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A secret laboratory tucked beneath MIT’s Killian Courthouse, accessible only through an underground labyrinth of tunnels, conducts frontier advancement research, funded by a Department of Defense grant. In these murky high-tech halls, astrophysicist and astronaut Valentina Resnick-Baker is experiencing strange phenomena after encountering a planet-threatening asteroid, and she discovers that she possesses the power of plasma fusion.

Resnick-Baker is buff and smart heroine summit, a 15-issue comic series created and written by Amy Chu ’91. These situations may be fictional, but the science – broadly speaking – is real. (Chu did background research on plasma physics for the series, and while writing about Batman villain Poison Ivy, she learned the basics of CRISPR so Ivy could use it to develop her own plant “kids.” ) “The thing that has bothered me for a long time is that a lot of superhero stories are based on complete nonsense,” said Chu, 54. “Every story I write tries to be science-based.”

Perhaps the least surprising thing about Chu is that MIT graduates prefer scientific plausibility to kryptonite and radioactive spider bites. At 42, after spending most of her successful career in boardrooms, the one-time management consultant entered another world of her own as a comic book writer. First through her publishing startup, Alpha Girl Comics, and now by working for heavyweights like Marvel and DC, Chu is reimagining the traditional genre for girls, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and others who rarely see themselves saturated in color. White male media panel.

“A lot of superhero stories are based on complete nonsense. Every story I write tries to be based on science.”

Amy Zhu

With comics, Chu pursues both a market opportunity and a social agenda familiar to battle-hardened women in gaming. “All these people are yelling at comics: They’re dying because girls and women are killing them,” Zhu said, referring to the well-known misogyny targeting female creators and fans. “The future of comics depends on the ability to make girls readers.”

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make the team

Chu’s advocacy for women and girls begins with an advocacy for herself. Her parents immigrated across the country from Hong Kong in 1968 for her father’s positions in nuclear and later medical physics. In 1980, they ended up in Iowa City, where Chu balanced his nerdy penchant (chess team, Dungeons & Dragons, text-based computer games) with a love of football. Her school only had one boys team, which she organized – but the coach wouldn’t let her play. The Zhu family sued the school district and won.

In 1985, Chu moved to Massachusetts and started a dual-degree program that required her to split her time between MIT, where she studied architectural design, and Wellesley, where she studied East Asian studies. But it was at MIT’s Phi Beta Epsilon fraternity that she met her destiny. Zhu’s boyfriend at the time was a member there, and the girlfriend of one of his friends had been storing a big box full of comics at the frat. Many of them come from First Comics, an alternative publisher specializing in spies, adventurers, and science fiction. “I read almost the entire box that summer,” said Chu, who previously equated comics with superheroes. “It’s a revelation.”

This is the origin story. But Zhu’s comic book career still has a long way to go. At Wellesley, she did dabble in publishing, starting a cultural journal to push for the creation of a course in Asian American studies. After graduating from Wellesley University in 1989, she moved to New York and co-founded A. Magazine, a general interest publication for Asian American readers. But Chu knew that a startup magazine was unlikely to make enough money to survive, so about a year later, she returned to Cambridge to complete her MIT degree. (A. for another eight years.)

After holding senior positions at several Asian American nonprofits in New York, Chu spent two and a half years in Hong Kong and Macau. While overseas, she worked for billionaire businesswoman Ho Chaoqiong, who owns a PR firm producing events for luxury brands, and worked with her family business to develop tourism in Macau. How to become a mentor.

In 1999, Steven Chu returned to the United States to study at Harvard Business School, got an MBA, and boarded the train of management consulting. Two years at Marakon, a strategy consulting firm, helped her pay off some of her Brobdingnagian student loans. Ho then asked Zhu to help with some of her biotech investments in the US. This sparked nearly a decade of business travel and PowerPoints, with Chu serving as an independent advisor to Ho and others. “The biotech Red Sonjas were very much needed at the time,” she said, referring to the fire-haired mercenaries she also wrote about.

By 2010, Chu was burnt out. Not only was she working hard, but she was raising two young children and was exhausted from treating breast cancer. At the first Harvard Asian American Alumni Summit, she connected with friend Georgia Lee, who made a 180-degree transition from consulting to writing and filmmaking. Lee charts her new vision for a comics publisher targeting girls and women. Back then, female characters in established comics were largely reduced to cleavage and catsuits in the eyes of presumed male readers.

The dearth of comics written by and for women awakened the sense of injustice that drove Chu back to Iowa. “I formed a football team,” she said. “I will form a comic team.”

become a writer

Chu and Lee’s startup Alpha Girl Comics debuts with Lee’s sci-fi western titled Le Méridien. The founders plan to post work by other women at a later date. As Zhu prepared for her role as a publisher, Lee urged her to learn all aspects of the business. So Chu signed up for a comics writing and editing project created by a former Marvel editor. “That’s what got me hooked,” she said.

Shortly after Alpha Girl released her first film, Lee couldn’t pass up the chance to direct a film in Hong Kong. By then, Chu had written some of his own stories. “The whole thing shifted to me,” she said. “So I said, I thought I’d publish my work with a group of artists.” (Like many comic book writers, Zhu creates stories and collaborates with artists who draw panels.)

She said that while her background wasn’t called “comic creator,” she was actually prepared for the job. Throughout her consulting career, she has mastered the economics of storytelling from the listless labor of PowerPoint generation. Her professional architectural design at MIT taught her to optimize space within constraints. (Chu likens packing a full fight scene into a 10-page comic to packing a grand piano into a studio apartment: “You have to sacrifice something or it’s going to be a bad experience.”)

For Alpha Girl, Chu wrote and produced two titles. girls night is a three-volume series about the adventures of a woman with dementia and her friends who abscond from a nursing home. VIP room is a one-off horror story about five strangers imprisoned in a mysterious place. But the sales pitch at the convention — Alpha Girls’ main distribution — didn’t pave the way for prosperity. To increase her industry profile and make more money, Chu became a pen for hire, creating new adventures for pop culture icons developed by Marvel, DC Comics, and other publishers.

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Chu’s decade-long comics career includes independent publishing careers, graphic novels for young readers, and contemporary reimaginings of the industry’s most iconic figures.

A notable creation is the storyline she developed in 2016 for Poison Ivy, a Batman villain who debuted in 1966 as a plant-obsessed eco-terrorist. Chu rethought the character while making Ivy’s first solo series, taking a sympathetic approach to her complicated morals. After a Wonder Con panel discussed feedback on the scarcity of Asian Americans in comics, she added a South Asian male lead, inspired in part by her Jain classmates at MIT. (“Jains are extreme vegetarians, which of course was interesting to Ivy,” she said.) Zhu said the comics gave her “a platform to increase representation and diversity.”

Comics also offered her the opportunity to be silly. In 2016, Chu began work on the popular character Red Sonja, transplanting the sword-wielding savage from a fictional country and era into modern-day New York City. A few years later, Dynamite Entertainment and Archie Comics asked her to create a limited series crossover between Sonja and Riverdale’s favorite female teenage foes. “I thought, this is ridiculous, I just want to say no,” Chu said eventually became Red Sonja & Vampirella meet Betty & Veronica“Then I thought, if I can do it and do it well, it’s a testament to what I’m capable of.”

Inspiration from MIT

Zhu quickly became a sought-after author, often asked to shed new light on characters who might have been conceived decades ago. Ideas come from everywhere, including MIT Technology Review, which Chu calls “based on science and forward thinking.”

The institute provided inspiration in other ways. Zhu reconnected with Wisdom Coleman ’91 at Baltimore Comic-Con, where she participated in a panel discussion. Coleman talks about his experience as a combat pilot in Afghanistan and the women who served with him.The lives of those women became Chu’s first foundation wonder woman Story about a female pilot wondering if her own heroic deeds were really the work of Lady Golden Lasso. (they are not.)

Characters like that female pilot and Resnick-Baker, astrophysicist-astronaut summit Collection, dressed as Chu envisioned: like real women doing real work. By contrast, characters not created by Steven Chu are often presented in an overly sexy style she hates. There was nothing she could do about it. “A lot depends on editors and editors’ choice of artists,” she said. One sign of progress, she observes, is that comic books aimed at younger audiences or produced by increasingly female editors are less exploitative.

Zhu sometimes fights back, such as an artist who is working on one of her books depicting poison ivy in a pair of thongs. “I’m really calling them to look at the Victoria’s Secret catalog and tell them what’s appropriate,” she said. “Somewhere between a bikini and boy shorts is my imagination.” (The artist makes a change.)

Today, Chu gets so many jobs from mainstream publishers that she doesn’t have time for Alpha Girls and hasn’t released a new book in years. (Lee continues to write for TV, especially the Syfy and Amazon Prime Video series vast.) She wanted to revisit Alpha Girls, but “I kept getting something I liked and I had to write it because it was cool,” she said. “Green Hornet? Yes, I want to write Green Hornet! wonder woman? certainly! “

Chu has also ventured into the more traditional publishing industry.In 2019 and 2020, Vikings released two volumes sea ​​siren, a graphic novel for middle school students by Zhu and her friend, Eisner Prize-winning illustrator Janet K. Lee.Adapted from Underwater Fantasy 1911 The Wizard of Oz An updated version by authors L. Frank Baum, Chu and Lee reimagines heroine Trot as a Southern California Vietnamese-American girl. Her adult male partner is now a talking cat. “The idea of ​​a young girl taking an adventure with an old stranger raises a lot of questions these days,” Zhu said.

Chu’s time has other demands.Three years ago, she was recruited to write two episodes for the Netflix series DOTA: Dragon Blood, based on the popular video game. (A second unannounced Netflix show is in the works.) She also started a comic book series based on the Borderlands video game. On a different track, another MIT friend, Norman Chen ’88, who now runs the Asian American Foundation, recruited Chu to produce an overview of Asian American history for elementary school students.

If Chu does eventually resurrect Alpha Girls, she might like a new generation of readers and contributors. About 10 years ago, the Girl Scouts created a comic artist badge, and Chu was asked to speak to the troops. “In a few years, more women will be exposed to this condition,” she said. “If they were like me, they would be addicted.”

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