Issue 5
Sept. 5, 2019

Comic Creator Joshua Luna Refuses to Back Down

Luna wants to unpack the history of how Asian-Americans have been misrepresented in comics — but is up against an industry comfortable with the status quo.

by Amina Akhtar

This piece originally appeared in Issue #5. Subscribe to get our monthly newsletter! - Amina and Lincoln

I’ve regularly found myself on the floor of my room surrounded by comics and the fantasy their pages offered. My comic book obsession was sent into overdrive the day I finally found a local comics store with an attentive, diverse staff. I realized the comic world was a lot bigger than I thought, and I saw new titles starring characters who looked like me. It felt bittersweet. Sure, I stumbled on comic series that changed how I saw myself, but why were they so rare? Even at a young age, I felt like society at large was missing out on such colorful experiences — not paying attention to new possibilities. I’ve thought genuinely about all the lost time I spent trying to assimilate. I’ve wondered about the impact that kind of early validation would have on my sense of identity. After speaking with comic book creator Joshua Luna, I was able to learn more about the power and institutions getting in the way of that reality.

Comic book creator Joshua Luna didn’t grow up on a steady diet of superheroes. For the first 15 years of his life, Luna was always racking miles around the world with his father, who was in the Navy. Being exposed to such a full spectrum of the human experience had both bright spots and challenges for the Filipino-American boy, but it largely shaped how he approaches his work today. “Growing up around so many cultures and communities made the world feel smaller and more comprehensible in some ways... but at the same time, it was also isolating,” added Joshua. “I felt like a perpetual foreigner not only as an American who was seen as an unwanted presence (not that I blame them) but as a Filipino as well.”

Joshua's start in the comic book industry wasn't about pursuing storylines with Asian-American leads. Feeling like a perpetual foreigner makes you want to blend in. It’s easier to blend in than be yourself, whether it's your art or ethnicity. His early stories followed the tradition of building a world from a white man’s perspective. Joshua opened up about his early work, saying, “I delved into difficult topics by instinct rather than conscious purpose... creators of color often feel prohibited from granting that nuance to characters of color.”

Earlier this year, Joshua pitched a comic series to Image Comics called AMERICANIZASIAN, which focuses on Asian-American identity. The partner at Image Comics described the book as “angry” and went on to say that there was “no story for people to relate to.” The partner, who is a white man, went on to say the work should be “more positive.”

Even after this initial meeting and feedback, the book was still green-lit, and a month later, Joshua submitted his cover. However, when Joshua sent the cover, everything quickly changed. The cover was written off as unusable due to legal concerns. Unlike a standard back and forth in the creative process, no suggestions were offered to make the cover usable. Then, the interiors of the book were seen as an even bigger problem for Image Comics, as Joshua’s criticism of Marvel’s anti-Asian narratives was said to be “so negative” within the book’s overall context.

After this exchange, Joshua was notified that his bestselling comic with Image Comics would be removed from Comixology, a comics website, and any remaining copies would be burned. Burning books to reduce inventory costs isn’t unusual in the comic book world, but putting an end to digital sales is a step farther.

Joshua provided Image Comics with a detailed list of all his comic strips with potential legal risks and offered to modify them. When it became clear that no resolution would be reached, Joshua decided to go public with his experience. “Despite how frustrating and completely exhausting it is to deal with this mistreatment, I choose to speak up because I know how important it is to destigmatize these conversations, and because I know art can be an incredible tool for facilitating dialogue that otherwise might feel too big or too impossible,” Joshua added about his decision.

Unpacking the history of how Asian-Americans have been widely misrepresented in comics shouldn’t be labeled as something “negative,” but instead an opportunity for comic book creators, readers, and publishers to take stock and consider how harmful racial stereotypes and tropes can be.

As if that wasn’t enough, Image Comics published a comic book from Howard Chaykin that was violent towards trans women and grossly offensive towards brown people. One cover showed a brown man with mutilated genitals, hanging from a noose, wearing a name tag with a racial slur. Amid public backlash, the cover was pulled. Image Comics released a statement, arguing it was neither their nor Howard's intention to be offensive. Chaykin doubled-down, stating, “A number of enthusiasts and several of my fellow professionals — seem incapable of separating the depiction from the act.”

Holding these two publishing decisions next to each other reinforces an all-too-familiar truth. People of color are afforded fewer opportunities to evolve and subvert stereotypes. All while white men, who have long been the gatekeepers of publishing, are allowed free rein to delve into the “abstract.” “When I pitched my book to Image, I thought to use AMERICANIZASIAN as an invitation to other creators of color to tell their story. And while Image rejected the book, my message still stands. I want to see a world where creators of color have a safe space in the industry to speak freely and truthfully about their experiences, and I want to be one of the people who help build that space.”

We’re used to seeing characters of color as one-dimensional tropes that don’t have room for nuance or depth. Luna and his contemporaries are fighting to break this tradition. I’m confident their work will be the reason more kids will be tucked away in their rooms — surrounded by comic books that offer them art, imagination, and heroes that look like them.

To support Joshua Luna’s work, donate via Paypal, or become a patreon supporter.

- -Joshua Luna