That Gene Luen Yang has written a charming graphic novel is hardly news. He has an uncanny knack for consistently doing so. What does make The Shadow Hero special is the warm and funny superhero story that manages to get deeper than typical superhero satire. It creates a scenario that wraps around it the reality of Chinese immigrants earlier in our century, separated from us and berated casually, but it does so in a way that doesn’t dominate the story to the point there isn’t one.
Just as importantly, it reclaims a portion of racism in comics history for the greater good and wider entertainment.
The book tells the origin of a Chinese-American superhero named the Green Turtle. In an afterword, Yang reveals there was an original Green Turtle and explains the history of the character a 1940s creation of cartoonist Chu Hing. The rumor is that Hing wanted his hero to be of Chinese origin, that the publisher did not think it would work, and that Hing towed that line only superficially. Yang has studied the Green Turtle comics and found a number of mysterious and possibly intentional blank spaces in the narratives that opened some interesting doors. If it wasn’t exactly conclusive proof that Green Turtle was supposed to be a Chinese character, it was at least a collection of circumstances that left room for speculation.
It also left room for this update, which takes all the odd gaps and quirks of the old books and turns them into specific plot points that strengthen the story and heighten the Chinese aspect of the narrative without ever making it seem tacked on.
In this updated version, which takes place largely in New York City’s Chinatown of the pre-war 1940s, four shadow creatures who have watched over China for centuries inhabit the shadows of humans in order to establish a new dynasty that will save the country from turmoil. The tortoise shadow leaves the meeting and takes up residence as the shadow of someone who will never become an emperor — a down and out drunk.
That drunk makes his way to America and remakes himself as a humble grocer with a wife and a son. One day an encounter with the Chinatown mob creates a circumstance that the tortoise crosses over to the son, Hank, who begins a partnership aimed at dismantling that mob, while also discovering the secrets of its origin.
What brings The Shadow Hero to a whole other level is the way that racism weaves its way through the story, framing it as the world Hank functions in, the norm, and presents it within context of its time. In this way, it examines how people combatted these views while still managing to place themselves in a community and in the world as something other than victims. Yang’s examination of that dynamic is subtle and insightful.
It would be wrong to claim that this subtextual examination of race added all the meat to the story, though. That is shared with the clever conception and also the characters who play out the burdens of immigration and difference as well-rounded, skillfully-portrayed.
The best way to combat racism, it has always seemed to me, is to create a tipping point where the victims of it are understood as real human beings to those who dabble in it, to highlight their own, personal compelling narratives in a way that anyone different can still sympathize with and maybe even relate to. The Shadow Hero does exactly that by wrapping that lesson around a compelling, clever adventure.