AMERICAN CULTURE has an obsession with its superheroes.
Since the days when Superman first flew onto the scene, they’ve drawn the biggest appeal at the box office, held our attention week after week on TV, and populated the pages of novels and comic books alike. And with good reason; superheroes and their stories let us explore fundamental questions of humanity we grapple with, like the differences between good and evil and our places in the grand scheme of life, in ways that are totally awesome to consume and read and watch. But American culture has a problem with its superheroes, too; by and far, they are exceedingly, overwhelmingly white, heterosexual, and male.
Recently, a push has been made by fans for more diversity in comics and other media, in terms of both characters and creators, with some amazing results: fans have witnessed the rise of a gay, Black Hispanic Spiderman, a Pakistani American Muslim Ms. Marvel, a Korean American Hulk, and a female Thor with disabilities, while Black journalist and educator Ta-Nehisi Coates is currently penning the revamped Black Panther series. And this is just in the realm of Marvel Comics — other imprints and authors have been featuring diverse characters and employing the talents of authors of color for years.
Author Sarah Kuhn’s novel Heroine Complex, the first in a planned trilogy, is the latest entry into the world of diverse stories centered around superheroes. Released earlier this month, the novel introduces Evie Tanaka and Aveda Jupiter, two Asian American superheroines-slash-best-friends tasked with saving San Francisco from demonic assault while navigating the complexities of friendship, romance, and failure. Funny, poignant, and relatable in equal measure, Heroine Complex allows characters usually relegated to the sidelines — if they make an appearance at all — to take center-stage and color the familiar stories that readers love with their own unique experiences. Kuhn was kind enough to speak with Lady Clever about the inspiration behind Heroine Complex, the process of writing female friendships and characters, and the need for more Asian American representation in media and entertainment.
What inspired you to write Heroine Complex? Had you noticed something missing from the books being written for the geek girl audience?
I was inspired by so many things! In many ways, the book is a love letter to all the things I grew up geeking out over — superhero comic books and Hong Kong action movies and the “I hate you but I really want to do you” romance in Star Wars (and so many other stories, but Star Wars is where I saw it first). I’m also fascinated by the more mundane side of superheroing and wanted to explore the life of someone who has to clean up the messes left behind by all those epic battles superheroes have. There are lots of wonderful works I love about that kickass girl in leather pants or shiny spandex who fearlessly saves the day — but I wanted to write about the girl who has to handle the subsequent dry-cleaning, the girl who is actually totally unequipped to be a superheroine and has to struggle her way through learning how.
And over the years, I’ve gotten very hungry for geekcentric stories centered on women of color — women who look like me and my friends. Stories where we get to be more than sidekicks. So I was really excited to write a story that features multiple women of color, where Asian American women get to be protagonists and have adventures and fall in love. I feel like we’re finally getting a good number of great stories written for the geek girl audience, but I want to see more of those stories star women who aren’t white/straight/cis and be representative of a wider range of geek girls.
There’s a scene in which protagonists Evie Tanaka and Aveda Jupiter, as young girls, watch The Heroic Trio. Starring Asian actresses as action heroines, the movie catalyzes Aveda Jupiter’s desire to be a heroine herself. Growing up, did you have Asian or Asian American actresses to look up to as role models?
Seeing The Heroic Trio was a similarly mind-blowing moment for me, which is one reason I wrote it into the book. I was particularly obsessed with Michelle Yeoh — I remember trying desperately to find a poster of her for my dorm room. I also really looked up to Margaret Cho, because All-American Girl was the first time I saw an Asian American woman centered in that way, in a comedic setting where she got to be funny and loud and sexy. I was always excited whenever I saw an Asian or Asian American actress in a supporting role in any of my beloved sci-fi/fantasy works — Rosalind Chao on various Star Treks, or Ming-Na Wen playing Chun-Li in Street Fighter, or Tamlyn Tomita, who was in a ton of stuff. And I still absolutely look up to all these ladies. They’re still doing awesome, important work.
Prominent Asian American actors like Fresh Off the Boat‘s Constance Wu and Master of None‘s Aziz Ansari have recently called for more Asian American representation in arts and the media — both onstage, so to speak, and behind it. Do you think that need exists within the geek and comic-reading communities?
I think the need for more representation exists in most art forms and we have to keep pushing for it. You can see the positive effects in works like Fresh Off the Boat or Master of None, where the diversity of experience among the writers is clearly and authentically reflected onscreen and really speaks to people — myself included — who haven’t felt super represented in those mediums before. Within the communities — I mean, we’re here! I have a whole Asian-dominated geek girl gang that talk comics and cosplay, that went to see The Force Awakens multiple times. I think we’d all love to see ourselves represented more in the various geek stuff we’re consuming. We all got really excited about Jess Pava in The Force Awakens, for instance!
Did you ever receive push-back from the publishing industry regarding the race and gender of your protagonists while shopping Heroine Complex around?
While I was writing it, I definitely got a certain kind of feedback — from all kinds of people in general, I don’t know if this counts as just “the industry” — that involved words like “niche” or “limited appeal” or “a hard sell.” And a lot of times, I really think that’s code for “not white.” Because I was writing what I thought was a fun, colorful superhero story — which I think actually has pretty broad appeal! Just, the characters at the center of it aren’t white or male.
And then there’s also a weird perception that’s sort of the opposite — that if you are “writing diversely” it’s somehow easier to get published. When the book sold, I got some interesting comments from white writers that seemed to imply they thought them getting rejecting made room for me to get published — I guess because “diversity” is the only reason I would get published and I was taking what should be their spot? Anyway, there’s certainly always an array of… interesting comments and reactions from both sides of the coin when you have a book starring POC. But I will say that my agent and editor (Diana Fox of Fox Literary and Betsy Wollheim of DAW Books) were always excited about it, never suggested that a POC protagonist meant either a harder sell or some kind of “yay, diversity!” boost, and have only been supportive of and awesome about the book. There was never any suggestion of whitewashing the protagonists on the cover or just not putting them on the cover, period, for example — they are totally on there in all their awesome Asian American superheroine glory!
While only three chapters are available online, it looks like the relationship between the protagonists is a really complex one. I sense a lot of affection, but also the potential for guilt and resentment simmering under the surface, too. What was it like writing their relationship, especially when we see so many fictional friendships between women revolve around male characters?
It was one of the toughest, but ultimately most rewarding, parts of writing the book. I wanted to show a female best friendship that is difficult, complex, prickly. I think our friendships with other woman can be some of the most complicated relationships in our lives, particularly when you’re friends for as long as Evie and Aveda have been. At the same time, I didn’t want it to seem like they were catfighting or mean-girling each other. I wanted it to be clear how much they loved each other underneath everything and that this wasn’t a story about Evie needing to get rid of her overbearing friend — it’s a story about getting stuck into certain roles and not taking the time to tend to the friendship and recognize that people grow and change. I really love them together — the conflicts they need to resolve, the dedication they have to each other — and the scenes where they have to work through all their sh*t were some of my favorites to write.
How does your Asian American identity inform your identity as a geek girl?
It informs all my experiences, so it certainly informs the geek girl side of me as well! It means I get really, really excited whenever I see Asian female characters in geek media — and even more excited when I see Asian female creators! It also means that sometimes things bump me in a way that they might not bump white geek girls; when the DC Super Hero Girls line came out, it seemed like everyone was really excited about seeing great toys of female superheroes in stores — and with good reason, the line is fantastic. But I couldn’t help but feel kind of sad and left out because Katana was the one character who had been featured really prominently in all the marketing materials and wasn’t given a doll or action figure in the first wave. It was a weird feeling, because I wanted to be celebrating with everyone else, but I couldn’t quite get there.
Even as we’re getting more female representation in geek properties, we need to be mindful that not all women are represented yet — it’s wonderful and life-changing that Rey exists, for example, but we can’t just stop there. (Katana is getting an SDCC exclusive doll and I’m going to be the first in line, FYI.) One wonderful thing has been my aforementioned Asian geek girl gang — because when something like Katana being missing does happen, I don’t feel alone. We commiserate, we geek out together, we support each other.
What can readers look forward to from you in terms of upcoming work?
I’m currently working on Book #2 in the Heroine Complex world — it’s from Aveda Jupiter’s (Annie Chang’s) perspective and it’s been fun to visit with all my characters again. I also wrote one of the stories (with artist Sally Jane Thompson) in the Eisner-nominated romance comics anthology Fresh Romance, which has a print edition coming out from Oni Press in August (though we’ll also have a special edition you can pick up at San Diego Comic-Con). And I’m working on a series of Barbie comics with artist Alitha Martinez, the first of which should be out in September. And about a million other things, of course.
If you’re lucky enough to have tickets to this year’s Comic-Con in San Diego, make sure to check out Sarah Kuhn’s schedule of events. Not only will she be signing and giving away copies of Heroine Complex and Fresh Romance, she’ll also be participating in panels exploring topics like creating original characters, writing romantic stories in comics, women as fans and creators of comics, and the state of Asian Americans in the media. Don’t miss them! You can also follow her on Twitter to stay up-to-date with her work, and buy your copy of Heroine Complex here.