There was nothing particularly memorable about the Green Turtle back in 1944 when he made his debut in the pages of Blazing Comics #1. Like hundreds of other comic book characters of the time, he wore a colorful mask and a cape, and he fought tirelessly against the Axis Alliance. Except for the Chinese/Japanese dynamic, the story was a generic Golden Age WWII superhero adventure.
But author Gene Luen Yang and artist Sonny Liew saw the character’s untapped potential. To them, the Green Turtle was (perhaps) the first Chinese superhero and represented a totally fresh agenda and point of view.
Thus inspired, the pair has fashioned a proper origin story for the long-forgotten superhero—one that touches upon Chinese identity issues, the immigrant experience, cultural stereotypes, and the struggles of assimilation. In his afterword, Yang notes that a yearning of acceptance pervades the original Green Turtle stories. And with that in mind, he and Liew have done a good job imbuing their comic with a desire to unite East with West.
Anyone who is familiar with Yang’s previous work (most notable American Born Chinese, a National Book Award finalist in 2006) knows that he is keenly articulate when writing about racial stereotypes, identity issues, and the power of transformation. And not surprisingly (to us), these themes mesh pretty well with the tradition of American superhero comics.
The chronicles of the Green Turtle began way back in 1911 when China’s Ch’ing Dynasty fell apart, ending two millennia of Imperial rule. Amid the chaos, a council of spirits assembled. Together they quickly decided the fate of their cherished homeland. “China’s future can only be safeguarded by the fists of the common people,” said the phoenix. And everyone, including the dragon, the tiger, and the turtle, seemed to agree.
The story then follows the path of two families as they immigrate to San Incendio, a San Francisco-like coastal city in the U.S. It’s here that Yang and Liew express themselves the best. The story of Hank Chu (our hero), his parents, and the surrounding Chinatown community is told with generous humor, insight, and great cartooning. Even when the plot shifts into superhero gear, Yang and Liew keep their focus tight on the themes they profess.
Out of this Chinese immigration experience comes The Shadow Hero. With a little help from an ancient Chinese turtle spirit (and his pushy mother), Hank Chu learns the currency of heroism and heritage. Yang and Liew have successfully turned a generic Golden Age hero into a golden man of bravery. Says Chu’s turtle benefactor: “The future belongs to something new. And that’s what he is… something new.”
[The Shadow Hero / By Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew / First Printing: July 2014 / ISBN: 9781596436978]