Sunday, November 30, 2014

"Sometimes a fight you cannot win is still worth fighting." The Shadow Hero review

In recent years, comic book publishers came to the realization that many Golden Age super hero characters had lapsed into the public domain. Eagerly, they sought to rebuild those lapsed properties into new franchises, but the characters had become so forgotten over the decades that they might as well have been new characters - and the comics market, already overburdened with super hero material, has never been welcoming to new faces.

However, at least one fine book has come to us thanks to these developments: The Shadow Hero by writer Gene Luen Yang and artist Sonny Liew (with letterer Janice Chiang making it an all-Asian extravaganza!) through publisher First Second. It concerns a long-forgotten super hero called the Green Turtle, whose untold origin Yang & Liew proceed to tell.

Lore surrounding the Green Turtle asserts his creator Chu Hing intended him to be an Asian hero but his publisher wouldn't permit him to. According to this lore, Hing deliberately withheld the Green Turtle's origin and frequently concealed his face so that the creator would - if nowhere else - remain Asian in his mind.

The story Yang & Liew cook up doesn't completely mesh with Hing's work (they note themselves how they altered his cape), but it still goes to a lot of effort to line up with the 1940s stories (including an explanation for why an Asian man would have pink skin - seriously!). More importantly, the story they've chosen to tell is fun and clever on its own, an absolutely charming tale of super heroes quite unlike most of the marketplace (which is why it hasn't been marketed to super hero fans, I would assume).

The hero is Asian-American Hank Chu; after a super hero saves the life of Hank's mother, she becomes obsessed with the idea of turning her son into a super hero, with mostly comedic results (she even chauffeurs him on his first patrol like a parent whose child has a paper route). Super hero comics frequently work on father-son relationships, but this one has a fun take on a hero whose mother is the driving influence behind his donning a cape and cowl.

Hank even winds up with super powers in the end (albeit, not due to his mother); the spirit of the Tortoise comes to dwell within Hank's shadow and grants him immunity to all guns. Thus, while Hank is mortal in most respects, bullets have a way of missing him, no matter how close the gun is held. This ability is, likewise, a frequent source of comedy. He can also consult the Tortoise in his shadow which grants him someone to both monologue with and to play games of tic-tac-toe against.

The entire story is set around San Incendio (San Francisco?) in the late 1930s and it does a convincing job of making the environment seem authentic and lived-in. As the Green Turtle, Hank becomes a champion of Chinatown - although most of his enemies live in Chinatown too. Despite Hank's powers, it's ultimately his wits which serve him best, particularly when he meets a similarly-enhanced crime lord whose magic power is to win every fight - Hank actually beats the no-win scenario!

In all, the Shadow Hero is an atypical super hero romp, somewhat irreverent and quite funny. If you are interested in the original 1940s stories, the first one is included in the back of the book as a bonus feature. The Shadow Hero came out earlier this year and should still be available at superior bookstores, comic shops & online stores everywhere.

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