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Graphic Novel Review: The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang & Sonny Liew

This may have been my first graphic novel in...well, ever. I don't remember reading many of them before. 

I read several web comics and have been known to read comics and comic books when I was younger, but for the most part I've avoided graphic novels and comics. This is because I used to be incredibly anxious about people reading over my shoulder or teasing me for whatever I was reading. The idea of a graphic novel, where anybody could just look over your shoulder and see what was happening, was horrifying to me. I think this sense has stayed with me as an adult. I still tend to stray away from graphic novels and choose books with less flashy cover art, and I still obsessively hide what I'm reading. 

Anyway, this is my review -- as a total graphic novel novice -- of The Shadow Hero. 

Cover of The Shadow Hero; text reads The Shadow Hero: Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew. From the New York Times bestselling author of American Born Chinese. Image: It's done in a retro comics style with bright yellow and green font. The image shows the Green Turtle, face masked and body covered by a cape with a turtle shell, mid-jump and looking directly out at the viewer. Behind him, the large shadow of the Turtle takes up most of the page.

First, some background

The Shadow Hero was created to give an origin story to The Green Turtle, a hero in a short-lived comic series during the Golden Age of comics. The Green Turtle fought Japanese troops in China and elsewhere, but never revealed his face, origin story, or true identity. He also had a strangely-shaped, cheekily smiling shadow which was never quite explained before the comic was cancelled. 

The theory of The Shadow Hero's creators is that The Green Turtle is the first Asian American superhero. As they explain in the back, the creator of the original comic, Chu Hing, was Chinese American. He wanted to make an Asian hero, but his publisher wouldn't let him. As Gene Yang and Sonny Liew point out, the original comic features a hero who never shows his face and whose skin is almost ludicrously pink -- as though Hing is sarcastically emphasizing just how white he's supposed to be. Additionally, The Green Turtle is always interrupted whenever he's about to explain his origins or backstory.

A black and white photo of Chu Hing shows him looking directly into the camera. He wears his hair short and is clad in a suit and tie with a pin.
Chu Hing, author of the original comics which inspired this adaptation.
You can read more about him and view his comics here.

The Shadow Hero is their answer to the question of the The Green Turtle's origin story. Drawing inspiration from the original comic, they created a new story for this old and obscure character. 

Plot: a normal kid in the time of superheros

Hank is a young man with ordinary aspirations: he wants to grow up to take over the family grocery from his father. His dad moved to the U.S. from China, quit drinking, and became a successful grocer. Hank's mother is also an immigrant, but she was largely disappointed in America and always felt like there must be more to life.

Then one day, she's abducted at gunpoint by a bank robber and rescued by a superhero. From then on, she's obsessed with superheros -- it becomes her mission to turn Hank into a superhero (whether he wants to be one or not). 

Shows a man from the waist up and shoulders down tearing open his suit jacket and shirt to reveal a Superman symbol.

Reluctantly, Hank dons the cape. Then, tragedy strikes when he gets on the wrong side of a notorious gangster. After the tragedy, Hank gains a mysterious helper: a spirit turtle which inhabits Hank's shadow in exchange for granting one wish. Hank wishes that he will never be shot, and embarks on a mission to take out the gangsters and become a real superhero.

The Turtle is the best thing ever

The turtle in Hank's shadow turns out to be one of the ancient spirits of China. He slipped out of China after an argument with the other spirits and inhabited Hank's father (fulfilling his wish never to drink again). The turtle helps Hank but often seems exasperated by who he's been paired with. For instance, he's always warning Hank about traps, lampshading the silly things Hank does, and generally lamenting that he, a centuries-old being with centuries of wisdom and experience, got stuck with a 19-year-old kid who never listens to him. 

However, he does help Hank and impart wisdom at appropriate moments. They're a bit like roommates mismatched by age. Their relationship is highly entertaining. (If you've seen Legends of Tomorrow or The Flash, it's a little like the interactions between the two guys who make up Firestorm -- the grumpy old professor and the young hothead.) Also, I loved the way the shadow turtle was drawn. 

Hank's parents and "The American dream"

Hank's dad is the everyman with the iconic "American dream": he moves to the U.S., quits drinking, starts his own business, becomes his own man, and starts a family. At first, it all seems very idyllic. 

However, the comic starts to crack apart the notion of the American dream with the introduction of Hank's mother. She was incredibly excited to move to the U.S., which she imagined as a big, colorful, exciting place of dreams. Instead, she was disappointed by the same old drab life there. She resigned herself to a boring life and, when her parents told her to, obediently married Hank's dad and had Hank. She knows her life is OK, but it's not the life she wanted. 

This provides the backstory for her superhero obsession. It also speaks to the theme of the book and the question the creators are answering in regards to the first Asian American superhero. Hank's parents are immigrants, but they move to a country which is still racist against them and which doesn't want to give them a legitimate place. The heroes of society -- superheros -- are all white. The cops don't care about murders and crime in Chinatown. We learn that even the dad's business has to pay a tithe to gangsters, and no one cares. Hank's mom is justifiably angry about this -- maybe all these dynamics factor into why she wants her son to be a superhero so badly.

However, Hank's dad has the counterpoint that resisting the messed-up order of things can make you a target by the people who enforce that order. Both viewpoints have merit, and Hank has to decide which one he wants to subscribe to. The comic seems to come down on the side of trying to make a difference (but it helps if you have superpowers). 

I also liked Hank's mom because I felt much the same way when I came (back) to America. I pretty much hated it here and was disappointed in everything. In my experience, there is a tendency to paint America as this positive, welcoming place when that simply doesn't match reality. Especially in public school, we had to write oodles and oodles of essays on "The American Dream" and how great it was. Until I took advanced history classes in high school, we got an incredibly skewed-positive view of immigration and just American history in general.

An alternative perspective

I read The Shadow Hero at the same time as my friend, who IS experienced with graphic novels. They had the opposite reaction to Hank's mom, who they saw as too stereotypically nagging and pushy. Hank's mom pesters and pesters him to be a superhero and take fighting classes, and he keeps evading her. One day, his dad takes him aside and asks him to humor his mom because this is the first time he's ever seen her really excited and happy about something. Reluctantly, Hank agrees. 

Hank later goes on to make decisions for himself and be more of a superhero in his own right, but some readers might not like how he's pushed into it by his mom. I mean, I related to the story because I have pushy parents, and I feel like this could be a relatable dynamic for a lot of people. On the other hand, you might see his mom's behavior as extreme. She does change and grow, eventually realizing that she pressured her son and never appreciated her ordinary, peaceful family as it was. Still, she is super excited to see Hank fighting crime as a real superhero, a mantle he's taken up of his own accord. She realizes where she's gone wrong, but still keeps her love of superheros.

Part of my take on the mom and their relationship in general comes from how I read this graphic novel. It's a little hard for me to take slapstick or general physical humor and harm happening to cartoon people very seriously. To my inexperienced eyes, there's a definite tonal shift between the first part and the second half once he gets the companionship of the turtle. However, your take on certain moments could depend on how you read it as well as your experience with the medium. 

The art

The Shadow Hero keeps elements of that classic look without being too distant for modern readers (like me, comic book novice). I particularly enjoyed how the turtle was drawn, and the other characters are well-realized, too. 

The style is not hyper-realistic, which affected how I read the violence. Even when gangsters are shooting people, it's not graphic in a disturbing way. The art focuses on making significant violence emotionally/thematically important rather than sticking to realism. I thought this was a good choice.  

When the characters are speaking Mandarin, < their dialogue is marked like this > . English is unmarked text. Seeing where they switch between the two and how people react to different languages was neat. 

One of the gangster bad guys has an eye patch, which I originally thought was added to his character design to make him seem more other/bad/scary. There's a tendency to give villains physical disabilities or disfigurements to mark them as bad, because people associate disability with negative things. However, his eye patch is a plot point. The Main Bad Guy took his eye -- so the eye patch is a sign of how brutal the other bad guy is. It's a small thing, but I thought I would mention it because it shows some of the thought that went into the character designs.

An amusing part of the art is the moment when Hank's skin turns a weird shade of pink and starts to glow. This is the result of his mother's experiments to try and turn him into a superhero, from seances to radioactive spills. They don't do anything but make his skin turn pink and glow when wet -- the creators' explanation of the odd pink skin color of The Green Turtle in the original comics. 

Other stuff, Hank, and closing thoughts

I think this was a good graphic novel for someone who doesn't normally read these. It wasn't super long, and the art was generally light, bright, or pastel in color and open in style. If that makes ANY sense. I'm not sure it does. What I mean is, this was physically easy on the eyes to read and that was a HUGE help since I was reading it on a small Nook-for-phone screen. This book has also been awarded for several things and the creators are very well-known, so I feel a bit silly reviewing it as someone who virtually never reads in this format.

I think there is room for a sequel or spin-off here, but the creators also closed the story in a satisfying way that doesn't leave you needing a sequel. I read a lot of series, and I found this to be a satisfying and complete standalone. I also appreciated the creators' note in the back as well as the fact that it included the first issue of The Green Turtle comic for context. The original comic was also racist in its drawings and portrayals of Japanese people, and the creators discuss this in their note. They did a good job of addressing the potential reasons behind it without trying to excuse it. 

Cover for the original comics; text reads: Blazing comics. F.D.C. 10 cents. July no. 2. The image shows Green Turtle and his sidekick beating up Japanese soldiers. The Turtle's cloak flares up behind him, casting a black shadow of a turtle on the wall behind him.
Cover for an issue of The Green Turtle comics.

I ended up really liking Hank as a hero. He does some foolish things, of course, but is a good guy. The turning point of his hero's journey isn't getting superpowers, beating up bad guys, or learning how to fight. He becomes a "real" superhero when he has to choose between killing one of the gangsters who hurt his family vs. turning him in. He decides to turn him in, because being a hero is about character rather than powers. I thought this was a good message to send.

But, I did find myself wishing -- as I inevitably do with superheros -- that Hank would put on real pants.

I'd recommend this, especially if you're interested in superhero lore. 

Image result for five stars


  1. Hehehe, real pants. :) I'm not much of a comic person myself, and the only graphic novels I've read have been of the Japanese manga sort. Perhaps, with the racism against Japanese, I should probably not pick this one up for now.

    1. My brother used to love this series of graphic novels for kids called "Captain Underpants." The superhero only wore underwear. Lol.

      "The Shadow Hero" itself isn't racist against Japanese people, which is one of the benefits of adapting old works -- you can address issues like that. But, the original comics are. You have to wonder, how much of that was the publisher's influence, how much was it playing to those stereotypes to sell well in the times, and how much was the author's own bad feeling towards Japanese people? We'll never know, and it makes sense to not want to read it for that reason.


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