Tony B. Kim, Superhero (Fanatic)
The billowing of capes, the colliding of fantasy and reality, the almost tangible sense of exhilaration in the air…This is the world of Tony Kim, self-proclaimed nerd and comic book enthusiast. Four days out of the year, Kim is one of thousands of attendees who flock to the San Diego Comic-Con International to indulge their imaginations, meet their idols, and immerse themselves in the fandoms. An annual convention that celebrates triumphs in comic books, science fiction, and popular film/television, it features a variety of panels and exhibitions by figures such as Robert Downey, Jr. of Iron Man and Stan Lee of Marvel Comics. In short, Comic-Con is a lightning rod for the emerging ‘nerd pop culture.’
While most have relegated comic books and sci-fi worlds to the forgotten corners of adolescence, Kim has transformed that hunger for the heroic and the fantastical into a lifelong passion and career niche. Kim has also contracted out to work with various comic book conventions, including the San Diego Comic-Con in previous years, to help ensure that they run smoothly, whether it be in the area of publication or event planning. According to Kim, “I think what really motivated me over the years was the fans. Gathering fans together with thousands of others that are like-minded…[is a] very therapeutic, community-building experience.
The creator of Crazy4ComicCon.com, Kim writes humorous articles and posts recommendations for first-time-goers to maximize their satisfaction at Comic-Con. Recalling his first overwhelming experience at Comic-Con in 2005, Kim remarks, “I wanted to create a resource that fits new attendees by offering tips and tricks.” From advice on celebrity sightings to the latest gossip on upcoming blockbusters, the website reflects Kim’s efforts to share the magic of Comic-Con with his readers. “Anything I can do to help attendees navigate the show in a way that they feel they have a really rich experience and not frustrated the first time,” says Kim. “I’ve heard too many horror stories of people having no idea.” Boasting over 5,900 followers, Crazy4ComicCon has expanded to cover other conventions throughout the nation, including St. Louis, Phoenix, and Philadelphia. Kim himself attends around 15 conventions a year.
The most important aspect of Comic-Con, however, is the strong sense of camaraderie and bonds of friendship formed over those four short days. “I think we say to ourselves that if you’re really kind of newbies, life can be kind of weird,” Kim says. “But at Con you can be yourself. You’re fully accepted, no judgment.”
Up, up, and away!
Many may dismiss Comic-Con as an expression of fan culture, but Kim sees greater implications between nerd culture and Asian American culture. According to Kim,
“Anyone who is a minority can identify with the origin stories of superheroes because they’re all people who come from strange places. They look different, they feel different, they have to adapt to the environment. That’s the immigrant story.”
In particular, he holds a special fondness for Superman, who was born on the planet Krypton, raised in Kansas, and, like most Asian Americans, a product of multiple worlds. A native of Texas, Kim was born to parents who had immigrated from South Korea a year before his birth. “As a Korean growing up in a Caucasian environment, I always felt different, stereotyped, misunderstood. My parents were the typical Asian parents that were working all the time and didn’t prioritize my social problems,” Kim muses. “I really started identifying with comic books, like Superman.”
In recent years, nerd culture has witnessed phenomenal growth. One only has to look at the highest-grossing movies, a list which is topped by The Avengers, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, etc. to realize the success of nerd culture. The fact that Comic-Con attracted over 130,000 attendees in 2012 may also be a sign of the rapidly broadening base of participants in nerd culture. Kim predicts that the emerging nerd revolution will have positive impacts on the Asian American community by paving the way for greater acceptance of Asian American culture. He observes that “Asians are the early adopters of nerd culture…For the first time, I see Caucasian cosplayers [costume players] that are emulating the Asians by immersing themselves in the Asian world.” With their strong presence in technology and animation, Asian Americans already have a foothold in the Comic-Con sphere, and while “there’s still a lot of negative stereotypes, at least we’re in the discussion; we’ll be recognized.”
Comic-Cons have been accused of spurring fanaticism and reinforcing harmful stereotypes of Asian Americans as geeks and otakus. However, Kim chooses to emphasize the positive qualities of nerdiness, such as creativity and dedication. “The only way you can create beautiful things is to obsess, to really focus, to really care about something in order to make it beautiful. When I hear those things, it is sometimes negative but it’s certainly not the extent of who we are as Asian American people.”
Truth, Justice, and the American Way
For the 42-year-old Kim, the lessons of comic books do not end when the masked hero vanquishes the villain but rather continue to be relevant in the ‘real world.’ Comic books have the ability to educate and inspire, to encourage readers to pursue something greater than themselves. “In a strange way, Superman was like my dad and Wonder Woman was my mom,” jokes Kim. “They taught me about values, compassion, how to fight for the rights of others. At the end of the day, comic books raised me.”
More than wearing tights and fighting crime, superheroes remind us of hope, courage, and morality.
“Superheroes teach us the value of being social advocates. We might not be able to leap tall buildings or be as powerful as a locomotive, but we can be heroes in our community.”
It is this commitment to social justice and empathy that has driven Kim’s work with Slingshot Group, a non-profit coaching company that specializes in multi-ethnic staffing in churches all over the nation. Additionally, Kim and his wife are passionate advocates for adoption and foster care in Orange County Social Services, encouraging others to reach out to those in need. Their own family includes an adopted child and foster twins, aside from their two biological children.
“I think all of us, especially in the Asian American community, have a longing to make things different, to matter, to do things that count. We come from minority, a quiet, small place – great heroes have small beginnings, but they end up making a huge difference.”