When DC reboots its entire comic book universe this summer, things are coming back a little different. Lois will be Superwoman, the new Green Lantern will be a Latina, and the new Superman will be a Chinese teenager named Kenan Kong.
Kenan's new series, New Super-Man, his shelves this July and is being written by Gene Luen Yang, the first graphic novel writer to ever be chosen as the Library of Congress's National Ambassador for Young People's Literature.
Like many other writers, Yang co-signed the idea of reading Clark Kent, the original Superman, as being a symbol of the foreign immigrant's experiences in the U.S. With Kenan, though, Yang wanted to take the Superman-as-other subtext and make it an explicit part of the character's identity.
"I would definitely be more comfortable writing a Chinese-American character, as I myself am Chinese-American," Yang told NBC last month. "Writing a Chinese character is, for me, a lot like writing 'The Other,' another culture. So it requires a lot more homework and talking to people who actually live that experience."
The person he turned to first to create this new character? His mother. Together, the two brainstormed names that would be accessible to both American and Chinese audiences. "I wanted to find a name that works in Chinese and is immediately pronounceable to an American reader," Yang explained. "With Kenji Kong, we stuck with the hard-K sound like Clark Kent."
恳记 Kenji Kong, Kenan's original name has a multi-cultural, multi-linguistic meaning to it. For starters, Kong is one of the few common Chinese last names in Pinyin that uses a hard "K" sound. In Pinyin Ken translates to earnest and Ji translates to "remember."
"Earnest remembrance lies at the very heart of the protagonist’s arc," Yang said. "Plus, it could be an interesting plot device."
As anybody who's read enough comics or manga knows, though, "Kenji" is often a name that westerners associate with the Japanese, something that intrigued Yang, but didn't exactly resonate with his mom. Because she didn't grow up speaking Pinyin, Kenji Kong didn't carry the same cultural meaning for her. But maybe, Yang thought, that could work in his favor.
"Maybe New Super-Man starts off with a bias against Japanese people and the Pinyin version of his name bugs him to no end," Yang considered. "Maybe he eventually has to team up with a Japanese superhero, someone like Katana or a member of that crazy Japanese super-team that Grant Morrison made up. Maybe they fall in love."
Ultimately, though, Kenji's name was scrapped when Yang put himself into the shoes of someone without his perspective. How would the name read to someone who couldn't differentiate between Pinyin and Wade-Giles, the other historically major romanization system for Mandarin? Most likely, readers would assume that Yang probably wasn't Asian and that he'd gotten his foreign cultures mixed up.
Working with his mother, father, comics artist Philip Tan, and a Mandarin teacher, Yang settles on the name Kenan Kong which, like Kenji before it, is filled with meaning.
Nan translates to "south," a nod to Kenan's roots in Shanghai, which would make him a southerner to people from Beijing. Ke translates to the idea of overcoming something. And so Kenan Kong, a 17-year-old kid from Shanghai will become the latest in a long line of heroes touched by the power of Krypton. In fact—his origin story involves getting his powers from Superman himself.
Yang's hinted that the newness of his powers will initially alienate him from his peers, touching back on the idea of "otherness." But Kenan's a person that Yang wants to become a fixture in the larger DC Universe.
"He's going into an 80-year-old toy box," Yang said. "Hopefully, my book won’t be the only place where he shows up. Hopefully, other DC Comics writers and artists will want to play with him."