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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Green Turtle (the first ever Asian-American Superhero) rides again!

Yang, Gene Luen; Liew, Sonny (2014) The Shadow Hero.  New York:  First Second.

     Usually I don't review superhero graphic novels.  I read them, but I usually don't feel I need to promote them because kids seem to find them just fine on their own.  Gene Yang's The Shadow Hero, though, is not just a superhero story. 
      I'll tell you the plot of this superhero graphic novel in a minute, but first let me tell you the story behind the story (as described in the back of the book)..  So Gene Yang (amazingly talented author of American Born Chinese, and The Eternal Smile) found out that, back in 1944, a practically unknown publisher, asked a relatively unknown comic book creator named Chu Hing to create a regular feature for a magazine called Blazing Comics.  Chu Hing, one of the first Asian-American comic book creators in the business, created The Green Turtle, a masked superhero who defended America's then ally China against the invading Japanese armies.  He didn't seem to have an superpowers, except that he was really lucky when it came to dodging bullets. It was rumored that Hing wanted the Green Turtle to be a Chinese-American superhero, and that his publisher wanted him to be white.  Hing appears to have acquiesced to his bosses demands, but a careful look at the surviving issues of the comic shows that Hing found some ways to get his way anyway.  We seldom see the Green Turtle's face, and when we do it is usually partly covered by something.  The Green Turtle has pink skin -- but it is a radioactive looking pink, so unnatural that it doesn't look real.  And the Green Turtle never reveals his origin in the five issues that appeared before the comic was cancelled.  This leaves plenty of room for Yang and Liew to reimagine the character.
     The Shadow Hero tells the story of young Hank, the son of Chinese immigrants who run a grocery store in a city that looks a lot like San Francisco.  Hank is content to follow in his father's footsteps and become a grocer.  When his mother is rescued from a carjacking by a superhero, she decides her son will become a superhero. She makes him a costume, tries to get him in contact with toxic spills, occult herbs, rabid dogs (and all that results is that his skin turns bright pink).  She tries to get his uncle to teach Hank martial arts (but this too is a failure).  It is not until his father is killed by a gangster that Hank discovers that the spirit of the Turtle had bonded with his father and now joins with him, granting Hank a kind of limited invincibility.  Then hank sets out to bring his father's killer to justice.
     It is a great story, with beautiful art that frequently tips its hat toward the golden age of comics.  The story is engaging and suspenseful and we often worry that Hank will be hurt, but the violence is not excessive, the language is not objectionable and the Green Turtle is an old school hero who helps others and fights for justice.  Bottom line, this one is a lot of fun, and will leave young readers with something to think about too.  Strong fourth grade readers could handle this, and it would interest readers through high school (or, in my case, through  25th grade).  Check it out. 

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