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Interview: Gene Luen Yang on THE SHADOW HERO

Gene Luen Yang might be best known for his graphic novel American Born Chinese and his work on the Avatar: The Last Airbender comic but last month Yang premiered his latest adventure, The Shadow Hero, based on the Green Turtle character of the 1940s. Nerdist talked to Yang about the Shadow Hero and his true origin story, superheroes and immigration and the oft quoted notion of, “with great power comes great responsibility.”

While The Shadow Hero comic was released in July 2014, comic book author Gene Luen Yang told us that the history of the character actually goes back decades. He explained, “The Shadow Hero is our version of this superhero called the Green Turtle and the Green Turtle is not our invention. Sonny [Liew, illustrator] and I did not create the Green Turtle. The Green Turtle was actually created in the 1940s by a Chinese American cartoonist named Chu Hing and I first found out about him on the internet, on this blog called Pappy’s Golden Age Comics Blogzine. What they do on that blog is they’ll feature these really obscure characters, from the 1940s, superhero characters from the 1940s and they’ll do one or two a week. So I went on one day and I read this entry about him [Chu Hing] and there’s this rumor about the Green Turtle. The rumor is that Chu Hing originally wanted him to be a Chinese American superhero but is publishers wouldn’t let him do it and then Chu Hing being a cartoonist, cartoonists, how we deal with adversity is we just react very passive aggressively, so that’s what he did.”

Yang continued, “In the original Green Turtle comics, they were published in this series called Blazing Comics, you never see the Green Turtles face, so he almost always has his back to the reader. And then when he’s turned around something is blocking his face, like another character standing right there or there’s a piece of furniture that juts out and covers his face or he’s punching and his arm will be in the way and the rumor is that Chu Hing did this so that he could imagine his character as a Chinese American as he originally intended. I don’t know if that’s true, it’s just a rumor, but when you look at the original pages, you can definitely see it. He’s definitely hiding something from you.”

Shadow Hero image

The underlying immigration metaphor in the superhero story isn’t lost on most fans and with The Shadow Hero, Yang was ready to move the metaphor into the foreground of the story. “I think Shadow Hero is really about the immigrant experience. It’s about being an immigrant’s kid and if you look at the major superheroes out there: Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, they were all created by immigrants kids. So Superman was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Batman was created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, they were all the children of these Jewish immigrants. And I don’t know if they did it intentionally but I feel like the immigrant experience is just infused in the genre, in the conventions of the genre. Superman is basically an immigrant, right? His parents are foreigners, they sent him over to America to have a better life, he negotiates these two different identities, he has two different names, he has this very American name, ‘Clark Kent,’ and then he has this really foreign name with a hyphen in it, ‘Kal-El,’ so he spends his whole life in between these two cultures and I think that’s true for a lot of immigrants kids as well. A lot of us grow up with one culture at home, another one at school, and I think what we wanted to do with the Shadow Hero is take what has always been in the subtext within the genre and bring it out into the forefront.”

For Yang as a life long fan of comic books and superheroes, The Shadow Hunter was a way to celebrate the genre and also make a more personal contribution, as he articulated by saying, “I think that’s what drew me to the character in the first place. I’ve been a superhero fan all my life and I think there’s something very American about superheroes. They were invented in America, they became popular as America was becoming a superpower, they expressed American ideals. So I think when I found out that very early on, in the first years of the genre there was this character who might possibly, arguably be Asian American, it just, it resonated with me. I think Asian Americans, we struggle with this perception of foreign-ness where regardless of how long our families have been in the country, we’re still seen as outsiders. So to know that in the most American of genres there was this character who represents us from the very beginning, it just felt, I felt affirmed as an Asian American superhero fan.”

The Shadow Hero, written by Gene Luen Yang and illustrated by Sonny Liew, is available now from First Second Books.

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