Asian-American Identity in the Arts, as told by Bernard Chang and Bobby Rubio
NEW YORK AND SAN FRANCISCO BAY. Asian inclusivity is becoming more prominent on the big screen, as artists with East-West backgrounds reflect more on their own culture and identity. We speak with two Asian-American comic book artists, Bernard Chang and Bobby Rubio, on stories of their childhood, heritage, and culture through the arts.
Grossing over US$29 million at the box office on its first day, Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings became an immediate breakthrough for Asian representation in comic movies. The superhero plot showcased Chinese culture through mythology and language in ways that hadn’t yet been interpreted in Hollywood.
Growing up, Bernard Chang, a comic book artist who works with Marvel Comics and DC, says that when he immigrated to America from Taiwan at age six, “There weren't a lot of Asian-American characters in television, movies, or books.”
Bobby Rubio, a Filipino-American artist from San Diego, holds the same opinion. The animator, who now works with Paramount Pictures, made his directorial debut in 2019 during his time at Pixar with SparkShorts’ Float. The short film follows the relationship between a Filipino father and his son, who carries unusual powers, a metaphor for his Autism. The film has garnered over 25 million views on YouTube after its wide release as a signal to the importance of representation.
The success of Rubio’s Float diversifies Asian characters on screen. When he initially took the project, Rubio designed the main character as Caucasian because he thought it was what the market would want to see. Luckily, Jillian Liebert, the story manager of Float, questioned Rubio on his decision, saying, “How is your son going to feel when he looks up on the screen? And those characters are white?” He changed the characters to reflect his reality. Now, Rubio is keen on creating more Asian characters with his own series of Filipina comic leads in Neighborhood Legend, a superhero who uses the traditions of Eskrima to fight the native Filipino martial arts.
The journey to becoming successful comic book artists didn’t come easy. For Bernard Chang, who has always been a comic book fan and loved drawing from a young age, went to Pratt Institute in New York but chose to study architecture. He initially had doubts about pursuing a career as an artist, partly due to his traditional parents, explaining, “My parents would understand architecture a little bit more than being an artist.” Rubio adds “Our parents wanted us to be engineers, doctors, lawyers, and nurses – the arts wasn't what they were pushing for.”
Nevertheless, Chang didn’t give up pursuing his dream and eventually flourished under New York’s dynamic network of creatives and comics, speaking to as many industry natives as possible from bars to school networks. Chang examples success after his breakthrough 1993 comic series debut with a lead Asian-American male character, in The Second Life of Doctor Mirage. His character breaks the conventional image of Asian males as a “lover not a fighter” outside the kung-fu typecast.
This is far from how careers in the arts are now positively perceived, their childhood in the 70s/80s held different taboos. Stemming from traditional Asian ideology, and a need for ‘stable careers’, there were not many famous Asian artists in Western media at that time to take inspiration from. Many Asian diaspora parents who came to the States were often looking for the “American Dream”, and so-called ‘artists’ weren’t the most promising occupation.
On the lack of recognition for Asian-American talents instead, he met them designing behind the scene, after he “started looking into history.” He discovered, “one of Disney’s earliest animators was an Asian-American, an artist who designed a lot of the characters that we grew up watching in the movies. None of us knew that, right?” To bring more Asian representation into the creative industry, “A lot of times you have to be even better than everyone else by a couple of times to break in.” A drive for the creative doesn’t stop, as hopes for more Asian representation appear on-screen and behind the scenes continue with new releases like Pixar’s Turning Red, Michelle Yeoh in Everything Everywhere All at Once, and Academy Award-winning Parasite from Korea.
This article is from our interview feature on Bernard Chang and Bobby Rubio available to read in print. Get your limited edition copy here.