Finally Taking Flight: Wing, the First Asian (American) Superhero
One of the great joys of writing about pop culture is discovering an uncelebrated treasure. It’s how flop films become cult classics, failed authors become literary icons, and previously obscure superheroes are revealed as pioneers of representation. I experienced this joy recently, when I learned that the first Asian American superhero to appear in mainstream American comics is not in fact the Green Turtle, but Wing, the Crimson Avenger’s sidekick. None of these may be household names (yet), but the distinction is noteworthy for a variety of reasons.
“Wing predates even Batman,” said Mark Martell, PhD. He has an expansive article in the Journal of Comics and Culture (Vol. 6, 2021) from Pace University Press about Asian American superheroes in comics and was eager to share his findings with me in an email interview and a couple of informal conversations. “I don’t know if my desire is to distinguish between the first Asian or Asian American superhero; rather, I want to bring attention that [there was] a superhero of Asian descent.”
Martell is the director of the UIC Asian American Resource and Cultural Center. He earned his PhD in educational policy studies at UIC, teaches Superheroes and Cultural Mythology and Comics & Society for the UIC Honors College, and has taught courses on diversity and higher education at the Global Asian Studies program and the College of Education. He has moderated panel discussions at C2E2 and San Diego Comic-Con.
The Green Turtle is often cited as the first Asian American superhero, and got his own graphic novel in 2014: The Shadow Hero (First Second Books) written by Gene Luen Yang and illustrated by Sonny Liew. A quick Google search for “Wing and the Crimson Avenger” can lead to an old Cracked article that has not aged well itself about “the five worst superhero sidekicks.” Nevertheless, the Crimson Avenger is one of the first superheroes, and Wing has been overlooked for too long as the first Asian American superhero.
More than Mere Trivia
The Green Turtle is still the first Asian American superhero to lead his own book, but Wing is the first Asian American superhero to appear in a mainstream American superhero comic. This may seem like a lot of qualifiers, but Black Panther is largely seen as the first Black superhero in mainstream American comics, while Falcon is the first African American superhero in mainstream American comics. Both deserve recognition. Likewise, there’s room for both the Green Turtle and Wing to be heralded for their unique contributions to American pop culture and superhero history.
At a time of rampant book bannings and desperate attempts to ignore history, greater context for pop culture is sorely needed. One of the more specious arguments made by white supremacists masquerading as comic book superfans is that superheroes have always been cishet white men. Leaving aside the history of systemic racism in this country, which is a big ask, this is blatantly untrue if one of the first superheroes in mainstream American comics is Asian.
According to Martell, who had to provide definitions for the terms Asian and Asian American for his dissertation, “Asian Americans are those ‘who call the United States their home and trace their ancestry to countries from the Asian continent and subcontinent and islands within the Pacific Rim’…who have been racialized and grouped as Asian in policy and legislation.” The term was coined in 1968 by activists Emma Gee and Yuji Ichioka. Wing is referred to in his earliest appearances as the Crimson Avenger’s “Chinese servant,” clearly placing him in this group.
On the other hand, the Green Turtle is never identified as Asian or Asian American in his appearances in Blazing Comics despite fighting crime almost exclusively in China. His face is always hidden, and his skin is colored an unnatural pink. These steps are thought to be the result of tensions between the character’s creator, Chu F. Hing, and his editorial superiors who didn’t think a comic with an Asian lead would sell.
Wing predates the Green Turtle by six years, and he didn’t come out of nowhere. As Martell explained to me, “I really wanted to tie [Asian American] representation [to] comics, especially with characters who may predate the term itself, because it shows that Asians have been in the United States for centuries, since Chinese immigrants settled in the U.S. in the late 19th century.”
The Golden Age of mainstream American superhero comics is hardly known for its progressivism. The most prominent “Asian” character from that era is potentially Doctor Fu Manchu, the inspiration for hateful propaganda that persists to this day. Unfortunately, Wing shares traits with such depictions, including buck teeth, broken English, and an animalistic appearance.
So, why honor Wing at all? Why not leave him in the dustbin of history and keep the Green Turtle as the first Asian superhero, American or otherwise? “I think instead of ignoring the character…it’s due time to redeem the character,” said Martell. “I think ignoring how the character was treated only hides the racist [treatment of the character in comics or the racist] history of America and how that funnels into popular culture. There are many shameful moments in American history, and the only way to learn from the past is by acknowledging the past and then moving forward, hopefully doing better.”
Acknowledging Wing as the first Asian American superhero in mainstream comics isn’t just a chance to pedantically rewrite trivia cards, but a teaching opportunity about American history. It doesn’t supplant the Green Turtle or alter that character’s legacy, but reflects the expansive nature of the Asian American community. People who can trace their national origin to a continent with almost 50 countries are not a monolith.
Martell wrote to me, “I think recognizing Wing as THE first Asian American superhero…shows the lengthy history of Asian or Asian American presence in popular media, in this case comics…[and] gives the character the credit [he] deserves.”
Rescued from Obscurity
The Golden Age of comics began in 1938 with Action Comics #1. The timeline for Wing and the Crimson Avenger should probably start with radio serials in 1936 that featured the Green Hornet and Kato. Wing first appeared in Detective Comics #20 in 1938. Green Hornet comics based on old radio shows started being printed in 1940.
The Green Hornet was the alter ego of newspaper magnate Britt Reid. He wore a fedora and a domino mask and fought crime with his valet Kato using a technologically advanced car. The Crimson Avenger was the alter ego of wealthy publisher and journalist Lee Travis. He wore a fedora and a domino mask and fought crime with his servant Wing using a gas gun.
Jim Chambers was born in 1914 to an Irish father and German mother. He graduated from Pratt Institute, illustrated pulp magazines and pre-war comic books, and created the Crimson Avenger and Wing in addition to drawing several war and western comics. Was he influenced by the Green Hornet when he created the Crimson Avenger? Given the popularity of the radio show, it’s likely Chambers was at least aware of it.
Did he rip the character off? That’s impossible to know. Copyright law is pretty murky on the subject, and we shouldn’t presume intention. Also, given how litigious National Comics could be at the time if any character remotely resembled Superman, it stands to reason that they wouldn’t have gone ahead with the Crimson Avenger and Wing if they thought it put them at risk with the Green Hornet and Kato. There was hardly a shortage of guys in suits and fedoras fighting crime in the 1930’s and ’40s.
Blazing Comics began publication in June 1944. It was one of several comics titles published by Rural Home Publications, a loose association of publishing companies that used pre-packaged material. Their inventory didn’t last long, and some of their characters were sold off to Charlton Comics in 1945. The Green Turtle was not one of them.
The Green Turtle debuted in Blazing Comics #1. He was created by Chu F. Hing, an artist of Chinese descent born in Hawaii who attended art school in Chicago. Chu Fook Hing worked as a fine artist and had watercolor exhibitions all over the world. He worked in comics largely out of necessity after the start of World War II, including as an inker at Timely Publications, the precursor to Marvel Comics.
The Green Turtle only appeared in five issues, but his face was never shown except in shadow or while otherwise behind something, like a chair or fist. He’s an excellent hand-to-hand combatant and appears to survive being shot, but is never given any explicit powers or personal history. Afterwards, he was mostly forgotten, along with many other heroes from that time period. He was eventually revived for the aforementioned graphic novel, The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew, for an in-depth origin story and unambiguously Chinese heritage more than sixty years later.
Wing, on the other hand, enjoyed a distinguished superhero career through much of the Golden Age and beyond, including on the superteam the Seven Soldiers of Victory. There may have been some initial “parallelism” (Martell’s wording) with Kato, but the character evolved with the genre. The racism that informed much of his original appearances was softened and his costume was altered to suit the spandex fashions of the time.
Wing appeared throughout the ’70s and ’80s, even as the DC Universe around him changed into something more cohesive and less chaotic than what it was in his debut, including a four-issue Crimson Avenger limited series written by Roy Thomas (creator of Iron Fist). In 1986, the Crimson Avenger was honored as DC’s first “masked” superhero in Secret Origins #5. Wing was even given his own entry in the DC Comics Encyclopedia in 2004.
Despite this throughline in comics history, the character has never been honored or recognized as he deserves.
Sidekicks Are Heroes, Too!
Besides racism, a subtler reason exists for Wing’s lack of consideration for historical significance: his status as sidekick, or “servant” as he’s called in his initial appearance. Easily ignored and seen as cannon fodder, sidekicks are often dismissed as not being heroes in their own right. This is obviously untrue, but it’s also why many nonwhite characters made their first appearances in similar roles. The Falcon was originally Captain America’s friend, Kato was the Green Hornet’s valet, and Wing was the Crimson Avenger’s chauffeur.
The modern sidekick trope started with Robin, who debuted in Detective Comics #38 in 1940. It was to encourage younger readers to see themselves in the adventures of their favorite superheroes but has developed into something more meaningful than audience surrogates in the years since. Wing predates Robin by two years and was introduced in the more servile role to which minority characters were traditionally relegated. They could hardly be audience surrogates, since they were dismissed as part of the audience in the first place.
Yet, just as the role of sidekick evolved from a mere stand-in for the (white) teen boy readers taken for granted as the only ones buying superhero comics, later depictions of Wing adjusted with the trends of the times. He went from being an adult servant to a teen orphan in the span of a few decades, aging backwards like Merlin or Benjamin Button, but always following the orders of the Crimson Avenger. This doesn’t disqualify him as a superhero. Going back to one of the possible inspirations for the character, there’s a reason The Green Hornet was rebranded The Kato Show overseas.
Wing’s character may have changed to resemble Robin more, but to cite Robin as a precursor for Wing not only displays faulty logic with time, but also with how sidekicks develop into full-fledged heroes in their own right. That first Robin, Dick Grayson, became Nightwing, and almost every Robin since has had his or her own title. “A sidekick is still a superhero,” Martell said. I agree.
Also, if he was only a sidekick, why was he counted as one of the Seven Soldiers of Victory?
Wing is arguably more than a sidekick anyway. In his earliest appearances, he’s extremely competent: flying planes, defusing bombs, and proving to be a better hand-to-hand fighter than the Crimson Avenger himself sometimes.
Shamefully, even as the Crimson Avenger is seen as the first masked superhero of DC continuity, Wing does not get his proper validation. Could we chalk him up to being the first Asian American sidekick of mainstream American superhero comics instead of labeling him a superhero? Wouldn’t that be enough?
No. No, it wouldn’t. If we’re going to admit this character and his contributions to pop culture, we should do it right. Diminishing Wing as a sidekick plays into all the tired tropes that make his earliest appearances so uncomfortable in the first place. We can do better, and should.
What’s Next for Wing?
As Martell explained toward the end of our conversation, “Wing needs to be given the opportunity to shine as the true superhero that he is, but it needs to be done right: a writer or artist [or both] of Chinese American descent should be hired to handle the character. [They should leave the character in appropriate hands.]”
At best, representation without intention or relatability can be hollow or resort to tokenism; at worst, it can be downright offensive. Also, the creative teams and higher-ups behind such characters should be more reflective of them. If there had been an Asian editor at Blazing Comics, we wouldn’t have to have this conversation at all.
Wing was given full “soldier” status in 2000’s Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E. #9, which retconned a JLA story from 1972. He most recently appeared in the Stargirl Spring Break Special in 2021 written by Geoff Johns and illustrated by Todd Nauck and he may enjoy a more featured role in the future. Hopefully, he will be more widely recognized for the part he’s played in the past.
Wing being afforded his proper historical significance as the first Asian American superhero could continue the recent improvements in Asian American representation in comics with characters such as Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel, Amadeus Cho/Brawn, and Kenan Kong/New Super-Man. It would also prove such representation is more than a trend, but has roots that go back to the beginning of the Golden Age. As for the future of the medium as a whole? Martell concluded, “I hope representation just keeps moving forward in comics.”
Mark Martell, PhD, can be reached at MMARTELL@UIC.EDU or on Twitter @MarkRMartell.