Before you read:
NextShark spoke with comic book artist Eric Nguyen, co-creator of Dark Horse’s newest comic “White Savior,” about the Hollywood tropes the story satirizes, the prevalence of Asian stereotypes in new media and the state of Asian representation in comics today.
Written by Nguyen and Scott Burman, “White Savior” follows Todd Parker, an Asian American film history teacher who is suddenly sent back in time to feudal Japan. Upon his arrival, he quickly realizes that the local villagers have put their faith in an incompetent “white savior” who will surely lead them to their doom unless Todd can stop him.
What can you tell me about the team behind “White Savior?”
I’ve been in the comic business for a while now, working for Marvel, DC, Dark Horse and drawing classic characters like Wolverine, Hulk, Batman, etc. One day I got a random email from my co-writer Scott, who sent me one of the funniest, weirdest scripts I ever read. At the time, I was working on The Weeknd’s ‘Starboy’ comic, but we kept in touch. A short while later, I had an itch to create my own stuff again, so I called up Scott and we started brainstorming new ideas.
What inspired the story’s concept?
It all started when that movie “The Great Wall” with Matt Damon came out, and Constance Wu famously talked about how Asians didn’t need a white guy to swoop in and save us. And Scott and I were joking around and said, “What if the white guy in this movie was an idiot who actually made things worse for the people he was trying to save?” We started laughing about it, and literally, that’s where the idea came from.
I wish it was a more inspiring story of us thinking about what we could do to promote representation, but honestly, the idea came from a simple aside, and as we started writing, we realized very early on how important the subject matter was. And I think what makes our book stand out is that we put just as much emphasis on the story being funny and action-packed as we do on the important message we’re trying to convey.
Was the plot/humor inspired by any other comics you’ve read or worked on?
I don’t know if it was inspired by what I worked on as much as it’s inspired by what’s out there. The white savior trope has been around forever. Heroes like Iron Fist, the only white guy in a land of Asians who, of course, is a better martial artist than all the other Asians. Or any samurai movie where a white outsider rescues an Asian village. So we wanted to bring light to the problematic nature of these stories, but do it in a way where humor and satire were at the forefront. And that’s the ultimate goal of our comic — to bring people together and laugh at the insanity and ignorance of the past, while still recognizing the progress that needs to be made in the future.
Why a time travel story?
Good question. We never thought about that. I think it’s because we wanted somebody who can essentially comment on the ridiculous nature of “white savior” stories from an outsider’s perspective. So if Todd, our main character, is from the present and travels back to feudal Japan, he already knows what’s going to happen; he knows for a fact that the “white savior” is not the hero the villagers believe he is.
And we realized a lot of the comedy in our story is from Todd knowing the truth but nobody believing him because the characters themselves are actual relics of the past. They, like society at the time, still believe in that “white savior” myth. So it’s literally the future coming to terms with the past. And the main character is essentially a modern man continuously shaking his head at the misconceived notions of the past.
As “White Savior” deals with Asian stereotypes, do you feel these stereotypes are present in the comic book industry?
Well, the comics industry is a massive industry. And [it’s] only getting bigger with every comic now being made into a movie. But you’ve got a lot of great Asian talent working in comics — Jim Lee is in charge of DC, Cliff Chiang, Marjorie Liu, Stan Sakai, Greg Pak, Frank Cho, there’s a ton. And the last couple years have brought us first-class Asian stories like George Takei’s ‘They Called Us Enemy’ or ‘The Good Asian,’ written by my old friend Pornsak Pichetshote. So you’ve got a lot of comic companies, especially Marvel, DC and Dark Horse, championing diversity with both their talent and characters.
That being said, some of these characters are legacy characters who have been around for ages. And when they were created, they did enforce those stereotypes. So the question is, do you expand on these well-known characters and give them more dimension, or do you create new characters and hope they resonate with audiences?
How do you feel about the state of Asian representation in comics today, either in comics themselves or in their creation?
I think they’ve made great strides through the years. To be honest, sometimes I feel a problem with Asian characters in comics is that being Asian defines their entire personalities. Their personalities are either kung fu guy, spiritual guru, Yakuza boss or sexy female assassin. Those are the main four.
And for us, what’s important about our story is that our lead character, Todd, doesn’t fit the prototypical Asian stereotype; he’s not into martial arts, he’s not a math whiz and he’s never played badminton. We make a point very early in the story to talk about these things because we want the audience to know, Todd is just like all of them. He’s the epitome of the everyman. So I always say, the fact that Todd’s Asian is both very important and not important at all.
What’s your opinion on comic book characters being rewritten or reintroduced as Asian?
This is a tricky one, because creating a new character fans can get behind is incredibly difficult, regardless of their race. Same with creating a new story. So sometimes, we see new Asian characters — and I’m not just going to say Asian, I’m going to include all under-represented groups in this — you see new minority characters being introduced, and the stories, for one reason or another, don’t click with the audiences. That being said, you’ve got creators like Brian Bendis, who created Miles Morales. A Black/Puerto Rican Spider-Man. Upon first hearing it, it sounds gimmicky, but in the hands of a master like Bendis, Miles became a centerpiece Marvel character, based on an old one, that will last for generations to come.
Ms. Marvel is another prime example of a new character that fans can’t help but fall in love with. Gene Luen Yang, one of the best writers in comics today, created an Asian Superman — and some fans responded with, “They’re trying to replace OUR Superman, why don’t they create a new character?” But the fact of the matter is, all the fans saying “Why don’t you create a new character?” are the same kind of fans who never read stories with new characters.
Do you have a favorite Asian character/superhero?
But back to the character question — I think my favorite Asian characters are those whose personalities don’t rely on those tropes we were talking about before. A prime example is Jimmy Woo — in the comics, he was one of the first Asian heroes. And he’s just this super cool, cunning secret agent. In the MCU, he’s played by Randall Park, and how can you not love Randall Park? But the fact that Jimmy Woo is a secret agent first and Asian guy second, I think that appeals to me. Another favorite is Ms. Marvel, who I mentioned earlier — probably one of the best new characters in the last 10 years. Amadeus Cho, Jubilee, Katana, Armor, Silver Samurai. So many more, but also, not anywhere close to enough.
What would you like to see more of in comics?
Asian characters whose personalities aren’t based entirely on them being Asian. Additionally, Scott and I want to champion characters who we feel never got their due. One of our dream projects is to update and revamp a fairly unknown DC superhero called the Heckler, who we think has a lot of mainstream potential.
And several people have compared White Savior to Deadpool — crazy action, zany comedy, movie references, breaking of the fourth wall. So I think an Eric Nguyen/Scott Burman Deadpool would be something the fans would get behind.
“White Savior” is now available in stores and digitally via Amazon. Call your local comic book store for availability.