Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Billy Nguyen, Private Eye: Jimmy J. Aquino's Lacuna Matata, Part 4

Here's how you can tell this comic's totally from the early '90s. Billy Nguyen's rockin' the shoulder pads, much like the casts of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Dynasty.The previous installments of "Lacuna Matata" have been about TV shows only I and maybe you remember. In this penultimate installment, I'm shifting gears and focusing on an obscure comic book I wish I bought when I had the chance.

Nineteen years ago, Comic Shop News touted the first issue of an offbeat Caliber Press series called Billy Nguyen, Private Eye, written by John Hartman and starring a Seattle-based Vietnamese gumshoe who, for some reason, was drawn with a Sub-Mariner-like face by artist Stan Shaw. The Namor resemblance was one of many in-jokes in a satirical P.I. title that broke the fourth wall Moonlighting style and had Nguyen acknowledge he was a character in a comic.

CSN's stills from Billy Nguyen looked interesting, but what was especially cool about the comic was that for once, the hero, even with the Namor hairdo and pointy ears, looked like many of the folks from my predominantly Vietnamese part of town. That's something you didn't--and still don't--see everyday.

So what do I do when I strut into the comic shop and leaf through a copy of the first issue of the first comic with an Asian American hero I ever came across?

Stupid me who at the time wasn't used to comics that didn't involve superheroes, Star Trek or Dick Tracy skims through Billy Nguyen #1, thinks, "This comic's too weird," and then closes it and puts it down.

I now regret putting that comic back in its rack. I don't even remember what I bought instead. It was probably some lame comic based on The Adventures of Ford Fairlane or Doogie Howser or something.

June Park of 'Sampler' and various other Secret Identities: TAASA characters, illustrated by Jerry Ma
Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology

Billy Nguyen never took off and faded into obscurity (it's so obscure the Thrilling Detective entry about the character isn't even sure how long the Caliber incarnation lasted: "2 issues?"). Meanwhile, I grow up to become an angry Asian man, develop an Asian American consciousness and decide that one of my major goals in life is to create a tough, assertive and humorous Asian American hero like Nguyen, whether it'd be for comics, TV or film, so that I can help diminish the stench left by white writers(*) and their stereotypical creations, like that corny and effete assclown Charlie Chan. When Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology chose me to develop a new Asian American hero, I couldn't believe one of my goals was becoming a reality.

(*) Not all of them are clueless about the Asian American experience. The two most relatable Asian American male characters on the big screen in years, Harold and Kumar, were created by Jewish guys--Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg.

Once in a while, someone puts out a comic about a detective or cop of color like Angeltown or Gun Fu. Every time such a comic drops, I try not to pass up the opportunity to buy and support it, after I stupidly rejected Billy Nguyen #1 when I was a kid.

This post is essentially a plea for someone, anyone, to revive this character. There aren't enough Asian American protagonists in the detective genre. Does Hartman still own the rights to Nguyen? Because if nobody wants to try to revive him, then maybe I should do it.


  1. Please do - I love that issue, and have been hoping for more for years.

  2. Okay…I was surfing cause for Billy because I met some artists last night and wanted to see what they would find. I'm Stan Shaw and I (along with co-write R. Steven Bird) own the rights to Billy. It's a long story but suffice to say that I'm still in contact with the entire crew. (John, Steven, Justin and me.) What makes me all gooey inside is that for a LONG ASS time I have been listening to Fistfull while I work! And just now I stumble across this. Very cool. You can reach me via my website Drawstanley.com.
    Stan Shaw

  3. Hmmm... i'm not sure Charlie Chan really deserves to be called an "assclown."Especially considering the era in which he was created. Plus, from everything I've read, that would have been the furthest thing from Biggers' mind. He wanted to create a viable, believable and respectable version of an Asian detective; one that went AGAINST many of the more offensive stereotypes of the day.

    Of course, if all you know about Chan is some of the movies, you really should read some of the books.

  4. Huh. I wrote that book; nice to see this.

  5. I was wondering if anyone remembered this book! Pity it couldn't be re-released as an ebook, for the six of us that remember.