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When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong (Yellowface Edition)

By Brian Richards | News Stories | December 4, 2017 |

By Brian Richards | News Stories | December 4, 2017 |

By the time you’ve started reading this, you will have most likely watched the trailer for Avengers: Infinity War about 815 times, and found yourself thinking NC17-rated thoughts about bearded Chris Evans at least double that amount, while expressing all of the things you’d like to do to bearded Chris Evans, such as making him lie on his back so you can sit that pus—(signal drops)


(signal restored) —as he slowly licks it all off while ordering you not to break eye contact.

And that is something Marvel and Disney are very happy about, and should be happy about. Keeping their fanbase happy when it comes to their movies is something that Marvel prides itself on.

When it comes to their comic books and the people who help create and publish them, however … that’s something else entirely.

Earlier this month, longtime Editor-In-Chief Axel Alonso stepped down from the position and was soon replaced by C.B. Cebulski, talent scout for Marvel and food blogger. And before anyone could break out the reggae air-horns and set them off in a celebratory manner, Rich Johnston of Bleeding wrote an article which revealed something from Cebulski’s history with Marvel Comics that caused many people to raise an eyebrow and ask the immortal question: “What kind of fuckery is this?!” (And surprisingly, it had nothing to do with sexual abuse or harassment) Cebuslki, in order to avoid violation of company policies that forbade Marvel staffers from writing or drawing for their comics, created a pseudonym that would actually allow him to write comics for Marvel and any other company. And that pseudonym was for an Asian man named ‘Akira Yoshida,’ despite the fact that Cebulski is White and not Asian.

Johnston’s article deserves to be read in its entirety, but here are a few key portions:

Akira Yoshida was the name of a comic book writer who worked for Dreamwave, Dark Horse, and Marvel Comics 13 years ago. He was a Japanese writer who in interviews told us that he worked for manga publishers, went to US comic conventions, befriended the likes of Pat Lee, and started working in American comics as a result. He would eventually write a series of high-profile Marvel miniseries — 12 issues of Thor: Son Of Asgard, six issues of X-Men: Age of Apocalypse, five of Elektra: The Hand, five of Wolverine: Soultaker, five of X-Men: Kitty Pryde - Shadow & Flame, five of X-Men/Fantastic Four, and a bunch of one-shots — before, suddenly stopping.

This was surprising — Marvel executives I talked to at the time told me that Yoshida was a rarity. He was someone from non-English speaking country who could write well for an American audience — something Marvel had struggled with in the past when seeking authentic voices.

The only problem is, Yoshida didn’t exist, even though an editor said that had even had lunch with him and saw pictures of his immense Godzilla memorabilia.

…Cebulski confessed to Marvel execs what he had done. He could have been fired, but he pled his case internally to the highest authority at the company. The story was that back then, he had been planning to leave Marvel, but set up a writing career first — and Akira Yoshida was a fiction he created to get his first writing gig on Darkstalkers for Dreamwave and then Conan for Dark Horse. And it was from that gig that his fictional pseudonym was approached by another Marvel editor, quite unaware that Cebulski was Akira, and Cebulski found himself hired by his own company. And kept the lie going.

And as to the Akira Yoshida that Marvel people had met, including his bosses, that was a Japanese translator who had visited the offices … was mistakenly identified as Akira Yoshida. So everyone remembered having met him — even though they never did.

Eventually, Cebulski “killed” Akira off, resigned his position from Marvel, and was rehired as a Talent Manager with a new contract that allowed him to write on a freelance basis under his own name.

…Why was this an issue? Well, Marvel Comics at the time had made it policy not to allow Marvel staffers to write or draw comic books — or at least, if approved, not to get paid over their salary for doing so. Previous to Joe Quesada being made editor-in-chief, editors used to write comics for other editor’s departments, often reciprocated, and it was seen as a corrupt practice. If C.B. Cebulski was getting other editors to hire him as a writer, he had an advantage over others. And that also meant that he may be lying to his employer — or that his employer was making an exception.

Like many of the men whose history actually does involve sexual abuse and harassment, Cebulski could do nothing more than offer a half-hearted apology and explanation for his actions, all while barely acknowledging the magnitude of how badly this could and would look for both him and Marvel Comics.

I stopped writing under the pseudonym Akira Yoshida after about a year. It wasn’t transparent, but it taught me a lot about writing, communication and pressure. I was young and naïve and had a lot to learn back then. But this is all old news that has been dealt with, and now as Marvel’s new Editor-in-Chief, I’m turning a new page and am excited to start sharing all my Marvel experiences with up and coming talent around the globe.

And it’s probably not a good sign when Ben Affleck does a better job of apologizing for his past misconduct than the Editor-In-Chief of one of the biggest comic-book publishers in the world. And Affleck’s apology was comprised of only one sentence that barely even covered the then-140-character limit on Twitter.

The last thing Marvel Comics needs to deal with is yet another news story like this one tarnishing their brand and causing people to question them. Back in 2015, Marvel decided to release hip-hop-themed variant covers for many of their books. And as inventive and beautifully-designed as many of those covers were, they raised many an eyebrow due to the fact that Marvel has very few writers and artists on staff who aren’t White men, and for many, this came off as yet another example of a company willing to take advantage of Black people’s contributions without offering Black people a seat at the table.

Then there was the Marvel Retailer Summit back in April, where David Gabriel, Marvel’s Vice President of Print/Sales/Marketing seemed to imply that diverse characters in Marvel’s books were the reason for their poor sales (Which he immediately attempted to clarify in his best “What I had said was…” voice), and then later in October during a retailer panel at New York Comic-Con when comic-book store owners also expressed their frustration and anger at the low sales of Marvel books in their stores due to frequent variant covers and also characters becoming unexpectedly diverse, such as Iceman coming out as gay, Captain America now being a Black man, and Thor now being a woman. According to these retailers, customers who go see Marvel movies such as Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Thor: Ragnarok end up confused when they later go to buy comics and the characters they love who they just saw in the movies don’t look anything like they do on the page. (Because back issues and trade paperbacks for comic books are no longer sold in comic-book stores or even in existence, I guess)

Then there was also Marvel’s decision to hire Ron Richards as VP/Managing Editor of New Media. Which would be perfectly fine except for the fact that Richards has been plagued with rumors and allegations of sexual harassment. And considering that DC Comics finally decided to fire Eddie Berganza after his many years of sexual harassment were brought to the attention of even more people thanks to Buzzfeed and the New York Daily News, Marvel’s decision to play Can You Top This? by hiring their own sexual harasser just came off as monumentally baffling.

Shaun Lau (known as @NoTotally on Twitter), an Asian-American writer and host of the film/social-issues podcast No, Totally had a lot to say about this situation on Twitter, which makes sense considering that there is a lot about this situation that needs to be taken into consideration:

1. Someone from a group that historically finds it easiest to be employed adopts a pseudonym to take one of the few positions in this country that he doesn’t naturally qualify for. JUST THIS PART raises so many questions. Did he explicitly claim to be Japanese, in origin or ethnicity, in order to get hired? Believe it or not, that makes a difference. Because knowing the degree to which Cebulski misled Marvel, and/or the rigor or lack thereof of Marvel’s hiring practices will have an effect on how we interpret each side’s claims.

2. You know how institutionalized racism works. Were there other, actually Japanese people who were rejected as a result of Cebulski/Yoshida’s hire? That’s obviously an issue because it prevented Japanese writers from material and career benefit, but it also raises institutional questions. For example: was Yoshida hired over other candidates because of a better “culture fit?” Because yes, a white American masquerading as a Japanese person would project both Japanese-ness and whiteness. And that would potentially speak to bias in Marvel’s hiring practices when dealing with people who grew up/live in a non-white, non-American context. Like, these are just quick takes on the first (chronologically) part of this mess. This is just dipping a toe in. There’s so much here.

3. I have to jump ahead to Cebulski’s apology, which includes the sentiments “it was a long time ago” and “it’s been dealt with.” How long ago it happened is immaterial, if you’re aware at all of how your lies may have played a role in shutting others out of the business. “A long time ago,” without further context, just means “I’ve changed,” which misses the point that it’s not all about you, even though some of it is (I’ll get to that separately). And how exactly has it been “dealt with?” This speaks to who Cebulski thinks the aggrieved party should be. Apparently he thinks it’s Marvel, because this is the first time he’s publicly admitted this ruse. Again, this totally ignores the Japanese people (and any other ethnicities assumed by Americans to be monolithically bound with them) as folk who may have been materially damaged by all of this. White people apologizing to other white people for fucking with non-white people, as a genre, really needs to go.

4. People from Marvel who swear they met Yoshida in person actually met a Japanese translator? No. What the fuck. No. This is a flimsy sitcom premise. How does it happen in real life? Who’s the translator? Who were they translating for? What conversations were had? I’m calling bullshit, mainly because this frankly unbelievable story relies on Orientalist tropes to give it the sheen of truth, to the ears of an average white American. Eg. Asians as socially awkward, reluctant to correct the mistakes of others, clumsiness with the English language (even though this person was a translator?). Even the idea of this person being a translator in itself feels like a weird reach to explain why there would be a random Japanese person around to mistake as Yoshida. More
“Who can we say was Japanese around here? It’s not like there’s an immediately-believable reason that a doctor would just be hanging around. Ooh, translator!”

How. do. you. have. lunch. with. someone. and. never. figure. out. that. they’re. not. who. you. think. they. are.

I have such a weird mix of “this isn’t worth any of my fucks” and “holy hell, burn it all down” rn

Of course, there are those who are aware of this situation with Cebulski whose only response to all of this is a “So what?” followed by a Kanye-shrug. Rob Liefeld, the veteran comic-book artist who once blessed so many readers by making Captain America look like this…


…is one of them.

As many people have pointed out, Cebulski has done much on his end to try and increase the amount of diversity amongst writers and artists at Marvel Comics (though clearly, he wasn’t trying that hard). And it goes without saying that more diversity in all creative industries, especially comics, is absolutely necessary. But all of that work means very little when the person who was supposedly working to increase diversity for his company was willing to:

1) lie about his own ethnicity in order to break the rules of his company and get paid writing jobs.

2) lie about his own ethnicity in order to break the rules of his own company and get paid writing jobs that could have gone to any other non-White writer, particularly an Asian writer who is actually Asian.

3) do all of those things, get called out on it, and refuse to acknowledge how badly you fucked up and how badly your company fucked up, all because you either don’t know, don’t care, or both, all so you can sweep everything under the rug, move on, and proceed with calling the shots however you see fit thanks to your new job.

There are many ways that Marvel Comics can once again increase its sales and remind people why their books are worth reading and buying, and why their characters have stood the test of time for decades. Hiring their own version of Rachel Dolezal to help run the company and acting as if there’s nothing wrong with that isn’t one of them.

This has been another episode of “When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong.”

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Brian Richards is a Staff Contributor. You can follow him on Twitter.