Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #196: The Shadow Hero by Yang and Liew

There's something about long underwear that's infinitely seductive to American comics creators -- no matter how acclaimed or far away from superheroes their work may be, eventually they all end up drawing the Hulk for some weird project or doing a Wonder Woman story online. For those of us who don't have an unexplainable tropism towards face-punching, this is strange and always feels like a detour -- but it keeps happening, so we need to try to understand it.

Gene Luen Yang's entry in this category is more explicable than most: much of his work has been about identity, particularly a Chinese identity and what that means, for a long time. So an obscure Golden Age character who fought in China against the invading Japanese -- who appeared to have a Caucasian skin tone, but whose face was never clearly shown and whose origin never revealed -- is exactly the sort of thing you'd expect the author of American Born Chinese and Boxers/Saints to be fascinated by.

So: somehow Yang learned of the exploits of the Green Turtle -- that obscure hero, who was created by the even more obscure cartoonist Chu Hing for Blazing Comics, where he had five adventures before returning to oblivion -- and decided to draw out the threads of story he saw in that old newsprint and give Green Turtle a proper origin.

The Shadow Hero is that story, written by Yang with art by Sonny Liew. It's narrated by Hank, the young Chinese-American man who eventually becomes the Green Turtle. But Hank begins with the fall of China's last great dynasty in 1911 and the subsequent disagreement among her four great spirit protectors, which sets the whole story in motion. In best 19th century novel fashion, Hank then tells the story of his parents -- his contented grocery-store-owner father and crabby dissatisfied mother -- and how their lives and personalities eventually brought the family into conflict with the secret local "government" of the tongs in "San Incendio," California.

Like so many others who put on capes and masks before him -- though Hank doesn't actually put on much more, with his Spectre-like costume -- tragedy drives him to become a hero. (Unlike those others, he's driven as much by his mother's demands.) And the result is a pleasing superhero story with a unique and specific ethnic flair, and, like any good superhero origin, Yang leaves in hooks for another dozen or so more issues -- even if he and Liew never continue this story, they could, and that's what's important for superheroes: always leave space for another story, like a fat man saving room for pie when eating at a diner.

Shadow Hero is less ambitious and powerful than Yang's other work, of course -- but it works well as a superhero tale, as a family story, and as one young man's coming of age. And it makes it that much more likely that Yang will one day do a variant cover for Deadpool.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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