When comic books first birthed the concept of a “superhero” in the late 1930s, the floodgates opened, and dozens upon dozens of masked avengers entered the scene. Many of these, such as Captain America, Batman and the Flash, are still around today and making splashes in pop culture. Others faded into obscurity, and one of these lost heroes was a character named the Green Turtle, who was never very popular and disappeared after only five issues. Until 2014, the Green Turtle seemed lost to the sands of time, a relic forgotten even by comic buffs.
Not anymore. Thanks to Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew’s intriguing graphic novel The Shadow Hero, the Green Turtle is back, and his reintroduction to the scene is an important landmark in comics history.
The back story is this: in the 1940s, Chinese American comic creator Chu Hing created the Green Turtle. According to urban legend, Hing wanted his character to be the first Chinese American superhero, but his publisher vetoed the idea, and demanded that the Green Turtle be Caucasian. In response, Hing purposely illustrated his comics in such a way that the Green Turtle’s face was always obscured; the character’s back was often to the camera, and if he was facing forward, then something was always blocking his face. This way, Hing could maintain the Turtle’s real ethnicity without ever revealing it.
It’s a crazy story, but a believable one: when reading the original Green Turtle comics, one of which is included with The Shadow Hero, the constant props and angles that obscure the character’s face seem far too intentional to be a coincidence.
In The Shadow Hero, what Yang and Liew have done is reintroduce the character by telling his heretofore unrevealed origin story. In the process, the Shadow Hero also does in the contemporary era what the character’s creator was not allowed to do in the 1940s, and permanently establishes the Green Turtle as North America’s first Asian American superhero.
Why is this important?
Easy: because even though American superhero comic books have often taken on social issues—see the classic “drug issues” of Amazing Spider-Man, or the recent Superman comic on police brutality—one thing that American comics are lacking in is diversity. Sure, there’s a your Black Panthers, your War Machines and your Jubilees, as well as your occasional Northstars (and now Icemans). But most of these characters tend to be sidekicks or members of teams, and rarely receive the solo spotlight. The majority of superheroes—and heroines, and villains—are all white, and that’s something that doesn’t reflect properly society.
Part of what makes this important is that superheroes are, at their core, childhood role models—Spider-Man was such a huge part of my childhood—and it isn’t fair to children who aren’t white that all of the major superheroes are Caucasian. There should be superheroes, not just sidekicks, of every race, sexual orientation, and background of origin.
It’s important for comic books to have more racial diversity; the movies have dealt with this by recasting traditionally white characters with actors of other races, such as Michael B. Jordan playing the Human Torch and Samuel Jackson’s now-iconic performance as Nick Fury. Marvel Comics has recently taken the initiative by having new characters take on the roles of its most classic superheroes, with Falcon becoming Captain America and Jane Foster becoming Thor, but the inherent difficulty in this solution is that the minority characters are functioning as secondary versions of the primary ones.
For true diversity, we can’t just create fill-ins for the original characters. We need new ones.
For comics to truly embrace diversity, we need new, unique characters that can form their own legacy, instead of simply complementing the legacy of another character. The Green Turtle, while not technically “new,” fulfills this role. With the new back story that has been created for him, the Green Turtle is a strong, interesting new character that broadens the scope of comic books, playing into themes that have been inherent in the medium since the beginning, while also bringing something new to the field, creating a character that has a remarkably different background, power and goals from any other superhero out there.
Even more significantly, while the Green Turtle’s racial/immigrant background is a part of the character, it doesn’t define him. What defines Hank Chu, the Green Turtle’s alter ego, is his choices, his strong morals, his love for his family. He’s a character that’s easy for anyone to identify with.
Personally, I’d love to see The Shadow Hero get brought to a wider audience in the form of a movie, though I suppose that’s some time off. Still…
As far as the storyline itself, The Shadow Hero is excellent. It tells the story of 19-year-old Hank Chu, the hardworking son of Chinese immigrants, who lives a simple life and idolizes his father. When his mother is rescued by a superhero and pushes Hank to become one as well, but it isn’t until tragedy strikes — and his father’s shady backroom dealings are revealed — that Hank embraces his destiny and becomes the Green Turtle.
The Shadow Hero is simultaneously touching and lighthearted, capturing the tone of 1940s comic books while adding in the depth of contemporary stories. It’s an incredibly heartfelt comic, sometimes tongue-in-cheek but always sincere, with likeable characters and a flawed-but-worthy hero. One can truly sense the passion that fueled this comic’s creation, and just how much love was poured into it.
It’s a book with a lot of heart, and it’s wonderfully unafraid of wearing it on its sleeve. Superheroes have always been closely tied to immigration; ever since Kal-El rocketed down to Kansas, superheroes have always told stories about people who are outside the norm, immigrants from strange places and other worlds, many of them created by first generation Jewish Americans. The Shadow Hero connects the genre to its past while steering forward in new directions, creating a beautiful, unique gem that is a must-read for all comic fans.
I highly recommend The Shadow Hero. Now that the Green Turtle has been brought back from the abyss, I hope to see much more of him.