In the first quarter of 2021, Anti-Asian hate crime reports increased by 169% in fifteen of America’s largest cities and counties, according to recently published data from the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism (CSHE) at California State University, San Bernardino. It’s the continuation of a horrifying trend seen since the earliest days of the pandemic: violence and xenophobia against Asian Americans, ostensibly stemming from misplaced blame concerning the origins of COVID-19.
This week, DC released DC Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration, a one-shot anthology featuring 100 pages of all-new material from the comic book industry’s top Asian writers and artists, starring DC’s roster of Asian heroes and villains. While the stories are the action-packed superhero adventures fans expect from DC, the climate in which these stories were created can’t be ignored. A text page at the end of the issue invites readers to educate themselves on Asian-American experiences and history, along with suggested Asian-American and Pacific Islander organizations to donate to in this time of crisis.
One of the anthology’s eleven stories deals with the current wave of anti-Asian violence directly. Aptly titled “Festival of Heroes,” writer Amy Chu and artists Marcio Takara and Rain Beredo place Katana, Cyborg and Blue Beetle into an Asian American and Pacific Islander heritage festival in New York City to deal with threats from a supergroup of reactionary racists called the Knights of the Brotherhood—who soon learn a powerful lesson on respecting your elders.
We spoke with Chu about “Festival of Heroes,” and the catharsis that came with channeling a lifetime of emotions into ten pages…as well as sneaking as much delicious Asian street food into the story as possible.
This story is inspired by the real-life violence and xenophobia against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States over the past year. What was it like to channel those emotions into a superhero comic? Were there any specific incidents that shaped this story for you?
It was so cathartic to write this story. Just by way of a little family history, my grandfather was American. He grew up in the U.S., but left because no one wanted a Chinese doctor at that time. Yet he was a huge DC fan and had people ship him his comics to Hong Kong for years. So, just to have DC even commit to doing an anthology like this means so much.
For many people of color in the US, our lives are shaped and defined by racism, both in media and in real life—from the microaggression of "you speak English so well!" to being spit on at my own high school. In college, I learned about Asian-American history, which was never taught to me in school. I went through a real activist period in my life where I fought to get Asian-American Studies on campus and spent the next five years working for Asian-American nonprofits. I actually emceed the festival in this story many years back...
The rhetoric used by the Knights of the Brotherhood is rough and will sadly be all too familiar to a lot of readers. How did you approach that element of the story—bringing a degree of verisimilitude that had to be difficult, but was important to portray honestly?
Even though the Knights are fictional, I wanted their thoughts and behaviors to be very real and not cartoonish. I grew up all over the U.S.—east coast, west coast, Midwest and south. It's a composite of behavior I've observed all my life, so it was easy to come up with the words. There were far uglier ones that come to mind.
I did want to make it feel real. The casualness of it. The, if confronted, "what, you can't take a joke?" tone of it. I was at a show a few years ago and a kid thought it would be funny to make karate chop noises behind me. It would have been nice to be Katana at that moment...
Speaking of, what made Katana the right main character for this story?
I think it's a good story for Katana and she felt right. There's a seriousness to Katana that fits the subject matter. And she's a lot like Poison Ivy—a character in desperate need of more and better stories.
How did you arrive on Cyborg and Blue Beetle—also both characters from marginalized groups—as the primary supporting players here?
Cyborg and Blue Beetle are nice contrasts to Katana. I could have run with just Katana, but I thought the message of support from other popular members of the DC Universe would be cool. After all, we're all in this together. And it wasn't just that they were superheroes of color, but Cyborg and Blue Beetle are a nice contrast to Katana's serious personality and her super-abilities.
Marcio Takara and Rain Beredo had a unique challenge: portray both costumed superheroes and regular citizens, splashy action and the grounded imagery of a street festival, all in only ten pages. What most impressed you about how they brought this story to life?
It's easy enough for me as a writer to say, “Hey, let's have these cultural groups performing in the background while the main characters are interacting in the foreground, and oh, make sure so-and-so is holding a delicious curry chicken skewer!” I really did want to pack a lot into ten pages and they were very good about it. I did try to give as many photo references as I could so they wouldn't kill me…
As you just alluded to, we can’t talk about this story without talking food. How did you choose the items that were depicted? You’re going to give the comic book reading public major banh mi cravings.
(Laughs) Well, if you follow me on Instagram or Facebook you know I like my food! Of course, we can do an Asian-American story without food, but why not highlight the things that bring us all together? If I could, I would have added even more yummy things, but I just wanted to show a glimpse of the diversity behind all the cuisines. You might not notice, but the Grunge cosplayer is holding a boba tea, and then I thought about all the wonderful street foods you can get in various Asian countries. It would be a shame if all people thought about Asian cuisines was orange chicken and duck sauce.
DC Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration, featuring 100 pages of new material including “Festival of Heroes” by Amy Chu, Marcio Takara, Rain Beredo and Gabriela Downie, is now available in print and as a digital comic book.