You Don’t Want Your Mom Around During Your Male Power Fantasy: Gene Yang Talks ‘The Shadow Hero’ [Interview]
Even though it only came out this week from First Second, Gene Yang and Sonny Liew’s The Shadow Hero is already one of my favorite graphic novels of the year. Through their revival of an obscure Golden Age character called the Green Turtle, Yang and Liew have gone back to tell a story about one of the forgotten heroes of the first wave of American comics, blending a story full of action and adventure with rumors about the true motivations behind what may have been the first Asian-American superhero.
To find out more, I spoke to Yang about how he discovered the Green Turtle, what he hopes comes out of his work on a public domain character, and why he focused on the Green Turtle’s relationship with his mom.
ComicsAlliance: The Green Turtle is a very obscure character.
Gene Yang: Crazy obscure, yes.
CA: I kind of pride myself on knowing a lot of weird Golden Age characters like Marvex or the Vagabond, but I’d never even heard of the Green Turtle. How did you come across him?
GY: It was all Tom Spurgeon. Well, if you really want the chain, it was Derek Kirk Kim, he pointed me to Comics Reporter, and Tom had a link to this site called Pappy’s Golden Age Comic Blogazine, and he features these really obscure Golden Age characters. In that post, the first one I ever saw, he talked about the rumors around this character’s origin, and I thought it was crazy. I thought the character design was nutty, it felt so Golden Age. It’s a cowl, a cape, it’s bright green and red, he’s bare-chested, I just thought there was something endearingly awkward about his costume. And then the rumors around his creation were just fascinating to me.
CA: He’s such a Golden Age design. Just shorts, boots and a mask.
GY: Yeah. He’s a World War II guy, he has a cave like the Batcave, he has a turtle-shaped plane. A lot of the aspects of who he is were ripped off. It’s like Green Arrow and Batman, right? Green Arrow was kind of a ripoff of Batman, and Green Turtle, I think, is in the same vein. In those original stories, he didn’t have any super-powers, he just had this funky costume and a kid sidekick, Burma Boy.
CA: You mentioned the rumors about the Green Turtle. For anyone who hasn’t read The Shadow Hero, particularly the backmatter, can you break that down?
GY: The Green Turtle was created by this guy named Chu Hing. He was one of the first Asian-Americans to work in the American comic book market. He eventually went on to do some work for Marvel before it was Marvel, but he’s never really gained any sort of prominence. My guess was that, like a lot of those guys back then, he was doing comics just to make a living. I guess I can’t say, but it doesn’t seem like it. He was doing comics when he was in his 40s, so he doesn’t seem like a young man pursuing a dream, but I really can’t say.
Basically, he was working for this company called Rural Home, and he created for Rural Home a superhero called the Green Turtle. This was the Golden Age, superhero characters were flying all over the place, and everyone wanted the next Superman or Batman, so they’re throwing out superheroes by the dozen every month, looking for the next hit. It’s in this environment that he creates this character, and the rumor is that Chu Hing wanted his character to be a Chinese-American, but his publisher wouldn’t let him do it because they didn’t think that a Chinese-American superhero would be marketable. The rumor is that Chu reacts in a passive-aggressive way.
If you read these original comics, Chu Hing almost always has the character facing away from the reader. All you see is his cape, and when he is turned around, something is almost always blocking his face. There’s another character standing right there, or if he’s punching, it’s his own arm, or sometimes just a shadow that falls over his face. The rumor is that he hid his hero’s face so that he and the reader could imagine the Green Turtle as he originally intended, as a Chinese-American.
There’s one exception to that. The only place that we actually get a full shot of the Green Turtle is on the cover of Blazing Comics #2. The series lasted five issues, and that’s the only time we get to see him.
CA: When you read those original stories, it’s one of those things where you might not notice it the first time through, but then you can’t stop noticing it. It becomes so awkward, and it’s the same with his origin story. Every time he’s getting ready to recap his origin, he’s interrupted.
GY: Exactly. It really felt like the rumors are true, like Chu Hing was hiding something from us, hiding the Green Turtle’s ethnicity from us. A lot of those layouts, you just don’t see compositions like that. He would go to some crazy lengths to keep that face from us. I think the punching is funny. Whenever he’s punching, he always has his head to the side so that half of his face is behind his arm.
CA: How did it come about that you and Sonny Liew pitched the story?
GY: I’ve admired Sonny’s work for a long time. I loved his stuff for Wonderland from Slave Labor Graphics [aka SLG Publishing] and Disney, and I loved his stuff for My Faith In Frankie for Vertigo. Years ago, this Asian-American comics anthology called Secret Identities asked me to do a piece for them, and I told them I didn’t have time to draw a piece, but I’d be happy to write one. They were the ones who paired me up with Sonny. I think I asked for him because I liked him so much, but I’d never met him. Working with him on that was a lot of fun. He just brought this dramatic, comedic energy to the comic that we did, so I knew after we were done that I wanted to work with him again.
After I started writing about the Green Turtle, I approached FIrst Second with it, and First Second asked who I wanted to draw it, and I said the same thing. I know he had a relationship with First Second, so it wasn’t a hard sell to get Sonny on board.
CA: I’m a big fan as well. I first encountered him on My Faith In Frankie and, because I’m such a big superhero reader, I’ve been wishing ever since for him to do a big superhero action book. Then he does this one, which really plays to the strengths of character work and acting, but he also gets to do the superhero stuff I’d been waiting for.
GY: He’s great at facial expressions. He’s great at conveying a story purely through faces.
CA: You talked about the real life story of the Green Turtle and how it involves the Golden Age boom and the attempts to create the next Superman, and I really love how you incorporate that idea into the book, with Hank’s mother being rescued by a superhero and then wanting her son to be one.
GY: I grew up loving superheroes. It was a pre-logical love. But now that I’m an adult and I look at my love of superheroes logically, I wonder if part of the reason is just the narrative of the immigrant’s kid that’s embedded into the genre. All the superheroes that we know, Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, the Hulk — except for Wonder Woman, she might be the only exception out of the famous superheroes — they were all created by the children of these Jewish immigrants. I doubt they did it consciously, maybe they did, but it seems like they really put in a lot of their experience into the conventions of the genre.
Having two names. A lot of immigrants have two names. Or having a part of yourself that you can’t reveal, a lot of immigrants go through that. Even living under two separate sets of expectations, one set of expectations at home and another at school or at work. As a kid, I felt drawn to that, the duality of superheroes, because in a lot of ways, it mirrored the duality of my life. I had two names, I had a Chinese name that we used at home and an English name for school. I felt in certain situations that I had to hide a piece of myself. All of that has a lot of resonance.
So with superheroes coming bout, being invented in America and becoming popular as America came into its own as a superpower on the world stage, I think that superheroes really embody what America is and what America needs.
CA: Another interesting aspect of it is that the mother-son relationship is not one that you see a lot of in comics.
CA: You get a little bit of it with Spider-Man and Aunt May, but she’s always on the verge of dying. You very rarely get to see the kind of relationship that you get from Hank and his mom. It’s a classic setup where his father gets killed and he’s left with his mother, but there’s a relationship there that feels really unique.
GY: I think the reason why moms are excluded from superhero stories is that a superhero, in another sense, is often a male power fantasy. You don’t want your mom around when you’re having your male power fantasy! But we wanted to take that dynamic and play it for comedy. In American Born Chinese, one of the things that I didn’t explore was the relationship between parent and child, when the parent is the immigrant and the child is born here, and the differences in expectations, so that was something I wanted to explore in that book. I thought bringing the mom in would be funny and give me a chance to explore some of those things.
I actually finished the script before that whole Tiger Mom thing came about. Do you remember that? This Wall Street Journal writer named Amy Chua put out this article about how being a really hardcore mom was the way to go, and people started talking about what “tiger moms” were. I remember reading that article and thinking “Oh my gosh, we need to get this book out faster! We’re missing this conversation!”
But for our characters, what we really wanted was to start off as this very stereotypical immigrant mother who has a lot of big dreams for her kids and is really pushy about it, and then we hope that by the end, will grow to a more three-dimensional place. That’s definitely a dynamic that I wanted to play at.
CA: One of the more interesting things about The Shadow Hero is that he’s this really obscure character from this really obscure publisher, who is now in the public domain. You didn’t have to create an analogue, you just get to use this character as he is, even though you’re creating everything about him other than his name.
GY: Yeah, and his suit.
CA: His powers, his name, the reason for his weird turtle-shaped shadow, all of that comes from you, but it’s still based on this pre-existing public domain character. It makes me wonder, if Shadow Hero gets really amazingly popular, would you want to see a bunch of different takes on the Green Turtle?
GY: I looked it up to make sure he was in the public domain, and he is, and I think there’s something really awesome about that. There are other public domain characters that are sort of coming back. There’s the Black Terror, which Alex Ross and Alan Moore used, and I think that’s cool. There’s something satisfying about having a character that multiple people can do a take on.
I think the same thing happens with corporate characters. Batman isn’t just Batman anymore. Batman is 1960s Batman, he’s Tim Burton Batman, he’s Brave and the Bold Batman, he’s Bruce Timm Batman, and all these different versions of this character exist. I would love it if the Green Turtle got big enough that that happened, that people took the bare minimum that Chu Hing left us: The suit, the time period, the setting, and just ran with it. I think that’d be cool. He doesn’t even necessarily have to be Asian.
In my version, he is. But I think Chu Hing’s version is such a bare-bones character that you can kind of do anything with him.
CA: Along the same lines, you’ve got this character that you can do anything with and you’ve established the origin story, and it ends right before his first appearance. Do you want to do more? Or did you say everything you wanted to say in this origin story?
GY: I would love to do more. I actually have two other stories that I’d want to do with him. Maybe more, but definitely two others. A lot of it depends on Sonny’s schedule, a lot of it depends on how First Second feels about it, and a lot of it depends on how this first book does. So much was going on in both America and Asia at the time, and because this character straddles those two continents, there’s a lot you can do with it.
I’d love to explore, for example, the relationship between the early Chinese-American and Japanese-American communities using the Green Turtle. During the war, Chu Hing kind of covered, but I’d love to explore what the Green Turtle did after World War II, and what happened with China after the war, through superheroes.
The Shadow Hero is on sale now in finer comics shops and bookstores from First Second.