The Shadow Hero
by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
First Second, 2014
176 pages / $17.99 buy from Amazon
The Golden Age of comics in the 1940’s was thusly named for the influx in popularity of comics during that time. Publishers operating under a shotgun approach filled the market with every outlandish concept possible, hoping that they’d happen upon the next Superman or Captain America. Comic books have yet to regain that same level of popularity, but for those who frequent comic shops today, they can get a sense of the glut of new comic book characters that flooded the market in the beginning years of comics. The Green Turtle, a shirtless masked man with a cape sporting, well, a turtle shell was one of these transitory characters only lasting five printed issues. As is understandable, The Green Turtle has been forgotten by the mass culture and comic book obsessives alike, so why is he the subject of Gene Luen Yang’s new graphic novel?
Yang has established a strong oeuvre out of deconstructing the super hero mythos while blending it with his Chinese American heritage. His previous works, such as American Born Chinese and Boxers & Saints,combine Chinese mythology with American super hero action. In Boxers, the members of the Boxer Rebellion actually transform into superhuman warriors to defeat European missionaries and soldiers.
With this pedigree it’s no wonder that Yang and artist Sonny Liew found fruitful ground with The Green Turtle. Yang reveals that the hero was created by Chinese immigrant Chu Hing, and that it is conjectured that there was conflict with Hing and his publisher to make the Green Turtle Asian American—the basis of which lies in how Hing never drew The Green Turtle’s face, always obscuring it with a cape or an elbow or depicting him from behind, cape blowing in the wind. Also, Yang is perplexed by the use of racial stereotypes in Chu Hing’s artwork: “the impossibly slanted eyes, the buckteeth, the menacing Fu Manchu grins, the inexplicably pointed ears.” Yang asks whether this “ugly” depiction of The Green Turtle’s Japanese Axis enemies is Hing’s deconstructive commentary or pandering to American publishers, but the truth has been lost to history. As a result, Yang and Sonny Liew endeavored to create a new origin story for The Green Turtle in The Shadow Hero.
And what’s best about the book is that although the book does interrogate American racism—our hero calls the Dick Tracy-inspired Detective Lawful on calling the local crime syndicate “sneaky slant-eyed bastards”—the comic is much more than a simple criticism. What makes the comic a success is that it is a pure superhero origin story on top of being incisive cultural criticism. Yang and Liew follow the tropes of classic comics and create an action-filled book while also managing to make their readers think about race and culture, too. It’s the same genius we’ve seen in Yang’s work before. He uses stereotypes, but also pathos to show readers of all ethnicities what it means to be an outsider and what it means to be a hero.