A superhero takes flight anew

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It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s … the new Chinese Super-Man!

Although DC Comics wrote Superman out of its lineup a few years ago, the company asked Gene Luen Yang, a California writer of comics and graphic novels, to transfer his powers to a teenager from Shanghai named Kenan Kong.

Close-up of Gene Luen Yang (© Albert Law)
Gene Luen Yang (© Albert Law)

New Super-Man #1, the first entry in DC Comics’ new series, introduces Kong as a secondary-school student … and a bully.

“Modern readers don’t remember this,” Yang said, “but Clark Kent [the alter-ego of the original Superman] started off as kind of a jerk … arrogant and patronizing.”

“It took Superman years to develop into the moral standard we all know and love today,” Yang said.

Yang also draws inspiration for Kenan Kong’s personality from a character in the 16th-century Chinese classic Journey to the West. The Monkey King is initially arrogant but emerges from a spiritual journey wiser and more empathetic. “So too must Kenan Kong,” Yang says.

Rebooting an icon

Yang’s best-known work — the 2006 graphic novel and National Book Award finalist American Born Chinese — explores the complexities of Chinese-American identity. So Yang is a natural to write a comic book for today’s readers who expect superheroes to be more diverse even as they continue to battle villains.

The request by DC Comics to create an authentically Asian character with an American superhero pedigree gives Yang a chance to explore his own roots.

“I don’t have firsthand experience of living in China, so it would be arrogant of me to say that I’m presenting this story from a Chinese perspective,” he said. Nevertheless, the writing experience has helped him explore his heritage and learn about modern China.

Clark Kent may have started off as a jerk, but he eventually comes to embody ren, an expression of altruistic Confucian ideals, according to Yang.

Cover of New Super-Man #2, showing Chinese Super-Man battling two foes (Courtesy of DC Entertainment)
(Courtesy photo)

Without giving too much away about the new Chinese Super-Man’s upcoming adventures, Yang hints that the mythical beast Xiangliu — a nine-headed snake monster — shows up in the series’ third issue. And “there’s a reason why Kenan’s chest emblem is an octagon,” he said. “It’s a reference to bagua [a Chinese religious motif representing eight intertwined areas of a person’s life], which will play into the story as we go on.”

Superman — whether Chinese or American — offers a timeless message: “[He] reminds us that we must use our gifts, no matter how great or small, for the sake of others. When we are given power, it is a call to service,” Yang said.