To say that the American superhero comic book medium is somewhat biased towards portraying most heroes as Caucasian is something of an understatement. Although serious strides have been made towards diversity in recent years, the truth is, most superheroes are still predominantly white as milk. And those that aren’t are not really headlining their own comic books, at least, sadly, not for extended periods of time. Decades ago, though, there was an Asian superhero, even if readers didn’t really know he was Asian: The Green Turtle, a hero revived for writer Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew’s new digital-only series, The Shadow Hero: The Green Turtle Chronicles.
The Green Turtle was a mysterious vigilante hero who never let anyone see his face, including the readership. A powerless hero in the Batman mold, with his own take on the Dark Knight’s well known gimmicks (the Turtle Plane; Burma Boy, a young boy that he saved from the Japanese as his Robin), The Green Turtle traveled Asia fighting the Imperial Japanese Army in World War II with his mystical green dagger. Although never explicitly shown by the publisher as being Asian (very much on purpose; this was the forties, after all) the character’s creator was Chinese American artist Chu Hing, and although never specifically stated, it’s pretty clear he meant the Turtle to be Chinese. The character only had five adventures, back in 1944, and has long been in the public domain. Seventy years later, Chinese-American writer Gene Luen Yang and artist Sonny Liew (My Faith In Frankie, Marvel’s Sense and Sensibility)have taken that long forgotten character and reclaimed him as the Chinese-American hero he was clearly meant to be, and given him the origin story that he never had.
Gene Luen Yang is best known for his book American Born Chinese, which won an Eisner Award back in 2006, and he also travels all over the world, speaking about graphic novels and comics and their ability to be used as a teaching method in schools. Together with Singapore based artist Sonny Liew, he gives the book an authentic flavor that someone not of Asian descent probably couldn’t really give it. The book’s tone is both cartoony and realistically expressive all at once, which is a hard trick to pull off. The aspects of this comic that shine the most are the insights into the life of a Chinese immigrant in the first half of the twentieth century. Although Gene Luen Yang claims that his comics are not really autobiographical or based on his family history in particular, there is little doubt that some of this is based on stories of families that he’s known growing up in the Chinese-American community in the Bay Area. They all ring so true, that if it isn’t based on real people or situations, then all the more kudos to him for making it seem so authentic.
The Shadow Hero begins with a flashback to 1911, when the Ch’ing Dynasty collapsed, ending two thousand years of Imperial rule in China. During the chaos, as the country that they have known crumbles around them, four spirits represent the embodiment of China – The Dragon, the Tiger, the Phoenix and the Tortoise, spirits who will die out if China itself were to die out. One of them, the Tortoise, decides to hitch a ride on the shadow of a drunk young man, who has stowed away on a ship headed towards America.
We are then introduced to a young girl, Hua, also on her way to America in 1911, a world she thought of as a magical sanctuary, but that only ends up disappointing her with the rampant noise, dirt, and casual racism aimed at her and her family, now forced to live in a small ghetto made just for Asian immigrants (which is early San Francisco Chinatown). The young woman grows up and marries the young man, now a grocer in Chinatown, and ultimately have a son, our series’ protagonist, Hank.
Things take a turn into American mythology, specifically, superhero mythology, when Hua is carjacked by a bank robber and is saved by “The Anchor of Justice,” your standard Superman-esque superhero. From this point on, Hua is obsessed with American superheroes, and decides that her son Hank’s destiny is to be the Chinese version of the Anchor of Justice (never mind that the Anchor has powers, and Hank is just a shop boy, as far as mom knows. Or does she know more?). Like a Chinese-American Ma Kent, she sews up a costume for young Hank, who, as the issue ends, seems somewhat aghast at the idea of putting on tights and a cape and fighting crime.
Publisher First Second Books is publishing six individual digital issues of The Shadow Hero between now and summer, when they’ll be putting the whole thing together in print. Although only one issue is in so far, at the very least I can recommend giving the individual issues of the series a try based on this first installment. This is most certainly a superhero book unlike anything else being published today, filled with both genuine historical authenticity and pure whimsy. Based on this first installment alone, I am definitely interested to see just what happens to The Green Turtle and his family. The collection comes out July 15th, and will include special bonus material, like author’s note from Gene Luen Yang, and pages from the original Green Turtle comic book from the forties.