Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Gene Yang tells it like it is

Gene Yang throws his hat in the ring with the above illustration and his insightful thoughts at his blog.

He pretty much sums up this whole sad affair with this paragraph:

"To be clear, I don't believe that director M. Night Shyamalan and the other creators of Paramount Pictures’ The Last Airbender movie are motivated by intentional racism. They probably just want to make the most entertaining (and profitable) summer blockbuster they can, the best way they know how. But intentionally or not, they are adding another chapter to Hollywood’s long, sordid history of Yellowface. By giving white actors roles that are so obviously Asian - and by stating from the get-go their preference for Caucasians - they tell Asian-Americans that who we are and how we look make us inherently inadequate for American audiences, even in a movie that celebrates our culture. Like the schoolboy who pulls up the corners of his eyes at his "Oriental" classmate, they highlight our otherness."

Read the entire post here.

UPDATE: Gene and I were also interviewed for this article on the subject for SFGate (The San Francisco Chronicle's online home.) The writer of the piece, Jeff Yang, makes some great points of his own and poises some interesting questions. I'd like to make one small correction to the article though -- I've never called myself an "Avatard", nor am I fan of the label. I've never heard Gene use the term either.

The Agony of Defeat

Presidents Show Opening @ Guapo

Hey, if you live in or around the Portland, OR area, you should check out this show this Saturday. Lots of great artists are in it. It also takes place in one of my favorite comic book stores in Portland, Guapo Comics and Coffee. Guapo holds a special place in my cold dead heart because of their immense mini-comics section. It's rare to find a comic book store that supports mini-comics to this degree. Not only that, but it's also a coffee shop. Seriously what more do you need? Anyway, check out the show!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Saturday, January 24, 2009


This is one of the most distressing things I've ever seen.

Update: Gene Yang told me I had to remove this image out his sight or he wouldn't come back to my blog.


I've been doing some digging the last few days, and it all seems to point to what we suspected. I don't think there was ever any real intention of casting Asians for the lead roles in this movie to begin with. (I know, shocking.) These were the original casting calls:

AANG: 12-15 years-old, Male, Caucasian or any other ethnicity. We are looking for a young man to play the lead role in a motion picture franchise. He must be athletic and graceful with an ability in Martial Arts (not necessarily extensive experience, but at least an aptitude for it). Kids with experience in gymnastics, dance, or sports could also be good. He is a young adventurer and should seem like the type of young man who will grow up to be heroic.

KATARA: 14-17 years-old, Female, Caucasian or any other ethnicity. She is Sokka’s younger sister. She is a headstrong and determined girl with a real sense of idealism. She believes in herself and feels that she can play on the same team as the boys. She is beautiful, intelligent, passionate, feisty, and has a real sense of adventure.

SOKKA: 16-20 years-old, Male, Caucasian or any other ethnicity. He is Katara¹s older brother. He is intelligent but awkward, and very funny (although not necessarily intentionally so). He aspires to greatness, but he tends to doubt himself. He is always one to be swayed by a pretty girl.

ZUKO: 16-20 years-old, Male, Caucasian or any other ethnicity. He is a brooding, intense young man who wrestles - not always successfully - with being good. Regaining his honor is a driving impetus for him. He is extremely handsome and is the type of dangerous boy every girl falls in love with. Athletic and/or martial arts experience is a plus.

I wonder how many Asian Americans even showed up for the casting call. I'd be willing to bet there would have been many, many more if the casting call had been "Asian or any other ethnicity." It's just mathematically improbable: Even Paris -- seen in my previous post -- a starting actor, seems almost there, and he's just one kid on YouTube. Among the millions of other Asian Americans, they really couldn't have found 4 of them just as talented as those white actors to play these roles?

I think the following is just as telling. Here's a recent casting call for extras that's happening today (in bold is what I'm focusing on):

Casting folks are looking for extras to play soldiers, martial artists, dancers, gymnasts, athletes and families - specifically physically fit people from 18 to 65 years old. The open call will be 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at Bullies restaurant at the Wachovia Spectrum. You're asked to dress casually or in the traditional costume of your family's ethnic background. Info: or 215-574-7878.

Hm. That's interesting. I wonder why they didn't include that bit in the casting calls for the four main characters. I wonder why they didn't include "Caucasian or any other ethnicity" for this extras call. Everybody, together now!

And for those of you who keep harping on about how the decision wasn't based on race but about making money and thus not racist, here, I'll let the always articulate Mr. Neil Babra explain it to you: "I wish that Hollywood would be a meritocracy for actors, but unfortunately, it views Asian faces as less attractive and less marketable, and that often trumps acting prowess. That's fundamentally racist, because evolutionary biology shows that their human consumers don't actually find people in other races less attractive without social dissuasion, which the studios are responsible for exacerbating."

Just because your intentions aren't racist, it doesn't mean you can use racist practices to achieve your goal. Some of you seem to be really misreading this part -- I didn't call the ones responsible for this casting racists in my essay, I called their actions racist and discriminatory.

Furthermore, even if they had no racist intentions, the end result ("Yellow Face" in this case) is racist. Among other things, it implies that white people are better at playing Asians than Asians.

Also, and most importantly, if the movie's great, it'll be a hit whether the cast is Asian or not. So why not do what's right and cast Asians in Asian roles?

The unending cycle

It's a shame Paris' didn't have time to get more acting training, because boy, I think he would've been PERFECT for Aang. He even kind of sounds like him. His mom says he only had one small acting class. Imagine how great he's gonna be when his acting chops catches up with his kung-fu! Don't give up, Paris!

But this part really gutted me -- from his mom:

"Here's the kicker: my son now thinks Aang, Katara, Sokka, and Zuko are supposed to be White since that's what has been casted. You should hear us debate... Me and my husband debating our child who auditioned for Aang about how the cast is offensive to us and should be to him. Yes, some kids don't know any better. It sucks. Luckily, we sorta got to him and he "kinda" gets it. Our fault for being white-washed 2nd/3rd generation Filipino's I guess. We still watch Avatar every night. But the proposed current main cast still hurts."

I'm don't know whether to cry or knash through my teeth.

Her entire comment is here.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

New day in politics, same old racist world on the silver screen

This past Monday, on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, on the eve of Barack Obama's inauguration, I discovered that the casting of the four leading characters for the upcoming live-action movie, "The Last Airbender" (based on the TV show, “Avatar: The Last Airbender”) had gone entirely to white actors. I want—no, need—to say something about this.

I'm going to take a tip from President Barack Obama, and begin this with a little personal story.

When my brother and I were in high school, our favorite class was Drama. While we were rehearsing for the next day's class or participating in a school play or dancing it up at the after party, I don't think there was anything we liked more. During such times, it even surpassed our love of—dare I say it—comics. But we never even entertained the notion of actually pursuing it as a career. Not because we didn't want to, but because we had too much pride to spend our entire lives pretending to be Long Duk Dong, or a Chinese food delivery boy with one line, or a Kato to some Green Hornet. Or even worse, having our hearts broken over and over going after roles that specifically call for Asian Americans like "Avatar, The Last Airbender" only to see them go to white actors. Back in my Drama days in high school, I used to dream of being white so I could pursue acting.

With discrimination like this "Avatar" casting continuing to happen uncontested in Hollywood, my future kids will nurse the same pitiful wish.

And it infuriates me.

If my future kids feel a passion for acting, I want them to be able to pursue it just like any other American. If they're forced to give up that passion due to a genuine lack of talent or hard work, fine. But I don't want their dreams to be clipped at the bud by some unassailable, universally accepted dismissal of their existence on the face this country.

It's not fair. It's not right.

Before I go any further, it behooves me to spill some information on "Avatar, the Last Airbender" for those people who have no idea what it is. 1) It's the greatest, most ambitious animated action adventure TV series ever hatched in the U.S. A cartoon series for kids in which one epic story actually spans 3 entire seasons. A kid's show in which the characters actually grow and change and evolve! A cartoon which actually respects a kid's intelligence and vast imagination. Imagine that! 2) It's wholly and inarguably built around Asian (and Inuit) culture. Everything from to the costume designs, to the written language, to the landscapes, to martial arts, to philosophy, to spirituality, to eating utensils!—it's all an evocative, but thinly veiled, re-imagining of ancient Asia. (In one episode, a region is shown where everyone is garbed in Korean hanboks—traditional Korean clothing—the design of which wasn't even altered at all.) It would take a willful disregard of the show's intentions and origins to think this wouldn't extend to the race of the characters as well. You certainly don't see any blonde people running around in "Avatar." (I'm not saying that would have necessarily been a bad thing, I'm just stating the facts of the show and the world in which it is set.)

Just take a look for yourself.

I was speaking with Gene Yang (author of "American Born Chinese" and National Book Award nominee) about the casting and he said it best: "It's like a white Asian fetishist's wet dream. All the Asian culture they want, without any of the Asian people."

J.R.R. Tolkien never specifically described his central human, and human-like, characters as being "Caucasian" or "European" (as far as I know) in "The Lord of the Rings", but it would be pretty stupid to think they weren't when the entire story and the world in which it was set came from an obvious extrapolation of medieval Europe. Why should it be any different for Avatar?

Or let me draw a closer parallel—imagine if someone had made a “fantasy” movie in which the entire world was built around African culture. Everyone is wearing ancient African clothes, African hats, eating traditional African food, writing in an African language, living in African homes, all encompassed in an African landscape...

...but everyone is white.

How offensive, insulting, and disrespectful would that be toward Africans and African Americans? How much more offensive would it be if only the heroes were white and all the villians and background characters were African American? (I wince in fear thinking about "The Last Airbender" suffering from the latter dynamic—which it probably will.)

Or imagine if they remade "Shaft" or "Zorro", but cast white actors to play the lead roles. It would be outrageous, right? Well, this Avatar casting is no different. But curiously, when similiar offenses are committed at the expense of Asian Americans, and Asian American men in particular, this sort of behavior goes mostly ignored by the press and the people involved.

To show you what I mean, here's a snippet from a recent article on

Due in theaters in summer 2010, "Airbender" has already begun to face a bit of controversy over the casting of white actors like Rathbone, Ringer and McCartney to play Asian characters — a concern the actor was quick to dismiss. "I think it's one of those things where I pull my hair up, shave the sides, and I definitely need a tan," he said of the transformation he'll go through to look more like Sokka. "It's one of those things where, hopefully, the audience will suspend disbelief a little bit."

If Rathbone had gotten the role of "Shaft," and got a perm and a "tan" to play that character (and I don't mean in a self-conscious, subversive way like Robert Downey Jr. in "Tropic Thunder"), there would be a shit storm of outrage from all sectors of America, not just the African American community. It would be a headline across every newspaper, and I highly doubt that production would make it to filming. But when Joel Grey taped his eyes "slanty" and colored his skin to play a Korean man in "Remo Williams" (in 1985! we're not talking ancient history here), it went virtually unnoticed. How was that even allowed to happen? How is it continuing to happen, here in 2009, at the eve of Obama's inauguration (as I type this.) Why this double standard?

Now if you're a progressive Asian American you might be saying that I'm barking up the wrong tree. That perhaps it's better not to perpetuate the stereotype of Asians being nothing but karate-chopping, fortune cookie wisdom spouting monks. But the fact of the matter is these kinds of films are going to be made whether we like them or not. It's a genre, like “Lord of the Rings” and its ilk—the western counterpart to films like “The Last Airbender” or “Forbidden Kingdom”, that's way too popular to ever go away. Almost everyone craves adventure and mythic grandeur. Films like “Avatar”, just in terms of genre, are dime a dozen in Asia itself after all. So since Hollywood is never going to stop making these kinds of films, I think we should protect them and make sure they're done respectfully, as well as pursuing intelligent independent movies that are reflective of Asian Americans in real life.*

And the reason this miscasting is particularly stinging when it comes to “Avatar” is because of the high quality of the source material. "The Last Airbender" has the potential to be something like "Star Wars"—something with lasting value that could give new heroes to your average household in America. And to have something for Asian American kids, and ethnic kids in general, to look up to. To let them know heroes can also look like them and speak fluent English like them. I think it could give immeasurable confidence and pride to these under-represented kids to have something like "Avatar" if it turns out to be as good as I hope. There's no reason Asian Americans should have to forsake "Star Wars" for "Citizen Kane." Both kinds of films have their merits and places in culture and it would be healthy to strive for both--to have Asian Americans and all minority Americans be a part of the entire spectrum

And many non-Asian Americans might be saying, "Relax! Things are getting better—hey, look at 'Harold and Kumar'!" But what they may be overlooking is that for every "Harold and Kumar" (as in 2), there are hundreds of "Avatar, The Last Airbender"s and "21"s.

The movie "21" (released last year!) was supposed to be based on the real life exploits of some Asian American MIT students. But of course, a Hollywood studio just couldn't bear to put an Asian American in the leading role. Instead the role was given to Jim Sturgess. To add insult to injury, Sturgess' sidekick friends were played by Aaron Yoo and Liza Lapira. They're both perfectly capable actors who could've pulled off the role just as well as Sturgess. But Yoo and Lapira were obviously just tossed in as a lame attempt to deflect accusations of discrimination which were sure to follow.

Again, let me repeat that this movie was made last year, in 2008. You may think it unbelievable, but things really haven't changed at all since the time Bruce Lee was tossed aside for David Carradine in "Kung Fu." How could this much time have passed and so little progress been made?

How? Because Asian Americans don't have the support of liberal Americans at large the way some other minorities do. The reason Barack Obama won the presidency, when so many African American politicians before him couldn't get a foothold, is because a candidate finally came along that garnered the support of everyone in America, not just his community (and deservedly so). Now I'm not equating the presidency with something as trivial as a movie role, but this issue is still something deserving of support from outside the Asian American community, as well as within, to help fight discrimination for everyone.

So if you're someone who believes in equality—if you want to see all of America reflected in our world's most popular and influential narrative art form—I implore you, particularly if you aren't Asian yourself, to write a letter of complaint to Paramount or show your displeasure in some form. If you have a blog, please post something to shame the producers of this film or feel free to distribute my little essay here. Especially if you're a professional in the arts or entertainment industry. With a strong enough voice, perhaps we can force them do what's right by recasting this movie. And lastly, if this effort fails, please boycott this film when it's released in the summer of 2010. Let Paramount and the rest of Hollywood know that this kind of blatant discrimination isn't acceptable to us. Not just for Asian Americans, but for all minorities in our country who never see themselves reflected in our country's media.

African Americans kids can finally, realistically dream of being president one day. Can't Asian American kids—perhaps my kids—at least dream of being something as relatively insignificant as central characters in some escapist Hollywood movie where everything is stolen from their heritage?

Can't they be a part of America too?

Derek Kirk Kim


Since the outraged fans seem to be getting ignored by Paramount, I am starting a petition for professionals in the arts and entertainment industry who want to condemn this move and boycott this discriminatory film if it isn't recast. If you're involved in the Film/TV/Animation/Comics/Literary fields in any way and you find Paramount's racist actions even the least bit reprehensible, please leave your name and occupation in the comments. Or email it to me if you know me personally. If you're a media or political figure who could also make a strong statement by adding your name to the list (Mr. President?), please do so. I will continue to collect the names as long as they come in and eventually make a comprehensive list to distribute publicly and send to Paramount. Hopefully this will pressure them to recast the movie or at least send a strong enough message so something like this doesn't happen again.

Here, Gene and I will be the first to throw in our names:
Derek Kirk Kim - writer, illustrator, cartoonist
Gene Yang - writer, illustrator, cartoonist, teacher

If Paramount won't listen to the fans, perhaps they'll listen to the professionals that actually make so many films today possible.

Letters of complaint should be sent here:

Mr Mark Bakshi
President Features Production
5555 Melrose Avenue
Shulberg Building
Suite 211
Room 115
Los Angeles, CA 90038-3197


Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall
Kennedy/Marshall Company
619 Arizona Avenue, Fl. 2
Santa Monica, California 90401

For more information on a letter writing campaign, please visit:

PS: I'd like to thank the wonderful people at for all their efforts and for providing me with such a handy source of screencaps.

*This paragraph was edited on 01-22-09 to clarify my points.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Another sneak peak at The Eternal Smile

First Second has been using this full-page panel as a promotional piece for The Eternal Smile, so I thought I'd post it here too. I personally wouldn't have picked this panel to use as publicity since it's a spoiler, but these things aren't up to me. First Second is a great publisher though, so I'm sure they know what they're doing.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

I can't get over this kid's face

This cracks me up no matter how many times I see it.

Friday, January 9, 2009

It's a joke, ladies, relax

EDIT: Be sure to note that Alena and Elena are two different people. I'm pointing it out because I've heard confusion from friends who've read this strip. Believe me, it's ten times more confusing in real life!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Monday, January 5, 2009

The Eternal Smile cover debut

Here's the cover for The Eternal Smile. It's now available for pre-order on Amazon. It'll be in stores April 27. Hope you check it out.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Happy New Year!

Favorite gift I got for Christmas this year:

Mini-comics from Gene Yang's son, Kolbe!!

Favorite card recieved:

From one of my favorite cartoonists, Martin Cendreda, of Dang!, Mome, and Kramer's Ergot fame.

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope you're having a great start to the new year. I can't believe it's 2009 already... Wow.