The Shadow Hero is about a teen boy with no larger goal than becoming a grocer like his father, and then one day maybe teaching his son the grocer’s trade. Hank Chu likes his life the way it is. In fact, he doesn’t hear a call to become a superhero. He has no powers and is generally unexceptional. It’s his mother who knows this is destiny. She’s rescued by a superhero one day and determines that her son will no longer be a coward. Unfortunately, he still has no superpowers, which she tries to fix by doing things like dumping him in toxic waste. The Shadow Hero is hilarious, guys. The mom is totally my favorite character.
At first, Hank really doesn’t want to be a superhero. He’s forced through training, but he comes to enjoy his new physique. He starts believing his mom and is willing to give it a try. He doesn’t find his true motivation, though, until a personal tragedy strikes. This back story hearkens perfectly to so many classic superhero origin stories. Something has to happen to convince the person/alien/whatever that the world needs help and he or she is the one to do it.
One of the things I think is fantastic about The Shadow Hero is that Hank doesn’t lose his old self. He never stops being that kid from the grocery and, even as he embraces his superhero role, he still sees that as his endgame. He doesn’t change overnight into someone new. Yeah, he wants to help people, but that hasn’t changed his simple dreams. Left to his own devices thought, he would definitely go back to running the grocery, which I think is wonderful. I also adore how much he loves Chinatown and doesn’t want to leave, despite the danger. He’s proud of where he comes from and who he is.
Yang and Liew wrote this as a prequel to a classic comic. Apparently a Chinese man wrote it for a small press, but it didn’t get much of a run, less chapters in fact than The Shadow Hero. What makes the original Green Turtle comics so fascinating is that the author, Chu Hing, wanted to write an Asian superhero, but wasn’t allowed to. There are rumors that he made the Green Turtle Asian anyway, as his face is almost always turned away or covered, and that is the prequel that Yang and Liew have written.
A couple of the odd things from the story are explained by the historical significance. There’s what I thought was merely a comedic moment where Mom’s efforts only manage to give Hank the superpower of turning bright red after being touched by water. It turns out this was actually to explain the fact that the Green Turtle is drawn bright pink in the comics, perhaps to stress his whiteness. The cover itself is perfection too, looking like the Green Turtle has lowered his cape from some of the shots in the original comic.
Included at the end of the graphic novel is a reprint of the first issue of the Green Turtle comic. Enthusiasts of classic comics are definitely going to want to check this out for that alone, though how you could resist reading the brilliant prequel I can’t imagine. You get to see firsthand the referenced turtle shadow that follows Green Turtle everywhere, but is apparently not explained in the comic. I’d wondered why the turtle in The Shadow Hero looked so odd, but it’s how the turtle was drawn in the original. I like to believe that Chu Hing did subversively keep his Asian protagonist right under the noses of his publisher; either way, I think he’d be happy to see The Shadow Hero.
Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew’s The Shadow Hero is a marvelous graphic novel, both as a standalone and a prequel. It’s a must for anyone who loves superhero stories or anyone interested in comic book history.