Superheroes, Comics, and Diversity in Film: An Interview with Dennis Liu, Writer and Director
Dennis Liu is a writer, director, movie producer, and Connecticut native currently based in Los Angeles. His most recent work, which is featured in this interview, is Ling, a comic book (now adapted into a short film) about a Chinese American teenage girl-turned-superhero. Liu is also credited with creating Raising Dion, a comic book about a single mother raising a superpowered seven-year-old son named Dion, which was adapted into a television series and released on Netflix on October 4, 2019.
In 2008, Liu won the People’s Choice Award at the Cannes New Directors’ Showcase. He has also directed music videos and commercials for major companies.
A Taiwanese American, Liu is a member of the Directors Guild of America’s Eastern Diversity Steering Committee and is an avid advocate for Asian American and more broadly, minority representation, in the arts and media.
In an interview with The Politic, Liu discussed his artistic origins and influences, his up-and-coming projects, and what Ling in particular means for Asian American audiences. We thank Mr. Liu for taking the time to share his experiences.
The Politic: Could you tell me a bit about your artistic background and how you became interested in video-producing and comic book-writing?
Liu: I grew up in Watertown, Connecticut. I went to a boarding school called Taft, which is in Watertown—not too far from where you guys are. They had a film program, and I got into that. I went to New York University for film school and started getting involved with minority and Asian art projects, and I graduated and then went to start directing commercials and music videos for a good ten years, and then started to move into television. It’s a much different time now and really exciting that diverse voices, particularly people of color and women, are being championed now, which was not the case when I was starting out. It’s exciting to see all of this come to a head and be a part of it.
I’d love to hear about your latest projects, particularly Ling and Raising Dion. Where did your ideas for these works come from, and what was the creation process like?
I can talk first about Raising Dion. It’s a show about an African American single mother who is taking care of a kid with superpowers. I’ve been working on the Director’s Guild of America (DGA) Diversity Council, and I wanted to help tell stories of people of color and of women, so that in the event that [a story] ever became a show, as one of the producers on the project, I could help champion the casting and help influence those decisions. I realized that creating this content could help.
Raising Dion was the first and Ling is the second of this sort of project that I’ve been working on. Ling features a teen girl who one day comes home, and a 2D fox teleports into her washing machine, which I think is super funny. It really tries to break stereotypes of Asian Americans, such as the model minority myth. Ling isn’t great at math, she’s not the perfect straight-A, straight-laced Asian American portrayal. She’s got a lot more dimension to her on a number of levels.
Asian American women have been oversexualized in cinema for a long, long time. So we tried to demystify that a little bit. She’s in love with this guy named Tyler Kim, who we like to joke is “k-pop idol hot” and almost sexualize the Asian male, because in Asian American cinema, Asian men have been constantly emasculated as well, for example with Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles. So these are the things we wanted to do in a short film, in a comic. What’s great about technology today in 2019 is that we can make these projects quicker and put these images out faster, and tell these stories with more access. For instance, Marvel’s Shang-chi comes out 2021, and I’m excited for that, but it’s another two years, and that’s if it’s on schedule. And why not better to just have something today? And moreover, why not celebrate more than one? Comic books are some of the biggest images in cinema. And when you have young adults and teens and kids looking up to these heroes, and you don’t have a face for yourself, I think that really influences confidence, self-identity, and a host of other issues.
With Ling, what’s cool is her power is that she can change her identity, so she can be whichever girl she wants to be, which is kind of her tagline. What we love about that is that Asian American history is very rooted in assimilation with regards to immigrants. We tried to really make Ling unique. And that’s one of the examples, for instance. Her parents jokingly named her after Ling Ling the panda because of her birthmark. We really tried, from top to bottom, to create a character that is, at least for part of the Asian American community, particularly for the Chinese, relatable. It’s great that she can change into whoever she wants to be, so she’s not totally one person, necessarily.
What do you most hope your readers and audiences will gain from reading Ling?
I really hope when people see Ling, they can see a really strong Asian American teen female protagonist who has a hero’s journey—so she’s not perfect. Kitsy [the magical fox in Ling]—he has three legs and he comes from the world of misfits, and Ling learns a lot about that and how it’s important not to be perfect because I think that’s a big part, at least when you’re a younger Asian American. And whether you’re in high school or college, there’s this feeling that I think a lot of Asian Americans have, of perfection and just trying to excel.
Hopefully Ling is an example of how you can be happy and not have to live up to any of those crazy expectations—again, the model minority myth because it’s oftentimes an unreasonable expectation. But people may not be as aware of that, and that may have to do with how media portrayed Asians in the past—just tons and tons of images of doctors and engineers in film. When you don’t see different types of imagery, you can’t really expand your horizons.
Who do you write your comic books for?
It is probably for what we call the “four quadrants,” which is your younger audience, your teens, adults, and the older range. So basically for everyone, but typically for the teen space for Ling, because we don’t really have a teenage show, at least with Asian Americans. Fresh Off the Boat is a great family show, but it’d be nice to have our version of Duffy, maybe Riverdale. There’s just nothing in that space. Moreover, I think Asian Americans have been doing great in the rom-com and drama space—you have films like The Farewell, Crazy Rich Asians, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. But in the science fiction and superhero space, we’re pretty lacking, and that’s a void that my team is trying to help fill. Because of the [superhero] draw—it’s one of the largest draws in film.
Superheroes are definitely a theme in both Ling and Raising Dion. Is there anything specifically about this genre that has inspired your work?
We’re just trying to fill the void. There’s something to be said when I see a young Asian kid, and they have to dress up as Elsa, for instance, from Frozen because that’s their option. I think it’s nice to at least present a couple other options for minorities. If you’re African American and you want to be a superhero, I guess you’re gonna be Black Panther…and what else? It’s nice to have a plethora of different characters to choose from, so we’re just trying to fill a void that we saw.
Who are the artists who have most influenced you?
I would say of course Ang Lee, Zhang Yimou, and Steven Soderbergh, who is pretty awesome because he’s very entrepreneurial—he shoots and creates his own stuff.
You’ve worked with lots of different mediums, from comics to commercials to music videos. How are these mediums similar and different, particularly in terms of storytelling?
They’re all so similar but different. What’s nice is that with all these different mediums, you can tell a nonlinear story, which is kind of fun. The comic of Ling, for example, starts when you meet Ling and she first meets Kitsy in the washing machine, and you just go from there. But in the short, it fast forwards to a little bit later in the story when he’s going to leave and you’re trying to figure out what happened in between. What’s fun about the internet is that you may access a piece of content in a different way, so someone may see the short first and someone may see the comic first, so it’s kind of fun to think about how someone accesses a story these days. A lot of really cool filmmakers are trying to tell stories across different media—like through a music video and a short and a feature and a comic—with all different parts of the stories so that you can get into it in a different sort of way and everyone learns this story in a different fashion than just this traditional, “I’m gonna sit down and watch for two hours.” The goal of artists is to take a craft and medium and move it forward with the technology that is available to them.
If you look at recent films, books, and TV shows, there’s a lot of buzz about Asian American media representation, as seen through Crazy Rich Asians, Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, Sandra Oh’s Emmy win, etc. What are your thoughts on this discourse surrounding Asian representation in the media? Are there any aspects of this discourse that you think can be improved?
I would say that I’m consciously optimistic. When I was in college, Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow came out—early 2000s. When I was at NYU, I remember the feeling of electricity—that the Asian American movement has come. I thought, representation is going to make a huge impact. It’s gonna be really easy, and I’m so glad that this iconic film is coming out now because I’ve heard that it’s been really hard for people and artists in the film industry prior. But what I learned was that it was just a very flash-in-the-pan moment, and many years went by, and here we are again.
So I hope it’s not cyclical—it doesn’t seem to be—I hope [greater media representation] is not just the trend right now. I’ve just been encouraging fellow artists and writers to keep putting the work out and trying to encourage the audience that if they want to continue seeing this work, to support it and vote with their dollars, if you will, because that’s the only way, at least with the current system, that corporations will take notice. If the Asian American community doesn’t back this work and there isn’t enough of an audience, then of course it’s not going to exist, at least with the system that’s currently set up. That’s why I hope people continue to support Sandra Oh, Pachinko, and all these other pieces of content that are being created. The ideal is that hopefully the diverse content is opening everybody’s perspectives. It would be a shame if only Asian people watched these stuff and vice versa, with all the other minorities.
It’s really important to keep supporting the community. People like Randall Park—the dad in Fresh Off the Boat—keep reaching back—he’s helped us out to do the voice of Kitsy, the fox [in Ling]. He’s helped out in his spare time because he knows how important this is and that we have to help nurture our community.