What Do I Look Like to You?

Ethan Young was born in 1983 in NYC to Chinese immigrant parents. After attending the School of Visual Arts for one semester, Young left to pursue an illustration career. His first graphic novel, “Tails: Life in Progress”, was awarded the Gold Medal for Best Graphic Novel during the 2007 Independent Publishers Book Awards.  He has recently reworked “Tails” into an ongoing webcomic, with print editions released through Hermes Press. In addition to comic book work, Young is also a prolific freelance illustrator. You can find more information about him and his work at tailscomic.com, his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @EthanYoungTails.

“Wait, Ethan is supposed to be Asian?”

That question, more than any other, flooded my inbox during the early days of my online comic, Tails. I really didn’t expect the topic of race to be such a big deal. Tails follows the misadventures of Ethan (named after myself), an Asian cartoonist who fosters cats, is broke, vegan, and a tad on the whiney side. Cartoon Ethan (as I’ve come to call him) is my comic book facsimile, an embodiment of my early 20s, and yes, Asian (Chinese to be specific).  So, how could someone mistake an obviously autobiographical character for a different race?

The most obvious explanation: he looked kinda White. Was this intentional? Not really.  There were several reasons for how I drew the character, and each seemed entirely logical when I created the comic. For one, I had spent my entire adolescence illustrating Caucasian heroes. Not just super-heroes I copied from comics, but my own heroes as well. I would create fantastical stories and intrinsically made the protagonists Caucasian. Why did I do this? Well, look at the most popular super-hero characters: Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Iron Man, Wonder Woman.  All White, mostly men.  Some things just sneak their way into your psyche.

Another solid reason: most cartoonists tend to exaggerate the expressions on the human face, which means making the eyes bigger. And it’s safe to say, big round eyes are not an Oriental trait. Just examine the vast majority of Anime and Manga, where characters consistently have big eyes, tiny noses, and for some reason, hair color that doesn’t exist in the natural world. No human being looks that way, let alone a Japanese native. So, in my defense, I’m not alone in the Our-characters-look-less-Asian camp.

Still, that’s no excuse. As a writer, it’s my job to convey that my character is this, this, and that. If he’s Chinese, the audience should be aware of that, whether it’s through visual acknowledgment or through the dialogue and text.  However, outside of subtle cultural differences (such as how the traditional Chinese family unit operates, or the patriarch’s semi-broken English) Ethan’s family could be your family at a cursory glance. Combine that with the fact that my characters don’t look Oriental (or Oriental enough) and I opened myself up to that inquisition:

“Wait, Ethan is supposed to be Asian?”

I’ve found that Asian characters are generally portrayed 1 of 3 ways in mainstream media: they can your kick ass with kung fu, they are extremely smart and sexually innocuous, or ‘Hey, it’s an Asian girl dating the non-Asian guy!’ Obviously, there are exceptions to this rule, but those exceptions also prove the rule.  I don’t find these portrayals unfair or degrading, mind you, but they’re not entirely engaging either.

It’s my dream to see an Asian actor in the lead role in a network sitcom, without everyone making a big deal that it’s an Asian actor in the lead role in a network sitcom.

Well, that’s one of my dreams…

Anyway, that’s how I approached Tails.  I wanted to portray an Asian-American character as American first and Asian second.  This was not done to denounce my heritage, but rather to ‘normalize’ it.  To me, my life is more than a collection of stereotypes.  Being that Tails is semi-autobiographical, the story is deeply personal and excruciatingly honest at times, the comic has been a form of quasi-self-therapy, allowing me to constructively work through my petulant youth (I suspect that this is the case with most creators who dabble in autobio comics).  Calling attention to my race wasn’t necessary for the story I needed to tell.  I’m not asking for readers to be ‘color blind’; that’s simply compounding ignorance with more ignorance.  But rather, let’s just embrace race…and move on.

Even with all my self-righteous rationality, I’d be lying if I neglected to mention ‘shame’ being a small factor.  My parents immigrated to America a year before I was born.  When you grow up as an ABC (American Born Chinese), you’re not Chinese enough for your family and not American enough for everyone else.  Plus, you get targeted by racism, which is never fun.  And not just the “No, where are you really from?” brand of folksy ignorance, but the “Go back to your fucking country!” brand of hostile bigotry.  Once puberty hits, you’re seen as a nerd, even if you’re not all that nerdy (#2 on the stereotype list).  There were times when I wished I could simply reinvent myself, simply fit in.  Is that what I did in Tails?  I guess, in a way, but less cynically.  Once again, I was aiming to disprove stereotypes, but it came from a somewhat defensive position.  That’s the funny thing about shame – you carry it with you your whole life, no matter how comfortable you’ll eventually become in your own skin.

Tails features an Asian-American, and no, it isn’t a story about what it’s like to be Asian.  Ethan is a struggling cartoonist who drinks too much and complains too often.  He’s geeky, sure, but he’s also cool and chases girls and has the same everyday troubles that any New Yorker has to deal with.  I’m not the first creator who’s tried to craft a post-racial comic, and I won’t be the last.  But with my own little webcomic, I think I’ve managed to talk about race without actually talking about race.

­Not that, you know, it’s a big deal or anything.

To the Story, Be True

When people write something about women, multiracial families, Jews, or journalists—all groups I belong to—I expect them to screw it up. I try my best to be hopeful, that the writer will show me a world that makes me nod my head and yell “THAT! YES!”

When they screw up, it hurts. It’s frustrating. And I am deeply angered. How dare they, I vent to a friend. How dare they do this. My anger makes no exceptions in its first flush. Accident, bad informants, didn’t know better, my anger doesn’t care. I don’t care. Because in that moment I feel betrayed. Even when the anger fades, the sting of that betrayal may linger, always.

When you write about someone outside your experience, you’re doing something amazing. You have chosen for whatever reason to step outside your own life, the things you know, and write about the world from someone else’s view. When it comes to people whose story has rarely been told, you have sent up a signal flare. You have said “I will tell you a story about you” and they are watching. Waiting. Hoping that you will do right by them, by other readers, and do as best a job as you can. that you will tell a good story, even if it is painful.

When people get writers wrong, or parents, pet owners, people from your hometown, think about how you feel. That someone who should have known better did so poor a job. The media we consume helps us define the world, even fiction. Especially fiction. All the times a story, novel, comic book, got you wrong, and it hurt. That experience, that a writer got it wrong and hurt people, anyone can feel that. That’s something that happens across lines of race, religion or creed. It goes across all life experiences, ages and economic classes.

It is important to talk with, read stories by, learn about people who are different from you. To widen your worldview as much as it is to make your writing better. To give your  words melody and colour, not settling for them to ring gilt edged and hollow. There are countless articles, books and workshops on how to write people who you may consider or see as Other. The thing I’m trying to say is not a how-to. It is a feeling and belief.

Everyone deserves a story, no matter how fictional or fantastic, that feels true. That taps into their experience, their culture, that may even bring tears to their eyes because someone who is from the outside got it right. Someone knew they needed a story where they could see themselves for once.

Everyone deserves to read a story that at least once, makes them say “Yes.”