The Shadow Hero is the new, totally awesome graphic novel from Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew. Besides being completely entertaining, humorous and suspenseful from start to finish, The Shadow Hero is smart. And The Shadow Hero is diverse in ways that, in less gifted hands, could be didactic and boring. In a time when internet voices - from authors to bloggers to educators to booksellers - are beginning a genuine conversation about the lack of diversity in kid's books, Yang and Liew perform the amazing hat-trick of creating a graphic novel that is filled with great characters, great action, great artwork AND diverse voices. Most children's fiction that features characters from diverse backgrounds tends to be historical fiction (and often a harder sell for most young readers) rather than everyday contemporary stories about kids who just happen to be Hispanic, Asian, African American, East Indian and more. The Shadow Hero is a work of historical fiction, set in the Chinatown neighborhood of San Incendio (standing in for San Francisco) in 1944 while also managing to be completely engaging without begin didactic and reading like a lesson is being imparted or a historically momentous event is being examined - even though, in subtle ways, important ideas are being raised. I think this is, in part, because this is a superhero story, which is kind of a universal tale - despite the fact that most superheroes are "gwailo," (literal translation: ghost person, in other words, white.)
Yang and Liew save the educational aspects of The Shadow Hero for Yang's superb author's notes at the end of the book, where they explore the golden-age comics series, The Green Turtle, a WWII superhero created by Chu Hing. He wore a mask and "defended China, America's ally, against the invading Japanese army. He had no obvious superpowers, but he did seem to have a knack for avoiding bullets." He also remained almost entirely faceless over the course of his series, leading to rumors that Hing wanted the Green Turtle to be the first Chinese superhero but was thwarted by his publishers. Yang dissects Hing's comics a bit further, weighing the facts with the rumors, all to a very interesting end. I suspect that, knowing this going into The Shadow Hero, I might have read it with a slightly more academic eye, and I'm glad I didn't. I read it for the pure joy of it. The second reading was for the historical, academic aspects...
The Shadow Hero truly is an origin story in that the Green Turtle's superhero status does not come to him by way of a spider bite, cosmic rays or a lightning bolt. The Green Turtle is not a millionaire, mutant or orphan. Who he is largely shaped by father and who he becomes is shaped (Tiger) mother along with an injustice. Chapter one begins in 1911 with the collapse of the Ch'ing Dynasty and a council of spirits, meeting "in a place between our world and the next." Born in China, the four spirits will die if China is defeated. Unable to agree on a course of action, the four part ways, the Tortoise spirit taking up residence in the shadow of a hopelessly drunk young man on a cargo boat headed to America. This is the Green Tortoise's father. His mother arrives a couple of years later, a dewey-eyed child expecting a magical land and instead landing in a "dingy corner" of a "city crowded beyond capacity." Disappointment breaks her spirit and she resigns herself to marrying the boring, modestly successful grocer her parents choose for her, giving birth to her son, Hank, who wants nothing more than to grow up to be exactly like his father.
Hank's mother, Hua, does get a little taste of America, though, by going to work as a housekeeper for Mrs. Olson. While waiting outside the bank for Mrs. Olson one day, Hua becomes part of a robbery when the car is hijacked. But, in a very funny scene involving a pork bun, a gun and the almost off-the-page mention of "Coolie rock," she is saved by the Anchor of Justice and an idea takes root.
At first, Hua sets out to turn Hank into a superhero with a "no excuses" approach. She sews a costume (which has a Chinese symbol on the chest and is later labeled "Golden Man of Bravery" for clarity) for him while his Uncle Wun trains him in martial arts, which looks a lot more like beating him up on a regular basis. She even takes him to the site of a tanker accident, nudging him so that he falls into the toxic seepage with the hopes that Hank will develop a superpower. He just gets a high-grade fever that lasts for a week. But, Hank finds his purpose when Mr. Mock, the local mob boss, roughs up his father and takes a precious family heirloom - a piece of jade - from him.
There is so much more to this story, from the spirit of the Turtle to the Tong of Sticks to the beautiful, mysterious girl in the red dress with the powerful kick and the many threads that weave them together. To me, Hank's origin story was most interesting, although young readers will surely be swept up in the action of the story. Fans of the animated television show The Legend of Korra will definitely appreciate the themes, setting and time period of The Shadow Hero, but I guarantee you that The Shadow Hero will appeal to anyone who loves a good story, which Gene Luen Yang always delivers, whether he is illustrating or Sonny Liew.
Source: Review Copy