing up, the only remotely Asian American superhero I knew of was possibly Jubilee from X-Men. As an adult, I now know she was Asian American, but as a teenager, it was unclear. She could easily have been white, but seemed coded Asian. After all, wasn’t her jacket yellow?
Not to sound ungrateful, but her powers were decidedly meh and she was annoying and stupid. I suppose I should have been glad she played against stereotype? I wasn’t.
Ling, the Asian American superhero we wished for
Taiwanese American filmmaker Dennis Liu and Japanese American writer/translator Marie Iida similarly felt the dearth of diversity in storytelling — on both sides of the camera. In their latest indie comic book Ling, the married writing duo wanted to create a hero who deals with issues most teenage girls are familiar with -— but with added layers specifically addressing the Asian American experience.
Ling Ling (yes, like the panda) is a Chinese American teen with a birthmark on her face who just wants to blend in. “She’s not sexy, she’s not good at math, she’s not submissive, and she skateboards,” her creators say. She struggles with cyberbullying and self-image in high school. After Ling’s sister and some other girls go missing, a magical three-legged fox named Kitsy teleports from another dimension into Ling’s washing machine. Kitsy (who is indeed like the kitsune, a legendary Japanese paranormal fox) tells Ling that she’s a “which girl” — she has the ability to transform into whichever girl she wants to be — and the last defender of their world.
Illustrated by Japanese American artist Mariko Yamashin, this first installment addresses the ideas of assimilation, wanting to change identities, feeling invisible, and the pressure to appear perfect on social media. Ling embodies the struggle so many Asian Americans feel — especially the added burden of the model minority myth.
“The world seems to always say there are only two types of girls. Good girls and bad girls. Girls who do and girls who don’t,” Ling says in the comic. “But over time, I’ve come to learn that there are infinite combinations and infinite possibilities.”
The creative process
Since it can take six to eight months to create a comic, Liu and Iida are trying to drum up enough interest in Ling so they can create future episodes. They have self financed the project thus far — including a comic book trailer starring Angeline Jara and voice acting by Randall Park.
Liu had taken notes from his past success with Raising Dion, a comic about a black single mother protecting her son who has superpowers, that is now a must-see series on Netflix. “We went all out and made a live-action, cinematic movie trailer to promote the comic,” Liu said.
For future episodes, Liu and Iida hope to broaden the spectrum and explore the diversity within Asian Americans by populating the comic with dynamic supporting characters. Liu mentioned a badass older woman who will train Ling in tae kwon do, as well as an art teacher — both of whom are Asian. The goal is to normalize being Asian American, to not make a big deal out of Asian Americans doing everyday things.
Support needed from the Asian American community
“There is no cavalry coming; no one is coming to help us,” declared Liu, a member of the Directors Guild of America’s Diversity Council. It is with this mindset that he set about creating diverse stories like Raising Dion and Ling, so the next generation won’t continue to face underrepresentation and misrepresentation in the media. “It’s still challenging; we’re still breaking barriers.”
If we passively wait for white gatekeepers to pay attention, we’ll be waiting forever. “Consumers need to vote with their time and resources. If you want to see more representation, you’ve got to support it,” Liu reminded us. After all, creating art and content isn’t contingent on talent alone. It requires money. “It’s very hard to go to producers and make a case to keep going. We hope our community can keep rallying.”
Dennis Liu and Marie Iida are the creators of the indie comic book Ling (out now). You can watch the trailer on YouTube and purchase the online PDF of Ling on dennis-liu.com. Liu is also the creator of the comic-turned-Netflix show Raising Dion, and the director of music videos for artists like Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey and Justin Timberlake. Iida is featured as Marie Kondo’s translator on the show “Tidying Up” (Netflix). You can follow them on Facebook and Instagram.