Gene Luen Yang, best known for coming-of-age- tales shifts towards superhero fare with his new graphic novel The Shadow Hero. And in doing so delivers one of the best new graphic novels of the summer.
Here’s the official word from First Second Books:
With American Born Chinese, Gene Luen Yang changed the landscape of conversation about the Asian-American and immigrant experience in modern America. Now, with The Shadow Hero, Yang is tackling the Asian American story in the context of that most American of art forms: the super hero comic. This is the story of a young Chinese-American man who honors his Chinese heritage by donning a cape and fighting crime.
Proving that’s what old can always be new again, Gene Luen Yang and illustrator Sonny Liew launched The Shadow Hero this month, a new graphic novel inspired by long forgotten 1940’s superhero,The Green Turtle. This World War II costumed fighter is regarded by most comic historian as the first Asian-American superhero, but, thanks to overly-cautious white publishers who felt America wasn’t ready for a non-white star, this claim cannot be made definitively – the Green Turtle’s face was often obscured by creator Chu Hing during those inaugural adventures in what most consider an attempt to rebel against his bosses. Now, nearly sixty years later, Gene Luen Yang has reclaimed this hero and explored his identity in a more transparent and intentional way.
The Shadow Hero follows the story of Hank, a first generation Chinese-American being raised in the “New World” by two “Old World” parents – his father, an aging shop keeper who wants nothing more than to fly under the radar, and his mother, a overbearing woman so impressed by the flying superheros that dominate her new country that she begins encouraging her son to don a cape and cowl. Like most great superheros, Hank’s initial attempts at playing superhero are futile; he has neither the instincts or the skills to fly with the big boys and he sees no value in embracing those aspects of his cultural identity that might support this new endeavor (he initially dismisses his uncle’s attempts to teach him Kung Fu, for instance). The emergence of a destructive crime syndicate convinces Hank that he must up his game and learn to fuse both the Old World and the New World if he hopes to become the hero his community needs him to be. Like most of Yang’s protagonists, Hank becomes vicar of two cultures, working closely with a white police officer and a benevolent Chinese spirit in order to appropriately and effectively face his new foes.
As with most of Yang’s work, The Shadow Hero’s script operates on two levels: the plot, which is drum-tight and engaging; and as a thematically sophisticated exploration of identity, race, and cultural assimilation. For those of you looking for a book that will hold up to multiple readings, rest assured, The Shadow Hero will. And it’ll be fun each time, too.
The art, by Sonny Liew, offers a gorgeous complement to Gene Yang’s script. Vibrant lines, and stylistically nimble characters make this book a total treasure. Liew’s art is both serious and funny; heartbreaking and intense. He’s a talented artists and has the range to not only execute such an ambitious script, but add nuance to it as well.
I’d say The Shadow Hero was one of the most delightful surprises of the summer, but that’s not entirely true. I’ve already come to expect awesome work from Gene Luen Yang and this book simply delivered on that expectation.