Origin stories have an unfair reputation. They receive criticism of being either too unoriginal or too slow. Occasionally, a standout work bucks the trend, and audiences enthusiastically embrace it. Well, readers, get ready because I’ve found 2014’s standout origin story: Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew’s The Shadow Hero.
Part of The Shadow Hero’s appeal comes from the mystery surrounding the story’s title character, the Green Turtle. During the 1940s, when comic books were providing people with pleasing escapism during WWII, Chu Hing’s the Green Turtle appeared as one of the many injustice-fighting superheroes. He was a man with a turtle cape, a mystical dagger, a Japanese boy sidekick, and a turtle plane. The most unique thing about the Green Turtle, though, was the absence of his face in the comics. Objects would hide him or people would be in the way of curious readers. He never revealed his identity, and then the creator revealed why: the Green Turtle was supposed to be a Chinese-American, but the publisher wouldn’t allow it.
Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew’s publisher, thankfully, doesn’t have a problem with a Chinese-American superhero. The duo’s decision to resurrect the once defunct character was a wonderful idea because the result is a story oozing with freshness and fun.
For readers already familiar with Yang’s past two graphic novels, the wonderfully received American Born Chinese and Boxers & Saints, The Shadow Hero might initially come across as a bit of a shock to the system. The clean, popping colors of the familiarly spacious panels are gone; instead, the Green Turtle’s story contains darker hues, with messier bordering. Guess what? The look is one of The Shadow Hero’s greatest pleasures.
Yang and Liew’s story begins with a story of mythology. Chinese spirits converse over plans, troubles, hopes, and dreams. The tortoise spirit, in particular, plays a key role as the plot progresses. When The Shadow Hero switches back to human conflict, readers see Hank Chu, the graphic novel’s protagonist. He’s a teenager who is very much ordinary. He works in his father’s store, and he is content with life. Hank’s mother describes her son as being “such a good, good boy.” And her classification is accurate. Hank is a good guy.
Readers will likely enjoy spending time with Hank’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Chu. Mr. Chu is boring, quiet, and hard working. Mrs. Chu is excitable, loud, and, still, hard working; she’s also the scene-stealer. Hank admits that his mother had dreams of moving to a perfect America. She found disappointment because “the women and machines she had dreamed of certainly existed, but they were gray, noisy, and rude.” Mrs. Chu is the one who sets the pace for where the story goes. While she is taking her boss to the store, a robber hops in and threatens Mrs. Chu’s life. He makes her drive away, and things look very bad for her. She looks out of her window and notices a superhero. She knows he’ll save her, and she knows something else, too: if her dreams didn’t come true before, they are going to now. Hank is going to be a hero, and she’s going to see to it.
Then, The Shadow Hero takes off and never looks back. Hank finally succumbs to his mother’s incessant nagging and sets out to become the Green Turtle and to defeat bad guys. Things don’t go well at first. Again, this is in origin story, and certain actions are necessary. His early failures make his later successes all the more powerful.
The Shadow Hero, while possessing necessary archetypes, manages to successfully weave in a few surprises. Love and loss are two key ways in which the narrative strays from the expected ending, and both seem like refreshing additions to the Green Turtle’s tale.
Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew’s The Shadow Hero is a graphic novel that tackles the challenges of immigration, the fantastical aspects of mythology, and the necessity of dreams, while still capturing the simplicity of a young boy finding his way. If you are looking for something to do, join Hank on his quest. You’ll have a great time.