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Cartoonist On Sikh Superhero Who Fights Prejudice

Nov 21, 2012

Transcript

CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

We want to go now to a place where art and culture intersect. We've heard a lot about the shooting that took place at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin over the summer, and the questions and the soul-searching over that tragedy are still going on, both inside and outside the Sikh community. One man, though, says he has an idea to make the country a more tolerant place for Sikhs and everybody else, actually, and it comes in the form of comic strips.

Vishavjit Singh is a comic artist, but his idea for a Sikh superhero did not go over as well as he might've hoped, at least online. And he's here with us now.

Vish Singh, welcome to the program.

VISHAVJIT SINGH: Thank you for having me.

HEADLEE: You started writing comics, drawing comics, after a completely different tragedy, even longer ago: 9/11. Is that correct?

SINGH: That's correct.

HEADLEE: And what about 9/11 made you say, gee, I should write comics?

SINGH: As a kid, actually, I was really into sketching and cartooning, and for a variety of cultural reasons, you know, dropped my, sort of, my passion for the arts. And what happened on 9/11, you know, I was very close to the city, and just experiencing that, the initial impact, of course, what happened that day.

And then a lot of Americans obviously felt the pain and suffering, but for Sikh Americans, it was like immediately a second sort of wave of backlash that happened because a lot of Americans felt that we were the new other. I felt the heat right away. I mean, I worked from home right after 9/11 for a couple of weeks, and when I did step out, I mean, I had people showing me the finger, telling me to go back home, wherever that is, calling me all kinds of names.

HEADLEE: They're telling you to go back home, but you're an American, right?

SINGH: Yes.

HEADLEE: This is your home.

SINGH: I was born in the nation's capital. But, you know, people judge you at times just by the, you know, either the color of your skin, or how you look. And in my case, I wear a turban and a beard, and for some people, that just was not an American look.

So, yeah, it was a very challenging time. And as I was consuming a lot of news, trying to make sense of these events, I happened upon a cartoon by an editorial cartoonist from the Bay Area, Matt Fiore. And what he did is he created an animated cartoon, and he had all these different characters - a Hispanic man, a Sikh man - in there.

That was one of the first times I'd seen a Sikh character in an editorial cartoon, and not only that, but to see the cartoonist really capture my emotional sort of inner turmoil, and capture that in his cartoon was amazing. And something clicked inside my head, and a few weeks later, I was basically sketching cartoons focusing on Sikhs. And it was mostly editorial cartooning...

HEADLEE: Yeah.

SINGH: ...which is what I do even today.

HEADLEE: And then there was the shooting at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and you wrote an op-ed in the Seattle Times, and you suggested the creation of a Sikh superhero, somebody who would fight specifically hate crimes. Tell me the thinking behind this superhero.

SINGH: Wisconsin, for me, was a bit more personal, because you had Sikh-Americans basically shot and killed inside a place of worship. This could happen again. It could be me. I mean, I have seen a lot of hate speech directed at me. I've been fortunate. I have not had violence targeted on me, but, I mean, there are a lot of Sikhs around the U.S. - mostly men - who have been targeted.

So this article basically was about let's think about having a new superhero who's going to fight a new villain, a villain who basically commits hate crimes. And my premise is, well, usually, communities that have faced a lot of hate crimes would be the best sort of place from where you have this new superhero coming out from: African-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Muslim-Americans, Hispanic-Americans. And then I ended the article with Sikh-Americans.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I am Celeste Headlee. I'm speaking with Sikh comic artist Vish Singh.

The problem was is that you wrote this op-ed in which you were talking about tolerance and trying to find a way to make people maybe more aware and more tolerant, and the response was negative.

SINGH: I did not expect - I mean, I am used to critique. As an editorial cartoonist, I'm used to that. I'm actually even used to threats to my life at times, because I do very hard-hitting political cartooning. But this piece, I think what happened is people did not - you know, bad readers, that's one, because my premise was stated very early on in the article.

But then what is interesting is people really picked up on the race issue. A lot of these people who commented online did not like the notion that I was talking about a new superhero who happened to be not white. I had friends, I had fans, I had family who were calling me in and saying, hey, is everything OK? I mean, this is not what, you know, you would expect.

HEADLEE: They were threatening your life.

SINGH: Yeah. There were a couple of them who did. They - you know, one of them basically said better get a new bolt on your door. So, yeah, that surprised me. And that's why I feel compelled that this is a conversation that has to go on. Here's the amazing thing. We're talking about actually fictional things, but, of course, they take on a very real meaning because people go off on race issues.

I mean, people brought in President Obama. They brought in their hate of liberals. It was quite incredible. And I think maybe some of it also had to do with the fact that I - that it was a cartoon of mine that was a Captain America with a turban and a beard that was actually printed in the paper version of the newspaper that day. You know, also my photograph is also with the piece online with my turban and beard.

And maybe visually, subconsciously for a lot of people, you know, it was not settling to have somebody who wears a turban and a beard proposing, hey, you know what? Let's have a new superhero who's going to fight hate crimes.

HEADLEE: You got a better response, I should say, when you went to Comic-Con and proposed this idea.

SINGH: I took it to the Comic-Con last year and - the Captain America cartoon, and people loved it. And most of the people who were there actually did not know who Sikhs were, because they would approach me and ask me, OK, so who you are you? What is this? I mean, they thought it was funny. They gave me thumbs up. They took a lot of photos.

But they came to me and said, OK, so, you know, who are you? Are you from the Middle East? I said no, I'm not, but I can tell you, you know, where I come from. I'm born here. I'm a - you know, I practice the Sikh faith. So, yeah, it was very well received. And I'm an optimist. I really believe we have better times, you know, ahead of us.

So despite all the challenges post-9/11, I think we can get along, and I'm certain one day somebody's going to pick up on this. You know, it might be me. It might be somebody else. But I think there is a market for this.

HEADLEE: Can Wolverine suddenly become a hate crime crusader? Can the regular Captain America or Green Lantern suddenly target hate crimes?

SINGH: You know, they can, but I would personally like to see a new superhero. I would like to see a new superhero, because we are dealing with a new context here and I think it's time we, you know, have a new look and feel for that superhero and reflect the new diversity of our nation.

And, if anything, this last election actually was kind of evidence of the increasing importance of new populations like Asian-Americans and Hispanic-Americans.

HEADLEE: Which, of course, means, Vish, that even though you said this is just a superhero and it's just fictional, in fact, you actually believe in the real power of the symbolism.

SINGH: Absolutely. And the other evidence is if you look at the last few years, we've had so many movies created based on superheroes. In fact, we've had multiple movies of the same superheroes. It's entertaining for people, but I think at some subtle level, it has an educational value and it does change your outlook.

And I think if we have a new superhero who happens to be Sikh or Hispanic or Muslim or a Jew, I think it's going to make a difference. And I want to say one thing here. I think what a lot of people also missed in this article is when I proposed these new superheroes, people presumed that these superheroes would only defend their own. And that's silly.

I mean, nowhere in the article was I mentioning, OK, a Jew is going to defend a Jew, a Sikh's going to defend a Sikh. My proposition is, look, we're going to have a new superhero who's going to defend any and every kind of hate crimes, hate crimes that probably - there might be a new category tomorrow. There's a new ethnic group that gets targeted tomorrow, well, that's going to be covered as well.

HEADLEE: Vish Singh is a comic strip artist. He runs the sight sikhtoons.com. He joined us from our bureau in New York City.

Vish, thank you so much.

SINGH: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.