Superheroes may be the dominant subject for comics, but when Gene Luen Yang, creator of American Born Chinese, Boxers & Saints, and other remarkable comics, sets his writing talents to the genre, it becomes something fresh. In The Shadow Hero, Yang takes the first Asian American superhero in comics and writes him a rollicking origin story.
In 1944, Blazing Comics published the first of five issues featuring the Green Turtle, a superhero created by Chinese American cartoonist Chu F. Hing. It's believed by many that Chu Hing meant for his hero to be Asian American, though the publisher gave him bright pink skin as he defended America's Chinese World War II allies against their Japanese foes. In The Shadow Hero, Yang and artist Sonny Liew take the trappings of that hero and spin him an origin story, this time making him very much the product of a Chinese American community.
Hank Chu grows up in Chinatown in the fictional California city of San Incendio in the decades preceding World War II. He has simple dreams, hoping to take over his kindly father's grocery store one day and spend his days working and playing mahjong. But his mother, disappointed with life in America, longs for something more for her son. One day, she has an encounter with a local superhero and that settles things in her mind: Hank will become a superhero. While Hank initially resists the idea, he gradually learns that things in his community are not as idyllic as he once believed, and that corruption is a thing worth fighting.
Anyone who has read Yang's Avatar: The Last Airbender comics won't be surprised to find that The Shadow Hero is, first and foremost, a fun book. Yang plays with superhero tropes to amusing effect, especially when Hank's mom tries to figure out how to give her son superpowers. Liew deftly blends comedy, action, and mysticism through his artwork, giving equal weight to character scenes and fight sequences.
Like so many of Yang's comics, though, The Shadow Hero is also about identity. Our story starts with the collapse of the Ch'ing Dynasty, followed by the movement of some of the book's characters from China to California. Hank is Chinese American, and like his neighbors, he has to decide what that means for himself, especially when a figure emerges who wants to establish an empire within San Incendio.
At the same time, The Shadow Hero is a period piece, set on the eve of World War II, and Yang doesn't ignore the racism specific to that period. Some of his characters (including the Chinese ones) use racial slurs. We see grotesque caricatures of Chinese people marketed to tourists. There's even a Fu Manchu act put on for the amusement of white folks. At the same time, Yang doesn't allow us to simply accept that as the way things were back then; he wants his heroic characters to be better than that, even if it's something they have to work at. It's all used to more subtle effect than in Yang's American Born Chinese, but it's a no less important message.
Superhero comics are an ideal medium in which to tell this sort of story, the story of people wanting to become better than they are. Whatever powers or fighting ability Hank has, they're ultimately less important than what he stands for. It's not enough if Hank defeats the bad guy; he has to win hearts and minds. And while other superheroes may venture into a 1930s Chinatown, they can't access it as the Green Turtle does, as an insider. Through Hank, we see that setting as a community of flawed but familiar people trying to figure out who they are in America. It's a place that most certainly deserves its own superhero.
To see more of Liew's artwork from the book, check out the Shadow Hero trailer.