The first Asian American Comicon opened its doors at the newly built Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) in downtown New York City to a long line of attendees. The space, designed by Maya Lin, architect of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C., quickly filled up well beyond its capacity. More than 500 people visited the museum for the show. Many came specifically to meet guest of honor Larry Hama, who has penned Marvel's G.I. Joe series for the past 20 years. Other guests included industry heavy-weights such as Liquid Comics (formerly Virgin Comics) publisher and CEO Sharad Devarajan, Diamond Comics v-p of marketing Kuo-Yu Liang, comics writer and filmmaker Greg Pak, novelist Ed Lin, essayist Karl Taro Greenfeld, and Dartmouth professor Aimee Bahng.

Organized by the editors of the New Press’s Asian American superhero comics anthology Secret Identities, the convention featured three tracks: one to spotlight creators like Hama, another to explore the business of how comics are made, and a third to discuss how comics are currently read. The show featured an artist's alley which also served as a free exhibit open to the public. A silent auction of work by various Asian American comics artists (with a number of items by Cliff Chiang) was also held with all proceeds going to MOCA.

Avani Chhaya (l.) and Taryn Nakamura of the Asian American Writers' Workshop

But given that a number of Asian Americanswork very prominently in comics—as well as the huge numbers of Asian American comics fans—and already attend events like the San Diego Comic-Con and the New York Comic-Con, it’s appropriate to ask whether a small event like this, spotlighting one specific demographic in the industry, is really necessary. Comics artist Cliff Chiang said yes. A former editor of Vertigo/DC Comics and current artist on the Green Arrow/Black Canary line of comics at DC, Chiang enjoyed the intimate feel of the event and the space. "I get to walk around and talk to people,” saidChiang, who is typically sequestered behind a table, signing autographs at events like these. "Having it here [at the Museum of Chinese in America] has its significance. There's greater visibility of Asian Americans in comics and it's nice to celebrate our contributions within the community." Chiang also pointed out that a career in comics isn't a typical job for most children of Asian immigrants and saw the Asian American Comicon as a way to inspire people beyond the typical doctor/lawyer tracks. Incidentally, the majority of attendees at the AACC were Asian.

Keith Chow (l.) and Larry Hama

The Asian American Comicon originally started out as a promotional event for the book, Secret Identities. But the editors, Jeff Yang, Greg Pak, Jerry Ma and Keith Chow saw it develop organically—and quickly—into a full fledged convention. Yang and Pak had discussed holding an event like this for a few years, and with the publication of the SI anthology and the opening of the new space for MOCA, the group saw their opportunity. Of course,thepopularity of the book was not harmed by the event's expansion: 100 copies of Secret Identities were sold during the day and the Secret Identities autograph sessionwas very popular.

During the panels, guests spoke of the roles Asian characters—typically portrayed as villains—often play in mainstream comics and addressed current popular depictions of Asians in the media, depictions said to be largely largely focused on women in hypersexualized roles. For Larry Hama, who started out at Marvel as an artist and landed a gig writing G.I. Joe after many requests to write comics, humanizing the Asian "bad guys" was an important step in developing villains as actual characters. "I came at [G.I. Joe] with an anti-war approach." Hama said during the The New Villains panel. "It's not that bad guys want to be bad. I wanted to peel away that mask and show their motivations. I wanted to develop characters that I thought were good, honorable, who followed a code of ethics. Villains are loyal, too."

Kensuke Okabayashi

Meanwhile, in the panel, Every Comic is Asian American, Karl Taro Greenfeld, author of Speed Tribes: Days and Nights with Japan's Next Generation, China Syndrome, and most recentlyBoy Alone: A Brother's Memoir, pointed to the absence of Asian males in American media. "Asian American women complain about how they're hyper-sexualized in the media." Greenfeld said. "But at least they're portrayed as sexual. Asian men never are."

Over at "The Asianization of Pop Culture", artist Kensuke Okabayashi who authored two, For Dummies books, Manga for Dummies, andFigure Drawing for Dummies, saw the tides of manga entering the U.S. book marketopening doors for himself and other illustrators. But he warned against investing too much in manga as a singular visual style and method of storytelling, noting thattrends typically last for on average, five years. "Diversify your work,” he told the audience.

AACC09: Greg Pak and Jeremy Arambulo
Greg Pak (l.) and Jeremy Arambulo

Given the number of attendees, many of whom appreciated the intimate setting and the opportunity to personally connect with artists and members of the industry, the AACC organizers said they were feeling positive about planning forthe event in the future. "I think everyone involved is interested,” said Keith Chow, Secret Identitieseducation and outreach editor. "Now that the first one's under our belts, we know what needs to be done to make another one even better. (For what it's worth, those statements also apply to a second vol of SI). We’d also love to include even more creators and artists in any subsequent AACC."

[Additional Reporting by Erin Finnegan. Photos by Jody Culkin]