Review: The Shadow Hero

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The Shadow Hero
by Gene Luen Yang and illustrated by Sonny Liew
★★★★☆
2014 • 176 pages • First Second

On Monday, The Mary Sue republished Lilian-Ann Bonaparte’s Black Girl Nerds essay on the importance of racebent fanart, “For Black Girls who considered Esmerelda Black when Cinderella wasn’t enuf: The Importance of Race-Bending Fan-Art.” It is well worth a read—Bonaparte specifically fixes on The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the greatest of the Disney Renaissance films—but Bonaparte makes herself very, very clear at the end of it: “Race-bending is radical, progressive and imperative for the WOC who are starved for more positive representation in media.”

Gene Luen Yang, I think, would undoubtedly agree with Bonaparte. Given his measured but angry response to the atrociously whitewashed Avatar: The Last Airbender film (could have had it all, rolling in the deep, etc.), it’s very tempting and, I think, rewarding to think of The Shadow Hero as Yang’s opportunity to avenge the scores of Asian characters who have been whitewashed over the years for the sake of appealing to a “wider” (which is a very odd way to spell “whiter”) audience.

The Shadow Hero, as Yang explains in a short conclusion, is based on The Green Turtle, a 1940s superhero character written by the Asian-American comic book artist Chu F. Hing. According to comic book lore, Hing wanted to make the Green Turtle, who spent his time helping the Chinese face Japanese invaders during World War II, Chinese like himself, but his publisher didn’t think there was a market for an Asian superhero. Hing then avoided the topic of race entirely by never unmasking the Green Turtle, but the hero only appeared in Blazing Comics for five issues before vanishing into comic book history.

Where Yang and illustrator Sonny Liew found him and told the story Hing never did—who the Green Turtle was. (And what that terrifying, never mentioned monstrous turtle shadow in the original comics were.) The unmasked Green Turtle is Hank Chu, the son of Chinese immigrants in an unspecified Chinatown on the West Coast during the 1930s. All Hank has ever wanted is to be a grocer like his peaceful father, but that’s interrupted when his usually unflappable mother is rescued during a bank robbery by the superpowered Anchor of Justice. She returns home determined to turn Hank into a superhero, but it’s only when a local gang comes calling that Hank’s supernatural abilities come into flower.

What follows is a pretty standard coming of age superhero origin story, with a few key differences: Mrs. Chu’s involvement, enthusiasm, and survival, Hank’s small-town ambitions, and, most importantly, that this is a period superhero story about a Chinese-American guy in 1930s California. Making the implicit immigration tale of Superman explicit allows Yang to explore both colorful, good-natured action sequences and the age-old tensions between immigrants, their new country, and their country of origin (especially when heightened by the fact that the new country treats your race and religion as the Other). The supernatural entities at work here ask important questions: how do you integrate into a new culture without losing your own? How do you honor your heritage without clinging to the past? These are not easy questions to answer (if their value even lays in having a clear-cut answer), but Hank represents something new, as both a superhero and as a Chinese-American comfortable in different cultural spaces.

Although not always accepted. The only major white characters in the miniseries are the detectives who investigate a Chinatown murder; one of them, an obvious Dick Tracy analogue, befriends the Green Turtle but, due to the Green Turtle’s mask and chemically altered salmon pink skin (long story), never realizes that he’s Chinese until he begs Hank not to get himself killed over those people in Chinatown. Hank then takes off his mask, revealing who he is. It’s a small but expertly played moment, because it reflects the assumptions people made about the Green Turtle all those decades ago. There was never any reason not to read him as Chinese and reading him as white actually warps his message, positing him as a white male savior when he’s a much more powerful character when he’s part of the community that he’s saving.

The Shadow Hero nimbly deals with this complex material while also being light-hearted and funny: Hank is trained in combat by his Uncle Wun Too, who teaches him to fight dirty. Hank stops in the middle of a fight because he’s been taught to never hit women. Mrs. Chu is so proud of her son that she can’t help but blab his secret identity to her friends. It’s a very charming remix of the original, and I think Chu F. Hing would be pretty happy.

I rented this book from the public library.

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