Superhero revivals are a dime a dozen, but few are like The Shadow Hero by writer Gene Luen Yang and artist Sonny Liew. The basic idea behind the comic is that it provides an origin story to a hero who never had one, the golden age character known as the Green Turtle, but Yang and Liew take it further by essentially “reclaiming” the character for Asian-Americans.
Originally created by a man named Chu F. Hing, the publisher for The Green Turtle had tried to make its titular hero white. Hing, it is argued by Yang and Liew, appears to have defied this order by never showing the Green Turtle’s face, either having him face away from the reader or having his features obscured by a cape or something else. Yang and Liew take this further by actually making the Green Turtle undoubtedly Chinese-American, but what’s really remarkable about this series is that it manages to ground this character in both Chinese culture and that early 20th century United States in which they live so well that it actually made me realize I’ve been missing out on an important component of superhero comics all along.
While superheroes have been created since the beginning by people of practically every ethnicity (the most famous example being Superman’s Jewish creators), they have traditionally exuded predominantly a sense of whiteness. This does not make them bad stories or bad superheroes. Nor does it make them unrelatable. I don’t need to have my uncle shot and killed to understand why Peter Parker takes Uncle Ben’s famous great power, great responsibility line to heart. After all, I’m mostly a manga reader and I do not connect all that directly to Japanese culture, either. However, what’s amazing about The Shadow Hero is that, as an Asian-American, the relationship the protagonist Hank Chu has with his family hits so close to home that it makes me feel as if my own culture, that hybrid of my parents’ values and the values of the country I was born and raised in, is being expressed right there on the page.
The best example I can think of comes fairly early in the story, when Hank’s mom is rescued by a Superman-like hero and becomes enamored with the idea of superheroes in general. Wanting the best for her son, she decides Hank should be a superhero too, and goes above and beyond to try to make it happen. Whether it’s dragging him close to chemical spills or getting him to train in martial arts, the mother has her mind set on the idea that the best future for Hank is for him to don a cape and tights and fight crime.
When I replaced the word “superhero” with doctor, lawyer, engineer, pharmacist, or whatever is the most current profession that my parents and older relatives and their friends mention as being the most reliable path to success and prosperity, it all just clicked in my head. Here in The Shadow Hero was something my siblings and I, as well as many of the kids we knew growing up, would encounter on a regular basis. We knew their eagerness over this one thing could be a bit much, but we knew they meant well.
Other signs of Chinese culture can be found throughout. The main villain’s daughters are named after mahjong titles. When Hank first becomes a superhero, his mother makes him an outfit with the Chinese character for gold/money on it, because in Chinese culture it’s common to wish people well by saying that they’ll makes lots of money. This sounds like something you’d do to mock DC superhero Booster Gold, but here you can sense the mother’s earnestness, as well as Hank’s own conflicted feelings towards her.
For the longest time, I’ve felt that I do not look enough at comics that represent Asian American culture. Over the years, seeing David Brothers consistently question the marginalization of black characters in superhero comics and how this is reflective of the historic injustices done to the black community in the United States has made me aware of how little I look at my own culture in the mediums that I love. The Shadow Hero, and that sense of inherent cultural understanding I experienced, made me even more keenly aware that there is so much more I can do.