Comic Book Review: The Shadow Hero by Gene Yang and Sonny Liewon July 29, 2014 at 3:40 pm
Another Comic-Con has come and gone. It seems like everyone is yammering about the new Mad Max trailer or Ironman’s new suit. I guess that’s exciting and all. But for me the most exciting comics news this week is that Gene Yang has taken a stab at the genre and released his first superhero comic.
The Shadow Hero, written by Gene Yang and drawn by Sonny Liew, tells the story of a wimpy kid named Hank, growing up in Chinatown. When his Dad is killed by a local crime boss. Hank is contacted by his Dad’s spirit animal who proceeds to grant him any wish. Hank wishes to never be shot by a bullet. That’s his superpower! Personally, I would have added swords, fists, clubs, baseball bats and missiles to the list. But I guess he was thinking about the specific way his Dad was killed. Without giving too much away, Hank becomes a superhero called The Green Turtle who uses his power of not getting shot to take down the local tong to avenge his father and also so that business at his family shop can pick up again.
Pretty standard superhero fare so far… except for one thing. He’s Asian!!! Not only is he an Asian American superhero, Yang makes a plausible case that he may be the first Asian American superhero. What about Jubilee, or Psylocke? Well The Green Turtle predates them all! The Green Turtle was originally created by in the 40’s by Chu Hing, one of the first Asian American cartoonists. According to Gene, Chu Hing might have kept The Green Turtle’s face hidden because the publisher had forbidden him from drawing an Asian main character. You’d think the pink skin would be a give away that maybe he wasn’t Asian, but Gene has an explanation for that too. In The Shadow Hero, Hank’s skin changes color when it gets wet (a side effect of being exposed to a toxic waste spill earlier in the story). I guess we’ll never know for sure if the Green Turtle was Asian. Maybe the color of his nipples might be a clue but I couldn’t find any panels in the original comic where his nipples were exposed. It reminded of the first (and only) Asian American porn star, a man whose identity will never be known because he kept a paper bag over his head during all his movies. Maybe that’s who Gene Yang was thinking of too.
As much fun as it is seeing Gene write a story backwards, with this weird Green Turtle character as his end goal, for me the most impressive aspect of the comic was the way he used the standard tropes and power chords of the superhero genre to tell a nuanced story about the Asian American experience. It’s like painting the Mona Lisa with a mop and five buckets of paint. The real juicy center of the story was less about the physical action and more just watching Hank navigating his Mom and Dad’s expectations of him and balancing that with his own ambitions in life, while simultaneously trying to navigate an outside world of well meaning but casually racist detectives surrounding a 1940’s Chinatown overrun with its own complex institutions.
Also I’m not gonna beat around the bush any longer. On the most base level, it’s freakin’ great to see an Asian American superhero. As a kid, my heroes were never Asian. I was super into Encyclopedia Brown and when I was a little older it was all about MacGuyver. But here’s the jacked up thing. When I was a kid pretending to be James Bond or whomever, I’ll confess, I was also thinking, “Oooh wouldn’t it be the shit if I was white!? I could just walk into a club order a martini and women would be all over that.” You may ask, why wasn’t I into Bruce Lee? I’ll admit it was cool to see him take on 40 henchmen with a pair of nunchucks but really I’m a pacifist! I think there are ways to peacefully resolve our differences and if you are going to use action over negotiation at least use your intelligence and resourcefulness like MacGuyver. If I wanted to limit myself to having a hero the same race as me, my choices were Bruce Lee, Bruce Lee and Bruce Lee.
By contrast, I can’t even imagine what it’s like for Asian American kids growing up today. Kids today have everyone from Jerry Yang to Jeremy Lin to look up to and idolize. Some white friends of mine didn’t understand what the big deal was when “Harold and Kumar go to Whitecastle” hit the theaters. They couldn’t understand why I was jumping out of my seat and pumping my fists into the air at the end when John Cho made out with that girl. Maybe it’s because until that point, the only Hollywood movie in the history of cinema to feature an Asian American male protagonist was “Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo” you privileged motherfuckers! You don’t ever have to think about it. Your porn stars don’t even cover their heads with paper bags.
In conclusion, I’d highly recommend The Shadow Hero. It works on so many different levels. It’s a great children’s comic, but also a great story about Asian American identity and the immigrant experience and it works as a commentary on the superhero genre itself.