FAILING UP

New Marvel Chief Faked Japanese Identity—Then Got Promoted

Clara Mae
11.30.17 3:21 PM ET

Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty

On Tuesday the comics community was taken aback when Marvel’s new editor-in-chief, C.B. Cebulski, confirmed to Bleeding Cool that he had written for Marvel under the pseudonym “Akira Yoshida” while still working there as an editor, violating company policy. From 2004 to 2005, Cebulski wove an elaborate deception that involved him going so far as to conduct email interviews “in character,” complete with a fake backstory about growing up in Japan, and allowing others within the company to mistake an entirely unrelated Japanese translator as his fictional persona.

This revelation perturbed many, and it’s no wonder; to put it more plainly, this was a story of a white man who circumvented a company rule, pretended to be a person of color for his own benefit, lied about it to journalists, and years later was promoted within the very company he hoodwinked. Marvel Television’s very own Chloe Bennet has spoken in the past about having to change her Asian last name in order to get hired, and yet here was a white man adopting an Asian name for his own gain. In an industry that still skews overwhelmingly white and male, it was yet another frustratingly indicative example that white male privilege — that a white man can make mistakes, be dishonest, and/or be unqualified for a position and yet still “fail up” — is all too real.

“In his new role, Mr. Cebulski will oversee all day-to-day editorial and creative aspects of Marvel’s publishing division,” Marvel wrote in their official announcement of Cebulski’s hiring. “This includes...bringing to Marvel the world’s best and brightest writers and artists.”

Marvel subsequently confirmed with Variety that they were aware of the Cebulski situation when they moved forward with the promotion. The man who once pretended to be Asian when Marvel was looking for an “authentic voice,” is now in charge of finding a diverse array of writers. Where to even begin with this?

For those finely attuned to the going-ons in the comic community, the reveal was likely not as much of a surprise as it was a confirmation of a long-held skepticism regarding Akira Yoshida. In the Bleeding Cool piece, comics journalist Rich Johnston details how the rumors about Cebulski’s double life started circulating as early as 2006, though Cebulski denied the rumors at the time and insisted Yoshida was a real person.

The fact that these suspicions existed for over ten years may be surprising to some, but it’s perhaps less so if you take a closer look at the content of Yoshida’s work. By the time Cebulski started moonlighting as Yoshida, he had already lived on and off in Japan for several years; tellingly, the Marvel comics Yoshida wrote have a recurring obsession with justifying the presence of white foreigners, called “gaijin,” in Japan. It’s only the villains in Yoshida’s tales who repeatedly use “gaijin” as an insult, and in hindsight it’s easy to see why; Yoshida’s work can be read as both a fantasy of his life and a defense of his very existence.

His Elektra: The Hand run revolves around Elektra, a white woman, being welcomed into the Japanese organization the Hand. The comic tells the story of Kagenobu Yoshioka, a Japanese man who harbors a deep hatred for white Europeans. Kagenobu forms the Hand in order to wipe out the “foreign stain” in Japan, but Yoshida tells us his ethnocentrism becomes the Hand’s downfall early on. Civil war breaks out and Kagenobu and his lover are eventually killed. This whole tale is relayed to Elektra, who joins the reformed Hand’s ranks. She’s even told that their infamous resurrection ceremony was created entirely to bring back “a foreign woman.” (This “foreign woman” is a biracial Asian who is equated as being the same as the white Elektra, a problematic plot point that further speaks to how Yoshida was unable to grapple with the intricacies of being actually Asian.)

Yoshida’s X-Men runs follow in a similar vein. X-Men: Age of Apocalypse features Wolverine being insulted as a “gaijin dog,” to which his Asian daughter, Kirika, is quick to jump to his defense. In Wolverine: Soultaker, a priestess tells Logan that “your spiritual connection to Japan runs deep,” in what feels like a near fourth-wall breaking moment for Cebulski. The villain insults Logan numerous times with “foreign animal” and “gaijin” before falling at his claws. Then in X-Men: Kitty Pryde - Shadow and Flame, Yoshida sends Kitty to Japan, where she’s met with catcalls of “gaijin girlie” and “foreign babe” and insults of “you fight well, for a gaijin.” All the Japanese catcallers are swiftly beaten down, and Kitty bests the evil organization of ninjas who couldn’t help but repeatedly mock her foreigner status.

Had this Cebulski news never broke, one might read these comics and question why Akira Yoshida, a supposed Japanese man, was so invested in advocating for the presence of the white foreigner in his own country. Johnston reports that Marvel execs at the time told him they saw Yoshida as a rare find: "someone from non-English speaking country who could write well for an American audience."

It’s easy to read between the lines here: Akira Yoshida was popular because he centered a white point of view while writing under the guise of an authentic Asian voice. In his stories, the white foreigners were always the real heroes — and if an actual Japanese man was writing these stories, then that must be OK, right? Years before Asian representation reached the forefront of American conversation, Cebulski-as-Yoshida told Marvel execs and readers exactly what they wanted to hear.   

Now, it is important to note that Cebulski’s stint as Akira Yoshida was a while back, and people do indeed change a lot in 13 years. Cebulski himself asserted to Bleeding Cool that this revelation was “old news,” citing youth as a defining factor in his actions:

“I stopped writing under the pseudonym Akira Yoshida after about a year,” he wrote. “It wasn’t transparent, but it taught me a lot about writing, communication and pressure. I was young and naïve and had a lot to learn back then. But this is all old news that has been dealt with, and now as Marvel’s new Editor-in-Chief, I’m turning a new page and am excited to start sharing all my Marvel experiences with up and coming talent around the globe.”

Marvel’s own director of content, Sana Amanat, came to Cebulski's defense on Wednesday, telling Channel News Asia that it was just “something that he was trying to do to just be a writer...This is a world he understood. He’s one of my favourite people [and] I think many people who know CB will know that he is one of the most globally minded, and very culturally sensitive as well.”

Cebulski’s actions did indeed happen a long time ago and early on in his career. But we also have to acknowledge the giant elephant in the room here: Cebulski could not have been that young when he concocted this plan, and something is only “old news” if it’s actually something that was widely known beforehand. More, creating an elaborate ruse to assume a different ethnicity entirely, all while flouting company policy, is not something most aspiring writers just “do.” General publishing statistics suggest that it’s rare for a person of color to even occupy the position that Cebulski had within the company in 2005, so double-dipping the way he did speaks to a baseline level of privilege and power that many marginalized creators simply don’t have. Cebulski and Amanat’s statements read less as actual apologies and more as justifications for Cebulski doing whatever it took to land his dream job — even if it meant potentially taking away a writing gig that could have gone to an author of color.

And that’s the thing: we don’t know conclusively if Cebulski’s actions caused Asian freelancers to be passed over. But we do know that Cebulski was first hired by Marvel in 2002 for his expertise on manga and Japanese culture (earning him the nickname “C.B.-san”); one wonders if any Asians were ever up for the position. We also know that an anonymous creator of color approached Geek.com on Wednesday alleging that they pitched a miniseries while Cebulski was an editor that ultimately went to “Akira Yoshida” to write. And if you believe ex-Marvel editor Gregg Scheigel’s thinly-veiled podcast version of the story, he similarly hints that Cebulski may have plagiarized pitches from the very talent he was in charge of scouting.

This is all, suffice to say, a very bad look for Marvel.

What does this say about Marvel’s views on diversity and authenticity? Amanat defends Cebulski’s stint as Yoshida by saying that he “very much associates with Japanese culture.” She goes on to say that Marvel’s foremost goal is promoting more characters of color, rather than necessarily hiring diverse creators: “of course we want cultural authenticity and to make sure we’re casting those people behind the scenes, but the primary goal is getting those kinds of characters out there.” She cites the successful run white author Brian Michael Bendis had with writing Afro-Latino character Miles Morales, saying Bendis felt a deeper connection to the character because he “happens to have a daughter who’s African American.”

This is a disheartening and frustrating statement. Hiring more actual writers of color leads to more three-dimensional characters of color, point blank. To continually argue that white authors can, with enough care, write characters of other ethnicities in lieu of hiring real people of color often ends up sounding like an excuse to simply maintain the status quo. Cebulski may “very much associate” with Japanese culture, but that didn’t stop his stories from being wholly about the experiences of white characters moving through Japan. If you attend any diversity panel at a comic convention, you’ll likely even hear readers mention that Bendis’ Miles feels more generic than genuinely authentic, and that there’s a reason why many have asked Bendis’ Riri Williams and Miles Morales now be handed over to actual black writers.

Yes, a white person can feel an affinity for a culture not their own, but that affection does not, and can never, stand in for the real, lived experiences of people of color. Going forward, let’s hope Marvel, and their new editor-in-chief, understand that.

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