What does it take to become a legend? Is it a prestigious bloodline or access to vast resources? Is it luck? Fate? Those factors might help, in my opinion, but they aren’t the end-all, be-all. Look around our world and you’ll see people of all colors, creeds, and religions making a difference. Tammy Duckworth was the first Thailand-born senator in American history. Norman Mineta is one of the most esteemed Secretaries in the Department of Transportation.
Legends aren’t born, they’re made. And I know that sounds like a Nike slogan, but there are plenty of people who lend credence to that claim. In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, I’d like to highlight 10 legendary Asian superheroes who’ve broken the mold over the years.
Sometimes, you gotta start with the most obvious choice when writing these sorts of pieces. After all, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) was released on September 3, 2021, to commercial and critical acclaim. Not placing him at the top of this list just felt like beating around the bush.
In the film, Shang-Chi is the son of the Mandarin (one of Iron Man’s most infamous foes) and Ying Li (a guardian with mystic abilities). In the comics, his father is a problematic character that readers of Chinese heritage may take umbrage with. In any event, Shang-Chi rose above his troubled origins (literally and figuratively) and became a bonafide hero. Marvel’s looking to launch a new Shang-Chi comic series that will redefine the character come July.
Jubilee – Jubilation Lee
Jubilee ought to be a familiar face to anyone who’s watched X-Men: The Animated Series (1992 – 1997). She was the perpetually upbeat mutant who could make fireworks (rocked a dope pair of sunglasses). But things are much more convolut – I mean, “complex” for Jubilee in the comics.
In particular, Jubilee was a vampire for a quite while. Seriously, you can find dozens of comics with her chowing down on peoples’ necks from 2010 to 2018! Despite it all, she’s remained a pivotal member of the X-Men, a close friend to Wolverine and Gambit, and the adopted mother of a baby named Shogo. Jubilee’s parents immigrated from Hong Kong to America and raised her in Beverly Hills.
She made several blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cames in the first three X-Men films, and she was portrayed by Lana Condor in X-Men: Apocalypse.
The Atom – Ryan Choi
Legacy heroes are extremely common in the DC Universe; multiple characters have taken up the mantles of the Flash, Doctor Fate, and even Superman over the years. Ray Palmer was the first Atom, altering his size and weight at will (not unlike another size-altering Marvel character who debuted around the same time). When Ray was ready to hang up his Bio-Belt, he opted to choose Ryan Choi as his successor.
Ryan hails from Hong Kong and was initially a shut-in who was crippled by his phobias. Nevertheless, Ryan ultimately faced his fears to rescue Ray when he was trapped in the Microverse. Since then, Ryan’s earned a position on several superhero teams, including the Justice League. Zheng Kai portrayed Ryan Choi in Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021).
Batgirl – Cassandra Cain
For a guy who’s often touted as a loner, Batman has quite a few disciples and apprentices. Between multiple Robins, several Batgirls, all the members of Batman Incorporated, and various members of the Justice League, a ton of folks look up to the Dark Knight. Cassandra Wu-San Cain deeply admires Batman, despite being the daughter of Lady Shiva and David Cain – two of the detective’s greatest enemies.
Cassandra’s origins are rather tragic; her father taught her how to kill at an early age, but never bothered to teach her how to speak. She grew up isolated from others and was forced to murder a man when she was 8 years old. Traumatized, Cassandra ran away and was homeless for nine years. Thankfully, the Bat-Family eventually adopted her, and helped her overcome her abusive past during the No Man’s Land storyline.
Invincible – Mark Grayson
If Rotten Tomatoes audience scores are any indication, there’s a good chance most of you already know who Mark Grayson is. This half-human, half-Viltrumite hero is the son of Deborah and Nolan Grayson, who are portrayed by Sandra Oh and J.K. Simmons in the Amazon Prime show. I’d kick myself if I didn’t also mention that Steven Yeun (of The Walking Dead, Okja, and Mayhem fame) voices over Mark in the animated show.
Listen, I’m trying to go really light on the details because there are a lot of comics the show hasn’t adapted yet. But I can guarantee two things; things will get much messier and harder to watch as the series progresses, yet Mark will continue to leave a tremendous impression on you. Can he take a beating? No doubt, but it’s his courage and compassion in the face of overwhelming brutality that truly makes him Invincible.
Silk – Cindy Moon
“On a day unlike any other”, Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider and received incredible powers. No joke, Spider-Man’s origin story is so famous that friggin’ autocorrect tried to finish that sentence for me! But it turns out there’s more to that tale than any of us realized. Dan Slott and Humberto Ramos introduced Cindy Moon to the Marvel Universe in Amazing Spider-Man (Vol. 3) #1.
Here, we learn that the same spider that bit Peter also bit Cindy – granting her similar powers (and similar responsibilities). This Korean-American woman eventually takes up the name Silk and cements herself as a bonafide hero. She and Peter also dated for a while (or, more accurately, compulsively jumped each other’s bones b/c “reasons”) before agreeing to simply remain good friends. Fun fact; Silk shoots her webs from her fingertips!
Amadeus Cho – Brawn
The Marvel Universe has no shortage of world-class intellects; Hank Pym, Reed Richards, Riri Williams, and Tony Stark make fields like quantum physics look like child’s play. Then, there’s Amadeus Cho – a Korean-American boy genius whose mind is essentially a “hyper-computer.” Cho debuted in Amazing Fantasy (Vol. 2) #15, and quickly established himself as one of the smartest characters in Marvel history.
At this point, I bet you’re wondering why there’s a picture of a green-skinned swimsuit model hovering above this paragraph. Well, that’s not a swimsuit model, that’s Cho – juiced to the gills with gamma radiation. With the use of nanobots, Cho can tap into the same well that transforms Bruce Banner into the Incredible Hulk. To wit, Amadeus Cho moonlit at the “Totally Awesome Hulk” for years until he changed his alias to Brawn.
Rumor has that Cho will appear in the MCU someday. If Disney is having trouble casting this character, I can think of at least seven Bangtan Boys who’d be perfect for the role.
Alani Ryan – Loa
In the words of the great philosopher-poet Serj Tankian, “spirit moves through all things”. Loa are spirits that play a major role in Haitian Vodou, as they’re believed to permeate through everything and everyone on Earth. Moving through solid matter is essentially Alani Ryan’s, aka Loa’s, mutant ability in a nutshell. It’s worth noting, however, that Alani’s codename is based on Mauna Loa, one of Hawaii’s most active volcanoes.
She’s a Polynesian woman who hails from Maui, Hawaii and loved to go surfing with her father. Her powers first manifested when the two of them were attacked by a villain named Great White. Shortly after this encounter, Alani was invited to join the X-Men.
Aquaman – Arthur Curry (DCEU)
In a truly brilliant creative decision, DC Film decided to cast Jason Mamoa as the big-screen version of Aquaman. While Aquaman/Arthur Curry is traditionally white in the comics, making him Polynesian was a great way to pay homage to one of the world’s most well-known seafaring cultures. Temuera Morrison (aka Jango/Boba Fett) portrayed Thomas Curry, Aquaman’s father, in the film, while Nicole Kidman portrayed Queen Atlanna – Aquaman’s mother.
If the box office receipts are anything to go by, people really dig Mamoa’s Aquaman. I personally believe DC can find a way to bring a Polynesian Aquaman into the comics while also respecting the traditional version of the character.
Honestly, I spent quite a bit of time mulling this one over. In my experience, quite a lot of comic fans don’t consider anime characters to be superheroes. Moreover, Goku’s not even human – he’s an alien from another planet, a la Superman. There’s a myriad of reasons why one could argue that Goku shouldn’t be in this article, no doubt, but hear me out.
Japanese manga artist Akira Toriyama created Goku, and the entire Dragonball universe, largely due to his love for East Asian mythology. Over the years, Goku’s impact has spread across the globe, influencing everyone from Rafael Nada to Jackie Cha. In many ways, Goku is an icon for East Asian culture. And if Superman can be repeatedly touted as an American or Caucasian hero despite being a Kryptonian, I think we can do something similar for one of the most famous anime/manga characters in history.