In The Shadow Hero we meet our young protagonist, Hank, who lives in Chinatown during the Tong Wars. If you're not familiar with the Tong Wars, don't feel bad...I had to Google it. This was a time in American history (roughly 1880s to 1921) when warring Chinese gang factions were working underground to control the economy of Chinatown. Hank is proud to work in his father's grocery store, and has no plans to do otherwise, until the day that the Tong Wars infringe on his family life. With his mother's enthusiasm (pushiness!) behind him and a wish to avenge a great wrong done to this family, Hank becomes the Green Turtle...a superhero. He also inherits a Chinese spirit god who lives in his shadow and helps out from time to time.
This graphic novel was a great mix of humor (a superhero forced into being by his mom) and weighty issues. Not only is Hank fighting against the Tong factions, he's also grappling with himself and his morals, dealing with a corrupt police force, and struggling with his feelings for a woman he shouldn't get involved with. Arching over all of those conflicts is the greater issue of stereotyping. The "good guys" don't have very flattering things to say about Chinese immigrants in New York City at this time, and the "bad guys" play into the stereotypes in order to manipulate and take advantage of the white New Yorkers' pre-conceived notions of them.
Besides being a great stand-alone graphic novel, knowing the history behind this volume makes it even more intriguing...
The Green Turtle was the first Asian American super hero. Created by Chu Hing for Blazing Comics in the early 1940s, Green Turtle had a short run before lapsing into obscurity, but Yang has revived the character creates an origin story for the Green Turtle in The Shadow Hero.
Hing created the Green Turtle comics in a world of cartoonists and publishers interested only in white superheroes. His work was borderline subversive and I loooooooooooove clever subversions. At the end of this book there is a note of explanation from Yang that runs through the real history of the Green Turtle comics. If you'd like to learn more in the meantime, check out this Chu Hing biography.
Perhaps what's greatest about Yang's work is that you can read it on a surface level and find a great story. But if you do a little digging there are depths to plumb that you might not even realize. For me it makes a rich, rewarding reading experience every single time.
Pub. Date: July 15, 2014
Publisher: First Second
Source: I received this book from the publisher via NetGalley in consideration of a review. An honest one!