Back in the 1940s, a new superhero was introduced who defended American Allies in China during World War II. He was called the Green Turtle and some speculate that the comic’s creator, Chu Hing, intended the Green Turtle to be Chinese-American and therefore the first Asian American Superhero. It’s further speculated that the publisher feared a Chinese superhero would not sell and so insisted that the character appear white. The Green Turtle’s run in comics was short-lived and so the audience, and his sidekick Burma Boy, never learned his true identity nor saw the Green Turtle unmasked.
Enter Gene Luen Yang, 70 years later, who offers both an identity and an origin story for the Green Turtle. In Yang’s story, a first generation Chinese-American named Hank Chu transforms from a neighborhood teen working in his father’s grocery store in 1930s Chinatown to a crime-fighting superhero who is invulnerable to bullets. It all starts when his mother is saved by The Anchor of Justice and becomes obsessed with the idea of her son becoming a great superhero. She signs him up for fighting lessons with Uncle Wun Too, makes him a costume, and gives him a superhero name (Golden Man of Bravery). While he does gain some fighting skills, throwing a few good punches in a costume does not make someone a superhero. Sadly, it takes a tragedy to give Hank both the super powers and motivation he needs to be a true masked crime-fighter.
One thing I appreciate about The Shadow Hero as an origin story is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. While there is some heartbreak to help spur our hero into action and the racism of the era is not ignored, there is also quite a bit of humor as Hank survives his mother’s many efforts to have him stumble upon some super powers and as he figures out how to work with the ancient turtle spirit who is always just over his shoulder sharing his input like it or not.
Hank’s mother and Uncle Wun Too are wonderfully entertaining supporting characters who offer the story a good dose each of humor and heart while also having a strong impact on the storyline. We’re introduced to a love interest for Hank – a beautiful, young woman named Red Center with special skills and family issues of her own. We also meet Detective Lawful, a lawman who isn’t quite up to the challenge of fighting a fight he cannot win, and the real “law” of Chinatown – Ten Grand, Mock Beak, and Big Cookie – who collect taxes from the people of Chinatown and deliver punches and bullets to those who disobey. And then there’s the ancient Chinese turtle spirit who inhabits Hank’s shadow, who is part sidekick, part guardian angel, but really neither of these two roles quite describes the relationship between him and Hank.
In addition to the strong ensemble, Yang and Liew offer action, romance, humor, suspense, and a desire for more adventures to follow. Whether there will be more Green Turtle adventures from Yang and Liew or not, I do not know. The end of The Shadow Hero suggests that the Green Turtle will be heading off to war soon (i.e. the adventures featured in the 1940s comics), so perhaps the idea is that what comes next has already been written and so need not be written again. All I know is that I would gladly read more from Yang and Liew and would be thrilled to see more Green Turtle stories in their (and my) future.