There’s no doubt that Chew, an ongoing series from Image Comics by John Layman and Rob Guillory, was the big indie sensation of 2009. It sold four printings of its first issue and received critical and fan acclaim. The story revolves around a detective named Tony Chu, who is cibopathic. Cibopathy is the ability to experience the memories of anything the cibopath tastes. If Tony bites a piece of fruit, he knows how it was grown, the pesticides used, etc. If he bites into a pork chop, he knows how the pig was grown… and slaughtered. In his world, bird flu has killed millions, there’s a chicken ban, and the FDA has become a serious power. The FDA recruits Tony to solve all sorts of crimes and chicken violations… by having him taste evidence. Creepy, funny and strangely charming, Chew has become one of my favorite books. It also has the distinction of having one of the only Asian-American protagonists in all of comics.
As an Asian-American, my role models and idols of similar descent are few and far between. I am a huge Superman fan; he is the ultimate immigrant, but he appears to be Caucasian. In comics, I’m limited to martial arts masters like Shang-Chi, or megalomaniacal villains like Egg Fu and the Mandarin. Part of this has to do with the era in which these characters were created: during the Cold War (when China was an enemy of America) or during Bruce Lee’s peak. The lead character of Chew isn’t limited to a role based on stereotype. The FDA hired him for his special ability, but he also has great skills of deduction, tenacity, and is really good with a gun. Tony also has a sense of humanity and nobility in him that help him rise above his insane boss in the FDA, his sometimes jerk of a partner and all the unusual aspects of his job. He’s a fun, honest character that doesn’t rely on any easy storytelling. Yes, he has one of the more dubious powers you’ll ever find in any form of entertainment, but he utilizes it well, and does what’s necessary for justice. He’s a likable character, a character you get to know. For all the awesome martial arts skills of Shang Chi and Judomaster, how much do you really see or know of them beyond the fact that they can fight? That’s the strength of Tony Chu, and it comes through in every issue.
Of course, Tony isn’t as alone as the title of this entry suggests. Gene Luen Yang wrote a wonderful, award winning OGN (Original Graphic Novel) called American Born Chinese a few years ago. In it, three stories are told, interweaving to tell a greater story about being a first generation immigrant, having to be a part of two worlds, and balancing that. I’d also recommend Johnny Hiro, by Fred Chao. The eponymous Johnny has a job as a delivery boy, a wonderful girlfriend, and a crazy, eventful life. In the first issue of the series, Johnny faces off against Godzilla! And Mayor Bloomberg responds and tries to cover everything up! Full of fun, random adventures, Johnny Hiro is highly entertaining. There’s also a wonderful anthology called Secret Identities, which is full of superhero stories from Asian-American creators from across the country. So there is material out there, but ultimately, your heroes are of your choosing. I find Superman no less inspiring because he and I don’t look similar, and neither should you.
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