Greg Pak: Creating an Asian American Hero with The Citizen

Greg Pak: Creating "The Citizen"

The Citizen

Though he’s best known to comic book fans as the writer of Planet Hulk, World War Hulk and Skaar: Son of Hulk, Greg Pak is putting down his green pen in order to take part in Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology due in stores on April 15th.

As the title suggests, the anthology is filled with stories of Asian-American superheroes by a plethora of creators. In it, Pak is teamed with Bernard Chang, and together they tell the story of The Citizen – an Asian American superhero who faced disgrace, but now has the chance to make things right.

A trailer for “The Citizen” can be found here, and for more, we spoke with Pak about his story.

Newsarama: Greg, how did you get involved in Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology in the first place, and how were you paired with Bernard?

Greg Pak: A few years back, Jeff Yang interviewed me about Asian American comic book characters for an article he was writing for the San Francisco Chronicle. A few months later, he told me he was thinking about putting together an anthology book of Asian American superheroes that would be co-edited by Keith Chow, Parry Shen and Jerry Ma. And I said sign me up! I had Bernard in mind as I worked on the script -- I just knew he'd be able to nail both the heroic and comic elements of the story. And then, without prompting, when Jeff read the first draft of the script, he said, "Hey, Bernard would be great for this." Calls were made. Emails were sent. Hands were shaken. And it all came through.

NRAMA: Aside from what the title suggests, what were the parameters that were laid down for your contribution to the anthology?

GP: I was given six pages and just one requirement -- that it be a superhero story with an Asian American protagonist. Surprisingly enough, the superhero requirement actually stumped me for a little while. For some reason, I'd been thinking about a few other comic book stories with Asian American leads (including an Old West tale called "Rio Chino" that'll see light in the Outlaw Territory anthology coming soon from Image), but none of them were technically superhero stories. But that made for a great challenge.

Pak's original vision

This felt like a good opportunity to create a big, fun character whom people from all backgrounds could immediately dig -- but who could at the same time subtly overturn a stereotype about Asians in America. I found myself thinking about the way Asian Americans are often perceived as foreign, no matter how many generations their families have been citizens. So the idea developed of a character with "Citizen" in his title, who'll fight for the principles of his country no matter what -- but in surprising and maybe even borderline crazy ways. Just for kicks, here's a very early concept sketch from my notebook (at right):

Looking at it, you can definitely see why I'm just a writer. Also, it's a good thing I shortened the name to just "The Citizen," since I just discovered there's a Simpson's episode called "Citizen Kang."

Secret Identities, cover

NRAMA: Let's talk about the story itself - it's got whiffs of Captain America, and more in it...probably best to let you describe how would you describe it?

GP: We're telling the story of Franklin D. Murakawa, a soldier-turned-superhero incarcerated six years ago for trying to arrest the President of the United States for war crimes. But now there's a new President in town -- and he needs the kind of help only the Citizen can provide!

NRAMA: To be clear here, this is a story set in "our" world for lack of a better term, correct? The Citizen awakens to a US with Obama as its President?

GP: I turned in the first draft of the script way back in January 2008, just a few days after Obama had won the Iowa Caucuses but many long months before it was clear he'd take the Democratic nomination and the Presidency. Originally, the book was supposed to come out in September 2008, which would have been fantastic, because then I'd have looked like a genius for calling it so early.

So yes, that guy kinda looks like Obama, doesn't he? But it's worth noting that it's not exactly our world, since the previous President whom the Citizen tried to arrest was named "Prescott" and the war the Citizen previously fought was "Operation Bot Stomp." But if folks feel like drawing parallels to the real world... hey, that's every reader's prerogative!

NRAMA: Speaking about the tone of the story - it seems like it could be straight-ahead super-hero adventure, but is there a hint of anything else in there?

GP: With a patriotic superhero and the President of the United States as your central characters, you're in for a tasty, heaping portion of political subtext, supertext, and satire. On one level, the story gives us a chance to explore and challenge very different interpretations of what it means to be a patriot and a citizen. But we're also having a lot of goofball fun with giant airships and Nazi gremlins and whatnot.

NRAMA: Stepping back from your story in particular, how do you see the existence of this volume in and of itself? Obviously, American superhero comics will never need a "Caucasian Male Superhero Anthology," so does Secret Identities - just by existing - kind of point out the fact that even in 2009 in a country with a population made up increasingly of minorities, there's very little diversity in the monthly pages...

GP: I loved the idea of Secret Identities from the minute I heard about it because of the huge number of writers and artists the editors were hoping to include. A big variety of contributors means a wider range of characters and stories. And that's absolutely key to me. No one character should have to bear the burden of representing an entire community. Introducing a ton of characters at once helps convey the reality that there's enormous variety among Asian Americans and enormously rich fodder for all different kinds of stories. It also helps humanize each and every character -- each character has a better chance of being perceived as an individual, dramatically compelling human being rather than just as a symbol or archetype for some imaginary ideal of Asian Americanness.

For the same reasons, I think your idea of the "Caucasian Male Superhero Anthology" could actually have legs -- if it took the time to explore the enormous diversity in what folks call "white." I love the way Matt Murdoch is Irish Catholic, for example. He's not Irish Catholic Man; he's Daredevil. But his very specific background helps bring some great nuances to the character.

NRAMA: But still, sticking with the diversity angle, you're a writer who works at Marvel - how does that get changed? No offense at all to what you're doing with the Hulk, but it seems that publishers are quicker to offer up new green or orange skinned characters than they are black or yellow or brown... Obviously, it's a kind of weird, conservative time in the industry, but yet, we still see new characters popping up here and your view, why aren't more of them minorities?

Skaar #11

GP: Actually, I've been nothing but thrilled with my experiences at Marvel in this regard. My very first Marvel book was the 2004 Warlock miniseries, whose point-of-view character was an Asian American woman named Janie Chin. Later I was able to create the Amadeus Cho character, a Korean American kid who played a big role in the Incredible Hulk tie-ins to World War Hulk and who now co-stars in Incredible Hercules. I've never gotten anything but a hundred percent support from my editors when creating new characters with diverse backgrounds. We just knuckle down the way we do with every character to make them as three dimensional and dramatically compelling as possible.

And it's worth noting that Marvel writers have been doing this for decades, which has resulted in dozens of great legacy characters from different backgrounds who, under the right circumstances, can headline their own books. I've just wrapped Magneto: Testament, which follows a Jewish boy and his family struggling to survive the rise of the Nazis and the Final Solution. And I'm writing War Machine, which stars James "Rhodey" Rhodes, one of the comics industry's best known African American heroes, and features a multiracial supporting cast -- including Jason Strongbow, aka American Eagle, who plays a big role in War Machine #6 and #7. So many thanks to folks like Chris Claremont, who gave Magneto his backstory as a Jewish Holocaust survivor, and Bob Layton and David Michelinie, who first introduced James Rhodes to the world.

NRAMA: Fair enough. Back to Secret Identities - you and Bernard are in and out in six pages, yet the idea of The Citizen seems to be bigger than six pages and never seen again. Are there plans to do more with the character?

GP: Absolutely. I can't reveal too much just yet, but you'll definitely see more of the Citizen and his President. As always, check out for the latest!

NRAMA: Oh, and we can't let you go without giving you a chance to plug what's coming with Skaar - we've seen the covers to June's #12 - the father and son reunion between the Hulk and Skaar... can you give the broad strokes of what people should expect to see, and when it all gets rolling?

GP: Born in the blast that precipitated World War Hulk, Skaar, Son of Hulk, was left behind on the savage planet of Sakaar by a father he never knew to fight for survival against monsters, madmen, and barbarians. In May, Skaar finally hits Planet Earth with the Planet Skaar Prologue and Skaar #11, and he's implacably determined to find his big, green daddy -- but for what purpose, you ask? Keep on reading, True Believers! The Prologue co-stars She-Hulk, the Fantastic Four, the Warbound, and Norman Osborn and culminates with a shocking development for the Son of Hulk that will have a major impact on everything that follows. And the full scope of Skaar's motivations and plans will be revealed when he confronts the Warbound in Skaar #11 and finally meets his father in Skaar #12.


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