Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew are kind of my cartoon dream team. Though he’s been in comics for a long time, Yang has recently received great acclaim in the world of children’s literature for Boxers and Saints, a two-part series about two young people caught in the tumult of China’s Boxer Rebellion. Yang often writes about identity issues faced by young Asian-Americans in thoughtful titles such as American Born Chinese, Level Up, and The Eternal Smile. The Shadow Hero is no exception to this theme, although it takes on issues of identity from a unique angle: the obscure superhero comics of a bygone era.
In WWII-era America, a Chinese superhero called the Green Turtle was developed to propagandize American readers about Chinese resistance to the Japanese enemy. It was drawn and written with a racist, xenophobic hand—think Charlie Chan with superpowers. The series folded quickly, and the Green Turtle’s origin story was never explored. In this volume, Yang and Liew have resurrected the Green Turtle, reclaiming his reputation and giving him an interesting and entertaining backstory.
Hank Chu is a young man growing up in a vaguely San Franciscan Chinatown, working in his father’s store and unsuccessfully attempting to shake off his mother’s ambitions for him. Hank’s family struggles to meet the demands of the neighborhood Tongs, effectively the Chinese mafia. What better way to stand up to them, Hank’s mother reasons, than to become a superhero? It’s so absurd, it just might work! And oddly enough, through some life-changing tragedies, a bit of can-do attitude, and a slightly hilarious costume, it does. A lot of filial piety, some crooked cops, and a romantic plotline are thrown in for good measure.
The story is so strange that it could easily become a real mess, but Yang has a skill for tying plot threads together, telling a fresh story that incorporates a profound discussion of ethnic identity while presenting a unique perspective. He never resorts to stereotypes, assumptions, or shorthand, which is a real accomplishment when you’re drawing from source material that is rife with all of those things.
Illustrator, Sonny Liew, creates an excellent visual environment that references a bygone era in cartooning with a slightly faded color palette, strong-jawed men, and curvy femme fatales. Liew works out of Singapore and brings his own unique cultural identity to the mix; his work seamlessly combines influences from mainstream American superhero comics, artistically adventurous European cartooning, and manga-like pacing. His work is subtly skillful, a great compliment to Yang’s multilayered, yet light-hearted story.
The Shadow Hero is hard to pin down since there aren’t many comics about Chinese superheroes, let alone thoughtful homages, and it would be easy for this book to be inaccessible and self-serving. But Yang and Liew’s combined cartooning superpowers make it work, and the book leaves a lasting impression that makes me want in on more of the Green Turtle’s adventures.
The Shadow Hero
by Gene Luen Yang
Art by Sonny Liew
First Second, 2014
Publisher Age Rating: 12-18