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SYFY WIRE Image Comics

'The Good Asian' taps into past (and present) mistreatment of Asian Americans to set a new standard in noir comics

By Ernie Estrella

Racist Americans like the idea of a "Good Asian" — a model minority. To be a "Good Asian" in their eyes means to be obedient, quiet, and assimilated, and this idea has often helped keep Asian voices silent. Racism against Asians has a long history in this country, and ill-aimed anger and violence targeting Asians is on the rise around the globe, especially in America. So, it’s intriguing that this infamous term is used as the title of a new crime noir comic book by writer Pornsak Pichetshote (Co-creator of the critically-acclaimed Infidel) and artist Alex Tefenkgi (Outpost Zero).

The Good Asian centers around Edison Hark, a troubled, self-loathing Chinese American detective hot on the trail of a murderer in 1936 Chinatown. Raised by a white family of privilege, Edison tries to survive the complicated life of balancing his loyalties and working against the best interest of his fellow people — as well as alongside abusive policemen — during an immigration ban. On the surface, it’s a rich, unique spin on a favorite genre, but beneath lay reminders of how little has changed in the past century.

A nine-issue limited series published by Image Comics, The Good Asian scratches at long-ignored problems that need to be addressed immediately. At the same time, it is a shining example of noir done well, with sumptuous colors and lettering that enhance the storytelling. Asian protagonists are also few and far between, but books like The Good Asian are trying to change that.

In part one of SYFY WIRE's interview with The Good Asian co-creators Pichetshote and Tefenkgi, we discuss the creative process of the book and its themes of identity. We also have an exclusive look at the art process, as they explain how the language of comics and the talents of colorist Lee Loughridge and letterer Jeff Powell create fresh visuals in the longstanding genre.

The term "Good Asian" stirs up a lot of emotions, especially with identity. Whenever Asian Americans gather, there’s a tendency to qualify where you lie on the spectrum, how did creating a story that’s filled with so much context sit with you both?

Pornsak Pichetshote: I have been speaking to other Asians and the thing we’re asking each other is, "Does America care about Asians right now? How much do they care?" It’s been a small sample, but one of the recurring themes is some version, is that they say, "I’m not the most Asian in the room," and then they qualify their Asian-ness, which is where the title, "The Good Asian" partly comes from. 

What is a "Good Asian?" What is a "Bad Asian?" What does it mean and what are your responsibilities? In this small focus group, it feels like everyone needs to qualify their Asian-ness, like, "I don’t know if I’m super-Asian…" Part of it for me, writing a book called The Good Asian, I have moments asking myself, "Am I Asian enough to write this? [Pichetshote identifies as Thai American.] Am I the right Asian to be writing this?" I feel l like there are more people that are more involved and aware than I am. It’s interesting that this recurs when talking to other Asian people. 

Alexandre Tefenkgi: My Asian experience is a different one. The father who raised me was from Lebanon and is Christian, my mother is from Africa and is Muslim, I was always in the middle. Then at 35, I found out a secret that my biological father was Vietnamese so it changed everything. I began rediscovering my roots and this book came along while on that path; it was echoing parts of my life. When you find yourself caught in the middle of many cultures, you think about what you should do, the things you want to do, and what you have to do. You’re so in-between that it can be complex.

With Hark, being raised by a white American family, and facing his roots with the Asian community, I can understand that it can be a struggle at times. Answering the question of what is a "Good Asian?" There’s no right answer. The real question is, are you a good person in the community?

Pichetshote: Alex is living in France right now, but when we first met he was living in Vietnam. He was so interested in learning his roots that he moved his family there, for three years. He was such the perfect person to draw this, beyond the amazing art, but to also have those questions to move your whole country to discover your true background. Alex mentioned to me that it felt like “this project sought me out." When I talked to him, I finally understood what he was talking about. He was in the perfect mindset for what this book is talking about.

Edison is a rare Asian American leading man in American media. You’re careful not to play into Asian male stereotypes where he would come off docile, asexual, and assertive. That’s a stark contrast to the exploitation of Asian American women. What did you want to accomplish with Edison both visually and from a story point of view?

Pichetshote: A lot of it was subverting the tropes about Asians. That was one of the reasons why the noir genre was a draw for me. Whenever you see tough Asians, there’s always something mystical. It was important to show this masculine side that could hold toe to toe with all of flawed noir heroes. I love superheroes, but when you see Asians in them, they mostly check all of these boxes, but where’s the sexy Asian male Marvel or DC character? You realize there are these whole categories you don’t see, especially when you travel to other Asian countries like me and Alex have, you’re reminded of the different styles of Asians you see that you don’t see here.

Tefenkgi: We wanted to avoid all the clichés and martial arts fighters like Bruce Lee. We wanted someone who was tough who could rely on fighting, so he’s a boxer. We also wanted to create an imposing character who could be impactful on the pages and still communicate his background behind him. If I would translate Edison Hark today, he’d be a UFC fighter.

Visually, he carries himself differently than what we’re used to seeing in stereotypical Asian leads, even down to his posture.

Pichetshote: Yeah! I'm glad you noticed that. In a note that I wrote to our editor Will [Dennis], let’s be careful because at the time, the way that suits were tailored you could look small-shouldered. Look at old photos of Humphrey Bogart, you’d think he looked small. Even though that’s accurate for the time, let’s make sure we keep Edison looking broad. Alex picked it up and ran with it. Even if we stray from historical fact a little bit in the fashion, it is important that he is not small or docile.

Lucy Fong is another character in the series; she works as a telephone operator, and since this is a period piece, we are reminded that operators listened in on every call.

Pichetshote: We wanted to show another perspective of Edison Hark, but also of Chinatown. Hark has these existential questions about being Asian that we’ve talked about. Lucy is all about survival, and that she and her dad are safe. For me, it is about class perspectives on race. I wanted Hark to have an outsider’s perspective on Chinatown, but also Chinatown’s perspective on itself. She is the ears of Chinatown. I was fascinated by the fact that if you worked in the Chinatown telephone exchange, you had to memorize every phone number and address in Chinatown. She knew everybody and everything. So imagine the gossip in that place with that kind of information!

She became the best way to look at Edison, once you see how he views himself, and an inkling of some of the forces and intent of what he does. From the outside looking in, if you’re Asian, what does that look like? Do any of the intentions or conflicts mean anything? Or at the end of the day do the only things that matter are your actions? Hark is an Asian with privilege, yet is the pessimistic one. Lucy is the one with less privilege, yet she is the optimistic one. Both have nobility despite their differences in class.

Alex, did you reference older noir comics, or since this was such a different story, did you feel you had the freedom to experiment?

Tefenkgi: I started with a lot of gray tones [see above], but as time went on, the blacks became more prominent and the gray tones disappeared. The style evolved. But I try to think of ambiance more than style, like the European noir comic Blacksad, which I read 20 years ago. It’s not typical noir, but the ambiance in that, in the art and colors, is what I felt would be a good inspiration for The Good Asian

Pichetshote: It’s not a surprise when you hear how much Alex was inspired by Alex Toth when you look at his art -- so much of Alex’s influences [are] from the lineage, which made him the perfect person for this book. 

There’s a lot of visual language and story being told in the color. Could you talk about Lee Loughridge's work and how he was able to connect and complete the look of this world?

Tefenkgi: After looking at Lee’s work, his palettes, nuances, and his narrative skill is really smart. I knew he was the guy for this project. There are moments when he uses purple or hot pink and to use those colors in a noir is so different, but also kind of brilliant.

Pichetshote: With Alex’s open line style, there’s so much there in the black and white art that a lot of colorists don’t know what to do, they’re almost boxed in, the art is almost too complete. Seventy-five percent of colorists would over complicate it, so that already limits who you go to. Lee did a first pass at, and we were like, "I don’t know, I am not really feeling it." Then he went, "I got it!" and went away for weeks. He came back and showed it to us and nailed it. He is such a storyteller at heart he really wants to help you tell the story. This is the first time I’ve worked on something that had coloring notes in the lettering pass, because the storytelling could be helped more by a color change. This clue will link over here because of what he does. 

There is so much atmosphere on the page when you get those black and whites, but the amazing thing about Lee is that he’s like a microphone, and he takes the atmosphere that Alex has and amplifies it. Colorists don’t get enough credit for doing that. Lee is so good in having his color choices work in concert with what’s already on the page. Lee makes bold choices but never garish. If we’re doing our jobs right, it’s a book of bold moves, never garish. 

There’s a cool visual element where Edison has this detective sight, where things he’s noticing are boxed in red. Who came up with that?

Pichetshote: Television has done a lot with the language of film with detective POV, like Sherlock and Hannibal, but there hasn’t been as much with crime comics. So what could we do with the language of comics in the same way they do with other media? Like reading those Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler novels and translating them and using the language of comics to enhance that experience. What is the comics version of the detective pacing and putting the clues together? 

Maybe Edison gets it wrong, maybe he gets it right. How do you make that graphically and visually interesting? To me the best experiment is when the reader doesn’t realize they’re experimenting, it’s so natural, they don’t realize that they’re not used to seeing it. Sometimes, maybe we get a little flashy because we want it to be a stylish comic, but when me, Alex, and Lee talk, it’s fun playing that game of what isn’t forced and what works.

Another component that works in harmony is Jeff Powell's lettering. From his sound effects, to lyrics of a song dancing across the page, and to his clean lettering style, what does he add to the series that readers might not notice right away?​​​​​

Pichetshote: Jeff’s a masterclass designer, so part of what he’s so good at and why I love working with him is that half the time he doesn’t want you to notice his contributions. He wants his lettering and design work to meld so seamlessly into the art, you think the artist drew it himself. In every project we work on together, there’s at least one sound effect that’s so great I change my dialogue to draw more attention to it.

The Good Asian Design Spread by Jeff Powell

But then when he wants you to pay attention, he puts in that extra effort that any writer or editor would kill for on one of his books. In the title spread to The Good Asian #1, he includes a little wireframe to the spread that’s actually a maze with a distinct entry and exit point. It’s those kinds of details and passion you only get on creator-owned books, when your entire team is as proud of the final product as you are.  

What else should readers know about The Good Asian?

Tefenkgi: I hope we’re just true to the story, creating a visual that’s entertaining and far from the clichés you’d expect. 

Pichetshote: There’s going to be some action, mystery, sex, and a lot of questions. I don’t think it would work without Alex’s art. I'd also say that noir has this great history and it’s a genre that doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of the world and makes it entertaining, stylish, and cool while talking about some big subjects. That’s always been the history of the noir. If you’re buying a genre book, there’s a contract you as a creator are making with the reader, and that you will be entertained.

Click through Alexandre's art process and the five-page preview of The Good Asian #1 below. Keep a lookout for Part Two of our interview with Pornsak Pichetshote and Alexandre Tefenkgi in early May when we go deeper with the creators about the underlying themes of the book, the historic inspiration, and how it serves as a poignant reminder of the struggles of Asians around the world. The Good Asian #1 will hit stands May 5, in time for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Tell your local comic shop to pre-order a copy for you today.