Superheroes are all the rage these days. With the emergence of superheroes back into the mainstream, there has been an increasing push for diversity in superhero comics. While there have been non-white superheroes in the past, the quality of them tends to… vary. Asian characters especially are usually largely defined by their ethnicity; in particular their powers and visuals are heavily focused on how Asian they can be.
As an Asian-Australian reader of Chinese and Vietnamese heritage, and an avid consumer of superhero media, I have long felt that Asian representation in superhero media needs improvement. For this reason, I’m going to take a look at different Asian superheroes and judge if they are good representation for Asian people. These characters can be born anywhere and can be of any sex, gender or sexual orientation, but the key point is that they have some Asian heritage. What I discuss can range from the visibility of their heritage to how stereotypical they are, but it will all be through the lens of an Asian reader’s perception of characters meant to make me feel represented to some degree.
To kick things off, I thought I’d look at one of the first Asian characters I encountered when getting into reading comics. That is, the electric blue-haired Japanese mutant known as Surge AKA Noriko Ashida.
Noriko “Nori” Ashida first debuted in the pages of New Mutants #8, created by Nunzio DeFilippis, Christina Weir, Carlo Barberi and Khary Randolph. She was a homeless mutant living near the Xavier School for the Gifted, one who went to the school for help but was turned away by one student because he thought she was a homeless drug addict thanks to her ramblings (being too charged up causes her to talk faster). This was closer to the truth than you would expect, as she was using drugs to control her volatile powers — she absorbs and discharges electricity. Eventually, she would receive regulator gauntlets that fulfilled the same function, only better, and join the school.
Because New Mutants focused on the now adult original New Mutants team, Surge didn’t do much. We learned that she was rebellious, rude and didn’t like relying on others. Also, she got a job as a barista to make it up to the coffee shop owner she accidentally hurt, which may be one of the most normal things a student character has ever done in an X-book. But yeah, she was just presented as a flawed character who’d gone through some rough times, certainly one of the more troubled of the new teenage cast.
This introduction is pretty good for an Asian character. While Surge is from Japan, her powers don’t revolve around that. She doesn’t channel the Dragon Balls or focus her powers through a katana or super karate, she just manipulates electricity and can use it for superspeed. Her superhero name doesn’t shout “I’m Asian”, but she appears Asian thanks to the artwork by Carlo Barberi, namely the face. The initial look with the dirty hair akin to dreadlocks — at least I think that’s what Barberi was going for — is a bit weird, but once she gets cleaned up, it’s a fine look, if bland. Plus, her real name is very obviously Asian without sounding generic.
However, Chris Bachalo decided that she had to be excessively Asian on this cover:
The second series to feature Surge heavily would be New X-Men: Academy X, also by DeFilippis and Weir, where she would be a bigger focus. Here, we got more of a look into Surge’s personality. While she was still rebellious and a smartass, she had a soft spot for kids and people she considered friends, even if she shut herself off at times.
Between New Mutants and New X-Men: Academy X, Surge dyed her hair blue because she has electric powers and thought it made sense, which I really like. Her look in general I think is more distinct while still being noticeably Asian, mostly down to artists remembering to add Asian features like the slanted eyes and flatter nose bridge. The hair is still straight, but the blue adds a rebellious spark to it that makes the character stand out and fits her personality, same with the jeans rather than tights. She’d later switch to a midriff-revealing version of the typical X-kid uniform, however, but the blue hair would never go away.
One of the first points of conflict she had was with her roommate, Dust, who is a devout Muslim. Surge found her attire to be an affront to women’s rights and the two came to blows more often than not, but they did make some peace after Surge gave Dust back her clothes when she was naked — Dust’s powers don’t take her clothes with her, and the students had a training exercise that left her naked. This moment may be a bit preachy, but I think it makes sense for Surge’s character after what we learn about her, and definitely could have been explored more after.
We eventually learn that, part of the reason for Surge’s reclusiveness and dislike for traditional gender roles is because she was essentially disowned by her father once her mutation manifested. This resulted in her running away from home and ending up homeless as we’d previously seen. In short: she’s one of those mutants who doesn’t have a home outside of the Xavier School.
This is something that really spoke to me when I first read it, because for me and those I grew up with, a very common threat from Asian parents was that they would disown their children for whatever reasons. Usually this was for academic reasons, but it was a common occurrence. It’s something that I found instantly relatable and felt like it gave the character a real complexity and authenticity, while not being something overly Asian, as parents disowning their children and runaway teens isn’t exclusive to Asian culture. This all reinforced the idea that Surge has been shaped by the struggles in her life, which left someone who is jaded, rebellious and a bit of an asshole, but who has good reasons for that, and means well and looks out for those who matter to her.
Note that Surge’s mother doesn’t agree with her husband but doesn’t stop his mistreatment of their child. This is also something I could relate to and isn’t uncommon in Asian families, in part because of different cultural norms, and is just a nice look at family dynamics in families (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 had a similarly interesting look at abuse). It also goes a way towards explaining Surge’s dislike of traditional gender roles and hence her dislike of Dust, even if that dislike is misguided.
Surge would join a new team of, well, New Mutants, mentored by Dani Moonstar and consisting of Prodigy, Elixer, Wallflower, Wind Dancer and Icarus. She was the snarky team member for the most part but helped the team out a lot and had a strong bond with Prodigy, and the two would eventually become a couple. For the time, it was cool to see a biracial couple like this, especially since more often than not in media, Asian characters will either be in relationships with other Asian characters or white people. With Noriko’s family history, it also sidesteps the “meet the weird Asian in-laws” plot, though it would’ve been nice to see Noriko’s family followed up on to some degree.
Everything seemed fine, but then House of M happened and decimated the mutant race, depowering the vast majority of mutants. While Surge retained her powers, Prodigy wasn’t so lucky. After their depowered friends left or were killed by anti-mutant extremists, a new team of young X-Men was formed. This included the aforementioned Dust, jerk jock Hellion, the depressed Mercury, other jerk jock Rockslide and the emo X-23, this time the team being led by Surge.
Her story revolved around learning to be a leader and making hard choices for the sake of her team. This was also when she broke up with Prodigy, to try and get him to leave the team. She also began having more of a disdain for the adult X-Men, particularly Charles Xavier, because of all her dead friends.
I think, for the most part, this felt in-character. Sure, it’s a jarring and dark turn from what seemed like her maturing as part of her character arc and learning to be more open, but with how dark 2000s X-Men comics were, that was inevitable. She ran her team for the rest of New X-Men (which was renamed from New X-Men: Academy X) before that series ended. Once again, her character revolved around being hit hard with hardship and overcoming it, while not necessarily coming out better in terms of personality for it. She was rebellious, but now shouldered a lot of responsibility on top of all her previous baggage.
And… that’s that. Surge hasn’t done much of note since, largely serving as a background character when a writer needs X-students. Surge’s relationship with X-23 took a turn for the worst when she found out about Laura being on X-Force, which felt like it was really pushing her attitude problem and was the real culmination of the idea that she was the asshole X-student and nothing more. She would be nicer to Laura in Avengers Academy when the X-kids were relocated to the Academy during Avengers vs. X-Men, however, and being written by a different writer.
But that’s pretty much it. Surge hasn’t even graduated high school yet, even though X-23 has, and X-Men editor Jordan D. White has said that this is from fear of “aging” the adult X-Men. So, she’s perpetually stuck in high school… but I don’t think she has to stay that way. If anything, the longer time in high school puts some distance between her character and the darkness of the 2000s X-Men comics, so you could just move her on from her angrier characterisation and actually have her grow past it, as opposed to her becoming a caricature of it with zero nuance. It’s not a hard nut to crack, really, so long as you don’t purely define her by her anger like some writers have.
Surge’s lack of use after the end of New X-Men is a shame, because I really like her as a character, especially an Asian one. She has an interesting origin story that can resonate with Asian readers, but is not defined by being Asian, because it’s not something exclusive to Asian people, in and out of the Marvel universe. Her design isn’t overtly Asian, but she can still be recognised as Asian so long as artists remember to draw Asian facial features. And she’s just a good character, with reasonable flaws (for the most part) and a lot of room for growth, which was unfortunately hugely shaped by the edgy 2000s era of X-Men comics.
I hope Surge does get some proper use again, because the Asian X-Men characters can often be of… mixed quality, especially in terms of representation, and yet they have a great one already — She just needs more exposure.