Sunday, 16 March 2014

The Shadow Hero Review (Gene Luen Yang, Sonny Liew)

The Green Turtle was a Golden Age character created during World War 2 by American/Chinese comics creator Chu Hing for Blazing Comics. Green Turtle was a defender for China (an American ally) against the invading Japanese army who had a sidekick: Burma Boy!

Though Green Turtle’s outfit was distinctly Western superhero with the mask/cape/pants combo, the publisher was unwilling to ever show Green Turtle’s face as Asian, instead opting to hide it every chance he got (though to be fair, because we never saw his face we could never be sure he WAS Asian). And when Burma Boy asked Green Turtle about his origins, he was interrupted before he could explain and, once the character’s series was cancelled after five issues, his origin went unexplained - until now.

Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew’s The Shadow Hero revisits this long forgotten (probably) Asian/American superhero and finally gives him his origin story. The character had many odd features like his skin turning to a bright pink periodically to having a shadow creature follow him everywhere, all of which Yang brilliantly explains in this charming book.

Hua Chu moves from China to the city of San Incendio in America with a dream of falling in love with a dashing man, living a glamorous life with movie stars, and basically having a totally different life to her parents. But it doesn’t work out like that. Unfortunately Chinatown in San Incendio is run by the tongs (Chinese gangs) who extort the immigrants in return for protection, and Hua is married off to a man she doesn’t love and forced into a life of servitude.

Years pass and her son Hank grows up, working in the family grocery store while Hua works as a housemaid to a wealthy white family. Until one day when she’s saved by a superhero, the Anchor of Justice, and Hua comes to life for the first time in years, knowing what she must do: her son must become a superhero!

But while the Anchor of Justice has superpowers (he’s basically Superman), Hank is just a shopboy, content to stock shelves and raise a family. So begins Hua’s experiments to turn Hank into a superhero and Hank’s journey from shopboy to - the Green Turtle!

The Shadow Hero is a well written and nicely-paced classic superhero story. All the elements you’d expect for Hank to become a hero are there - the evil gangsters like Mock Beak and Ten Grand, the American lawman (kinda like Jim Gordon) with the appropriately corny name of Detective Lawful, and the tragic murder that spurs Hank on to make sure injustice never goes unpunished.

There are some unique elements to Hank’s story like the strong Chinese stamp upon it that does away with any ambiguity and defines him clearly as an Asian/American superhero, and the origins of his only superpower are interesting - all of which are really great. But it’s the stuff we’ve seen before, like those things I mentioned earlier, that didn’t make me as involved in the story as I’d like. Parts of the book are original but a lot of them aren’t.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression: this is written really well by Gene Luen Yang, drawn beautifully by Sonny Liew, and this is a perfectly fine classic superhero story. It comes down to two personal preferences for me: 1) I’ve read a LOT of superhero stories and Green Turtle doesn’t stand out to me as anything that special, and 2) street level superhero characters just don’t fascinate me that much. Green Hornet, The Spirit, and more recent characters created in that style like Francesco Francavilla’s The Black Beetle, are all characters that I just don’t “get”, for lack of a better word. They’re ok, but not particularly interesting to me.

It’s terrific that Yang/Liew have taken a character from so long ago and done justice to him and his creator Chu Hing with this book. The Golden Age is full of curios like Green Turtle that shouldn’t be forgotten. The book just wasn’t for me but I can appreciate the skill, ingenuity and passion that went into it. The Shadow Hero will definitely appeal to readers who enjoy books like Eisner’s The Spirit, the Green Hornet, or other characters along those lines.

The Shadow Hero

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