Gene Yang is best known as an independent comics creator. His American Born Chinese was a surprise hit in 2006 and his further graphic works (The Shadow Hero, Boxers & Saints) have skillfully explored problems of Chinese and Chinese-American identity while also telling compelling, brilliantly drawn stories. He has taken over existing creative franchises in the past, in the form of his marvelous Avatar: The Last Airbender graphics, but has never before tackled a high-profile superhero title. Yang’s New Super-Man series is his first opportunity to put his mark on an existing superhero mythology and world, and he delivers brilliantly.

Yang’s hero is not the enormously familiar/enormously white Superman of Action Comics fame, but is instead a Chinese teenager named Kong Kenan, If Supes is classically known as a do-gooder and boy scout, Kong is in some ways the opposite. Introduced as a bully and a clown, over time the new Super-Man of Shanghai reveals himself as a person with a heroic but angry-and-wounded heart. The reasons for his heroism are rooted in well-delivered comic book cliches—a tragically dead mother, an emotionally distant father, conflicted feelings about new superpowers. Created by the Chinese government’s shadowy Ministry of Self-Reliance, Kenan finds himself imbued with colossal-but-unreliable power, and is forced to work with the Wonder Woman and Batman of China (!) in the newly formed Justice League of China. It is a team created as much for Chinese propaganda purposes as it is to fight the increasing number of super-villains cropping up in Chinese urban centers.

If the plot ideas are not entirely fresh—sassy teenage superhero finds himself via heroism—the details, delivery, and storytelling all start strong and grow stronger over time. For example, Kenan’s teammates could easily be portrayed as either cheap imitations, government thugs, or half-baked jokes. Instead, Kenan finds himself befriending and respecting the Chinese Batman and Wonder Woman despite their differing philosophies and maturity. For their part, they have no respect for ideals such as democracy and liberty, but instead value personal loyalty and compassion and so are willing to bend the rules for their friend. In contrast, the Justice League’s first opponents, the Freedom Fighters of China, have ideals that Western readers are more likely to identify with, but several of them have fallen off the path to super-heroism into outright terrorism. It’s details like these that Yang mines for nuance and context, allowing him to talk about mainland China’s politics and attitude towards intellectual property without becoming mired in overblown philosophical discussion. At the same time Yang creates a warm and humorous chemistry between his main characters, highlighted by the chilliness of both Kenan’s father and the Ministry of Self-Reliance’s intimidating director, Doctor Omen.

Another outstanding aspect of this series is how Yang uses super-heroic tropes to explore superhero comics’ problematic (at best) history with Asian characters—figures like The Mandarin, The Golden Claw, the bizarre racist Humpty-Dumpty Egg Fu, and DC’s own Fu-Manchu rip-off Ching Lung-—a Yellow Menace caricature who appeared on the cover of Detective Comics #1, and who makes an appearance as an apparent mastermind in early issues of New Super-Man. This is familiar territory for Yang, who has explored American caricatures of Asians with characters like American Born Chinese’s Chin Kee, but touching on elements specific to superhero comics provides Yang with a new opportunity to redeem comics’ past while not allowing superhero stories to ignore it.

Conversely, Yang also explores Chinese cultural touchstones in this series, introducing his readers to perhaps unfamiliar elements of Chinese society and storytelling. For example, the Wonder Woman of China is actually the Green Snake, a hero from one of China’s most famous folk tales, echoing the more familiar Wonder Woman’s origins in Western mythology while rooting his new character firmly in Asian traditions. Bridging the gap between these concepts is Kenan’s sifu and martial arts mentor, I Ching, who not only teaches Kenan about Chinese mystical concepts like the 8 Trigrams (from the oracular Chinese book the I-Ching) and qi (life energy), but also served a similar (if more stereotypical) role as Wonder Woman’s mentor during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Superheroes are often touted as modern myths, but Yang seems to be exploring their potential for historical and cultural exploration in ways other creators haven’t touched on. As a longtime student of Chinese martial arts, I realize I might be part of a very small target audience for some of this discussion, but this fact also lets me appreciate the fact that Yang gets the details on difficult concepts right, and explains them adroitly without getting too bogged down in exposition.

New Super-Man is a smart, fun read. While the superhero battles often have dark undertones, the characters and dialog provide a welcome sense of humor throughout, and Yang’s command of the DC Universe makes Kenan and his allies plausible additions to an already complex world. The nature of mainstream superhero comics does mean this is not the visual storytelling feast Yang is known for, but artists Viktor Bogdanovic and Billy Tan both do a good job within the the genre’s constraints. If your library collects superhero comics, this is one of the better offerings currently on the shelf. Aimed at younger teens but appropriate for children, this representation of both Chinese culture and Chinese heroes also makes this book a good candidate for school libraries. Some of Yang’s earlier works were successfully designed as earth-shakers and paradigm breakers, and if you come in expecting that you will be disappointed. However, this is a superhero series that is quietly moving the needle, treating Chinese characters and culture with respect and humor while acknowledging the Chinese government’s problematic nature.

Read it.

New Super-Man
by Gene Yang
Art by Vicktor Bogdanovic. Billy Tan
vol. 1 ISBN: 9781401270933
vol. 2 ISBN: 9781401273903
vol. 3 ISBN: 9781401280444
DC Comics, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: (Teen 13-16)

  • Matt

    Past Reviewer

    Matthew Z. Wood has over a decade’s experience in public and academic libraries, and has worked everything from IT to Reference Desks, from the Reserve Room to Acquisitions. He received his Master’s in Library Science from the University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill in 2011. He has worked at the North Carolina State University’s D.H. Hill Library, and the Durham County Library in Durham, NC and is currently a Writing Trainer for Comic Book Resources and Valnet. Working with his partners, David Milloway and Stephanie Freese, Mr. Wood co-created the webcomics “The Dada Detective” and “Chocolypse Now!” Their collection “The Dada Alphabet” was shortlisted for the Lulu Blooker Prize; the team received a Nerdlinger Award in 2008. Though a child of the Carolinas, Mister Wood resides in Spokane, Washington with his wife and daughter; they have dinner with his in-laws every Sunday. A church-goer but not an evangelist, a practicing martial artist for more than 30 years (Southern Chinese kung fu and T'ai Chi Chuan) but not a fighter, he has loved comics his entire life. Most recently, he has contributed articles to Dr. Sheena Howard’s Encyclopedia of Black Comics and in August of 2018 his first book-- Comic Book Collections and Programming, A Practical Guide for Librarians-- was published by Rowman and Littlefield. He writes under the name The Stupid Philosopher at Medium.com.

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