Mark Waid Crafted the Fake Siancong War to Keep Marvel Characters Young… and It’s Even Worse Than it Sounds

Mark Waid Crafted the Fake Siancong War to Keep Marvel Characters Young… and It’s Even Worse Than it Sounds

Marvel Comics has had a rough couple of years when it comes to making decisions that aren't morally repugnant. The latest in their new attempts to become Comicsgate's favorite publisher is if looked at generously, incredibly lazy editorializing in an attempt to tie up the loose ends that come with being a publisher who has

Marvel Comics has had a rough couple of years when it comes to making decisions that aren’t morally repugnant. The latest in their new attempts to become Comicsgate’s favorite publisher is if looked at generously, incredibly lazy editorializing in an attempt to tie up the loose ends that come with being a publisher who has been making comics for 80 years. The aim was to create a conflict — the Siancong War — that could be used as the source for the trauma and experiences of characters like Frank Castle, James Rhodes, and Tony Stark without having to explain why they aren’t all 80 years old — the answer to that is of course… it’s a comic.

But the problem here wasn’t necessarily the idea, though it is arguably a lazy one, it was the execution as Waid and artist Javier Rodriguez crafted a page that looks more like a racist propaganda poster than anything that should have been sent to print by one of the biggest comic book publishers in the world in 2019.

We sat down and talked about our issues with the Siancong War and why the execution causes far more problems than it solves.

The Secret History of the Marvel Universe #2 (C) Marvel 2019. Written by Mark Waid, Pencils and Colors by Javier Rodriguez, Inks by Alvaro Lopez, Letters by VC’s Joe Caramanga.

Kat Overland: Reading Mark Waid say this: “I’ve been contending for years that, just as the origin of the FF “floats” a perpetual twelve to thirteen years behind current day rather than forcing the characters to age in real-time as if they really went up in their rocket ship in 1961, we should also create a “floating conflict” to serve a similar purpose for characters whose origins are tied to specific wars. The Punisher’s origin, for instance, was originally tied to Vietnam, but the longer it’s anchored specifically there, the stranger it gets that Frank Castle isn’t seventy years old.”

Makes me feel like Waid might be missing the point of Punisher’s origin, to begin with. Frank Castle is not the Punisher because of an unspecified “war,” he is a reaction to the Vietnam War specifically. Waid appears to understand this because he kept Magneto tied to WWII, and Captain America’s WWII origin story is obviously going to be canon forever. But wars and conflicts are not interchangeable and these heroes are not free from political influence, and in fact, many are born as political responses to real-world politik. Making Punisher’s origin story rooted to a fake, racist-looking war with a fake country thus white-washes his trauma, the narrative purpose his stories served, and I suppose sanitizes the Marvel universe to satisfy the ComicsGate crowd who want to keep politics out of superhero comics.

The irony here is that Waid himself was recently censored for drawing too many real-world parallels in an essay about Captain America, so it’s not that he’s wholly ignorant of the how superheroes can reflect current-day politics.

Wendy Browne: And yet, it’s not the first time Waid has done something that is, while presumably well-intentioned, still contains all levels of racist audacity when it comes to the erasure of marginalized voices and cultures. There’s a history here of Waid barreling forward with concepts that affect people of colour, without actually addressing, much less understanding, how it affects those very people.

Kate Tanski: This choice with Reed is ESPECIALLY odd because of what just happened in Fantastic Four #14, written by Dan Slott. The arc is called “Point of Origin,” and takes us back to the Fantastic Four’s origin story being exclusively NASA-driven with the underlying theme of “discovery for discovery’s sake”. Love to see Marvel’s own current continuity contradicting itself.

Kat: Plus the art looks super racist, invoking war propaganda Yellow Peril tropes.

Mallory Yu: Exactly! This art immediately stood out to me as invoking “yellow peril.” This particular page looks like it was inspired by posters for 1965’s The Face of Fu Manchu, a fairly quintessential Hollywood stereotype of a “bad Asian.” The Asian villains’ shadowy faces loom over the smaller figures of American G.I.s – we don’t even have to look at the text to know they’re the antagonists. The warlord Wong-Chu looms over the page like Fu Manchu did, his ring-clad fingers held up as he uses his powers to “manipulate” the conflict. The Mandarin looks like a caricature of Communist leader Mao Zedong, and Lady Lotus is a stereotypical Dragon Lady — physically attractive but underhanded (look how she smirks out of the corner of her slanted eyes).

American audiences are clearly supposed to focus on the American G.I.s; their faces aren’t shadowed and they’re walking “toward” the audience so we can see their faces, while the innocent Siancong civilians don’t get that humanization. The only other face we see clearly aside from the nefarious Asians is that of a young, white American soldier. It’s dehumanizing and altogether too simplistic, setting up valiant American forces against a shadowy (and magical) cabal of villainous Asian caricatures.

All that matters is the trauma of the American soldiers, especially the white ones, who fought and suffered in the jungle. And based on Marvel’s output over the years, a naive reader could be forgiven for thinking that Vietnam is 95% jungle, 5% cult-run mystical temples.

Mai Pucik: Growing up Vietnamese American, you learn fast that mainstream pop culture makes no space for Vietnam, not as a tragedy porn playground, but a living, breathing place: one with peoples and cultures of its own and a history that not only long predates the United States of America, but has, shockingly, continued in the 44 years since the US lost the Vietnam War. All that matters is the trauma of the American soldiers, especially the white ones, who fought and suffered in the jungle. And based on Marvel’s output over the years, a naive reader could be forgiven for thinking that Vietnam is 95% jungle, 5% cult-run mystical temples.

I’ve seen people on Twitter expressing surprise at the blatant racism on display here, but for me the only novelty was the notion that someone involved in the creative process finally realized Vietnam wasn’t actually frozen in amber in 1975, even if only to fix the contradictory backstories of some popular white guys (and one black guy, mentioned but not shown).

In the interview Kat quotes, Waid doesn’t mention another group besides American soldiers that are going to be affected by this change: the characters who are actually from Vietnam or nearby parts of Southeast Asia. If it’s been somewhat awkward to gloss over exactly which war Frank Castle, Reed Richards, and Flash Thompson fought in, it’s even stranger when Xi’an Coy Manh of the X-Men is a twenty-something-year-old who fled Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon.

Marvel has few Vietnamese or other Southeast Asian characters of any significance, and most of them have well-intentioned but now deeply dated origins tied to the war with the US. If it’s truly necessary to give characters backstory tune-ups to fit modern geopolitical reality, surely characters like Xi’an, Mantis, or even Sha Shan Nguyen are more in need. But now it’s possible that they’ll simply be stripped of real-world identity — and whatever value they have as representation, even if flawed — and transposed to Yellow Peril Land. It’s already happening in this issue. After all, the Dragon’s Breath was originally situated in Cambodia, part of the origin story of New Warrior Silhouette. (See above re: mystical temples.) In her next appearance, will she be half-Siancongese instead of half-Cambodian?

But hey, now we don’t need to handwave Ben Grimm’s military service that literally no one except Mark Waid cares about, so that’s fine!

The Face of Fu-Manchu Poster (C) Warner Bros. 1965

Rosie Knight: I know that we spend a lot of time being surprised, disappointed, and even disgusted by the behavior of Marvel Comics under EIC C.B. Cebulski, yet there is something about this decision that still managed to completely shocked me. War has been the backdrop and inciting issue for pretty much the entirety of Big Two Superhero Comics in a way that has shaped them for both better and worse. Both companies flagship characters Superman and Captain America were created in the midst of WWII and spent much of their early days and many many issues fighting against the Nazis. There’s a whole other conversation to be had (and that has been had many, many times) about the prevalence of wartime storytelling / pro-military messaging in Big Two comics but it’s impossible to deny how much real-life wars of our world have molded the face of Marvel and DC Comics and the heroes inside them.

With the decision to erase the real-life conflicts that have influenced the creation of characters like Frank Castle, James Rhodes, and Tony Stark takes away from the power of the stories that introduced them. The impact of flawed but authentic narratives that tried their best to reflect the realities of the real world in which they were created. Aside from all of that, the choice to take what was always a racist stereotype in Siancong (originally known as the Sin-Cong) and use it as a catch-all forever war that immediately gives Marvel carte blanche to treat their racist stereotype caricatures as the true villains of the war without actually dealing with the reality of the devastating impact that Imperialist violence has on countries like Vietnam and Afghanistan. It also feels pointed that this decision happened alongside Marvel Comics’ consistently stating that they want to “depoliticize their comics” at least when it comes to a famed Jewish creator like Art Spieglman calling out the current fascistic American regime or even like Kat mentioned History of the Marvel Universe’s own author Mark Waid writing an essay about ‘Rebellion.’

Mai: I couldn’t help but notice that Waid’s revised version of Namor’s origin in this same issue notes that he was “taught by his elders to distrust surface dwellers” while omitting he was raised this way because an American ship indiscriminately (though accidentally) dropped bombs all over Atlantis. Even characters from countries with no real-world analogue aren’t safe from being defanged.

It’s an outdated Western view of a country and its people but, as Mai noted earlier, this shift wasn’t for reasons of cultural insensitivity but for convenience. It’s convenient for writers who now don’t have to worry about aging characters, but it’s also convenient that they don’t have to deal with any of the messy reality or the accompanying sociopolitical implications of Western imperialism and violence in Vietnam.

Mallory: I agree completely. The decision to erase real-life conflicts and replace them with a fictional one — one still caused by nefarious Asians — is a disappointing move and strikes me as Waid, artist Javier Rodriguez, and perhaps most importantly Marvel wanting to have their cake and eat it too. The glimpse of Siancong we get in this comic is of lush jungles and palm trees, soldiers in camo wading through a blood-red river, villagers in rice paddy hats with oxen. It’s crystal clear what war the team is referencing. This is imagery that American audiences associate with the Vietnam War, clearly intended to portray the Siancong as faceless victims, underhanded criminals, or guerrilla soldiers. It’s an outdated Western view of a country and its people but, as Mai noted earlier, this shift wasn’t for reasons of cultural insensitivity but for convenience. It’s convenient for writers who now don’t have to worry about aging characters, but it’s also convenient that they don’t have to deal with any of the messy reality or the accompanying sociopolitical implications of Western imperialism and violence in Vietnam.

Mai: There’s zero mention of colonialism, a brief mention of communism, then a nice, big, well-centered caption to make sure we know the important part of this conflict was the fight to control mysterious magical energy!

It’s worth noting that Siancong isn’t a new creation of Waid’s; it first appeared in Avengers #18 (1965), referred to as Sin-Cong, and has been used a couple of times since then, including by Waid earlier this year in Doctor Strange #10. Its most significant previous appearance, however, was in Charles Soule, James Asmus and Stefano Caselli’s All-New Inhumans #2-4 (2015-2016), in which Sin-Cong functions as a stand-in not for Vietnam of the 1970s, but North Korea of today. It seems that all Asians are interchangeably perilous, whether lurking around in magic jungles or building armies of giant mecha.

(To heap indignity on indignity, in the three titles which have used Sin-Cong since 2016, the country’s name has been spelled four different ways.)

Kelly Kanayama: “Siancong” is definitely getting added to my list of potential answers for when some jerko tries to hit on me with “Soooo….where are you really from?”

“Well, I was born in K’un Lun, but mostly grew up in Siancong — did a semester-abroad thing in Agrabah…” and just keep going until they lose interest.

For real, though, absolutely yes to everything that’s been said so far! I also feel like substituting a pretend country and a pretend war allows fans, creators, etc to gloss over the racism of previous (and current) portrayals of Vietnam in the comics; as reply guys never tire of pointing out, you can’t be racist against a fictional culture.

Siancong is going to play merry hell with the Punisher’s continuity in particular, not just because — as pointed out by others here — the Vietnam War is such an integral part of who the character is, but also because Frank has spent time in other Marvel comics that depend upon people recognizing in continuity that the Vietnam War happened. I’m thinking specifically of Punisher Invades The ‘Nam, where Frank crossed over into The ‘Nam for a few issues: the title of which doesn’t make much sense without an in-continuity Vietnam War. This sounds like a small issue, but it’s emblematic of a larger problem, namely not thinking for one damn second about the fact that acknowledging a terrible event is nowhere near as bad as pretending it never happened.

The Punisher Invades The ‘Nam (C) Marvel Comics 1990. Cover art by Jorge Zaffino

The reason I mention The ‘Nam is less to do with the comic’s title (although you can’t really call it The ‘Cong, can you?) and much more to do with what it represents. Larry Hama, who edited the title and fought in Vietnam for years, has said that many of the stories, occurrences, and characters in the comic were inspired by real memories of the battlefield. At a New York Comic Con panel in 2017, he recalled getting letters from readers who’d also fought in the Vietnam War telling him how accurate the comic was and how true it rang in light of their own experiences. By presenting war through an honest lens rather than a jingoistic one, The ‘Nam offered a rare glimpse behind the fog of national self-aggrandizement at the traumatized, exploited humanity that fed the fog machine.

While this attitude toward the Vietnam War didn’t fully make it into Marvel’s other titles (Garth Ennis, of course, comes the closest, but doesn’t have the firsthand knowledge that Hama et al possessed), it nevertheless informed portrayals of the conflict in certain comics — like The Punisher — and, perhaps more importantly, took a stand against the erasure that Siancong represents.

It’s also worth mentioning that after The ‘Nam, Hama went on to write G. I. Joe for Marvel — a bonkers comic, yes, but a middle finger to American jingoism. In his G. I. Joe, the villains were often US government officials or capitalism, or capitalist US government officials, and pretty much every issue highlighted that to live by the high-powered semi-automatic with interchangeable missiles meant dying by the high-powered semi-automatic with interchangeable missiles. Or to sum up, war is hell. Having a second-generation Japanese-American guy applying the principles of The ‘Nam to a very, uh, patriotic action figure tie-in comic, and turning said comic into an anti-war treatise, is no small feat.

What on earth does this have to do with Siancong? On top of the slap in the face that such large-scale political and historical erasure constitutes, substituting a fictional war and a fictional country for what happened in Vietnam erases some very important parts of Marvel’s history as well. Which maybe you don’t want to do if you’re putting together a history of Marvel.

What on earth does this have to do with Siancong? On top of the slap in the face that such large-scale political and historical erasure constitutes, substituting a fictional war and a fictional country for what happened in Vietnam erases some very important parts of Marvel’s history as well. Which maybe you don’t want to do if you’re putting together a history of Marvel.

There’s another why to this question I still haven’t been able to pinpoint: why doesn’t Mark Waid trust readers to be able to hold multiple continuities in their head at any one time? This history of Marvel appears to be aimed at people who’ve been reading Marvel comics for years and who, as a result, are probably used to seeing numerous reboots, resets, universes, and character iterations go by one after the other. Why can’t this history acknowledge that the Punisher was forged in the Vietnam War but that he’s somehow still young enough to do all the Punishing he needs to, thanks to the magic of comics?

Maybe it’s because I’m not a continuity fetishist. I’m used to comics not going the way I want — who isn’t? — and so I can choose to exclude those comics from my own mental continuity while being fully aware that they are part of official continuity. Sort of like how I personally view, say, Grand Admiral Thrawn as more a part of the Star Wars universe than Kylo Ren is. So Frank Castle should be older than my mom by now, using regular human calculations. But using regular human calculations, the Incredible Hulk should be dead from radiation poisoning, and yet somehow that one slips through the plausibility net.

I wonder if it’s because writing down in an official history that the Punisher is an old dude makes the intended audience feel old, and apparently nothing is worse than making that particular audience feel old. That’s why when superheroes get married or have kids, some kind of reality-altering event sweeps it all away. Settling down means you’re not as young as you were. It means your life is changing, and the world is changing, often in ways, you don’t want to deal with and don’t understand. Trust me, I know how that feels. To switch publishers for a moment, I remember when Grant Morrison’s Action Comics run set Superman’s age at 27 in Earth years; at the time, I was also 27 in Earth years, and I wanted to fling that comic out the window, because we were the same age and how many tall buildings had I leaped over in a single bound?

Part of being a comics fan, at least for me, means figuring out why we construct and react to narratives in the ways that we do. What are we trying to champion or brush aside? What is going on with us, personally or sociopolitically, that we read a particular storyline in a certain way at a certain time? Siancong-ifying Vietnam in the name of making the Punisher less old and pretending that these narratives don’t mean anything beyond checking off continuity points ignores these necessary truths.

That said, I am kind of getting a kick out of Angry Disco Mandarin, even if that whole page seems to be leaning hard into all the bad tropes (buck teeth and slits for eyes! Is this 1950?).

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Rosie Knight
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  • Dane
    September 17, 2019, 7:09 pm

    I’m confused about something. I haven’t read the issue, did they say the Vietnam War never happened in the Marvel Universe, because that can’t be right.

    REPLY
    • Doug@Dane
      September 17, 2019, 10:40 pm

      He invented a Pan-Asian War not specifically tied to a decade or a country. Jesus, where’s the complication?

      REPLY
      • Wendy Browne@Doug
        September 18, 2019, 9:50 am

        IDK maybe if you read the article you’d find out?

        REPLY
        • George @Wendy Browne
          September 18, 2019, 11:23 am

          I did read it, sounds like they’re making more of a problem than it actually is. This culture of outrage is getting super old super quick. Right-wing friends of mine call me a libtard and even I’m saying I’m sick of this crap.

          REPLY
          • Wendy Browne@George
            September 18, 2019, 6:02 pm

            Sounds like you need new friends and a better understanding of “outrage” versus people expressing their thoughts critically and clearly in regard to an issue they disagree with on a comics criticism site.

            REPLY
    • Wendy Browne@Dane
      September 18, 2019, 11:47 pm

      Real wars still exist. Magneto, and obviously Cap, are still connected to WWII. But characters who are soldiers whose origins are intrinsically linked to the Vietnam War have now been shifted to this new, magical war, thus removing the political elements that shaped said characters. Further, only these soldiers’ origins are addressed. What of the characters mentioned here that came from Vietnam, in some cases, fleeing that specific war? Are they now Siancongese? Because their culture isn’t important so it can be simply switched to this fake place? Or are they still from Vietnam, having fled the Vietnam War, that somehow exists for them but no longer for Frank, Rhodey, etc.

      Point is, “Frank ought to be 80” isn’t good enough reason to justify erasing connections that are fundamental to the character, because there are all sorts of strings attached that clearly haven’t been considered.

      And that’s before we get to the ‘Yellow Peril’ image.

      REPLY
      • Dane@Wendy Browne
        September 26, 2019, 4:48 pm

        I did read the article, I’m asking if the issue itself said that the Vietnam War never happened in the Marvel Universe. The article mentions several times that this new fictional war is the new origin point for certain characters, but also suggested that the Vietnam War just straight up didn’t happen in the current timeline. That’s all I wanted to know.

        REPLY

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