fantasy and science fiction book reviewsThe Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew

THE SHADOW HEROThe more I read by Gene Luen Yang, the more I am impressed. Like many people, I first learned of his work through American Born Chinese; however, I liked The Eternal Smile with Derek Kirk Kim just as much if not more. I also enjoyed his Level Up with Thien Pham. This newest work, The Shadow Hero, is another brilliant graphic novel, and Sonny Liew’s art is perfect for telling the story visually. The plot at first seems fairly basic, but the book’s genius comes from the fact that it is both an homage to and an intelligent interpretation of a long-forgotten, short-lived comic book by an Asian-American artist.

The story starts in 1911 with the collapse of the Ch’ing Dynasty. We enter the world of legend in the very first pages: Dragon, Phoenix, Tiger, and Tortoise, the spirits of China, argue over its future. Dragon wants to establish a new bloodline, a new dynasty; Phoenix wants the common people to raise their fists; and Tiger believes that China needs to return to the three paths of faith. Tortoise is quiet and, called coward by the other three, simply slips aboard an ocean liner on its way West, to America, where he will represent his people in the new world as they become that new identity known as Chinese-American. In order to cross to the new world, he finds a man and makes a deal. In exchange for granting this man’s one wish, he is allowed to live in the man’s shadow.

The story is told in the first person by the son of the man who makes the pact with Tortoise. The son’s name is Hank, and he is proud to work with his father in his grocery store. His desire for his own future is simple: To work with his father until he is asked to take his father’s place. His mother, however, is not happy. The marriage was arranged, and she spends as little time with Hank and his father as possible. She actually prefers to spend most her time at work as a maid outside of Chinatown. She soon becomes enamored by the Superheroes that also operate outside of Chinatown.

shadow hero 1Hank’s simple desires are destroyed because his mother wants him to become a superhero. These are some of the funniest moments in the book: She attempts to reproduce with Hank all the corny origin stories of superheroes. I won’t tell you all she tries, but one of the funniest is when she takes him to a chemical spill and pushes him in. She eventually decides — after hearing about an “Owl or Vulture” or some “creepy flying animal” — that he must just physically train because he’ll never gain superpowers. This reference to Batman is only one of many allusions to the superheroes of the Golden Age of Comics that are scattered throughout the book. Hank is then trained how to fight by his uncle and forced to wear a silly outfit by his mother. His first adventure out into the streets doesn’t go very well, though he does meet an attractive woman. It’s another funny scene. Also, I love that his mother borrows her employer’s car, drives her superhero son, and even wears a green domino mask so none of her friends will recognize her.

Even though The Shadow Hero is a humorous book, the heart of the story is serious: It’s about the nature of cowardice and the rise of organized crime in America, focusing on Chinatown. The gangs who run it are consolidated and then led by a powerful figure who controls both the politicians and the police in the area. The story is told in a style reminiscent of Golden Age comics, while at the same time being written and drawn much more skillfully, of course. The Shadow Hero is also about racism in a variety of forms: From the obvious kinds to the more subtle kinds that are often more hurtful because they are unintentional.

The book is even more sophisticated than I first thought, however. When I finished reading the book, I realized that the author was doing much more than I could have known. After the graphic novel ends, the author includes an essay on Chu Hing, an Asian-American cartoonist who eventually worked for Marvel. Before he worked for Marvel, Chu Hing was asked to create a comic book character and story for publisher Rural Home. He created a World War II superhero named The Green Turtle, who “defended China, America’s ally, against the invading Japanese army.” This comic is little known, and Yang did as much research as he could on it. In the end, he came up with some fascinating rumors that could not be verified as fact: Hing and the publisher did not agree over Hing’s desire to create what would have been the first Chinese superhero. Yang explains the very interesting rumor that is the basis for his graphic novel The Shadow Hero:

Supposedly, Hing rebelled right there on the page. Throughout the Green Turtle’s adventures, we almost never get to see his face. Most of the time, the hero has his back to us. When he does turn around, his visage is almost always obscured by something — a combatant or a shadow or even his own arm. What we get instead of his face is a strange, turtle-shaped shadow that looms over the Green Turtle’s enemies, smirking at them. (And at us? And at the publisher?) The shadow is never explained or commented upon. It’s just there.

Apparently, we never find out The Green Turtle’s origin story either. Every time he starts to tell it, he gets interrupted. So, Yang wonders if Hing hid the hero’s face and origin “so that he could imagine his character the way he wanted, as a Chinese Superhero.”

shadowhero2The Shadow Hero, as you can now tell, is much more than what it first appears: A very good Asian-American rewriting of Golden Age Comics. It’s actually that plus a well-researched thesis that presents the author’s argument, an interpretation of a forgotten, but highly significant, moment in comic book history. And the author concludes that “the comics read like Hing and his publisher are wrestling within the art itself, through the compositions and colors and hidden details.” I hope I’ve made my own argument clear: Gene Luen Yang has pulled off a work of sheer genius that will appeal to all ages. Third- through eighth-graders can enjoy it. I also can imagine it being studied in high school. And it certainly belongs in all kinds of classes in college, from literature courses and freshman writing courses to courses on race and ethnicity to courses on art and comic books. I hope this book leads to a reissue of the Green Turtle comics for more extensive study, but until that happens, Yang has included issue #1 as bonus material at the end of The Shadow Hero. This book is a must-read and should be in every library, private and public.


  • Brad Hawley

    BRAD HAWLEY, who's been with us since April 2012, earned his PhD in English from the University of Oregon with areas of specialty in the ethics of literature and rhetoric. Since 1993, he has taught courses on The Beat Generation, 20th-Century Poetry, 20th-Century British Novel, Introduction to Literature, Shakespeare, and Public Speaking, as well as various survey courses in British, American, and World Literature. He currently teaches Crime Fiction, Comics, and academic writing at Oxford College of Emory University where his wife, Dr. Adriane Ivey, also teaches English. They live with their two young children outside of Atlanta, Georgia.

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