The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew – Review

I read The Shadow Hero last year but didn’t review it at the time. After a thoroughly enjoyable reread I’m keen to share my thoughts. Plus, it’s the Lunar New Year today (8th of February 2016), and as good a time as any to be celebrating Asian writers and artists.

The Shadow Hero is the origin story of the Green Turtle, a superhero created by Chinese-American cartoonist Chu F. Hing in the 1940s. Rumour suggests that Chu wanted his character to Chinese, but his publisher refused. As a result, Chu masked the Green Turtle and almost never showed his face in the comics – either he had his back to the reader, or is partially obscured. Maybe it was so he could nevertheless imagine him as Chinese?

Whilst those rumours were never confirmed, Yang and Liew took this premise and establishes the Green Turtle as Chinese-American in his origin story, The Shadow Hero. The main character, Hank Chu, is the son of Chinese immigrants who live in Chinatown, San Incendio (a fictional, coastal city). Hank initially wants to live an ordinary life as a grocer like his father. But after an encounter his mother has with a superhero, the Anchor of Justice; trouble with a group of thugs in Chinatown that is larger than expected; and the discovery of secrets from his father’s past, Hank is propelled on the unlikely path to become a superhero.

First off, Sonny Liew’s artwork in The Shadow Hero is stunning. The character designs are unique and distinctive, the colours can be both beautifully vibrant and soft and sombre at the appropriate moments, and the backgrounds vividly bring Chinatown and San Incendio to life. This played no small role in immersing me in the story and drawing out strong emotions at engaging moments. Graphic novels with great artwork encourage me to reread them multiple times; The Shadow Hero definitely falls into this category.

The Shadow Hero is also the perfect example of how to pull off a plot with depth and fantastic twists and turns. Many intriguing, disparate elements are present throughout the story. For example, the book begins with four spirits communing in concern over the end of imperial rule in China, and this is later weaved into the story in an extremely clever way. Surprises are abound and I was always keen to find out more about the characters, or to see what would happen next.
On a related note, the wit and humour of the book had me laughing out loud several times. I especially loved Hank’s mother; Hank also had some great lines, especially during the action sequences.

The cultural and historical elements of the story were also well depicted. I’ve always felt that we get our best stories when East and West meet (yes, I know that as an Asian-Australian I’m the most biased person ever in saying this); this is not an easy thing to do well, but The Shadow Hero walks this line perfectly. It is, as the back cover says, ‘a loving tribute to the long, rich tradition of American superhero comics’; it is also set in Chinatown, amongst characters who are immigrants and navigating America from their personal challenges and perspectives. I’m not sure I would categorise this as a book about the ‘immigrant experience’, but it is certainly an essential part of the story and is done in a celebratory and unique way.

My only criticism is that I wish Hank had been given more characterisation; whilst I understood and felt for him in every scene, a deeper connection was lacking in comparison to the other characters. More internal conflict and growth (though not completely absent) would have helped with this.

As someone who’s seen literally one Marvel film and never read any other superhero comics in my life, The Shadow Hero has become one of my favourite books; so don’t be turned off if this isn’t what you’re accustomed to reading. Recommended for anyone who likes fast-paced stories with unending twists and who is intrigued by the Chinatown setting. It’s hard to imagine anyone disliking this.

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