Comics as Asian Am Literature: The Shadow Hero (Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew) review Part 1


A multi-part review of Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew’s Shadow Hero, just released. This is a spoiler-free entry, but the future parts of this review will be spoiler-replete.

Gene Yang balances many things in ways that I appreciate.  He’s interested in China, invests in research, and makes his Chinese origins matter.  But he doesn’t obsess, is not afraid to syncretically remix and spin traditions and stories in the service of his storytelling as a Chinese American.  His storytelling itself is an art of ambivalences.  Observe the way that Boxers and Saints is designed to be structurally a dialectic, two takes that cross paths, demanding your sympathies and horror at both sides.  This is a typically Gene Yang kind of humanizing move.

One could accuse Yang of thus being dodgy and tricky in this way, slippery in not taking sides.  And one would then be veering into racist territory.  One would be misinterpreting the craft and force of taking such positions, the way that Hank’s super-abilities are mis-interpreted.  But more on that later.

I say this at the top because I think Yang has accomplished in Shadow Hero what he has done similarly in Boxers and Saints and American Born Chinese, and what’s interesting is how he has done it in the realm of superhero comics.  This is not an acerbic deconstruction of the genre, a lá Watchmen.  Nor is it a fawning tribute meekly submitted by an acolyte hoping to be accepted in its ranks.

As Yang has said, superheroes are about America and what America is, but moreover superheroes are about immigrants and the experience of immigration (Yang cites Superman of the Kryptonian diaspora and his creators’ Jewish backgrounds; see Kavalier and Klay).  Chris Sims’ review here summarizes the book well and offers the same ringing endorsement that I would (some spoilers there), but in calling the book primarily a tribute to Golden Age superheroes, I think the review misses the other half of the dialectic, the sharp critique that the book continually poses to racial politics, from its title and cover through its narrative and conclusion.

The book’s background story, Yang and Liew discuss in interviews and explain in the back of the book, is a short-lived comic book character called the Green Turtle created by a Chinese comic artist named Chu Hing in 1944, who was censored by his publisher from depicting the Chinese American superhero he wanted.  The Green Turtle’s face is always obscured in the original 1940’s comic in the deft move of never having to either accede nor disqualify the possibility that the Green Turtle is Chinese, and Chu Hing used even more acrobatics (or kung fu) of storytelling to evade an origin story.  Yang and Liew use this as a jumping off point, is to fill in this origin-story gap, to complete the circle of the subversion that the story was meant to be, right down to explaining the strange pink coloration of the Green Turtle’s skin that Hing’s publisher used to try to whitewash the character.  I think providing an origin story for a character who seems to arrive from out of nowhere is itself a crucial cultural/political endeavor.

I think what Yang has done again, and done so well, is consistent with the tenor and tactic of his previous work: to sharply, and lovingly, expose the exclusionary practices of America’s anti-Asian strains, its systemic orientalism and co-optive minstrelsy, and yet to portray the Asian American/immigrant response in its complexity, from glittery-eyed full participation in America’s dreams to noble and sacrificial resistance to calculated exploitation, whether strategic or venal.  The book is fun to read, and I’d give it to a kid, just like Yang’s other books.  But its depth is in the really deft ways it plays with race, history, and comics, and I wouldn’t let the ease with which you can consume it keep you from thinking about those various dialectics and ambivalences it deals with.

More details on all of this in coming posts, including the book’s treatment of gender, superheroes and powers, and Chinese American history, popular culture and genre, and Liew and Yang’s use of graphic narration.  Like I said, I’ll go into detail in the analysis, so you should get the book and read it before going further.  The paperback released today has stuff I think the Kindle book is missing, so it’s worth the wait.

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