Yang And Liew’s ‘The Shadow Hero’ Revives A Lost Hero For An Outstanding Graphic Novel [Review]
It’s already been a pretty amazing year for original graphic novels with Kyle Starks’ Sexcastle being funded on Kickstarter and Box Brown’s long-awaited Andre the Giant in stores now, but we’re not done getting great comics yet. The latest contender for OGN Of The Year is The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew, out this July from First Second.
In their story, they tell one of the most exciting and heartfelt superhero stories I’ve seen in a while, and they do it by reviving one of the most interesting characters of all time. See, The Shadow Hero is actually a Golden Age character called the Green Turtle, and while his adventures on the page never really caught on, the story behind the character is fascinating — especially how Yang and Liew use that real life story to shape the one they’re telling in the book.
To be honest, I would’ve been on board for The Shadow Hero based solely on the creators. Gene Yang is one of those rare, consistently amazing creators who somehow manages to knock it out of the park every single time he steps up to the plate. Seriously, that dude has never made a bad comic. Most people first learned about him from his award-winning American Born Chinese, but he’s been killing it since long before that book came out in everything from his Animal Crackers stories to his Avatar: The Last Airbender sequel stories to the historical drama of Boxers and Saints. Liew’s no slouch, either — I’ve been a fan of his since he drew My Faith In Frankie with Mike Carey and think he’s one of the most perplexingly underrated artists working in comics. He’s got an incredible style that adds so much personality to everything he draws, and it’s shocking that you don’t see him more often in mainstream comics. This, I think, is actually the first superhero story I’ve ever seen him do, and he brings it.
So yeah, I was excited when the review copy showed up just based on that, but when I mentioned it to a friend of mine and he filled me in on the backstory, I was interested on an a whole new level.
See, the star of the story, the Green Turtle, dates back to 1944 and an obscure title called Blazing Comics, launched by an even more obscure publisher called, of all things, Rural Home. In that initial rush to capitalize on the explosion of titles that were hitting the stands in the wake of Superman’s debut in Action, Rural Home hired a Chinese-American artist named Chu Hing to create their own superhero, the Green Turtle, putting him into a wartime setting defending China from the invading army of Japan.
The weird thing about the Green Turtle — one of many weird things, I suppose — is that you very, very rarely see is his face. It’s almost always covered up, and he’s usually shown from behind, casting a strange turtle-shaped shadow with glowing eyes that no one ever seems to notice. The rumor that’s persisted over the past 70 years, which Yang explains at the end of the book in an appendix that also includes a full Green Turtle comic, now that it’s fallen into the public domain, is that this is because Chu Hing wanted to make a Chinese-American superhero, and when the publisher put the kibosh on that idea he just went ahead and did it anyway, but in a way where it wouldn’t be so obvious. Thus: The Green Turtle, a hero whose face you never see, whose origin story is always interrupted just as he’s about to tell it.
For Yang and Liew, and for me as someone who absolutely loved this comic, The Shadow Hero is that origin story, and the Green Turtle is Hank Chu, the son of a grocer in Chinatown at the dawn of the superheroic age. When his mother, who is completely unsatisfied with her job, husband and life, is rescued by one of those brand new superheroes (“The Anchor of Justice,” a fitting West Coast stand-in for Superman), she begins to obsess over them and plots to make her son into a crime-busting vigilante.
That sequence is actually one of the funniest and most charming bits of the book, and it hits early on to really establish Hank’s personality. The Reluctant Hero isn’t really anything new — it wasn’t even new when the original Green Turtle was created — but seeing this poor kid who only wants to grow up to run a grocery store being dragged from one origin story to another by his extremely enthusiastic mom is absolutely fantastic.
Of course, the thing that Hank’s mom doesn’t realize when she sets out is that there’s really only one way that a superhero’s origin story goes, and that’s through a path called “motivating tragedy.”
As a superhero reader, you’ll see it coming a mile away, but the trick in Shadow Hero is that Yang and Liew pull it off in a way that still manages to be surprising and affecting, shaping the rest of the book in equally surprising and affecting ways. And it’s like that for every element.
In a tribute to the book’s Golden Age roots, and in what I assume is an effort to make the story ring true for both eras, Yang and Liew weave the story with every superheroic cliché that the real Green Turtle never had the chance to have, and the tragedy is only the start of it. There’s the wise mentor, the love interest on the wrong side of the law, the enemy who has somehow managed to gain complete control of all crime in a given area. They’re all here, presented in order, but done with a skill that breathes new life into them, and provides an incredible background for the Green Turtle’s origin.
And at the center of it all, forming the emotional core of the book, is Hank Chu, and once again I’m amazed at how easy Yang’s script makes it seem. He’s instantly engaging and easy to identify with, even as he’s resisting that classic call to action, even as he’s being dragged along by his mom.
In the tradition of Batman: Year One, Shadow Hero ends right where the original story picks up, with Hank being recruited to head off and help out with the war effort, presumably leaping into Blazing Comics and meeting up with his sidekick, Burma Boy. I fully understand what Yang and Liew are doing, finally giving the character the origin that unites what exists in those original comics with what happened behind the scenes, but I genuinely hope they come back for a second round. They’ve done so much and invested this character with so much potential that he’s capable of flourishing even beyond the fascinating backstory of Chu Hing’s creation. I want to see more from him — and his creepy shadow.