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Friday, February 28, 2014

Comics Spotlight Review: The Shadow Hero - The Green Turtle Chronicles (Issue 1)

Reintroducing one of comics' most important historical heroes, we review Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew's latest work

When you consider the make-up of superheroes, particularly in terms of ethnicity, it's no surprise to learn they're a fairly homogenized group: Caucasian males. Certainly as the years have crept along, the comics industry has made positive steps forward in this area, such as DC comics' Icon line and the currently running Mighty Avengers for Marvel Comics (both of which have increased the profile of African-American superheroes). But were you to be asked about how many Asian or Asian-American superheroes you could name off the top of your head, you might be harder pressed for an answer beyond DC's third Atom (Ryan Choi) or Shang-Chi and Jubilee at Marvel.

Due to this chasm, it makes efforts like Gene Luen Yang's The Shadow Hero all the more impressive. Within the first issue, Yang and artist Sonny Liew reintroduce the world to The Green Turtle: an Asian American superhero who existed during comics' World War II era, traveling Asia and fighting the Japanese Imperial Army. While during his limited adventures in Blazing Comics (the publisher that produced the comic only put out six issues, five of which featured our protagonist) the titular hero never removed his mask to fully reveal his identity, even to the reader, or even showed his face fully while wearing his mask. It's fairly clear, based on that evidence that The Green Turtle was meant to be a Chinese-American hero, and thusly, the first Asian-American superhero in comics, even if the comics market at the time did not allow for such a revelation.

As such, and now that the character has entered the public domain, Yang and Liew have produced a touching and mythology rich tale that provides an origin story for this character for the first time. Given Yang's earlier work on critically acclaimed graphic novels like American Born Chinese and Boxers & Saints, it's no surprise that the tale he has crafted here is a stunning homage to creator Chu Hing's original concept, while also updating it for an all-ages audiences in a way that perfectly blends Eastern and Western cultural touchstones.

This initial issue opens in 1911 with the collapse of the Ch'ing Dynasty. With China in a political and cultural upheaval, we are presented with four spirits that represent the embodiment of China: The Dragon (Dynastic Politics), The Tiger (Religion), The Phoenix (The Worker), and The Turtle (who remains silent). While the three spirits debate what should be the focus of China's future, The Turtle opts instead to leave China behind and attaches himself to the shadow of a drunk young man headed on a boat to the West (specifically San Francisco stand-in San Incendio, whose fire based name provides am intricate detail that casts the stark difference between the land these immigrants are arriving to and where they hailed from). 

The story then shifts over to a young girl named Hua who arrives in the same city as a young girl, growing up with the disappointing realization that the America she's stuck within isn't the country she fantasized of. Hua eventually, in an arranged fashion, marries our Turtle "shadow-attached" young man who runs a grocery store in Chinatown and they have a child named Hank. The child becomes the focal point of the story, as Hank comes of age struggling between his parents different world views, his father, who is content with being a grocer, and his mother, who takes a job as a maid for a well-to-do family in an attempt to get away from the cramped spaces of Chinatown. The turning point of Hank's "hero's journey" begins when his mother, through a chance encounter that introduces a new dimension to the world that Yang and Liew are building, idealizes a new way for Hank to make a significant change to his life. This action, in turn, frightens Hank who had quickly adapted more to his father's frame of mind and was looking forward to a quiet existence as a grocer who plays Mah-Jong.

The strength of The Shadow Hero lies is in its authenticity, particularly in regards to the day to day life of a 1940's Asian-American family. In many ways, I'm reminded of the cultural insight that marked the classic work of Gilbert Hernandez's "Palomar" tales in Love & Rockets, but with a voice that is clearly formed by growing up within Eastern culture. Liew's tremendous artwork deserves its own recognition as well, providing cartoon-like whimsy but never over-dominating the proceedings to a point where you feel as though you can't relate to or understand the characters. There's a particularly strong highlight when Hua comes face to face with the above "world-view changing" Western element, and her excitement becomes utterly kinetic when describing the encounter to Hank and his father. Yang's ability to perfectly blend two very distinct region-formed genres within his scripting (eastern belief and western superhero mythology) is a credit just how unique The Shadow Hero is in its focus.

With a stunningly fun first chapter, and world building that rivals that of Paul Pope's Battling Boy (one of my Top Comics of 2013), Yang and Liew are well on their way to making a classic that not only serves as a tremendously enjoyable work for all ages, but also as the rare comic work that can be deemed important in its educational value, reopening a page of comics history that has been sadly long forgotten. I cannot wait for the second installment. 

Grade: A

You can obtain a copy of the first issue of The Shadow Hero - The Green Turtle Chronicles at Amazon with a print copy of the entire graphic novel coming from First Second Books in July.

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