When DC Comics first offered me the chance to write a Chinese Super-Man, my instinct was to turn it down.
My mom’s family left Mainland China when she was just an infant. She spent most of her childhood in Hong Kong and Taiwan. My dad was born and raised in Taiwan. My family hasn’t lived in China for at least a generation.
I've only visited China twice, so my understanding of Chinese culture is through echoes.
I would be writing about Chinese life as an outsider, but some American readers would assume that I was an insider simply because of my last name. It seemed like a situation fraught with peril.
But then, I’ve been going around giving these speeches encouraging people to read and write outside of their comfort zones. How could I turn down this opportunity to go outside of mine? (This was yet another instance in which comics-making Gene wanted to punch speech-making Gene in the mouth.)
Plus, the new book would be a part of DC’s Rebirth initiative. I’d get to work with Geoff Johns, one of the best superhero writers on the planet. And on top of that, this new Super-Man grew out of an idea that Jim Lee had. Who can say no to Jim Lee?
So I said yes.
One of my first tasks as the New Super-Man writer was to give our lead guy a secret identity, a Chinese civilian name.
I thought for a while and came up with these constraints:
1. The name would need to be a plausible Chinese name.
2. The name’s meaning should relate to the character’s journey in some way.
3. The English version of the Chinese name should be derived using Pinyin. There are different ways of Romanizing Chinese. A lot of what we see in American Chinatowns uses a system called Wade-Giles (or is “Wade-Giles-ish”). Pinyin is now the standard in Mainland China, so that’s what I want to use in the book.
4. The English version should have the initials K. K. I want to use this as a mnemonic device to help readers connect the new character to Clark Kent. I can’t use C. K. because there is no hard c in Pinyin. The Pinyin c is pronounced “ts,” like in “cats.”
5. The English version should be immediately pronounceable by American readers who haven’t studied Pinyin. This means I have to avoid certain letters like x (pronounced kind of like “sh” in Pinyin) and q (pronounced kind of like “ch”).
I pulled up a Pinyin dictionary on my laptop, had my mom on speed dial, and began brainstorming Chinese names.
New Super-Man’s surname was easy. In Pinyin, there are not that many Chinese surnames that begin with K. (Wade-Giles offers a lot more options.) It was basically between 孔 Kong and 康 Kang. I chose 孔 Kong because Kang is a conqueror in the Marvel Universe.
The individual name was a lot harder, mostly because of constraints #4 and #5. Eventually, I landed on 恳记 Kenji.
恳 Ken is not commonly used in Chinese names, but it’s been used in names before. Constraint #1, check.
恳 Ken means “earnest” and 记 Ji means “remember.” Earnest remembrance lies at the very heart of the protagonist’s arc. Plus, it could be an interesting plot device. (“Mom and Dad, what did you want me to remember?”) Constraint #2, check.
The Pinyin version has the initials K. K. and Kenji can be pronounced without any knowledge of Pinyin. Constraints #3-5, check.
There was a problem, of course. Kenji is a common Japanese name and this would probably cause some confusion, at least at first.
(The “Japanese-ness” of the Romanized version didn’t occur to my mom because, like most overseas Chinese of her background, she never learned Pinyin. In Wade-Giles, 恳记 would be rendered K’en-Chi, which sounds way more “Chinese” to English speakers.)
But I figured readers would get over it once they realized there was an actual Chinese name underneath. Heck, there's even a popular Taiwanese pop star who goes by Kenji Wu, so it's not unheard of for a Chinese person to be called Kenji.
Also, it would give me a fun narrative wrinkle to play with. Maybe New Super-Man starts off with a bias against Japanese people and the Pinyin version of his name bugs him to no end. Maybe his friends make fun of it. Maybe he eventually has to team up with a Japanese super hero, someone like Katana or a member of that crazy Japanese super-team that Grant Morrison made up. Maybe they fall in love.
All of this is just a really long way of saying that you can think long and hard about something and still come to the wrong decision. Or at least I can.
Here's the blindingly obvious fact that I’d completely lost sight of:
New Super-Man is not a character in one of my graphic novels. New Super-Man is a DC Comics character. He has an iconic value that the average graphic novel protagonist just doesn't have.
And he's going into an 80-year-old toy box. Hopefully, my book won’t be the only place where he shows up. Hopefully, other DC Comics writers and artists will want to play with him.
What would I think if I were a casual comics reader and I encountered an Asian super hero named Kenji Kong as a supporting character in a couple panels of a DC comic, without any context for the name?
I'd probably assume some non-Asian writer had confused Asian cultures.
I was only thinking about how I’d make this character and his name work in the particular story I was going to write. I’d missed the forest for the trees.
I had to change the name.
Luckily, just as the amazing Viktor Bogdanovic artwork shown at WonderCon was in pencils, my script was in metaphorical pencils. I’d only turned in the first draft of issue #1 and a rough outline of the first arc. I emailed my editors Eddie Berganza and Paul Kaminski. We were going to change the name.
I widened my circle of consultants to include both my parents, superstar DC Comics artist Philip Tan, and several other Chinese and Chinese American friends and acquaintances.
One of them is a Mandarin teacher in Pennsylvania. When I told her what I was trying to do, she sighed. “Chinese names are just hard,” she said. “It takes me hours to come up with them for my students.”
I added a new constraint:
6. The Pinyin version cannot sound Japanese.
For a few days, Chinese characters flew in and out of my inbox. We finally settled things this past weekend.
New Super-Man’s official secret identity will be:
孔克南 Kenan Kong
南 Nan means “south.” Appropriate for a kid from Shanghai, since folks from Beijing like to call folks from Shanghai “Southerners.”
克 Ke means “to overcome.” What could be more Super-Man than “to overcome”?
Kenan isn’t quite as easy to pronounce (in Chinese, it’s closer to “Ken Ann” than “Key Nan”), but it’s pronounceable enough. And it definitely satisfies constraint #6.
I hope you'll join Viktor and me in July when Kenan Kong, the New Super-Man, makes his way into the DC Universe.
NEW SUPER-MAN #1 by Gene Luen Yang and Viktor Bogdanovic will be available on July 13, 2016 in print and as a digital download.