Without meaning to, this post basically became a long-form essay on Western cultural appropriation of Eastern Asia sphere cultures in American comics, the nature of costumed superheroes as a media commodity, and why exactly I hate the Great Ten and what they represent.

That Grant Morrison is a Westerner who poaches East Asian cultures isn't exactly news. He's been at since at least the Invisibles, but got a lot more blatant (if that's even possible) with the Great Ten, a Chinese superteam, and the Super Young Team, his Japanese superteam.

Out of the two, the Great Ten has, post-introduction, generally avoided much notice by basically being non-existent in the DCU outside of its status as a Wacky Grant Morrison Creation. But now that they're getting a 10-issue limited series, such obscurity is no longer possible.

First off, before I go any further, let me make something absolutely clear: Zen is not Chinese. Zen is Japanese. However, Chan Buddhism, the school from which Zen originates, is a distinctly Chinese creation. But given the obvious reference, the need for a clever headline clearly outweighed actual accuracy in an interview wherein the interviewee spends a lot of time burnishing his Eastern religion cred.

Furthermore, despite all inclinations to cleverness, naming something "Zen and the Art Of XYZ" is no longer clever, much less creative. It ceased being clever after the concept got hopelessly muddled in Robert Pirsig's half-baked treatise Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

To the actual meat of this post, I must be fair to Tony Bedard. He's a good writer. Objectively, I've generally liked his work.

But I'm not concerned with the eventual quality of the comic which is printed. I'm sure, technically, it will be a good comic. This is about Western writers and cultural poaching, a consideration which exists wholly independent of a comic's quality.

And again, in the interest of fairness, the Great Ten are not Bedard's creation. They are a Morrison work which Bedard was handed and told to make work. Only so much can be done to the nature of a beast before it bites one in the ass. But in the meantime, I'm not reassured. It's great back in the day Bedard read a lot of D.T. Suzuki and his ilk. So did I. I also read crap like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which I have quite happily not touched in six years for a reason.

However, I wouldn't consider this by any means a window into religion or a culture. The average Western perspective (and so far, everything Bedard has expressed that he has, at best a average and dated [circa 1970s/80s] perspective) misses China's varied and dynamic history. For the West, there's "Ancient China," "Some Shit Happened," and "Mao's Cultural Revolution." Rising, or Modern, China to them is one step away from an immediate Communist crackdown.

Yet that's far from true. I shall skip the history lesson but instead quote from Charles Horner's upcoming book, Rising China and Its Postmodern Fate,
Rising China may very well contemplate a traditional national strategy of traditional expansionism supported by equally traditional nationalism and patriotism. But will this, too, is now coming up against the emerging Postmodern High Culture, whose mission for Cultural Studies is the “deconstruction” of culture as a mainstay of the political order in China and throughout the world. This emerging High Culture is wholly unlike the high culture of previous rising nations in great ages of imperialism; it seeks not to buttress great national projects but to undermine them.
As I have not yet read Horner's book, I cannot say wherein this High Culture he situates the Internet as a cause for China's difference, but my suspicion is it plays a noticeable role. Not that such realities exist for Morrison's heroes in Bedard's situation.

In fact, not much of China period exists in Morrison's heroes. The superficial stylization is cribbed quite creatively by J.G. Jones, but Morrison fails to grasp the names. In English translation, Chinese wuxia character names can appear nonsensical, yet make perfect sense in Chinese--though no one would probably name their child, say, 絕無神 (roughly translated as "Godless").

But August General in Iron? What hanzi would make up this name? What are their contextual meanings? Did Grant Morrison just pull it out of his Western ass? Probably. When we do get character renderings, they're not exactly stellar.

A) I have no idea what the first character is, and the second is definitely not the common rendering of "doctor." 医 does denote relation to the medical practice, but every definition of doctor I've found uses 生, not 者. B) I am trying very hard to forgive Scott McDaniel because I know his style is very angular, but his rendering of the hanzi recall so many bad memories of "chop-socky" font my insides cringe.

Moving beyond these surface aspects, one has to consider if China would even produce these heroes. The answer of which is a resounding, "No." Returning to the Horner quote, the China of today is one in which the government has ultimately failed to remain in control of the nation's Culture, never fully stopping importation from other nearby cultures, most often Japan and Taiwan. When it comes to costumed superheroes, children are more likely to be inspired by Ultraman and other henshin heroes, despite the government's attempts to quash the show.

At a press conference for his drama Pandamen, Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou declared (rather patriotically, a quirk Chou is known for), "We have seen such Western superheroes as Spiderman and Batman, but Chinese people need their own heroes, and that will be the pandamen." But his Pandamen look less like one of the spandex-clad Western heroes he references and more like one of Shotaro Ishinomori's Showa-era Kamen Riders.

And it's impossible to miss the influence of henshin heroes on 铠甲勇士 (Armor Hero)—it even has the required bevy of toys. Like Thai production Sport Ranger, superheroes in the East Asian cultural sphere are far more likely to resemble localized versions of the Japanese shows which have been imported for decades as opposed to the Western powerhouses.*

Yet because Western, most often American, culture is the world’s dominant default, Westerners frequently fail to notice their works have any culture at all (and thus a barrier to their importation to other cultures). Only when Western works use a non-Western culture does the contrast become apparent. However, for a culture to have a voice at all, its works must speak to the issues important to the culture’s consumers. DC’s Great Ten can never hope to achieve this, for it is a uniquely Western product dressed in the tacky red and gold trappings of haphazard American appropriation—by Westerners and for Westerners.

This aforementioned appropriation becomes even more apparent when one considers how Chinese creators mold their own work to fit Western tastes. According to Chinese artist Coco Wang, the native Chinese market has never been profitable for media companies compared to the Western export market. Yet when the Chinese export media products, Wang notes, artists and companies use only “the Chinese elements that the Westerners would be interested in instead of what we truly want to do”—that is, the image of China imported from the 70s Shaw Brothers movies: dragons, kung fu, Journey to the West, etc. “It’s like English-Chinese food, take away the spices and add sweet-sour flavour.” Through their dollars, Westerners force their appropriative interests and tastes on a country which is finding its voice.

Furthermore, China is becoming a ‘Big Post-Production System,’ where artists can only afford to do work-for-hire, most often from French writers/creators. This leaves Chinese artists to, according to Wang,
“see the designed characters sent to us, not knowing the process of creation behind these characters and stories, therefore not understanding the essence of the story. We keep scratching the skin, memorising the forms and shapes of these designs, and imitating with a vague understanding.”
After Kung Fu Panda came out, the question from Chinese artists and officials was, "why didn't we make this film?" The answer awakened the Chinese government to how their control on Culture ultimately ended up stifling the nation’s creativity and its voice. Now, China is making a concerted effort to encourage local productions. But these Chinese films and their Chinese heroes will draw on the China in which the Chinese people of today live, work, and imagine.

Not the China Westerners imagine the country to be.

*One of the great ironies here is the sentai/Power Rangers crossover. Originally, Power Rangers worked because it could be washed out of all cultural context, thus Americanizing it (i.e. compared to the Japanese product, the American product must have no culture, and thus it has American culture). Yet ultimately, I think Power Rangers was doomed to failure because by its very nature it could not be universally Americanized. In superheroes Americans have certain expectations for a permanent personality, the evolution of which the consumer experiences vicariously. Yet PR’s heroes couldn’t speak to anything besides general values of teamwork, cooperation, and a belief in the general good—values the Japanese emphasize in both henshin heroes and shounen manga ad infinitum, with small variations depending on the medium and media product.
gloss: the avatar is unconvinced (Aang fed up)

From: [personal profile] gloss

(There's a stray quotation mark at the end of the URL for the image of the character renderings.)

This is a *fantastic* essay, and I'm impressed by both the breadth of your references and the restraint in your tone.

a uniquely Western product dressed in the tacky red and gold trappings of haphazard American appropriation—by Westerners and for Westerners.
Beautifully & powerfully said.
eisen: Black (like a dead bug from my feet). (your hardest try is never enough.)

From: [personal profile] eisen

You already know my thoughts on this; we've discussed it at length before. But you have said it so much better (and more authoritatively) than I ever could.

Love you for writing this.
torachan: (Default)

From: [personal profile] torachan

Here via [personal profile] eisen. Great post. I'm not familiar with those comics, but they sound pretty bad. D:

I have no idea what the first character is, and the second is definitely not the common rendering of "doctor." 医 does denote relation to the medical practice, but every definition of doctor I've found uses 生, not 者

医者 is Japanese for doctor. Seems like a clear case of "aren't all those squiggly languages the same?"

The first character is also Japanese, 達 (arrive, skilled), as is the last one, 完 (end, complete), which you didn't mention, so I'm not sure if the Chinese is the same.

So yeah. I don't think he's using hanzi at all, but kanji. *headdesk*
Edited Date: 2009-08-15 07:46 pm (UTC)

From: [personal profile] keeva

I went and asked Bedard on Facebook about this post, and he replied:

"I find your disdain for "cultural poaching" a bit silly. Borrowing from other cultures is what America was built on. You can impugn "English-Chinese" food all you want. I think it's delicious.

Of course THE GREAT TEN is "by Westerners and for Westerners." I've never thought it was anything else. That doesn't mean it can't be a fun read, and if it sparks any interest in China, or a little more respect for their culture, history and accomplishments, then great. I know my own respect for Eastern culture is genuine, but feel free to doubt it all you want.

Did the Chinese really wonder why they didn't make KUNG FU PANDA? Seriously? That's hilarious. I mean, that movie never struck me as authentically Chinese, but I enjoyed it anyway.

"for a culture to have a voice at all, its works must speak to the issues important to the culture’s consumers." I leave that to some genius in China or Taiwan. The consumers of THE GREAT TEN will be overwhelmingly American and British."



From: [personal profile] keeva

He posted it on my wall -- are you on Facebook? I can just add you as a friend so you have access.

If not, I'll screenshot it.
petra: Barbara Gordon smiling knowingly (Default)

From: [personal profile] petra

The utter privilege of the fail here is *astonishing.* What asses the creators are.
willow: Red haired, dark skinned, lollipop girl (Default)

From: [personal profile] willow

Liked this but need to re-read it when my head's less wonky. Things are nibbling just outside my range that I know are insights into the deeper aspects of what you write.

At the moment all I can think of is "That's why I always get the sense from Americans that everything Chinese is red and gold and fu dogs."
willow: Red haired, dark skinned, lollipop girl (Default)

From: [personal profile] willow

I admit my view of the Chinese came from Caribbean Chinese. And I was very confused when I came to the US and the Chinese culture here was so different (and the food, I quickly realized it was Americanized versions of food). But then it began to hit me that immigrants from different areas went to different countries and continued different traditions.

And, realizing how big China is, helped regional cultures begin to make sense. But this all happened when I was a kid leading into teenhood. 9 to 15 let's say. Which are years practically dedicated to growing and learning. Adults being able to understand Southern US Culture is different from NorthEast US Culture is different from NorthWest US Culture, should be able to grasp the possibility of that idea for other countries.

And really, it shouldn't be advanced thinking to recognize that Southern US Culture itself has regional differences. The big difference from Miami and Atlanta say. Texas is in the South too and it's seriously different. Even if 'Asia' actually were one country, there would still be those kind of differences.

I'm not sure when I'll stop being surprised that the Average (Person/Amercian?) is so damn self indoctrinated clueless.


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