Before you crack the spine on this beautiful new book that helps unmask arguably the world’s first Asian American superhero, let’s reveal the true heroes in this thrilling literary escapade: Able to leap the building blocks of narrative in a single bound volume, our real adventurer is Gene Luen Yang — and his artistic sidekick, Sonny Liew, too!
Side by side, these two creative forces have successfully carried out one of the most satisfying real-life rescue missions in recent comics memory. They have retrieved a long-lost creation from the spidey webs of history, and the resulting story is a cartoon yarn exceptionally well-spun. Yang and Liew not only pull a forgotten hero out of the shadows; they also use a contemporary spotlight to illuminate matters of race, prejudice in publishing and the resourcefulness required to battle bias in America.
To cut to the Spandexed chase: “The Shadow Hero” is an inventive and culturally intelligent marvel.
Yang made history in 2006 with “American Born Chinese,” the first graphic novel to be a National Book Award finalist. (The Bay Area cartoonist was a finalist again last year for his comic epic “Boxers & Saints.”) Now Yang saves from the retreating shell of history a World War II-era superhero: the Green Turtle, who — as originally created by cartoonist Chu Hing — helps the Allies fight Japan.
The Green Turtle survived for only five issues published by Blazing Comics in the ’40s, and he was never directly identified as an Asian American. As Yang notes in setting up his new work, Hing seemed to be circumventing the wartime censors through clever artistry. The Green Turtle’s face was almost always obscured by his sweeping cape or his pummeling arm or his foregrounded foe. Yang suggests that the Green Turtle outsmarted both the villains and the publisher’s racism, leaving Hing free to envision his crime-fighter as being of Asian descent.
Some seven decades later, that sense of inventiveness has inspired Yang, who has infused his past work with superhero themes even while writing about race and war. Here, he can be as nimble-thinking as Batman — who, like the Green Turtle, is a caped crime-fighter who can seem to lack any powers beyond his extraordinary toughness and intellect. (And speaking of Batman: The original Green Turtle also had his own cave, plane and sidekick: Burma Boy.)
“The Shadow Hero” offers a number of fascinating insights. Why, for instance, does Hing’s Green Turtle have pink skin? Yang and Liew offer a clever reason, winking even as they highlight their salmon-tinted inks. They also supply our title character with a full backstory: As a civilian, he is Hank Chu, a lean teenager whose family is victimized by Chinatown gangs. The cartoonists also make our hero eminently likable, such as when — mid-mission — he is corrected, scolded and doted on by his mother, who’s more Turtle Mom than Tiger Mom.
Throughout, Yang and Liew signal their passion for American comics history. They name an ominous ship after “Terry and the Pirates” creator, Milton Caniff, and they allude to the iconic “Dark Knight Returns” comic-book cover by Frank Miller. Liew’s beautiful line tips a cap to legendary comics artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko.
Yang has ennobled the Green Turtle with a glorious tortoise mythology and filigreed in other narrative details that can make the reader pine for something that Hing’s hero never got: a sequel. After all, if Yang can outfit the Green Turtle in flashy new footwear, why not continue this glorious re-boot?
Cavna, The Post’s “Comic Riffs” columnist/cartoonist, will be the emcee for the first-ever Graphic Novel Night at the National Book Festival in the Walter E. Washington Convention Center on Aug. 30. Gene Luen Yang will be one of the event’s featured authors.
THE SHADOW HERO
By Gene Luen Yang;
Illustrated by Sonny Liew.
First Second. 158 pp. Paperback, $17.99