Friday 10 December 2021

That's what Shi said: race, gender, and 1990s comic books

Who here remembers Shi?

I certainly didn't until recently. As my dalliance with Mutant Chronicles demonstrates, however, there are few limits to my tendency to become fascinated by whatever 1990s pop culture ephemera happen to cross my path. In this case, all it took was a stray link to a recent kickstarter and the fact that the comics turned out to be on sale at Drivethru. 

In many ways, Shi turned out to be a kind of bottled essence of mid-1990s nerd culture. A sexy Japanese woman in a stripper costume, written and drawn by a white American man, engages in bloody martial arts battles against urban criminal gangs while quoting Sun Tzu and pontificating on the nature of Bushido, all against a backdrop of Japanese corporate takeover of American business. It has everything: violence, Orientalism, urban decay, mercenaries, ex-Special Forces vigilantes, objectified 'action girl' heroines, guns, katanas, rampant fetishism. It even finds room for the then-current preoccupation with Catholicism that was so much a part of other 1990s action-girl comics like Magdalena, Fallen Angel, Warrior Nun Areala, and Avengelyne.

What surprised me about Shi is that, despite all this, it actually had some real merit. It almost manages to tell a story worth telling: not a narrative for the ages, by any means, but a good, pulpy tale about the self-consuming nature of violence and the futility of revenge, with strong roots in both Christian morality and Japanese pop culture. The art, at its best, manages to accomplish an effective fusion of Manga stylings, Floating World prints, and the Western superhero comicbook tradition. In places it comes close to being a cross-cultural success story, an example of an Italian-American Catholic artist developing a fascination with Japanese Buddhism that gives rise to something greater than the sum of its parts. But it never quite managed to cohere.

Here, as elsewhere, the hallucinatory Japanese warriors Ana sees around her in battle mirror the way that the comic itself is haunted by the Floating World imagery upon which it draws. 

Here's the story it wanted to tell: some time in the 1970s, a Japanese martial artist marries an American woman, converts to Catholicism, and retires from his old life to run a small business. One of his rivals sends a Yakuza hitman, Arashi, to hunt him down. He overpowers Arashi, and is about to kill him when his daughter, Ana, runs out, yelling 'Thou shalt not kill!' Arashi takes advantage of the distraction to shoot him dead, and then flees.

Traumatised by her father's death, Ana goes to her paternal grandfather for martial arts training, planning to shape herself into an avenger. Arashi, meanwhile, emigrates to America and builds himself a criminal empire. Years later, Ana hunts him down and starts killing his henchmen, but finds herself increasingly shocked by the human toll her violence is taking: after all, the men she's killing have wives and children, too. She tries to abandon her mission, but she's in too deep, and her attempts to disentangle herself only end up with more people getting killed. Finally, sorrowfully, she concludes that she has to see this through. 

Meanwhile, Arashi's powerbase is starting to crumble under the impact of Ana's assassinations. His enemies circle and the loyalty of his followers wavers, culminating in a coup attempt in which his own lieutenants rise up against him: Arashi wins, but is left broken-hearted, having killed his own closest friends in order to preserve his power over an empire that is already falling apart. Ana arrives to kill him, they fight, and she loses, but Arashi no longer has the heart to kill her, recognising her as a truer embodiment of the martial virtues he once aspired to than he ever was. Instead he commits symbolic seppuku by calling the police and framing himself for the murders she committed, while she abandons her avenger identity and walks away, her traumas resolved. The end.

At its best, Shi manages to be a rather humane story about the way in which violence can estrange us from ourselves: a story in which every fight scene has real psychological weight for the heroine, rather than just being meaningless padding of the 'and then ninjas attack!' variety. Its moral core is a struggle between three sides of Ana's personality: the religious morality that calls her to forgive, the honour code that calls her to avenge, and the primordial bloodlust embodied by the figure of the demon-samurai which haunts her, that calls her to just keep killing people because killing people feels fucking awesome. But anyone who has the slightest familiarity with 1990s comics will be completely unsurprised to hear that this core story kept getting buried under mountains of utter gibberish. There are conspiracies and misunderstood mutants and ancient orders of secret warriors and more fetish fuel and cod-Asian mysticism than you can shake a bokken at. 

Shi had honourable beginnings. The early editorials keep emphasising that it wasn't like those other 'bad girl' comics, with their meaningless violence and gratuitous fanservice, and at first it was sort of true. Billy Tucci had an actual story he wanted to tell, supported by real characters and an above-average-for-1994 level of understanding of Japanese culture, and these helped to make Shi a hit back when it was still just a struggling indie comic coming out at irregular intervals a few times a year. It got mainstream recognition: Tucci wrote proudly about the coverage he'd received in The New York Times and Elle magazine, notice that he attributed to his heroine's 'style and sophistication', approvingly quoting a description of Ana as 'the Audrey Hepburn of comics'. He was obviously frustrated with the way that Shi kept getting lumped together with what he viewed as inferior works, a perspective that Shi: Shiseiji (1996) was written to refute, as its editorial makes clear:

[A]s he spies upon Ana's adventures as Shi, our shiseiji has no idea of the complex moral issues that drive Ana's quest to avenge her family. Consequently, all he sees in Ana is a 'super ninja-bitch'. In this respect, Shiseiji is very much like a lot of fans in the comics community who write Shi off as another 'bad girl' book. The fact of the matter is that Ana isn't bad at all. She's not a ninja, either.

By 1997 Tucci was riding high, and unwisely tried to make Shi the lynchpin of a whole new comics franchise, with everything that implied in the late 1990s: spin-offs, crossovers, trading cards, alternate covers, the works. There were even plans for a Shi movie starring Tia Carrere, whom readers of a certain age will remember as Cassandra from Wayne's World. But the audience wasn't there, and the comics industry was in crisis, and by 1998 it was obvious that the entire enterprise was in deep trouble, with cancelled series and plaintive editorials begging readers to tell them what they were doing wrong. By 1999 the whole thing had collapsed into ruin.

It's easy to critique Shi. Critiquing Shi is like shooting fish in a barrel. Ana's whole character design is an exercise in fanservice - one comic even lampshades this by having her visit a strip club, where everyone naturally assumes, based on her costume, that she's one of the performers. Her fighting style apparently consists mostly of jumping into the air while sticking her butt out. The dilemma her character is built around rests on awful essentialising stereotypes that juxtapose kind humane western Christianity with alien and implacable Asian honour codes. (Moments where Ana starts talking about her giri tend to be particularly bad.) For a story supposedly built around a 'strong female character', a surprising amount of the plot consists of men taking decisions on Ana's behalf while she flops around having existential crises. The ancient secret orders of the Nara and Kyoto sohei, whose feuds drive much of the plot, are portrayed as murderous idiots, a kind of parody of Western stereotypes about Eastern religion, forever killing each other over trivialities and committing ritual suicide at the drop of a hat: it's impossible to believe that such organisations could hold together for a single generation, let alone a thousand years. (The 2004-5 miniseries Shi: Ju-Nen - which inexplicably featured costume designs by Anna Sui, of all people - showed them finally wiping each other out: the only wonder was that it hadn't happened sooner.) And the series never knew what to do with its secondary protagonist, Tomoe, whose narrative rapidly devolved into stream-of-consciousness mad-libs even by comic book standards. Not even the queer-baiting between her and Ana ever amounted to anything.

'I love you, Tomoe! But in a totally Platonic, heterosexual way, because it's still 1997! Now let's have another scene where we hug while we're both half-naked!'

The attitude of the whole franchise towards its Asian sources is deeply conflicted. On one hand, Tucci was clearly fascinated with all things Japanese, intrigued by Shinto and Buddhism, visually enraptured by kimonos and samurai armour, and delighted by the expressive potential of manga. (Shi had a manga spin-off in 1996, an era when manga was still relatively little known to the mainstream American comic-book market.) He proudly printed an endorsement from Stan Sakai, creator of Usagi Yojimbo, who praised Shi for being more respectful of its source material than most of its competitors, and who described it as 'captur[ing] the spirit of the buyuden - tales of valor popular in medieval Japanese literature'. Tucci even collaborated with the Korean-American writer Hank Kwon on the short-lived series Horseman (1996), whose story of an immortal Korean warrior predated the arrival of Hallyu culture in America by several years. 

At the same time, though, Tucci kept condemning the very Asian cultures that he drew upon so heavily, returning repeatedly to the cruelty of the historical Japanese persecution of Christianity, and to Ana's need to reconnect with her mother's Catholicism as an antidote to the violence and inhumanity of BushidoEven when he was publishing his own manga series it was at pains to distance itself from association with the wrong kind of manga, keeping its own brand of softcore fanservice carefully distinct from the form's reputation for more extreme pornographic content. As the editorial to the first issue explained, 'Weird monsters, giant robots, invaders from space... you name it, we'll do it (although, we'll skip emulating some of the racier stuff, like LA BLUE GIRL or DEMON BEAST INVASION. Sorry, but Shi just isn't that kind of gal).'

OUR manga isn't porny at all!

The frustrating thing about Shi is how close it kept getting to becoming something more. Take these passages from the 1995 comic Shi: Senryaku. Here's Ana, aged seventeen, learning a harsh lesson about why the white American boy she likes keeps smiling at her -  

"Let me guess," Mike offered. He let an insinuating tone creep into his voice. "You've heard some things about Oriental girls, you were wondering if they're true, and since I'm married to a Japanese woman..."

"Hey, I knew you'd understand," Ted said. The leer in his voice echoed Mike's. "The guys in my frat say that Asian women are, like, totally submissive and they'll do anything! Y'think Ana would be like that?

"Gee, Ted, I guess you'd better ask her", Mike responded, as I stepped out of the office. Ted gaped at me, astonished and ashamed. I glared at him. He turned to Mike, realized he'd been set up, and stormed out.

Full marks to Mike, right? Except that after becoming Ana's substitute father figure, and sharing all his sorrows, he shows his true colours as well:

I felt so sorry for him. Suddenly we were embracing. I was rocking him, trying to comfort him... and he kissed me.

I froze, mortified. What was he doing? He kissed my eyes, my hair, he whispered in my ear. It was okay, he said, Mariko didn't understand him, our bond was so special, so deep, and then he said: "Ana, you're so beautiful... I've been waiting for this since the day you walked in..."

He'd been waiting for this since the day I walked in. Which meant he'd been planning for it since then. Which meant that everything he'd been for me was a lie to make me vulnerable so that this could happen...

I broke away from him. I couldn't speak. I trembled with fury and anguish at the incredible depth of his betrayal.

This is pretty insightful stuff for a 1990s comic book, offering not just obvious critiques of racial stereotyping and fetishisation, but also a more subtle awareness that just because a man seems to transcend such vulgar prejudices doesn't mean he's not waiting to exploit you the moment he gets the chance. But this appears embedded in a series whose entire marketing strategy essentially boiled down to: 'HEY! LOOK! BUSTY ASIAN CHIX! CHECK OUT DAT A$$!'

See what I mean?

But under all the nonsense there's some real strength, both in the writing and the imagery. Shi, I fear, was a graphic novel manqué, undone by the realities of mid-1990s commercial comic book publishing. If the strongest elements of The Way of the Warrior, Shi: Kaidan, Shi: Senryaku, and Tora No Shi had been distilled down into a single series of about twelve issues, it could have been great, a kind of red-and-gold counterpart to David Mack's astonishing black-and-white Kabuki: Circle of Blood: a lurid martial arts crime drama about a traumatised girl taking on the legacy of her legendary ancestress in a half-crazed bid for revenge and redemption, haunted by a hallucinatory swirl of Japanese folklore and Catholic religious imagery, oni and angels, leering tengu and bleeding saints. But drawing it out to over sixty issues, and diluting it with all the superfluous characters whom Tucci hoped to publish spin-off series about, just let all its strength dissipate, reducing Ana to the status of yet another 90s action girl with too many katanas and not enough clothes.

The moral of the story is that if you only have one story to tell, then for heaven's sake just tell that story. 

The application of this moral to RPGs is left as an exercise for the reader.


  1. It's always better to write something with a set goal in mind than to try to stretch it out indefinitely, especially if, like Tucci seems to, you really DO have a coherent point that could benefit from clarity. Comics suffer from this especially; I much prefer a five issue standalone or extended-but-clearly-all-planned-out-from-the-start story to the endless runs a lot of comics favour. (I made the mistake of assuming that, since I liked the 2016 version of Prophet, I should check out the 90s Image Comics properties it was based on. That was a mistake, to say the least.)

    Which, oddly enough, I find applies to RPGs as well. I like sandboxes, but I like sandboxes with a clear short-term goal or at least small borders and relatively easy Things To Do. They help to keep things focused, and the smaller they are, the more likely you are to get a satisfying conclusion if the campaign doesn't last as long as you'd hope - and if it does last a while, the smaller legs of the journey mean there's a sense of progress, and give you lots of accomplishments to look back on as the months pass. Most campaigns which are planned to cover a Lord Of The Rings style story never make it out of the Shire - so why not just make that the goal at first and see if everyone wants to keep playing after it's done?

    1. I think RPGs benefit a lot from *intensity*. It's why I'm always condensing things down on this blog. It's much better to run a single adventure bursting with ideas and content than a long, drawn-out, over-padded campaign. Paradoxically, you're even more likely to get a longer game out of it. A good, short, vibrant adventure will often leave players with loads of ideas about what they want to follow up on next, whereas a drawn-out slog will lead to everyone getting bored long before they reach the 'good bits'...

  2. Well, now I know who Anna Sui is.
    Even if I'm not sure what 'the Audrey Hepburn of comics' means.

    1. Tucci wanted Ana's character design to communicate elegance, as opposed to the crude sex appeal of contemporary 'bad girl' characters like Witchblade and Lady Death. He often drew her in kimonos and evening dresses to emphasise the point. He got quite upset when a pastor wrote in to ask what a good Catholic boy like him was doing drawing a comic about a half-naked lady in 'vulgar' clothes, and changed Ana's costume to be less revealing a couple of issues later. (It didn't stick.)

    2. I see! Elegance and sophistication were sadly not conveyed by the costuming in the images you selected above. Going back over them, the contrast between the Shi herself and the feudal warrior monks in the last one is revealing - not only the artist's intentions, but quite how far this drifts from Japanese (or, indeed, Catholic) tradition.

      That's an interesting story, also. Thanks for passing it on.

  3. Fascinating. I missed a whole era of weirdness in comics it seems.