Review: The Shadow Hero trade paperback (First Second)

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

[Review by Doug Glassman, who Tumblrs at '80s Marvel Rocks!]

In the process of writing this review, the author of The Shadow Hero, Gene Luen Yang, won the Best Writer award at the 2015 Eisner Awards. There’s no doubt in my mind that he deserved that honor. Yang brings a unique perspective as the son of Chinese immigrants with a vested interest in both his original culture and in how it’s viewed and used by other cultures. He was a perfect fit for the Avatar: The Last Airbender comics, and he’s already making waves as a writer on Superman. What makes The Shadow Hero a standout work is the concept behind it: a reimagining of the first Asian superhero ... maybe.

I’ve read so many comics that take a metafictional turn that I initially thought Yang and artist Sonny Liew (of My Faith in Frankie fame) made the Green Turtle up. I specifically recalled The American and the elaborate fake history that Mark Verheiden had designed; I was also reminded of Michael Chabon’s masterpiece novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay. This is because Yang waits until the end of the book to introduce the real Green Turtle, created by Chu F. Hing in the 1940s. There’s no way that the crude, vintage artwork from Blazing Comics #1 could be faked so thoroughly.

Yang explains the controversy behind the character: Chu supposedly wanted the character to be Asian, but the publisher refused, leading to a quirky book that never showed the hero’s face and gave the hero bright pink “super-Caucasian” skin. There’s a dearth of concrete evidence about Chu’s exact intentions or about how much the publisher of Blazing Comics interfered. This gives Yang and Liew a clear field to imagine what the backstory of the Green Turtle was and why a turtle shadow kept appearing next to him for seemingly no reason. The result hinges of a bit of Chinese myth known as the Four Gods: the Dragon, the Firebird, the Tiger, and the Tortoise. As China’s empire falls in the early 20th century, the Tortoise leaves while his siblings squabble about the country’s fate.

The plot swerves away from the gods at this point to introduce main character Hank Chu’s parents --  mother lost her ambition after reaching the squalor of Chinatown and his father allowed the Tortoise to live in his shadow in exchange for curing his alcoholism. In fact, the Tortoise is only barely present in the first half; superheroes come into the picture after the superhero Anchor of Justice saves Hank’s mother. In a parody of what we today call “tiger mothers,” she forces her desire to be a superhero onto him, with nods to the origins of Daredevil and Spider-Man. There’s a shift in the middle once news spreads of a vigilante without powers, leading Hank to kung-fu lessons with his uncle. You can probably guess what happens next: Hank’s father is shot by tong gangsters, and he becomes the Green Turtle to get vengeance.

What’s great about this first section is how rooted it is in the Golden Age. A nice kid sees his parent[s] get murdered and he becomes a champion for justice -- it’s such a common trope that Chu probably would’ve used it had he been given a chance. The change in Hank’s mother’s goals mirrors the popularity of the emerging Batman rivaling that of Superman. Even the characters are named in the manner that they would have been in the 1940s, like his teacher “Uncle Wun Too” and his ally “Detective Lawful” (complete with yellow trenchcoat). At the same time, the segment where Hank is outdone in crimefighting by the woman he tries to save from a rape is something that never would have happened back then, but it’s a modernization that makes the story more fulfilling.

The reintroduction of the Tortoise near the end of the first half leads to a brilliant second half. Liew draws the Tortoise in an odd way, with both eyes on one side of the face like it’s a hieroglyph. He becomes a guide for Hank as well as a voice of reason, but he also has a weakness -- he cannot exist for long outside of Hank’s shadow -- to explain why he isn’t fighting crime in the first place. There’s a running joke of Hank making a bad deal with the Tortoise; while “make sure I never get shot” seems like a good promise, it ends up having too many loopholes for the Tortoise’s liking. This pays off during the final confrontation with one of the other gods.

Even though the narrative is primarily about the Green Turtle’s origin and first major adventure, there’s a fully-formed world here that Yang has yet to explore. The major villain, Ten Grand, has an interesting and fairly horrifying backstory that plays into the plot. There’s a subplot about Detective Lawful’s casual racism and how he comes to realize the damage he’s doing. Even the tong gets a recap of their origins and how the bizarre-looking gang leader Mock Beak came to be. (According to Gene Luen Yang’s Twitter, the name actually comes from real-life tong leader Mock Duck). The final page hints at a sequel with a last-minute surprise from the Anchor of Justice.

There’s certainly room -- and reason -- for further adventures of the Green Turtle after The Shadow Hero; this story doesn’t get into how Hank met his sidekick Burma Boy, who kept asking the Turtle to reveal his backstory in the 1940s comics. I’d also like to see how Hank would handle the Japanese internment. Until those come out, I’d also like to see Yang reboot the Justice Society of America if DC will let him. He has the best handle on Golden Age characters since Geoff Johns and he brings fresh new ideas along with him.

Next week, the Eisner cavalcade continues with the acclaimed Lumberjanes.

[UPDATE: An earlier edition of this post identified Green Turtle creator Chu F. Hing as "Hing" in subsequent mentions, as reflected by the first edition of The Shadow Hero. However, new research by author Gene Luen Yang has shown that Chu F. Hing should be more properly referred to as "Chu," a change that will be made in future printings of Shadow Hero.]
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