OK. Who did you come up with? How many were you able to name?
My point exactly. Unless you’re a diehard comic book buff, that was probably a frustratingly long and fruitless minute. When was the last time (or first time) superhero blockbusters, and their inevitable summer sequels and spin-offs, have featured persons of Asian descent gowning up in spandex to save the world?
Enter storytelling geniuses Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew. Their graphic novel, The Shadow Hero, hits all the marks of a great comic book–vibrant action sequences, ruthless villains, hero-defining moments, vigilante justice, justice in upholding the law–while finally giving a face to the mysterious Green Turtle. Take a step back, and his origins story is also a playful and nuanced exploration of the Chinese immigrant experience in pre-WWII America, as well as Chinese history, culture, and personal identity.
Growing up in Chinatown, teenager Hank Chu’s biggest dream is to carry on the family grocery business. Then there are his mother’s loftier aspirations for him. In a comedic turn of events involving a bank heist, a high speed car chase, and an appearance from a caped hero called the Anchor of Justice, Hank’s mom becomes determined to transform her reluctant son into the first Chinese-American superhero. Appropriately, Hank’s initial crime fighting escapades are downright embarrassing until, in true superhero tradition, personal tragedy propels him to embrace a new identity as the Green Turtle.
Hank’s inspiration, the Tortoise, as we find out in a flashback to the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, is one of four legendary spirits who protect China, albeit through different ideologies. Though Yang doesn’t spell it all out explicitly, Dragon advocates divine authority of dynastic rule, Tiger supports the political philosophy of Sun Yat-Sen’s Three Principles, and Phoenix espouses the mantra of power through uprising of the common people. Tortoise, however, holds his peace and immigrates to America, just as Hank’s parents did.
While The Shadow Hero is steeped in Chinese culture and the Chinese-American experience, Yang has a knack for touching upon and then disarming stereotypes. When we first meet Hank’s mother, she comes across abrasively as a “typical Asian parent.” She has a specific vision for her son and she steamrolls him into conforming to that vision. However, she quickly became one of my favorite characters because she also has a back story and motivations that are unique to her character. Knowing what makes her tick makes her a fully fleshed person, rather than a walking set of tropes.
Along the way, Yang cleverly and humorously manages to fill in some gaping holes that the original comics didn’t or couldn’t address, all while preserving continuity. (Continuity is very important in the comic book world.) In the original comics, the Green Turtle had no discernible superpower other than plot armor, that is, a ridiculous talent for dodging bullets. Comic book lore also has it that the original Green Turtle writer, Chu Hing, wanted his protagonist to be Chinese, but his publishers insisted on a Caucasian superhero. In a tug-of-war with management, Hing supposedly kept the Green Turtle’s facial features obscured so nobody could definitively identify Turtle’s ethnicity. In response, the publishers colored Turtle’s skin a bubble gum pink. Thanks to Yang, we finally learn just how the Green Turtle acquired his miraculous bullet-dodging skills, and get a hilarious explanation for his sunburned skin tone.
The Shadow Hero ends with Hank firmly establishing himself within his Chinatown community as a bona fide superhero, and within larger society as a Chinese-American. I have my hopes for a sequel. Europe and Asia are at war, and the Green Turtle is called upon to protect America’s allies abroad. Should the Green Turtle travel to China to fight against the invading Japanese armies, there is a good chance he–and Tortoise–will encounter both Tiger and Phoenix. The stage is set. I want more!