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Of Comics and Charisma: Representing Transpacific White Masculinities

Christina D. Owens
From the journal New Global Studies


This article employs palimpsestuous reading practices to query the transpacific reach and imperial pedigree of the comic strip “Charisma Man.” Turning to Max Weber’s theory of “charismatic authority” to understand the comic’s humorous portrayals of white male heterosexual privilege in Asia, the article proposes that the comic strip illuminates the patterns of raced and gendered “hereditary charisma” that continue to haunt transpacific relations. “Charisma Man,” penned by a team of North American men living in Japan, links contemporary white migrants across Asia – especially native English teachers – with a longue durée of Euro-American imperial actors abroad and builds meaning through intertextual engagement with the iconic cultural texts Superman and Madame Butterfly. The article concludes that “Charisma Man” makes light of white male hereditary charisma in Asia through a layering of temporally-disjointed transpacific discourses and, in turn, adds one more layer to a palimpsestuous sedimentation of sexist and racist hierarchies, normalizing their continuation within contemporary globalization.

Corresponding author: Christina D. Owens, Florida State University, Honors Program, Tallahassee, FL, 32306, USA, E-mail:

Funding source: The Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology

Funding source: The Jane Rosenthal Heimerdinger Research Award at Vassar College

  1. 1

    Readers can view three of the other strips analyzed in this article by navigating to

  2. 2

    In addition to the postcolonial studies work detailed throughout the article, see the scholarship of Manderson and Jolly (1997, 10–11) and Dower (1999, 123–39) for histories of official sexual policies of Euro-American empires in Asia. See also Sharpe (1993, 21), Shimizu (2007; 185), and Tadiar (2004, 38–44) for how literary and filmic texts have used sexuality as a discursive frame for legitimating Euro-centric hierarchies in the Asia-Pacific.

  3. 3

    In addition to the ethnographic works explored below, see Constable (2003, 97) analysis of online marriage brokerage between Filipina and Chinese women and Western men; Chou’s study of Asian Americans, which emphasizes the lived implications and global reach of “images of Asian women as sexually available” (2012, 11); and Rhacel Parreñas (2011, 70–72) ethnography of Filipina hostesses in Japan and the intra-regional construction of racialized hypersexuality, which has been built on Japan’s own imperial influence across the Asia-Pacific.

  4. 4

    I would like to thank my FSU undergraduate research assistant, Ian Banker, for invaluable help with completing the references and clarifying argumentation for the article.

  5. 5

    In addition to conducting immersive observation within Nagoya’s English-speaking foreigner communities during my 2009–11 fieldwork (focusing on expat bars, foreign businessman networks, and an English teacher’s labor union), I also conducted 65 semi-structured interviews with U.S. citizens, which varied in length from one to 3 h each. Of my 65 interviewees, 15 were white-passing women (23%), eight were men of color (16%), and 42 were white men.

  6. 6

    Because westerners of color do take part in and benefit from contemporary forms of Euro-American hegemony in Asia while still being racially marked and differentiated from whiteness (Chou 2012, 227; Cornyetz 1994, 126–27; Wang 2017), I find it helpful to distinguish between terms – naming “whiteness” when highlighting racial privileges and using “western/westerner” more inclusively. When discussing imperialism and colonialism, I use “Euro-American” to differentiate between western and Japanese imperial histories in Asia and to point to how these histories are connected to a contemporary “global racial hegemony” that continues to privilege whiteness (Winant 2004, x).

  7. 7

    The comic was published with the input of numerous North American writers and illustrators over the years and not all of these men have remained on good terms. Neil Garscadden (from the US) has coordinated the book publications, which have not included images of Charisma Man that appeared in Japanzine between 2002 and 2005. For details on the creators see Garscadden (2011) and Lah (2010).

  8. 8

    After one informant told me about Luke’s purported connection to the comic, I spoke with multiple other long-term foreign residents in Nagoya who corroborated the account. Given the ease with which people see many “Charisma Men” in their social circles (Japanzine 2001, 22), whether Luke was the main inspiration for the comic is ultimately less interesting than the parallels that I lay out between the comic and Luke’s performances of business masculinity.

  9. Research funding: My 2009–11 fieldwork was generously funded by a Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology Scholarship. The Jane Rosenthal Heimerdinger Research Award at Vassar College funded follow-up fieldwork in 2017.


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Received: 2020-03-08
Accepted: 2020-08-27
Published Online: 2020-09-30

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