Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Yellow Peril & the Yellow Claw!

I took to Captain America early on, and one of my childhood favorites, which inexplicably got newsstand distribution, was a two-parter in "Marvel Fanfare" by J.M. DeMatteis and Kerry Gammill. It pitted the Sentinel of Liberty against the Yellow Claw, Marvel's epitome of the "Yellow Peril" villainous type (apologies to the Mandarin and most especially Fu Manchu, not technically a Marvel character.) Now, even in my youth, I was very socially progressive, but I could not let go of how much cooler the Yellow Claw was than most Captain America foes. Much as I loved Cap's book, how could I possibly get excited about Batroc ze Lepaire, Vermin, Machete, Super-Adaptoid and the 157th appearance of the Red Skull after bearing witness to the Claw? Sure, I recognized where having a decidedly Aryan American hero battling what some might consider a deeply offensive racist stereotype could be problematic, but goddamnit, it was also exciting!

While reading "The Great Comic Book Heroes" by Jules Feiffer, I was reminded that from the earliest days, the point was to entertain as broad and oftentimes as low of an audience as possible. In fact, Feiffer argues that this politically-incorrect approach was part of comics' essential appeal. He also reminded me that I've too often read stories that put forth the notion that super-villains came into being to balance the disparity between super-heroes and common criminals, making our beloved Mystery Men ultimately responsible for all the evil done by the Jokers, Brainiacs, and Green Goblins of the world. The Yellow Peril refutes that theory!

To put this all in context for the historically challenged, Chinese immigrants flooded the United States in the late 19th Century, taking work no one else wanted, but instilling panic in whites who believed them to be a threat to their standard of living. This all may sound familiar if you listen to conservative radio, and let us not also forget there were folks who used scripture to cast the Chinese as al-Qaida, as well. Funny though... it seems the folks who actually ended up in harm's way were the Asians, as their basic human rights were overlooked and they were routinely harassed and murdered. But hey, they were a "menace," and so ended up the stock villains of many a pulp novel and radio serial. That image spilled over into the early comics, as they had yet to establish an identity of their own. The Yellow Peril, along with actual monsters, were possessed of such fantastic abilities and resources as to constitute being "super-villains." A great many pulp heroes, followed by comic book champions, were the only force capable of challenging these terrifying Oriental masterminds.

Feiffer was good enough to point out that super-heroes continued to fight the Yellow Peril, along with other crooks, saboteurs, and mad scientists, until World War II arrived to buoy the already flagging interest in the super-hero boom. However, truly despicable depictions of Japanese replaced the evil Asian masterminds of old, who have only been seen sporadically since. The Yellow Claw, for instance, was a knock-off of Peril Pulp Grandaddy Fu Manchu and one of the most gruesome Golden Age villains, the Claw. Yellow Claw's series only ran four issues in 1956, but I'm here to tell you, I feel Asians should own this shit. For starters, the first issue was written by EC great Al Feldstein. That debut was drawn by Joe Maneely, who if I recall correctly was Stan Lee's favorite artist, even over Jack Kirby. Speaking of the King of Comics, Jack wrote and drew the rest of the series. That's pretty impressive. Following that was work by Lee, Jim Steranko, John Byrne, John Severin... his artistic legacy is outstanding for such a little-used character.

Next, while still a Yellow Peril type, Claw was pursued in his solo series by the heroic Asian F.B.I. agent Jimmy Woo, as well as his own niece. How many U.S. series from the 50's can you name with an Asian protagonist not named "Charlie Chan?" Further, Claw went on to battle a who's who of powerful, highly respected super-heroes, including the full Avengers team. The Yellow Claw is both a physical and mental dynamo, capable of matching the very best champions the world has to offer. His visual is potent, his history is impressive, and did I mention he's really tall? If we can all get past that whole "Yellow" business that keeps the character on the shelf, the "Golden Claw" (as he prefers to call himself,) could become one of the great super-villains in comics!

Feiffer joked about how after WWII, the evil Asians shifted to Korea and the North Vietnamese, noting that by 1965 it would probably have come full circle to Chinese again. Here we are in 2008, and outside of comics, North Korea could do just as well. I'm not trying to encourage a racist caricature, but I think the "Fu Manchu" is a part of comics' history, and an opportunity to exorcise the boogieman of "Yellow Peril" by personifying and slaying it with Asian protagonists. Also, when Captain America stops being dead, he'll need more villains to avoid the umpteen jillionth conflicts with Dr. Faustus, Arnim Zola, and the Skull. It seems to me the Yellow Claw is just too good to waste, and really, can't some glee be taken in seeing an Asian badass stomp great swaths of the Marvel Universe, racial sensitivity be damned?

Note: Running a Google image search for "Yellow Peril" brings up a bunch of early 20th Century editorial cartoons and pulp covers. "Fu Manchu" brings Republic Pictures stills and dudes with unfortunate facial hair. "Oriental Spy?" Porn, and lots of it.

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