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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Comics Spotlight Review: The Shadow Hero - Fights You Cannot Win (Issue 4)

Gene Luen Yang has been on something of a role lately.  His 2013 graphic novel pairing Boxers and Saints made my list of the year's best graphic novels, and his 2006 breakout work American Born Chinese is rightly one of the most acclaimed works of the previous decade.  Now, First Second Books is putting out The Shadow Hero, a mini-series that finds Yang and artist Sonny Liew reviving The Green Turtle, one of comics' classic pulp heroes, originally created to be the first Asian-American superhero.

Unlike many of the recent pulp revivals being churned out, Yang's take is... well, not comedic, precisely, but lighter.  It's more willing to play around with tone and expectation, as likely to crack a joke as it is to wallow in a moment of genuine tragedy.  This issue leans more towards the comedy, from the borderline slapstick manifestation of the Green Turtle's power to the 'origin story' behind the hero's costume, and while it's a welcome relief from the darkness of the third issue, it also undercuts a bit of the tension.

Sonny Liew continues to impress, though not even he can save the 'classic' costume of the Green Turtle, no matter how many jokes they crack about the thing.  Still, Liew's art is lively and endlessly enjoyable, never more so than the segments where Hank interacts with the Turtle Spirit.  The Turtle's inky black appearance has a menacing surreality to it that Liew and Yang use well, particularly when they find it reveling in mundanity.  It'll be interesting to see how Liew handles the more overt action that will surely land next issue, but he handles the transition from coming-of-age dramedy to superheroic origin well here.

The book's most interesting things, however, are happening in the background.  Previous issues did a great job at crafting a classic look at immigrant life in America during the early 1900s, building a strong community dynamic and really telling us who these people are and how they get by.  While some of that gets lost in the more straightforward adventure storytelling of The Shadow Hero #4, Yang is savvy enough to slip in little bits of world-building and characterization here and there, like when Hank realizes that calling himself 'the Jade Tortoise' gives away his Asian heritage, and he instantly Americanizes to 'the Green Turtle' to mask it.  

Because, ultimately, The Shadow Hero seems to be a book about the way old cultures and traditional worldviews mix and blend with ours, almost always through the lens of pop culture.  The Tortoise Spirit has bonded with swordsmen, Generals, the greatest heroes China ever had to offer.  But he languished in America, uncertain of his mission and adapting with his people to their new home.  Now, ready to fight again, he bonds with a Chinese kid emulating that most American of creations, the superhero.  

The cultural and historical specificity really elevate the story into something far more interesting than many of its contemporaries, though The Shadow Hero would be an enjoyable read even without them.  While I would probably put "Fights You Cannot Win," the series' fourth issue of a planned six total, as the weakest of the series to date, it's still an excellent adventure, well written and wonderfully illustrated.  With The Shadow Hero, Yang and Liew have found a way to genuinely update a classic pulp hero for modern audiences.

Grade: B+

You can check out The Shadow Hero digitally at Amazon.com including this newest issue, or wait for the graphic novel collection to be published by First Second Books on July 15th. 
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