The main reason the Yellow Peril supervillain was everywhere was because…well, have you ever wondered, before the Nazis and Hitler came around, what the default visual shorthand was for “evil” in pop culture?
Prior to the Nazis and Hitler, it was Genghis Khan and the Mongols, a historical figure so imposing with an army so absolutely unbeatable, he delivered such an epic asskicking that he left a culture-wide PTSD all over Western civilization for centuries after his death, one that we only really managed to overcome in the 20th Century, mainly because Hitler became a bigger figure in the popular imagination. In the early 20th Century, Mongols as the default shorthand for evil dovetailed into two major cultural forces, racial paranoia and fear of immigrants. All of these forces came together in Fu Manchu, who was a huge hit that influenced every bit of mystery/action pop culture for decades, the way Star Wars is somehow in the DNA of every scifi movie today.
Every single pulp hero and detective got a Yellow Peril archenemy, as if they were assigned one by the government: Sherlock Holmes’ imitator Sexton Blake’s archenemy was Wu Ling and the Society of the Yellow Beetle, the gentleman thief known as the Sapper (who had a mole machine he used to drill under the earth) had Khonsu, who invaded England with his Asiatic hordes, the Shadow had his well-known Shiwan Khan, and Doc Savage’s greatest foe was John Sunlight, who went by the name “the Devil Genghis” (though he was not Asian and was actually an evil Sherlock Holmes). Pulp heroes were basically like eating at Taco Bell: everything is made from the same five ingredients that you hope will be combined in a new way.
There were so many Yellow Peril Oriental Supergeniuses based on Fu Manchu printed in the pages of mystery novels and pulps between 1910-1950 that an entire library could be filled with the many imitators of Fu Manchu. I couldn’t even begin to give you one tenth of the characters based on his blueprint that existed. What’s amazing is that by 1928, people were sick of this cliche. A mystery writing guide written that year told writers that “in a mystery, no Chinaman is to be involved.”
But there are a few variations that are worth pointing out. One was by Sax Rohmer, creator of Fu Manchu himself, named Sumuru. As he legally couldn’t write Fu Manchu during World War II (as the Chinese were our allies), he created an Asian supergenius who happened to be a beautiful woman, who ran an organization designed to make sure women were in charge of the world, and who believed women were superior to men. Sumuru may or may not have been immortal and possibly a Queen of Egypt in the past.
One truly weird use of the Yellow Peril was in the William Francis Nowlan novel that gave the world the hero Buck Rogers, Armageddon 2419. In the beginning, Buck Rogers wasn’t about rockets or space travel, but about race war, a future where evil Mongols in dirigibles, the Air Lords of Han, ruled as a destroyed America. Let me repeat that: Buck Rogers was originally a novel of post apocalyptic race war. Howard Chaykin revived this original angle in a socialist, subversive way in his recent fascinating Buck Rogers comic series.
Finally, we have Robert E. Howard’s Skull-Face, a villain based in the orient who uses Dacoits and Ninja-like assassins to do his dirty work, but who owed his uncanny power to the fact he was a reawakened Atlantean, and knew secrets modern people today don’t. His eerie appearance was due to the fact he was not entirely human.