February 11, 2020
Growing up in San Francisco Chinatown in the 1950s and 60s, my whole world was encased in an exotic frame of 15 square city blocks. Our parents were graduate students in international relations and applied mathematics; but they were exiled at UC Berkeley when the communists took over their homeland. Unable to return, they married, struggled, and started an herbal medicine shop in Chinatown. We were surrounded by the talismans and practices of a culture left behind. My understanding of American society was gleaned from what I learned at school, at the library, American Bandstand and from the pages of comic books.
Our parents allowed my brothers and me to make a weekly pilgrimage to the dingy comic book store a half block away from our family store after all homework was done, and only if we had finished practicing piano. What wonderful hours we spent there, sitting Indian-style on the floor of that temple of comic books, pretending to be Archie, Jughead, Richie Rich, Superman or Diana the Amazon Princess, and wondering what it would be like to have x-ray vision or the ability to fly. The shopkeeper was not terribly friendly unless she knew that we had the money to buy the comics we were reading. She would give the bum’s rush to the kids who were freeloading with no intention to buy. But my brothers and I each had weekly allowance money to spend on our precious comics, so we were welcome to stay on and read.
We were obsessed with the amazing stories of DC Comics’ characters: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman. They were so heroic, with stories harking back to faraway lands; and they possessed superpowers that were only limited by one’s lack of imagination. We were in heaven. We didn’t fully appreciate our attraction to these superheroes and their stories, but they spoke to us. It is only decades later upon encountering Valentin Popov’s marvelous Ironic Icons that I have come to reflect upon how much these comic book heroes actually echoed certain perspectives in our own immigrant lives. Jor-El and Lara were diplomats and scholars from the doomed planet Krypton. They made huge personal sacrifices to send their son Kal-El to planet earth so he could survive. There, he lived in Smallville while assimilating into mainstream American society. Kal-El took on the persona of Clark Kent, seemingly meek and mild, while hiding his tremendous superpowers from those around him. He needed to fit in to survive. He not only survived but thrived, becoming Superman defending truth, justice and the American way. Similarly, our parents had lost lives of privilege and distinction in China and struggled to give their children better lives in a new country. We were taught to blend in and not to draw attention to ourselves to avoid discrimination or attacks. It was better to keep heads down, work hard, and develop exceptional knowledge and skills to work our way up to a better life. This was the American way, the American dream.
Interestingly, Bruce Wayne came from a world of privilege, but developed an extreme personal sense of justice. Despite his wealth, he was beset with darkness and tragedy in his young life which inspired him to secretly develop his physical and mental prowess to become Batman. He was driven to right the wrongs and fight the evil that destroyed his parents. His solution was to take problems “Gold Mask” acrylic and ink over 19th century engraving 17.875”x 13.375” (framed) 1993 into his own hands and fix them for the betterment of the citizens of Gotham City. Some claim that his power lies in his sense of vengeance, but I prefer to think of it as inspiration to implement change. He gave us a real sense of right and wrong, a sense of power over adversity. Living in an insular community, the Chinese in San Francisco had to fight to stay in Chinatown against a backdrop of bans against Chinese in schools and hospitals, hysterical cries against us as the “yellow peril”, the Exclusion Act, and vigilantism. We fought over a century to gain political recognition and earn our “piece of the American pie”, the right to an education, social justice, housing, and health care. That struggle remains, and we are still righting socio-economic wrongs and continually battling xenophobia for the good of our community.
As a young girl in San Francisco in the 60s, I felt that times were indeed “a-changin’”. My world was expanding beyond the fifteen city blocks I called home. We were no longer expected to be only housewives and submissive “little women.” My all-girl Catholic high school encouraged us to excel in arts, sciences, sports, literature, and political debate. It was the era of Jackie Kennedy, Patsy Mink, Gloria Steinem, Nina Simone and Billie Jean King. We felt empowered to become whatever
we wanted. But this was not a singular wave of feminism in American history. Interestingly, Wonder Woman emerged from the DC Universe in 1941, just when women were leaving their kitchens to enter the work force to keep the war effort going. It was a time when the image of Rosie the Riveter building ships and making ammunition was emblazoned into our consciousness; and DC’s Diana, Princess of the Amazons, spurred American children to think of us as Army nurses and WAVES. Nearly seventy years later, Diana Prince continues to thrive in today’s movies and comic books as an astronaut, a Pentagon military intelligence officer, and a fashion maven to inspire a new generation of women warriors. And before that, the Suffragettes fought for and won the right for women to vote. But the legend of the amazons is much older than the 1960s, 1940s, or even the 1900s, deriving from Greek mythology with a race of women warriors appearing in pottery, stories and artwork as early as 760 – 490 BCE. These mythical women fought and won ancient wars, changed history, established cities, built temples and their own religious belief system. Clearly, the power of women was recognized for centuries before DC Comics’ incarnation of Diana and certainly deserving of iconic stature.
Although I stopped reading comic books some time ago, I rediscovered my childhood heroes in Valentin’s brilliant Icons. They give me joy and remind me of an innocent time when I was learning to become a person of substance. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman are all appropriately and beautifully enshrined in golden or silver frames, bejeweled, and befitting their place in our culture. Some say that these secular cartoon heroes supplant our religious icons. This may be overstating the case, but they teach us to seek the truth, to strive, and reinforce our morality. They remind us to choose right over wrong. They remind us that although our powers may not be “super,” we all have skills, talents and strengths that sustain us in times of trouble. We see ourselves reflected back in the struggles these heroes endured, and hope to attain the success they embody as super men and women in the context of our own existence. They are important reminders, especially in these dark times. They are the embodiment of our hope, and the enshrinement of the virtue we strive for.