DC Comics announced a new addition to the Superman lineup at WonderCon last weekend. “New Super-Man,” an upcoming comic series by writer Gene Luen Yang and artist Victor Bogdanovic, will feature a first for the Superman mythology: A new character from Shanghai, Kenji Kong, will inherit the powers of Superman.
“Everybody in the world recognizes Superman," Yang told NBC News. "The reason he transcends cultures is that he embodies these ideals that are international, that are cross-cultural. We wanted to tell a story that was about the Superman ideal but tell it in a different culture. Regardless of where you grow up, you know what he stands for.”
DC Comics has yet to release details about how the 17-year-old Kong will acquire his Superman-like abilities and impact the DC universe, but the company has told fans that inheriting the powers — and the mantle — will be a struggle.
“Getting those powers, it changes his body obviously, but it also changes his heart," Yand said. "When he starts off, he’s kind of a jerk. Once he gets this piece of Superman in him, it will change who he is.”
Yang’s previous works, including "American Born Chinese" and his recent "The Shadow Hero," have dealt with stereotyping of Asian Americans and the resulting identity struggle many Asian Americans face. Yang explored the duality of Superman when he was tapped by DC last year to write 10 issues of the main Superman title. For Yang, the child of Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants, writing "Superman" was an opportunity to dig into the immigrant experience, which he’d also done for the comic anthology "Secret Identities."
“One of the guys who was involved with 'Secret Identities,' Jeff Yang, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, he used to talk about how Superman is an Asian American: He has black hair, he wears glasses, he has two different names — an American name, Clark Kent, and a foreign name, Kal-El, with a hyphen in it," Yang said. "His parents are non-English-speaking and sent him to America to have a better life.”
Yang said he didn’t come up with the base idea of the character that would become Kenji Kong. DC co-publisher Jim Lee and chief creative officer Geoff Johns came up with the idea of an Asian Superman and gave him to Yang to develop into a full character. For Yang, that meant doing some homework to develop an authentic Chinese character.
“Kenji Kong — I created that name with my mom," Yang said. "I wanted to find a name that works in Chinese and is immediately pronounceable to an American reader. With Kenji Kong, we stuck with the hard-K sound like Clark Kent. I would definitely be more comfortable writing a Chinese-American character, as I myself am Chinese-American. Writing a Chinese character is, for me, a lot like writing 'The Other,' another culture. So it requires a lot more homework and talking to people who actually live that experience.”
"[Jeff Yang] used to talk about how Superman is an Asian American: He has black hair, he wears glasses, he has two different names — an American name, Clark Kent, and a foreign name, Kal-El, with a hyphen in it. His parents are non-English-speaking and sent him to America to have a better life.”
Kong joins a growing stable of superheroes of color, though many of them have been unable to grow beyond their mantles, according to cultural critic Keith Chow, founder of the cultural criticism site The Nerds of Color and editor-creator of the two "Secret Identities" collections.
Marvel’s current Hulk is Korean American Amadeus Cho; African American Sam Wilson is one of two Captain Americas; Miles Morales is an Afro-Latino Spider-Man; and the teenage Pakistani American Kamala Khan is the current Ms. Marvel. But only the latter two have become very strongly associated with their superhero mantles, Chow said.
“Now when you say Ms. Marvel, you’re associating it with Kamala Khan and not necessarily [the first Ms. Marvel] Carol Danvers," Chow told NBC News. "For a segment of the population, their Spider-Man is Miles Morales. That’s a character that’s not going away to the dustbin of history. That’s my hope for Kenji Kong, that he’s not just a character that shows up for a couple issues and disappears. Having a talent like Gene gives me hope that that’s the case.”
Yang acknowledges that concern, but believes there’s good and bad with giving a person of color the mantle of an established hero, a balance that gives immediate recognizability to a new character of color. As a reader, he doesn’t discount the importance of having original Asian and Asian-American characters.
Whether Kenji Kong sticks around the DC Universe is uncertain: To some extent, it’s in the hands of the fans.
“We’ll see," Yang said. "I’m hoping he finds a place in the DC universe, I’m hoping he finds a place in the hearts of DC comics fans.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to the new title as "New Superman." The title is "New Super-Man."