The Shadow Hero is an interesting graphic novel for several reasons. The first is that it takes an obscure hero from the Golden Age of comic books—the Green Turtle—and gives him an origin for the first time in seventy years. It’s also interesting because it’s largely believed that the Green Turtle is the first Asian American superhero. Finally, it’s because Gene Luen Yang also wrote American Born Chinese, a graphic novel both incredibly funny, amazingly imaginative, and distinctively insightful.
The Shadow Hero is a fine read. It introduces a fascinating concept in a set of spirit animals that represent China’s prosperity. They must live in the shadow of a human, and, as you can probably guess, one of them is a tortoise. Through a series of events, the tortoise spirit makes its way to America and ends up with nineteen-year-old Hank, the son of a grocer in Chinatown. Hank is at first a reluctant hero, encouraged by his eccentric mother, but events unfold that lead Hank to take on the Green Turtle persona both willingly and passionately. Though the book mixes action with comedy, the finale delivers a dangerous scenario for both our hero and the tortoise spirit.
Sonny Liew’s art and colors are engaging and progress the story well. He’s got a great grasp on the era, and his dynamic figures blend realism with impossible physicality. I was not previously familiar with Liew, but he impressed me very much and I look forward to learning more about him.
I’m a Gene Luen Yang fan, and I wanted to love this book, but I didn’t. I like it very much. It’s quite a serviceable graphic novel, but aside from the unique history of the Green Turtle, it’s pretty standard fare.
Perhaps this is unfair to Gene Luen Yang, but American Born Chinese surprised and delighted at every turn, and left me truly feeling as though the book perpetuated a change within my worldview. The Shadow Hero is a nice super hero story, but, in the end, doesn’t transcend the genre.