Fresh Meat: The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang

The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and illustrated by Sonny Liew is a revived  comic series adapted from a 1940s series about the Green Turtle, the first Asian American superhero (available July 14, 2014).

In 1944, an obscure comic book artist named Chu Hing was asked to write and draw an Asian-based cartoon feature for the equally obscure publisher, Rural Home. He created a hero named the Green Turtle, whose exploits would span five whole issues before cancellation. The entire enterprise might have been consigned to a footnote in comic book history, if Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew hadn’t come across the Green Turtle and decided to expand upon what Chu Hing had begun, extrapolating from the Golden Age of comics (and its inherent limitations) to create a fully-fleshed, touching, and incredibly funny superhero comic that, while set in the same mid-century milieu as the original, feels both fresh and timeless.

The story begins in a turbulent China, following the collapse of imperial rule. The four guardian spirits of China—Dragon, Phoenix, Tiger and Tortoise—come to a council to decide the best way to ensure China’s, and their own, survival. While the others argue, Tortoise is silent. The next day, to the dismay of his fellows, Tortoise hops aboard a ship leaving the mainland. There he strikes a deal with a young drunk who, travelling to America, will become Hank Chu’s father and unwittingly bequeath the protection of Tortoise to his American-born son.

Hank’s mother will also immigrate to America, where her disillusionment with the American dream she was promised as a child will cause her to sleepwalk through growing up, marrying Hank’s father and bearing him a son. Hank, in turn, will grow up helping his now-sober father run their moderately successful Chinatown grocery store, while his mother works as a housekeeper for a white family to escape the disappointing mundanity of her home life.

This all changes the day a superhero rescues her from the unwanted attentions of a bank robber. The encounter brings excitement back into her life and renews her interest in her teenage son, whom she believes could very well become a superhero too, if only he applies himself and, perhaps, picks up some superpowers along the way. Because how hard could that possibly be? Of course, this leads to strife between her and Hank, who wants nothing more than to follow in his father’s unassuming footsteps. Fate has different ideas, though, setting Hank on a collision course with the powerful gang that runs Chinatown. After tragedy reconciles Ma to her son’s ordinariness, it’s Hank’s turn to step up and willingly assume the mantle, and not just metaphorically:

Ma: You're fixing your superhero costume [that I made]?

Hank: No, I'm making a new one! I made this cape out of that old banner in the back room, but I can't seem to get the shirt right.

Ma: Hank, you listen to me. You are NOT a superhero! I never should have put those foolish notions in your head!

Hank: No! Ma, it’s different now! I… Uh… You’re not going to believe this, but I actually have a superpower.

Ma (after a stunned silence): Aiya! Curse me and my powers of persuasion! My son has gone crazy, all because of my golden tongue!

Ma eventually comes around, but not without misgivings and a constant stream of unwanted advice. In addition to his mother’s “assistance,” Hank is aided in his quest to take down the gang by an unlikely set of allies, the foremost of who is Tortoise. Hank, still being a teenager, is often reluctant to accept advice, resulting in hilarious exchanges such as this one with his supernatural protector in the middle of a fight Hank is losing:

Tortoise: I told you this was a bad idea, but did you listen to me? No!

Hank: AAAH!

Tortoise: And why should you? I'm just an annoying old spirit who has the wisdom of a thousand lifetimes!

Hank: OOF!

Tortoise: I'm sure you know better. After all, you're nineteen.

The universal theme of adjusting from adolescence to adulthood with its attendant responsibilities (dealt with most famously in comic books by the teams behind the Spiderman series) is depicted through a unique and entirely worthwhile perspective here. Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew do a wonderful job of incorporating both immigrant and Chinese experiences into a superhero narrative that’s eminently relatable even to people who have had neither. And the art is exceptional, incorporating stylized Chinese images with subtly cinematic techniques that, to me, showcase some of the best of what modern comic art has to offer. It never overwhelms the story—in fact, you might not even notice how good it is till you stop to examine it on its own merits, so seamlessly does it serve the narrative. The Shadow Hero is an excellent graphic novel on many fronts, and one I can’t recommend enough.

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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She
microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.

Read all posts by Doreen Sheridan for Criminal Element.

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