“Don’t Call Me Xombi” – Milestone’s Representation of Korean American Characters after the L.A. Uprising

Editor’s Note: Given the amount of attention I have seen given to Milestone comics at conferences and in comic studies journals and anthologies, it feels aptly named, as its attempt to present a superhero comic universe focused mostly on Black stories and by Black creators was a proleptic look at the concerns and trends that shape superhero comics and other media today. In his fourth guest post for The Middle Spaces in two years, Dr. Vincent Haddad explores a less-examined series where issues of Asian-American representation exist at the margins of the Dakotaverse.

Milestone Media is back. Founded in 1993 by a cohort of Black artists, including Dwayne McDuffie and Denys Cowan, seeking editorial control of their work, Milestone’s original “Dakotaverse”—superhero stories set in a city loosely inspired by McDuffie’s hometown of Detroit and representative of diverse cities across the Midwest—ran through 1997, seeing short-lived reappearances through the 2000s. Launched one year after the 1992 Los Angeles uprisings, the original stories compile the experiences of a disparate and diverse cross-section of characters in the aftermath of an event known as the Big Bang. After declaring a state of emergency on Paris Island, home to a multi-racial, neglected, and segregated underclass, the mayor knowingly authorizes police to disperse residents with tear gas laced with an experimental compound fatal to almost everyone except a “lucky” few left with meta-human disfigurements and abilities. The police then destroy the bridge connecting the greater city to the island, although official accounts claim gangs are responsible for the violence and destruction. Included among these survivors of the experimental tear gas are poor, Paris Island residents like the Blood Syndicate, a hodge-podge group of now-superpowered gang members reestablishing turf and dispensing justice, and a star-crossed teenager from greater Dakota named Virgil Hawkins who came to Paris Island trying to prove his street cred to his boyhood crush.

This narrative set-up hardly needed any update for Milestone’s large-scale re-launch, announced at DC Fandome in August 2020 at the end of a summer that saw the largest wave of protests for racial justice in U.S. history following the police murder of George Floyd. In 2021, Static, Hardware, Blood Syndicate, Icon and Rocket returned to comic shelves in the on-going event Milestone Returns (2020-). One byproduct of this revival has been the re-packaging of the original comics in omnibuses, particularly important when so many of the stories fell out of print and became difficult to find or read for decades and kept alive primarily through outstanding scholarship on Dakota’s Black superheroes, from Jeffrey A. Brown’s hallmark study of Milestone’s fans to more recent scholarship on particular characters and storylines by André Carrington (Icon and Rocket), Shamika Ann Mitchell (Milestone/DC crossover), and Julian Chambliss (the city of Dakota). In February 2022, DC published Milestone Compendium One, collecting Hardware #1-12, Blood Syndicate #1-12, Icon #1-10, Static #1-8, Shadow Cabinet #0, and Xombi #0-11. The compendium gives readers their first chance to fully immerse themselves in the story world of the multi-racial city of Dakota, meticulously constructed in foundational stories all written, co-written, or edited by a true polymath, Dwayne McDuffie. The challenges of coalition-building across Dakota’s Black, Asian, Latinx, Jewish, and white communities, particularly inflected by their experiences across class and gender, is the most visible through-line of Compendium One. Yet, one series stands out as completely unlike and even segregated from the rest in both genre and themes: Xombi. With consideration to the proximity between Milestone’s launch and the L.A. uprisings, this contrast reveals a broader challenge in representing Asian Americans in Dakota, an essential and overlooked component of historicizing the publisher and their stories’ commentaries on race that prioritize Dakota’s Black/white divide.

Xombi #1 by John Rozum (w) and J.J. Birch (a). Final page showing the horrific reveal that David was saved by the nanomachines consuming Kelly. Milestone Compendium One, 375.

Written by John Rozum, Xombi mixes science fiction, horror, and the Occult in its narrative about David Kim. David is a Korean American scientist who invents nanomachines capable of being programmed to an individual’s DNA and then appropriating any organic matter to heal their cells. When his lab is attacked by mysterious, other-worldly entities and David is fatally wounded, his lab assistant injects David with the nanomachines and he is healed…only to discover his nanomachines pulled the necessary organic matter from his lab assistant, brutally killing her. Unlike all other Milestone series, Xombi has received almost no scholarly attention. Reading Compendium One, one can see why. All other series clearly take place in a shared universe and respond to events taking place in other stories, like the Big Bang or the appearance of Icon, and deal thoughtfully and directly with social issues—including police violence, anti-Black racism, anti-Semitism, drug addiction, teenage pregnancy, and workplace discrimination. David’s plunge into the “world of the bizarre” not only separates him from all these characters but also the social and political issues that shape life in Dakota as well.

In a speech at the National Book Festival, reprinted in a 2014 issue of American Book Review, comics creator Gene Luen Yang (Superman Smashes the Klan) explained that Xombi was not only an important character in Yang’s childhood because he was the rare Asian American who carried his own monthly series, but also as a primary example of his speech’s thesis about the importance of writers “[stepping] out of themselves, and [encouraging] readers to do the same.” Xombi serves Yang’s thesis because, as he explains, he “wasn’t created by Asian Americans—his writer was white and his artist black—but he did make Asian Americans a little less invisible.” Given its importance to his point, this designation of credit is worth complicating. While Denys Cowan was the artist for Xombi #0, J.J. Birch (Xombi #1-11) was the artist for the main run through the mid-1990s and Frazer Irving (Xombi #1-6) was the artist for the 2009 re-boot; both artists are white. Moreover, credited on the title pages of the original series as the editor, the 2012 trade paperback credits Dwayne McDuffie as the character’s originator. Given the collaborative nature of Milestone Media and the editorial oversight of McDuffie, Yang’s point that the creative team consisted of white and Black artists is partially correct, though it’s important to note that for the overwhelming majority of the issues of Xombi the artist and writer were both white.

Speaking about a more current environment of fear regarding writing about characters who come from different backgrounds from oneself, Yang encourages writers to do their homework, correct and revise stereotypes when they emerge, imagine readers from those communities as the audience of the work, but not to fear having an imperfect finished product because “even flawed characters can inspire.” While Yang makes clear that Xombi inspired him, he leaves unstated—and perhaps it would undercut his thesis to belabor the point with detailed examples—that the character was flawed, most notably in his segregation from the greater Dakota universe and the social issues the universe explored. Without the same constraints as Yang’s speech, I find Xombi’s flaws, and Milestone’s representation of Asian characters more broadly, as crucial to historicizing Milestone Media’s past and anticipating their future—including an interesting re-imagining of the character by writer Greg Pak with artist Khoi Pham in May 2022.

Reading Dakota’s Big Bang in the context of the L.A. uprisings the year before Milestone’s launch, Korean Americans and their relationships to Black and white America in this moment were not quite as invisible, as Yang points out about the Asian American representation in comics, but rhetorically hyper-visible. In his study of representations of the L.A. riots, Min Song describes how Korean American merchants were centered by mainstream media as the primary victims of the riots, an oversimplification that split viewers into camps that saw these merchants as either agents of anti-Black racism deserving of their comeuppance or “sacrificial lambs at the altar of racial scapegoating…forced by circumstance to absorb the brunt of black resentment against a white-dominated economic elite” (8). Song continues, “Violently thrust into the national spotlight after years of obscurity, Korean Americans appeared as shadowy figures armed with automatic weapons protecting their stores against menacing black and brown bodies while, at the same time, maintaining an intense anger at whites who they said dominated the country’s centers of power. They were, in short, a spectacle without precedent…flexible signifiers for a wide variety of already entrenched and competing perspectives” (11). Given this context, segregating David from the rest of Milestone’s characters and plunging him into the “world of the bizarre” might seem to sidestep this complicated positionality relative to Dakota’s Black and white characters. Rather than crude narratives that oversimplify this dynamic, Song favors stories that makes these relations strange, that are “[immersed] in the hard to follow, the not entirely understood, the evanescent reality that despite its fogginess that can nevertheless be partially comprehended” (17). Xombi certainly fits this description of strangeness. The series and its rat-shaped homunculi husks defy simple summarization, and even reading it in its entirety—which I encourage the reader to do, particularly in the flow of the Milestone Compendium—is hard to follow. Yet Xombi is more interesting for the flaws it reveals about representations of Asian Americans across the Dakota universe than it is for what it has to say itself about those experiences.

Static #7 by Robert L. Washington (w) and John Paul Leon (a). Static believes he changed the world, only to hear on the television Commando X’s followers have shifted their violent intentions to the Korean district. Milestone Compendium One, 790.

While other Milestone series ran into sensitive social and political topics unafraid—such as Static fighting against a Black nationalist who spouts anti-Semitic conspiracies only for Static and his Jewish friend Frieda to have to navigate and overcome their own mirrored biases—Xombi veers far off-world and off-timeline in an apparent effort to be as apolitical as possible. Anti-Asian bigotry is an implicit and explicit presence across several other Milestone titles in the Compendium. For example, the narrative arc about Static stopping the conspiracy-minded and charismatic Black nationalist from bombing various sites in Dakota ends with a chilling final panel that alludes to a percolation of anti-Korean violence: “But fallout from the [sic] Commando X still lingers on. A small crowd of protesters has already gathered to condemn the arrest, while in the Korean District, more volatile…” (790) The panel implies a tension between Korean Americans and Black Americans analogous to the Black-Jewish tensions centered in the arc, but the use of the ellipsis keeps the specificity of these issues out-of-frame.

As the Compendium is organized, this allusion to conflict in the Korean District is followed up by a narrative arc of Blood Syndicate #5-10 that features several Asian stereotypes, including a drug kingpin and anti-American communist villain named John Wing who, after being urinated on by the Blood Syndicate’s leader Wise Son, attempts to regain his honor and masculinity by sacrificing his pregnant wife to magically summon Demon Fox in order to kill the gang. Apart from the aliens Icon and DMZ, only a preponderance of Asian characters like Wing, Demon Fox’s nemesis Kwai, and members of the Shadow Cabinet are imbued with magical powers completely independent of the Big Bang. Although there are moments when the specific challenges of being Korean American in Dakota are addressed, the stories are overwhelmed by stereotypes that isolate these characters as naturally magical or emasculated—such as the conflict between Blood Syndicate’s Korean American member, Third Rail, and leader Wise Son over Third Rail’s excessive politeness being read as weakness.

Even among the Asian American characters in Dakota, David Kim quite literally stands apart. Apparently disentangled from the racial politics of Dakota, David’s assimilation into an all-white cast of magical nuns and a Catholic school girl, a John Constantine-like Occult detective, and a rabbi as they wage wars against the living relics of Jewish, Christian, and Arthurian lore is nonetheless a political positioning of the character. David’s immortality, a cursed gift of his own brilliant technological invention, grants him not only inclusion into this all-white world but an apparent ability to transcend race altogether. The summative caption used in every issue is especially instructive in this regard: “David Kim, hapless victim of the forces of science and magic, has been gifted with the ability to live forever, despite any damage that may be inflicted on his body. Along with this gift, David has also been introduced into the world of the bizarre, a world that once entered, can never be escaped.” David’s own agency is erased, he has been passively “gifted” with the ability to live forever, not that he actively invented the ability. Science and magic are twin “forces” that naturally accrue in David Kim, and thus he “has also been introduced” (why?) into the world of the bizarre. These floating signifiers are the randomness of convenient storytelling even though they are nonetheless imbued with meaning by David’s Korean American identity.

Xombi #4 by John Rozum (w) and J.J. Birch (a). Example of how, in their fight against a man-sized rat husk, David’s contribution is to be brutally dismembered so that a white counterpart, Catholic school girl, can step into the fight. Milestone Compendium One, 435.

Xombi’s bizarreness depends on several Asian stereotypes, including the model minority and the techno-Oriental, that were significant in positioning Asian Americans relative to Black and white Americans in the immediate aftermath of the 1992 uprisings. As Takeo Rivera explains in Model Minority Masochism (2022), “In the United States, the model minority has principally served two ideological purposes within racial discourse: first, to provide evidence for the prominence of meritocracy over the structural barriers faced by nonwhite peoples, and second, to implicitly blame less ‘successful’ minoritized populations for their own subjugation (most notably, but not exclusively, those racialized as Black)” (19). Rivera continues, “To say that the model minority is antiblack ideology is an understatement—the ideological ambition of the model minority is nothing short of the preservation and expansion of racial capitalism itself” (29). Black characters like the conservative Icon or scientific genius Curtis Metcalf (Hardware) who have analogous relationships to the anti-Black ideology of the model minority are consistently crafted into narratives that challenge this ideology, where their views about their economic success (and related topics about race, gender, and sexuality) are put into tension by Black female characters Rocket and Barraki Young respectively. David, on the other hand, is mostly separated entirely into a world of his own, as he simply joins in a timeless battle with his white compatriots against the cataclysmic forces of evil, with his only Asian interlocutor silenced after the first issue when his nanomachines horrifically consume her. Thus, while he embodies some of the problematic and indeed anti-Black aspects of the model minority stereotype, his assimilation into a white-washed battle of good and evil is simply a given in the narrative without self-reflection let alone resistance.

Xombi #9 by John Rozum (w) and J.J. Birch (a). Judeo-Christian mystics conduct one of many “grotesque” transformations on David’s body. An example of a “grotesque personification of the model minority itself.” Milestone Compendium One, 674.

Though David’s assimilation into these narratives seems to grant him access to whiteness, he pays for this access with mutable stereotypes and relentless violence on his immortal body. Asians and Asian Americans in popular culture are often marked with machinic, inanimate qualities suitable for either non-stop manual labor or unrivaled technological and mathematical prowess. As even the name implies, Xombi cannibalizes the techno-oriental stereotype, as his scientific genius creates the nanomachines that ultimately make him into a synthetic and endlessly reproducible being capable of enduring intense physical punishment for the good of the job at hand. Rivera defines the techno-oriental as a “grotesque personification of the model minority itself, providing the figure with an optic vocabulary, replete with both the promises and perils of an increasingly technologized society” (Rivera 40). Grotesque is the appropriate word for David’s embodiment of the model minority stereotype in bizarre world powered by medieval, European icons and relics he inhabits. Although his scientific brilliance is the foundation of the character’s origin, his contributions to the fights are primarily that he can be mutilated without dying, serving as unfeeling cannon fodder that gives the white characters time to maneuver and strategize. In a mirrored version of the common trope in superhero comics wherein white characters like Richard Dragon, Batman, and Iron Fist learn from and then surpass their Asian counterparts in martial arts and magic, Xombi also centers the white characters as the true masters of the world of the bizarre, but who require David’s ability to endure the cyclical pain of dismemberment and regeneration to defeat the villains.

Revived in a 2009 miniseries, John Rozum with artist Frazer Irving offered subtle revisions to the character, giving him more power, agency, and awareness. David learns to control and direct the nanomachines, which gives him more purpose in the fights against the bizarre than simply being torn apart, but even this new skill is over-determined by the techno-oriental stereotype of the original. Moreover, while David becomes more aware of the stereotypes he inhabits, his experiences of violence seem to firm up his individualistic identity as someone outside of race altogether. David recoils when the nun addresses him as Xombi, “My name’s David. I wish people would stop referring to me as ‘the Xombi.’ It sounds incredibly derogatory, and a bit racist—if there were enough of us to constitute being our own ethnic group” (Xombi #1). By emphasizing that there aren’t enough people with his capabilities to constitute an ethnic group, David misunderstands how the construction of the Xombi character does operate through racist stereotypes, not against other Xombis of course but against Asian Americans. Across the various titles collected in the Milestone Compendium, readers see these very stereotypes affect Korean American characters including Third Rail, and that can lead to anti-Korean violence, as we see in Static. Returning to Yang’s speech, these flaws in the character—David’s ignorance of the racial contours of Dakota and his constitution by negative stereotypes within that universe—reflect and express Milestone’s incomplete negotiation of Asian American identity, relative to and independent of Blackness and whiteness in the wake of the 1992 LA uprisings. Given the quality of scholarship on Milestone’s Black superheroes, I hope this just the first of more and deeper engagements with how Milestone positioned Asian Americans within their stories.

Xombi #1 (2009) by John Rozum (w) and Frazer Irving (a). David describes the term “Xombi” as potentially racist.

As Milestone once again returns, the Big Bang is re-framed in the context of the Black Lives Matter Movement, with the experimental teargas canisters victimizing protesters including Virgil Hawkins and some of his high school classmates. A new version of David Kim might have much to offer in this post-Ferguson Dakota. As the LA uprisings remind us, the anti-Asian violence sparked by a racist backlash to the COVID-19 pandemic is an integral part of the fight for racial justice. The re-launch of Milestone with full inclusion of its Asian American characters may have been a perfect occasion to ask of American superhero comics what Denise Cruz recently asked of literary fiction: “What does it mean to write—and read—an American novel amid anti-Asian racism and hate crimes, events that are connected to a history of Asian exclusion?” This summer, Greg Pak and Khoi Pham are bringing back the character not as Xombi, but as Duo, and Duo lives not in Dakota but on “Earth M,” a world “beyond Dakota City and Milestone.” With just the first issue out, I am hopeful that Pak and Pham will be able to experiment with the character and address these issues on Earth M. In this re-imagining, the nanomachines do not obliterate and silence David’s colleague Kelly Vu, leaving him alone in a whitewashed world of the bizarre, but instead merge them. Already, Pak and Pham understand a crucial element of Milestone comics missed in the original Xombi series: the importance of having another person that provides a different, albeit shared perspective on the happenings of the story. Icon and Rocket challenge and learn from one another, as do all the members of the Blood Syndicate, Virgil (Static) and Frieda, Curtis (Hardware) and African American studies professor Barraki Young. And, unlike the original Xombi series, David and Kelly are equal partners—rather than boss and lab assistant—before she fatefully directs the nanomachines to heal him from wounds incurred by murderous rat homunculi, and together they shared the goal of providing healthcare as a human right to the homeless of Earth M. Though I wish this iteration of David and Kelly were more integrated into Dakota, I am eager to see how this new series attends more fully to the complex relationality between Asian American characters and all the social issues Milestone represents.

Duo #1 (2022) by Greg Pak (w) and Khoi Pham (a). In this new iteration, Kelly is now embedded and trapped within David’s consciousness.

Vincent Haddad is an Associate Professor of English at Central State University. His recent academic scholarship on comics include “Detroit vs. Everybody (Including Superheroes): Representing Race through Setting in DC Comics” in INKS and a forthcoming article in College Literature about Green Lantern Simon Baz and fantasies of spaceflight in the Lebanese diaspora. He is currently writing his first book Repping the D: How Black Writers Revised and Transformed the Detroit Genre after 2008 (Lever Press).

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