I've got a new favorite thing, and it's THE SHADOW HERO, a boss graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew. And it's the backstory that first got me. It's fascinating stuff: In 1944, during the heyday of the golden age of comic books, the obscure publishing company, Rural Home, wanted to strike while the iron was hot and hired a cartoonist named Chu Hing to create the main attraction for their series BLAZING COMICS. And Chu Hing came up with the World War II costumed vigilante, the Green Turtle. The most unique element about the Green Turtle is that he was the first Asian-American superhero.
The Green Turtle evidenced no obvious superpower, relying mostly on his rocket plane and his two good fists. He went around in a mask and a massive cape with a turtle design. He defended America's ally, China, against the encroaching Japanese forces. One odd conceit about him was that his seemingly ubiquitous shadow resembled a cheerful giant turtle that no one seemed to notice.
The awesome rumor goes like this: Chu Hing was pushing to make a Chinese-American superhero, except that Rural Home ixnayed that intent pretty quick. So Chu Hing went the passive-aggressive route and introduced another odd conceit. He drew the Turtle in such a way that never once did the reader get a good look at his face. Too, whenever the Turtle was about to explain his origin story to his sidekick, Burma Boy, something always came up to interrupt him. Seven decades later, writer Gene Luen Yang notes that even his extensive research is unable to confirm this rumor. But to quote THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
Gene Luen Yang - whom you may know from his acclaimed graphic novels American Born Chinese and Boxers & Saints Boxed Set - and artist Sonny Liew (MY FAITH IN FRANKIE, Malinky Robot TP) give the Green Turtle his origin story, one that's steeped in cultural identity and in the zeitgeist of the pre-war 1940s era. The venue is relocated from China to the States, to the city of San Incendio. Our guy is Hank Chu, an unassuming 19-year-old boy who's content to work in his father's grocery store in Chinatown. And, like Lester Girls, Hank proves to be a reluctant hero. I really like Hank's colorful supporting cast, none more colorful than his mom who sailed to our shores as a hopeful young girl but who quickly sours on the American dream. So, for most of her life, she's been this embittered woman. But an encounter with a heroic flying man - this world's Superman avatar - reinvigorates her zest and her ambition. Seizing an opportunity for fame and fortune, she sets about turning her unwilling son into a superhero. We're in for a fun montage of her putting her son thru a bunch of outlandish experiments, one of which has the peculiar fallout of turning her son's skin, when wet, to an odd pink color that glows in the dark.
I love how the writer explains away the turtle shadow. And, no, I don't think I should go more into it.
Sonny Liew's visuals perfectly complement Yang's offbeat storytelling. Liew's art, with its delicate, sort of cartoony lines and its vitality, stylistically evokes an authentic feel of comic books as drawn in the 1940's.
The original 1940s comic lasted five issues and then folded back into obscurity. I'm anticipating the modern-day run to go longer because it's good enough to. The creative team's worldbuilding and mythology incorporate themes of family, heritage, insight into life as an immigrant, terrific humor, Eastern mysticism, and an inventive shuffling of superhero tropes. I won't say what, but the Green Turtle does have a super-power after all, but it's one that's limited and born out of not thinking things thru. What a charming, unpredictable read. When I flipped to the last page I just wanted to keep on reading. The closing panels of THE SHADOW HERO dovetail nicely into the stories told in the old BLAZING COMICS as the Turtle is recruited into the great world war. And how awesome is it that this trade also reprints the original Green Turtle story from BLAZING COMICS #1? There's also Gene Luen Yang's 5-paged afterword in which he details the Green Turtle's backstory and how he and Sonny Liew came to be involved with reviving this forgotten hero.