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So odious is the picture of Chinese people presented by the character of Fu Manchu that the US government asked Hollywood to stop making Fu Manchu films before and during World War 2. Every stereotype of the "Yellow Peril" is personified in this one character, his knowledge of exotic ancient secrets, association with opium and criminal elements, and evil designs on the West.
As the villain of over 20 pulp novels, Fu Manchu remains something of a pop culture fixture, despite the character's troubled past and terrible reputation. Still, it should be possible to redeem Fu Manchu as the original evil mastermind while discarding the racist elements.
With that said, the novel itself is explicitly and undeniably racist, containing numerous completely un-ironic references to the “Yellow Peril”, and the protagonist even mocks those who might dismiss such a threat: "The 'Yellow Peril'!" "You scoff, sir, and so do others. We take the proffered right hand of friendship nor inquire if the hidden left holds a knife!"
Still the character of Fu-Manchu is evocative, "Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, ... one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present ... Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man."
He could very well be considered one of the early prototypes of both the arch-nemesis character in action-adventure fiction, the mad scientist character and of the super villain character. The racism of the text overshadows all of this, and the “yellow peril” racism firmly attached to the character filters through popular culture in various forms, which can still be seen today. In comics for example, Detective Comics featured an unapologetic Fu Manchu before Batman ever showed up:
Marvel got into the act with the Atlas Era Yellow Claw:
who was, interestingly enough, opposed by the Chinese American detective Jimmy Woo, a rare positive non stereotypical asian character. Because China was allied with America during World War 2, Chinese characters could sometimes escape unscathed as the most vile racism was heaped on the Imperial Japanese. Here’s an example from Captain Marvel 29. These are the Japanese villains that are teaming up with Mr. Mind:
Here are the Chinese soldiers that Captain Marvel interacts with from the same issue:
Marvel seems to have avoided the bright yellow skin and absurdly stereotypical speech patterns normal with such a villain with the Mandarin, who otherwise stuck to the ethnicity, world domination and fiendish arch genius tropes. In more recent times, the Mandarin has kept his “Yellow Peril” name while dropping the Fu Manchu type clothing and facial hair.
The redemption of the Fu Manchu character was begun in a real way by Dennis O’neil in his landmark work on Batman. The character of Ra’s al Ghul embodies many of the characteristics of Fu Manchu, world domination, criminal mastermind, seeming immortality, without the overt racism.
Ra’s al Ghul is still an ethnocentric character, as his “foreignness” assumes a white audience. Whereas Fu Manchu was explicitly associated with China (although he employed all manner of Eastern/non-white people), al ghul is of somewhat ambiguous ethnicity. His foreignness is made clear by his dress, speech patterns and his clearly non-white followers. He is meant to be middle eastern to some extent, but his skin tone is usually very light. Birth of the Demon establishes an origin for him in the middle east sometime during the Crusades, but a definite place of birth is never stated.
Further qualities of Fu Manchu that Ra's al ghul borrowed was the love triangle of sorts between his daughter/subservient Talia al ghul and the hero. Talia is torn between her loyalty to her father and his organization and her love for Batman, just as Kara is torn between her love for Dr. Petrie and her enslavement to Fu Manchu in the original novel.
Things come full circle in Batman Begins, when Ra's al ghul is portrayed by the thoroughly Anglo-Saxon Liam Neeson.
The al ghul of the Nolan films has all the hallmarks of the comic version in a white man. The interesting part of O’neil’s updating of the Fu Manchu character is that the complete removal of all ethnic markers doesn’t completely change the character. A white Fu Manchu would never work, but a white Ra’s al ghul works fine. In Neeson’s Anglo Ra's alghul then, we see the redemption of the Fu Manchu archetype. He is an “other”, a mastermind, a possessor of secret knowledge, but not a racist character.