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In The Shadow Hero, cartoonist Gene Luen Yang collaborates with artist Sonny Liew to tell the story of Hank Chu, the teenage son of Chinese immigrants who run a small store in Depression-era Chinatown. As with much of Yang’s best-known work, this new original graphic novel deals with themes of cultural, national and racial identity, and the tensions and conflicts that arise when identities and outlooks collide.
Here, Hank finds himself pressured by his mother to become a wholly American invention, a sort of ultimate assimilation success story. She doesn’t want him to grow up to be a doctor or lawyer or politician, but a superhero, a thought put in her head when she’s rescued from a robber by the Superman stand-in The Anchor of Justice.
Their book is an excellent one, a perfect example of a modern superhero comic, masterfully and perfectly balancing comedy, crime, action, drama, melodrama, romance and fantasy into an epic story of a young man coming of age and finding himself.
As good as Yang and Liew’s story is, however, the story of their story may be just as fascinating, in large part because it’s true, and gives the comic they crafted a remarkable level of relevance. That story is told after the conclusion of The Shadow Hero, in the generous back-matter of the First Second book, presented in standard superhero-comic size, rather than the smaller, more square shape of most of the publisher’s offerings.
Yang divides the story behind the story of The Shadow Hero into facts and rumors. Under facts, we learn the superhero that stars in the tale we just finished reading — The Green Turtle — was a real superhero created in 1944 by Chinese-American artist Chu Hing for publisher Rural House’s Blazing Comics.
The character wore the costume that The Green Turtle wears on the cover of The Shadow Hero, he defended China from the invading forces of Axis Power Japan, he had unnaturally bright pink skin, and he almost never directly faced the reader. When his face was turned toward the reader, it was always at least semi-obscured by something, even if just the hero’s arm.
What did face the reader was a strange, mirthful, cartoon turtle-shaped shadow that was never commented on or explained. It appeared to be an artistic flourish, akin to the dramatic shadows cast by Batman and, later, Spider-Man, but it didn’t look much like The Green Turtle and, Yang writes, it seemed to be laughing at the reader or, perhaps, the publisher.
Yang then dives into the rumors, which seem to be borne out by what’s on the page of the Green Turtle comics — or, at the very least, a compelling argument can be made based on the evidence of the comics themselves, the first of which is included in Shadow Hero. (The cover of the first issue of Blazing Comics, in an example of the strange reluctance to show the hero, features only his gloved hands around the throat of a fallen foe, while the leering turtle shadow faces the reader.)
Apparently Hing wanted The Green Turtle to be Chinese, which would have made him one of the first Asian superheroes, quite a feat during a time when Asians in U.S. superhero comics were generally relegated to bad guys of various odious stereotypes, like the dragon lady, the Fu Manchu-type and the yellow peril.
And apparently Rural House did not want The Green Turtle to be Chinese.
Artist and publisher seemingly fought it out on the page of the comics, with Hing never showing the character’s face or telling his origin story (whenever he would start to tell sidekick Burma Boy who he was and how he came to be, they would be interrupted), and the publisher coloring Green Turtle’s skin a bright, bright pink. In sharp contrast to the other Asian characters in his stories, the hero looked like a sun-burned Caucasian.
“That’s where Sonny Liew and I step in,” Yang writes.
Their book isn’t named for the hero, who tries out the names Golden Man of Bravery and Jade Tortoise before becoming The Green Turtle, but its title instead refers to the origin of his powers and that weird smiling turtle shadow his creator drew into the comics. That, and to the various mysterious elements regarding the character’s creation and forgotten place in comics history.
It opens with four powerful spirits, each drawn as a more realistic and supernatural version of Hing’s shadow turtle, who come to council “in a place between our world and the next.” These are the Dragon, the Phoenix, the Tiger and the Tortoise, and they meet to decide what to do about China in 1911, when 2,000 years of imperial rule collapsed.
The Tortoise decides to leave, making his home in the shadow of Hanks’ father, striking a bargain to do so. Decades later, Hank’s mom meets The Anchor of Justice, and begins pestering him to give up his dreams of being a cowardly grocer like his father and instead become a superhero. She tries to help him along by sewing him his Golden Man of Bravery costume, having him train in the martial arts and pushing him into spilled chemicals or to be bitten by animals in an attempt to gain superpowers.
About halfway through the book, Hank’s father dies, and various secrets come out. He meets The Tortoise, and strikes a bargain with him, allowing it to live in his shadow in exchange for the wish that he never be shot, giving The Green Turtle the useful power of being unshootable.
Soon, Hank becomes embroiled in the crime conflict that has engulfed Chinatown, claimed the life of his father, and involves a young woman he met and fell in love with.
While Yang constructs a marvelously satisfying superhero narrative, one beautifully drawn by Liew, whose style and deft skill easily accommodates the various facets of the story, it’s interesting to hit that back-matter and see to what degree the creators seem to be solving a puzzle. In a sense, large parts of the book come from their reverse-engineering a superhero from what they see on the relatively few pages of Green Turtle comics.
Why did he seem to have an uncanny ability to avoid being shot when fighting opponents with guns? What was up with the weird turtle shadow? And his strange coloration and costume? (Here a lingering side effect of his mother’s pushing him into a pool of spilled chemicals is that his skin glows pink when wet, and as for why his costume includes a cape and mask but no shirt, he asks his mother for help sewing a shirt, but, after the loss of her husband, she refuses to support superheroics, and tells him, “I’m not helping you get yourself killed! If you want to be a superhero so badly, you’ll just have to do it naked!“).
Whatever the real story of the creation of the until-now forgotten Golden Age hero of a few issues of Blazing Comics, Yang and Liew have imagined as great and as enormously entertaining a story as any superhero could hope to have. That they manage to do so while using the fantastic vehicle of superhero fantasy to tell a quintessentially American story — an immigrant story — and restore a bit of fame to a forgotten artist and his character makes the book a must-read, and a contender for one of the best comics of the year.