The Shadow Hero’s Gene Luen Yang on immigrant superheroes

Gene Luen Yang on the rebirth of the first Chinese-American superhero in The Shadow Hero

The Green Turtle on the cover of The Shadow Hero TPB
The Green Turtle on the cover of The Shadow Hero TPB

Critically acclaimed graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang has explored the space between cultures with the award-winning and nominated American Born Chinese, but his new project with Singaporean artist Sonny Liew – The Shadow Hero – takes those themes right back to their source.

The Shadow Hero – issue 1 of which is available digitally right now from Barnes & Noble for Nook, Amazon for Kindle and Apple Books for iPad and iPhone, and is coming July 2014 in graphic novel form – reinvents the Green Turtle – perhaps the first Chinese-American superhero, tying it up in a portrait of the early 20th Century migrant experience, a beautifully rendered love letter to the wonder of Golden Age Comics, and a deeply personal family drama…

What do you love about comics?

I’ve loved comics since I was a kid. I started reading comics and creating comics in the fifth grade. That’s one of my favorite aspects of the medium – the line between comic-book reader and comic-book creator is very thin. To become a comic-book creator, all you really need is a pencil, some paper, and a healthy ignorance of your own artistic limitations. Make a comic and there you go. Pretty much anyone can do it.

Also, the comics industry has a long history of reader/creator interaction. American superhero comics have always had letter columns in the back where editors, writers, and artists would answer their fans’ questions. Comic-book conventions have brought readers and creators together for decades. When I was in elementary school, my brother and I met Jim Lee at a con in our hometown. Jim was – and still is – one of the biggest names in the industry, and we got to shake his hand. My brother even got to pee in the stall next to him. For a third grader that was a big deal. We still talk about it to this day.

Nowadays, other entertainment industries have taken a page from comics. They recognize the value of audience/creator interaction, so they come to conventions. They use Twitter and Facebook to mimic those old comics letters columns. But really, it’s just comics culture going mainstream.

How did you first discover the Green Turtle?

I first read about the Green Turtle in the comics blogosphere. He was featured in a couple of posts on Pappy’s Golden Age Comics Blogzine. If you’re a fan of Golden Age comics, if you’re a fan of superhero comics of any kind, you should visit. Pappy highlights all sorts of crazy, imaginative, sometimes-crudely-drawn heroes from back in the day. It’s neat to see how the superhero genre got established.

Was it the character himself that appealed to you, or the aspects of it that reflected on his creator?

The Green Turtle was created in the 1940s by Chu F Hing, one of the first Asian Americans to work in the American comics industry. He’s a fairly standard World War II superhero. He wore a mask and a cape and fought the Imperial Japanese. His adventures were first published in Blazing Comics from a small publisher called Rural Home.

Rumour has it, that Chu wanted his hero to be a Chinese American, but his publisher didn’t think that would sell. So Chu reacted very passive-agressively. He drew the Green Turtle so that we almost never get to see the hero’s face. He usually has his back facing us so all we see is his cape. And then when he is turned around, something – another character, or a piece of furniture, or even just shadow – is always obscuring his face. Rumour is that Chu did this so that he could imagine his hero as he’d originally intended, as a Chinese American.

The Green Turtle was not very popular. He lasted only five issues and was cancelled. Rural Home wasn’t very successful, either. When it came time to renew their copyrights in the 1970s, they weren’t around anymore. The Green Turtle, like so many 1940s heroes, fell into public domain.

I was endlessly fascinated by the Green Turtle when I first read Blazing Comics and Chu’s biography. Because Blazing Comics was so short-lived, we never find out the Green Turtle’s secret identity or his secret origin. His ethnicity is never confirmed. It felt like there was a story there, so Sonny and I created The Shadow Hero, a six issue miniseries that shows how a Chinese American teenager becomes the Green Turtle, the first Asian American superhero.

Gene Luen Yang, co-creator of The Shadow Hero
Gene Luen Yang, co-creator of The Shadow Hero

The first issue brings in a lot of wonderful ideas – spiritual, cultural and historical – did it just seem obvious to you to link up this character with the immigrant experience of the early 20th Century?

I’m the child of immigrants. My mom was born in mainland Chinese and my dad in Taiwan. I’ve lived my whole life between cultures. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized how much this has coloured my view of the world.

Because I draw heavily from my own life when I write, The Shadow Hero gravitated towards the immigrant experience as I pieced the script together. Reflections of my and my parents’ experiences made their way onto the page.

Many Golden Age heroes have that second generation immigrant experience deeply woven into them (Superman, most famously), do you think that Chu Hing’s work with the Green Turtle comfortably fits into the same narrative as Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel’s Moses-indebted Superman? Is this a natural fit to explore those issues of identity that run right through superhero comics?

You know, it’s interesting. The creators of Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four – almost every major superhero – were children of immigrants. Joe Shuster, Jerry Seigel, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Stan Lee, Bill Finger, and Bob Kane – all children of immigrants. I think there’s something to that.

Almost every superhero lives between two worlds, two identities. This reflects the daily reality of immigrants and their children. For instance, I had two different names, a Chinese one when I was at home and and Englilsh one for school. I spoke two languages and operated within two cultures.

I wonder if my younger self was drawn to superheroes because they seemed kind of like me. Superman has two names, Clark Kent and Kal-El. He wears two sets of clothes and operates under two sets of expectations. He loves the American culture that surrounds him, but part of him longs for Kryptonian culture of his parents.

There have always been these thematic undercurrents in the superhero genre, probably because the writers and artists who established it were children of immigrants. With The Shadow Hero, Sonny and I are just bringing those themes to the surface.

The original Green Turtle strip is a real document for its portrayal of the Sino-Japanese War and how that reflected on US sensibilities at the time – the sympathy for China versus the enmity for the US’s Pacific rival Japan, but then also a dash of condescending Orientalism or even outright racism. How much of that complex dichotomy do you explore?

In the original comic, Chu uses some very stereotypical imagery in his depiction of the Japanese. He uses the slanted eyes, bad teeth, and evil grins that were used against Chinese Americans just a decade or two earlier.

He was working decades before the Asian American movement began, so there was very little unity between the different Asian communities in America. When I was reading Chu’s comics, his depictions of the Japanese made me cringe. I wondered at his motivations. Some, I’m sure, was anger. By the mid-1940s, news of Japanese military atrocities in China had made its way to America. He was also following American comics conventions of the time. Ethnic stereotypes were incredibly prevalent.

But I also wonder if he was vying for acceptance by the American public. There’s evidence of this throughout his pages. One of his stories begins with a banner displaying “America and China United” in Chinese. A Caucasian American general shows up in another as one of the Green Turtle’s allies.

In The Shadow Hero, we don’t get into the relationship between the early Chinese and Japanese Americans, but that’s definitely an interesting area to explore. Maybe if there’s a sequel?

How into the Japanese invasion of China will you get and has that thrown up any issues in terms of tone?

Our story stays in America and ends before the Attack on Pearl Harbor, so we don’t get into the Sino-Japanese War at all. We hint at it, but the emphasis is really on the American immigrant experience.

The original Green Turtle on the cover of Blazing Comics issue 1
The original Green Turtle on the cover of Blazing Comics issue 1

There’s been an autobiographical element to a lot of your past work, have you brought in any of your own experiences to The Shadow Hero?

Absolutely. I have to write from my life. I don’t know how to write any other way. Hank Chu, our protagonist, is a Chinese American teenager who eventually dons a cape and becomes the Green Turtle. Sonny and I use becoming a superhero as a metaphor for becoming an American.

Hank’s mom pushes Hank to become a superhero in the way a lot of immigrant parents push their kids to fit into American society. When I was a kid, my dad used to sit me down and give me a lecture on how in America, you have to be assertive. He would read to me news articles on successful Americans. It makes sense, right? Most immigrants sacrifice a lot to get to their new country. Once they’re there, they don’t want their kids screwing it up.

Sonny Liew’s art style seems perfect for The Shadow Hero – it’s gentle and comic, but also really human – and breakdowns on your blog have been really fascinating, is it always a surprise what he brings to each page or do you thrash out any changes before hand? Do you end up shooting a lot of supplementary material across to each other about period costumes and buildings etc?

I’m so lucky to be working with Sonny. You’re right – he’s perfect for the book. He’s got this blend of drama and comedy that we’re really trying to leverage. Sonny and I did have some back and forth, but he really did a lot of the research on his own. Our story is set in a fictional 1930s Chinatown, so Sonny bought a bunch of photo books of actual early 20th Century Chinatowns. He was very careful in his design of the clothing, the cars, and the props. He sent me sketches from time to time, but for the most part all I did was open his e-mails and say, “Wow! That’s spot-on!”

A lot of emphasis is often placed on what pot of ink is used on the skin tones when it comes to mainstream coverage of superheroes (recently, for example, the casting of Johnny Storm in Fantastic Four, and the new Ms Marvel). Is this a problem in itself, or is it a reflection of the relatively poor state superhero comics/superhero movies are in when it comes to representing their readers/viewers? Is it the fire or the smoke?

It makes sense to me why skin tone and what skin tone sometimes represents – culture – is important. For many of us, skin tone has had a profound affect on how we’ve been perceived. It isn’t always a bad thing, but it’s almost always a thing. I have friends who are actors of colour, and there simply aren’t all that many roles for them.

The superhero genre was born in America when the country was very different. The push for diversity within superheroes is simply a push for the genre to reflect America as it is today.

I have mixed feelings about characters changing race when they go from one medium to another. For some characters, ethnicity isn’t all that important. Peter Parker, for example, is a quintessential New Yorker. These days, a New Yorker can be of any colour, and so could Peter, in my opinion.

But for other characters, ethnic identity is a deep part of who they are. Daredevil is a Irish American from a Catholic background. Much of his lore – his family history, the atmosphere of his stories, even his costume – grows out of that. If they made Matt Murdock into an Asian American, I’d be a little sad.

Same with African prince Black Panther. Same with Russian mutant Colossus. I mean, we can debate which characters fall into which category, but my hope is that the essence of story, rather than politics, drive these sort of decisions. Naive in the face of money and politics, I know, but that’s my hope.

I also hope we’ll see more diverse stories – essentially diverse stories, not superficially diverse – emerge within the genre. That’s already happening, actually. It’s pretty cool.

The Shadow Hero issue 1 is available digitally right now from Barnes & Noble for NookAmazon for Kindle and Apple Books for iPad and iPhone. The graphic novel is coming 1 July 2014, pre-order it now for £10.16 from Amazon.co.uk.