Reckoning with Detective Comics

I want to talk about a creative act of reckoning and, maybe, redemption.

Growing up, when it came to comics I read mostly DC—Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, you know the roster. With its comics and their many, maaany TV and movie adaptations, the company is a global cultural titan. Modern mythology.

It’s called DC because the publisher’s first series was Detective Comics. Batman first appeared in issue #27, published in 1939, and from that point onward, the series was devoted mainly to him. Today, eighty years later, you can walk into any comic book store, buy the new issue of Detective Comics, and catch up with the Dark Knight.

But there were issues before Batman.

This is the cover of Detective Comics #1, published in 1937.

Detective Comics #1

Detective Comics #1

Depicted, in horrific Yellow Peril caricature, is the antagonist of the issue’s Bruce Nelson detective story.

How can an institution like DC Comics contend with stains so deep-set? How can its readers? Its writers and artists?

It’s easier to begin with what doesn’t work. I am unwilling to ignore it, or say, “that was a long time ago.” Even before Batman’s first appearance, Detective Comics was enormously popular; it flew off the racks. The company’s success is founded, literally, in these images.

There’s another response that goes, “ah yes, rotten at the core, just like everything else in this nightmare world.” But that’s almost as blasé, in its way, as the first response, with the additional benefit of being suffocating.

For me, these are matters not primarily of judgment—who was wrong? Who continues to be wrong? Exactly how wrong are they??—but of repair.

And in this case, amazingly, we have an example of what repair might look like.

Gene Luen Yang is a popular, prize-winning cartoonist and writer. (I met him once, years ago; he is also the nicest.) In a series for DC that started in 2016 and ran for 24 issues, he chronicled the adventures of a young man in China gifted with Superman-level powers: Kenan Kong, the New Super-Man.

Gene, who is Chinese-American, knew about Detective Comics #1, and with a rare tool at his disposal—a series set fully within the continuity of the DC universe—he decided to confront it.

His intervention begins on the penultimate page of New Super-Man #8. These panels are very mysterious and surprising even if you’ve been following avidly up to this point, so there’s not a ton of framing to do. I know reading dissected comics on a website is… not the best… but bear with me.

On that penultimate page, you encounter a new voice—cryptic, cloaked in shadow:

New Super-Man #8, second-to-last page, last panel

New Super-Man #8

Then, you turn the page, and the voice’s source is revealed:

New Super-Man #8, last page

New Super-Man #8

The image is the shocker, but I think it’s the speech bubbles that carry the payload. “Without me, there would be no superheroes at all. For I am the very beginning.” Right there on the page, inside the fiction, this figure takes his place, asserts that he matters, is foundational, must be reckoned with.

Several issues later, he conjures a vision—a history lesson—for Kenan Kong. The effect for us, the readers, is that the New Super-Man, rendered in full modern gloss, is dropped into the misregistered panels of a 1930s comic, racist caricatures and all.

New Superman #16, first page

New Super-Man #16

Quickly, Kenan Kong’s X-ray vision reveals the real people behind the caricatures:

New Superman #16, fourth page

New Super-Man #16

In the pages that follow, the New Super-Man’s history lesson builds toward a confrontation with the protagonists of the early Detective Comics. It’s strange and stirring, and it could only work in a comic book.

That’s why it’s so exciting.

There are other ways to talk about this. I can easily imagine a critic’s essay delving into the deep problems of Detective Comics’ early issues. Likewise, I can imagine a letter from DC Comics itself, acknowledging its origins. Both would be… fine.

Gene Luen Yang’s intervention is different. It’s not about the comics—it is the comics. It’s a diegetic reckoning! Yang flips the cover of Detective Comics #1 completely around, makes it the mask of a powerful mystic who understands exactly what’s happening in that image, and why. Redemption through retcon; is there anything more comics than that?

On his blog, Gene wrote about his thought process:

... DC wanted to bring past and present into a single, unified mythology. That means that every issue, every story from the 1930s until now "matters" in some way.

How do you do that without acknowledging that DC debuted with a straight-up racist image? By having Chin Lung/Fui Onyui show up in New Super-Man, we could talk about the past explicitly, on-panel.

We didn't want it to be all about guilt over an ugly past, though. DC Comics has gone from debuting with a cover that dehumanized Chinese people, to taking their most important symbol, the Superman S, and putting it on the chest of a Chinese superhero. Chin Lung/Fui Onyui appears at the very end of New Super-Man #8. That issue was written by a Chinese American writer and illustrated by a Chinese art team. To my mind, it shows how far DC has come, how far we as a society have come. Things aren't perfect, of course, but (this is a very "Superman" way of looking at the world) they're better in so many ways, and that's a reason for hope. I'm proud to be a part of today's DC Comics.

Gene’s point about the Chinese and Chinese-American creative team is important. If it was Robin Sloan with the bright idea to bring back Chin Lung and confront the past by reproducing that image with painful fidelity… whew. I’m not saying it’s impossible, just that—no, actually, it might be impossible.

Even in Gene’s hands, this was a risky move. He writes:

The vast majority of our fans have understood what we were trying to do. Some were shocked, but they were also intrigued and supportive. I hope we lived up to their expectations.

The process of repair is ongoing, and I believe that what it requires, anywhere there’s a deep-set stain (so, maybe: everywhere) is truly creative acts like this one. Gene Luen Yang’s intervention in the matter of Detective Comics #1 is gravely serious but/and it’s also clever. Electric. Cosmic.

With courage and ingenuity, Gene demonstrates what’s possible, and what’s possible is still: everything.

January 2019, Berkeley

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