In 2012, Vertigo (an imprint of DC comics) released Prince of Cats, the first long work that I had written and drawn myself. I tabled at a few conventions, did some signings. From time to time as I toured around I heard something (from young, Black men in particular) that really disturbed me: “I like how you mix Black and Asian (or Japanese) culture.” I had a lot of feelings, among them: “that’s a shallow take on this work,” “Is that what I’m doing; combining Black and Asian culture?”, “is this appropriation?”. Given the strategic anti-essentialism of weeb culture, it seems strange in hindsight that I’d be surprised by these remarks, but my surprise led me down a path exploring the origins (historic, social, economic) of certain qualities of my own aesthetic. How’d Tybalt end up with a katana? And why did it bother me when people fixated on it? Maybe this introspection will have some value for others.
First, I’d like to address, “…Asian (or Japanese) culture”. I have to admit at the top, before I go in, that I understand “Asian” to mean the following things:
1. a white supremacist, western flattening of various groups of people who share certain physical features (but not necessarily geographic origin);
2. the pragmatic essentializing of various groups of people identified as Asian by white supremacy as a tactic in opposition to white supremacy.
“Black” is similar, and, regarding the latter pragmatic/strategic essentialization, the Black Power movement is the prime, if not first, example of the tactical application of aesthetics to that end. “Black is Beautiful”
But when I heard, “I like how you mix Black and Asian (or Japanese) culture,” I took it to mean the former: that I am to infer that there is some essential quality to the cultural production of an entire continent (not to mention that I am meant to infer the same thing about the African American diaspora). The notion that there is some essential quality to Asia that sets it apart from some platonic ideal of Europe probably dates back at least to when Marco Polo first set out down the Silk Road. There’s nothing novel about the fascination The Occident has with The Orient (predicated on maintaining a good distance). Again, I’d say that the fetishization of Blackness by the West functions similarly. It’s a postcard, flat and printed long ago. It fits in your pocket. You can post it on Instagram.
Now, with that in mind, Black people and our eyes are obviously not exempt from the conditioning of white supremacy or the colonialism that produces Orientalism.
I’m “Black people.”
Growing up, where I was from, “Asian” was “Chinese”. If you were Korean, you were “Chinese”; if you were from Japan, you were “Chinese.” These were not mutually exclusive. Among the people I knew, all Black, in southeast D.C., if you had some variation of the epicanthic fold, dark, straight hair, etc. you were “Chinese”.
Godzilla was “Chinese,” or at least all of the people in the Godzilla movies were, and so was Bruce Lee.
When I was a kid in the eighties, on Sunday afternoons, on channel 20 or 50, I’d catch dubbed foreign films. Maybe they showed other types of films as well, but what stuck with me were the kaiju films and the kung fu films. After a kung fu film concluded, you could find me and my cousins down in my granny’s basement or out in the backyard throwing kicks and punches at each other, brandishing broomsticks and rulers in place of staves and swords. The major difference between “cops and robbers,” “cowboys and Indians,” and our kung fu roleplay is that we’d never attribute a moral or racial framework or hierarchy to kung fu roleplay.
For me, kung fu films presented a unique spectacle. Here were whole worlds where none of the characters were white. The heroes were “Chinese,” the villains were “Chinese.” Of course there were some exceptions. Bruce Lee had two. Enter the Dragon and Way of the Dragon prominently featured characters that were not Asian. Way of the Dragon has always been my favorite. Let’s talk about Way of the Dragon.
Way of the Dragon (or Return of the Dragon), is the only complete film Bruce Lee wrote and directed. It tells the story of Tang Lung (played by Lee), a country boy who emigrated from Hong Kong to Rome to defend a family friend’s Chinese restaurant from the Mafia. It’s an international affair. Bruce Lee raps his Okinawan nunchaku across the head of Italians of every shade. His final opponent is an American karateka named Colt, played by none other than Chuck Norris in his first big screen appearance. Colt trounces a Japanese karate expert that the mafia has hired to take out Tang Lung; this cements Chuck’s place as the last toy Bruce will break before the credits.
Boy. Bruce whups that white boy’s hairy ass. I had the VHS. I wore it out.
Okay, I lied. Bruce Lee had three films that prominently featured people who weren’t “Chinese.” The last — the only one he wrote, co-produced and directed besides Way of the Dragon– was Game of Death. He never completed the film, but it features Lee fighting a multi-ethnic, multi-styled assortment of opponents on his way to the top of a pagoda where he faces 6-time NBA MVP, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I don’t have to explain who Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is.
In hindsight, all of Bruce Lee’s films — at least the ones he starred in — had an international, multicultural quality, even if my adolescent, western eyes flattened the differences. In The Big Boss, Bruce Lee plays an immigrant worker in Thailand; in the Fist of Fury, Bruce Lee’s character rages against Japanese imperialists. Bruce Lee freely borrowed from other cultures as he created his onscreen identities, mixing multiple martial arts traditions. As an auteur, Lee’s approach was markedly post-modern. His approach deconstructed the essential qualities of kung fu, its various traditions, how they related to each other and other martial arts, and how all of that related to being Chinese. Subjectivity. This, even to my naive, Occidental gaze was exceptional; he deconstructed my notions of “Chinese” into complex dynamics, as when a Sikh guard denied Bruce Lee’s character from entering a Japanese establishment. I’d argue that this type of deconstruction of racial identity was rare on television of any kind, from anywhere — and it found me on a Sunday afternoon, sitting in front of my great-grandmother’s TV in southeast Washington, D.C.
These films allowed my childhood imagination a space to explore my own being, outside of a white supremacist framework and its essentialization of the other. Bruce Lee’s work in particular — at least the work I had seen as a child — presented people of many ethnicities in stories where whiteness was never centered, where race was de-essentialized, and where Blackness rarely played to white gaze.[i]
I mention all of this to say that, while this formative experience with Kung Fu cinema — and Bruce Lee’s starring roles in particular — didn’t lead to a relationship with Chinese culture that shows in my draughtsmanship (outside the fact that much of the type of Japanese painting and drawing that I studied finds its origin in Chinese drawing and calligraphic traditions), kung fu cinema’s de-centering of the west, as well as Bruce Lee’s further deconstruction of kung fu cinema, certainly played a major part in shaping how I see the world as an artist.
Also, to keep it a buck, it sent me digging for dope shit outside of conventional cultural avenues.
And I have reason to believe that my experience is far from unique among Black artists. When I was 16, a freshman in a Christian high school out in Frederick, Maryland (my mom had us carpooling all the way out there from Gaithersburg), a young man — one of few Black peers peppered throughout the student body — offered me a white tape. A white label identified the tape as a sermon. When I got home and popped it in the tape deck, fragments of Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang cried out, giving way to snaps, a broken piano sample… It was Wu-Tang Clan’s first record, 36 Chambers. If sales are any indication (over 2.4 million units sold), this aesthetic embodiment of what I’d experienced in front of granny’s TV resonated with a vast number of people.
…but Godzilla was, in fact, not Chinese.
On July 14, 1853, folks going about their regular business on Uraga Harbor were disrupted by an extraordinary sight. Four kurofune, or black ships, under the command of United States Admiral Commodore Perry belched black smoke, steaming their way up Edo bay. It was a flex. Essentially, the United States sent a grand symbol of their power to tell the Tokugawa shogunate, which had maintained a strict ban on contact with the outside world, that it was time to open up Japan for business. It worked. It had been 200 years since Japan had beheaded 37,000 Shimabara rebels and with that severed contact to the outside world. But within five years, the Harris Treaty opened Japan up for trade with the US. The rest of Europe followed shortly after. America’s flex inspired the term “gunboat diplomacy,” but I prefer Sven Beckert’s term “war capitalism.” 83 years later, Japan would be the site of another such display of US power, but for a global audience.
Just as Napoleon’s “liberation” of Egypt followed by French extraction of Egyptian artifacts had 80 or so years prior, the influx of Japanese cultural commodities into Europe after Japan’s reopening would trigger powerful changes in Western art and aesthetics. Woodblock prints from artists like Hiroshige and Hokusai found their way into the hands of the nascent vanguard of Europe’s art scene, sometimes just as ephemera or waste. Upcycled into wrapping paper or packing materials, ukiyo-e found its way into the hands of artists like Van Gogh, Monet, Cassat, and Degas. Some of these artists would become collectors. They would go on to imbue Japanese aesthetics into impressionism and post-impressionism. I’m convinced that the effect ukiyo-e had on artists like Lautrec and Gaugin would find its way into the nascent western cartooning tradition; the flatness and the calligraphic and symbolic forms of ukiyo-e offering a counterpoint to conservative academic styles, an alternative more suitable for reproduction.
In the late summer of 1946, after the United States of America thoroughly defeated Japan in WWII, after flexing on the entire world by obliterating Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic bombs, killing between 129–226,000 people, (gunboat diplomacy) the US set to occupying Japan and rebuilding Europe, leveraging its position as the sole major power whose industrial capacity had been largely unscathed by The War to establish and dominate markets worldwide.
In 1980, Republican Ronald Reagan beat incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter to become the 40th president of the United States. Reagan was a staunch free-market capitalist, and his appointment to chair the FCC, Mark S. Fowler, reflected that. As chairman of the FCC, Fowler dismantled federal statutes protecting children’s programming from advertising.
In 1982, as the story goes, at a fundraising event, a chance meeting in the men’s room of the respective presidents of Hasbro and Marvel Comics spawned G.I. Joe: The Real American Hero. While rubbing elbows at the urinal, Hasbro’s president mentioned he was relaunching their action figure G.I. Joe; Marvel’s president pitched a collaboration. Let’s hope they didn’t shake on it.
G.I. Joe would launch a three pronged campaign to land in the hearts of American children. First, Marvel would develop comics and a cartoon to support Hasbro’s toy line. At Marvel Comics, Jim Shooter enlisted Larry Hama to develop the narrative. Hama converted a story he’d previously developed for the Marvel universe into G.I. Joe’s story. Finally, Marvel Productions would team up with Sunbow Entertainment to develop the animated television series, which was essentially a half-hour commercial for the toys. It was a hit.
A year later, Hasbro Toy developer Henry Orrenstein walked into the Tokyo Toy Fair and discovered a line of toys that featured transforming vehicles and transforming everyday objects, respectively named Diaclone and MicroChange. He took these back to Hasbro R&D, which again enlisted Marvel and Sunbow. The result was Transformers, another hit.
After corporate austerity constricted the quality out of American animation in the 60’s and 70’s, corporations set their eyes on cheap labor abroad. Japan’s animators, however, had developed a unique aesthetic as a result of their own economic constraints, calling on what Nobuo Tsuji would call an “eccentric lineage” found in contemporary manga and dating back to the aesthetic innovations of artists like Ito Jakuchu and Hokusai. Sunbow subcontracted Japanese studio Toei Animation to produce G.I. Joe and Transformers. Toei was the secret ingredient. Toei had already produced a murderer’s row of classics such as Mazinger, Devilman, Getter Robo, Captain Harlock, and Galaxy 999, and they’d go on to produce titles recognizable to a contemporary international audience like Dragon Ball and One Piece.
A decade prior, in 1971, Toru Hara had split from Toei Animation and founded Topcraft. Topcraft would work with Rankin Bass, an animation outfit run out of New York City, to produce notable titles like The Hobbit and The Last Unicorn. When bankruptcy split Topcraft, Toru Hara, along with some animators you may have heard of (Miyazaki Hayao, Suzuki Toshio and Takahata Isao) built Studio Ghibli out of Topcraft’s ashes, while Katsuhito Akiyama and others would form a company called Pacific Animation Corporation. Pacific Animation continued to work with Rankin Bass, and would lend their draughtsmanship to American TV animation, most notably Thundercats and Silverhawks.
G.I. Joe, Transformers, Thundercats, Silverhawks… I was weaned on the brightly colored flashing images of this vanguard of Saturday morning American television. It’s as if G.I. Joe had been wrapped in scrapped Kuniyoshi woodblock prints. It shaped my eyes.
In the mid-eighties, my mom traded in her Chevy Caprice for a Honda Civic. My cousins got something called a Nintendo, and Sony Walkmen smuggled Salt n’ Peppa and Junkyard Band into schoolyards. In 1980, when Toho wouldn’t kick Kurosawa Akira the bread he needed to finish Kagemusha (his first color film), George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola interceded, and their production company, Studio Zoetrope, helped foot the bill. I’d find a subsequent internationally funded production of Kurosawa’s Ran running on an international channel on American cable. I must’ve been 13 or so. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was watching my first bit of Shakespeare, carefully packaged in an antique Japanese aesthetic.
“Explore the outer limits of the imagination, where humans battle a giant race of bionoids,” the box said. I was skeptical, because we didn’t have a lot of money, so renting a VHS tape was a big deal for me and my pal JD. We took the chance on MACROSS: Clash of the Bionoids. I’d noticed unfamiliar names scroll by as I watched the credits at the end of my favorite cartoons (yes, even as a child), but this was the moment it dawned on me that what I’d considered “good animation” till then had a common denominator. It was made in Japan.
My world was swimming in the cultural and industrial production of Japan. My work would come to reflect that. Before I ever cracked open a collection of Hokusai’s Manga or a reproduction of Hiroshige’s 100 Views of Edo, I’d ingested western art that owed its lineage to these artists.
In 1987, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated television show debuted. The series was produced by Murakami-Wolf-Swenson (one of whose founding members, Teruaki “Jimmy” Murakami, had endured internment in American concentration camps during the war.) I was unable to track down the studios involved, but the “eccentric lineage” of Japanese animation subcontractors peeks through often. Like G.I. Joe and Transformers before it, the Ninja Turtles animated show was part of a toy selling strategy. But before it was a merchandise empire, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a paper-thin gag between two friends (Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman) teased out over a handful of newsprint magazines. The title lampooned their popular contemporaries’ fixation with teenage mutants and ninja. The two most notable of their targets were the writer Chris Claremont and the cartoonist Frank Miller, both of whom featured Japan and its culture in their work as a motif but rarely, if ever, as a subject. The ninja was the ubiquitous foil of both the Marvel mutants and Daredevil; ninja always coming out the worse for wear, often dying in piles like the indigenous foes of Tarzan. This fixation on Japan by the two artists culminates in their work together on the Wolverine miniseries where the titular character, a westerner in every sense of the word, has a misadventure in Japan that leads to his engagement to a Yakuza boss’ daughter. Of the two, only Miller seems to have been influenced formally by Japanese artists, namely the writer Kazuo Koike and the artist Goseki Kojima via their work, Lone Wolf and Cub.
Like Claremont and Miller before me, I’ve struggled with this relationship to Japanese culture throughout my career, producing varying results. I too would produce work that appropriated Japan as a motif more than subject. One could argue that this is one of the formal qualities of manga and anime itself; subsuming aesthetics from commodities and reproducing them as disassociated motifs (I’m looking at you, Mr. Popo). Isn’t the most internationally recognizable quality of the entire manga aesthetic — massive eyes — appropriated from Rose O’Neill’s Kewpie character, and subsequently from designers working at Walt Disney Studios? Still, though I can’t help but feel like my relationship to manga is like a white rock and roll musician’s relationship to Little Richard (hopefully more Bob Dylan than Elvis).
One can’t deny that manga has the biggest footprint in comics and has produced more formal innovations than any other sector of the medium. The first comics I ever bought were Dark Horse’s translation of Masamune Shirow’s Appleseed. Akira would follow soon after, then Domu. The second comic I ever drew was called Gratuitous Ninja. My first attempt at a comic had been heavily influenced by David Cho’s Slow Jams, but then I discovered Moebius’ Arzach. The next time I decided to try to tell a story, I chose to do it without language. In my imagination, one figure sat at the intersection of silence and action, the shinobi; Gratuitous Ninja (or GratNin) was born. The first GratNin, “Teddy Terror,’’ featured my girlfriend at the time saving me from a dungeon in a walking warehouse full of plush teddy bears that transform into hulking monsters. Since then I’ve always come back to GratNin to work out ideas or practice new things (my second GratNin comic, “Tangerine,” is included in this issue of LAAB). I’ve come to look at Shirato Sampei as a guiding star. Sampei is the father of Gekiga (manga made for adult audiences). Sampei is woefully underrepresented in the United States, possibly because of his leftist political leanings. Sampei produced Ninja Bugeicho. Ninja Bugeicho frames class dialectic in a ninja story.
In 2001, I attended My Reality: Contemporary Art and the Culture of Japanese Animation, an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. At the time, I turned my nose up at it. I thought that I would see an exhibition of manga and anime production art. Instead, I found Murakami Takashi’s Superflat thesis in exhibition form. I bought the book. Murakami’s manifesto made a lot of sense to me. What’s more, it spoke to something that I’d been thinking about regarding the flattening of high and low, and certain esoteric aesthetic qualities of street art. I saw my own “eccentric lineage” in Charlie Parker and Jimi Hendrix, in Jacob Lawrence all the way through RAMM:ΣLL:ZΣΣ. I saw shibumi in a fresh burner exploding from filthy walls covered in generations of soot and sun bleached throwies. What’s more, I saw connections in my own work and a nascent Black American visual aesthetic informed by that very same eccentric lineage Nobuo Tsuji identified.
While this long-winded yet still incomplete dossier tries to outline how my aesthetic is an organic product of America’s relationship with “The East,” I still can’t ignore that that relationship has been maintained by generations of violence and bridged largely by consumer capitalism. And maybe that’s why I cringe when it’s pointed out to me — that, and the fact that deep down inside I felt that whoever pointed out “mixing Asian and Black culture” was turned on by the distance rather than the familiarity of the Japanese aesthetic cues embedded in my work. I was confronted with a rejection of a synthesis that I believed I embodied, and forced to confront the reality of my relationship, as an American, to “The East”; the reality of the essentialization of the east as a subject; and the reality of the essentialization of my Blackness in relation to America.
“Cultural appropriation” as we use it doesn’t refer to primordial rice cultivation, chariot technology, or the evolution of an oud into a guitar. It specifically refers to “strategic anti-essentialism” — an escape from the discomfort of how society flattens us, conducted on the back of the oppression of others and the erasure of others’ culture. I’ve always resisted essentialization. Maybe it stems from the first time someone noticed a particular word I used and counted it against my authenticity. “You talk white.” It’s a common foil in the discourse on race, particularly around code switching; no doubt, some of you’ve watched several scenes dedicated to it on Blackish or something. It’s an accusation against the subject that they’re off brand. I hadn’t thought it through at the time, but in hindsight it’s plain that the accusation “you talk white” bothered me because that phrase was pushing me out of my social group and my identity because of a performance — a performance that I hadn’t at the time understood as essential to my being Black. Then why was this compliment recognizing my blackness hitting the wrong way? Besides recognizing my work as a combination of Japanese and Black culture in some ways problematizes my identity in how I relate to many of these things personally in an integrated way. It meant that the things I had put together in Prince of Cats because they were similar, were perceived as essentially dissimilar by this reader.
I wonder at what point do these objects and aesthetics that have come to us through social integration or commerce stop being novel and become mundane. Consumer capitalism relies on this novelty, this distance, to maintain a certain type of value. Is it possible that one might also rely on this novelty, this distance, to maintain a type of social value? Definition of identity in opposition. The libidinal value of the exotic is maintained by distance. But when artists in 19th century France placed the contents of a package aside to marvel at the wrapping paper, were they finding value in the exotic or beauty in the mundane? Or both?
[i] That’s probably why it was so important for Tarantino, when he reconstructed his fantasy of 70s Hollywood, to re-set Bruce Lee in a diminished position in relation to his masculine white ideal. But I digress, and I ain’t pointing out anything that ain’t obvious to all of y’all to begin with.
This essay first appeared in LAAB Magazine #2: Eat/ Shit, published by Beehive Books, 2021.
Sign up here to back GRATNIN, Ronald Wimberly’s newest project with Beehive Books.