Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Shadow Hero (The Shadow Hero) by Gene Luen Yang, Sonny Liew (Illustrations), Chu Hing

The Avengers can add an Asian superhero to their team, Hank Chu, a.k.a. Green Turtle. Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew pay homage to the first ever Asian comic superhero that came out in the 1940s, the golden age of comics that produced Batman, Captain America, Superman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, and so on. Chu Hing created a character in 1944 called, The Green Turtle, that was a superhero from WWII. Hing only had 5 issues published and was told his character could not be Asian. An appendix explains in more detail how Hing worked around this issue and the history of the first Green Turtle superhero. While Yang and Liew remake elements of the original, their story is their own concoction of action, humor, and Eastern culture. Gobble up this graphic novel with a boazi and enjoy.

Hank Chu, is a carbon-copy of his father who runs a grocery store during the 1930s in San Francisco, CA. His mother, Hua Chu, wants more in life. One day while tooling around town on errands in a big sedan chauffeuring her employer, Mrs. Olson, a carjacker steals the car at gunpoint making her drive him to an unknown destination. Hua is saved by the Anchor of Justice, a superhero that flies the car up over a body of water and shakes the occupants out catching Hua mid-air and letting the villain crash in the water below. With goo-goo eyes, Hua is inspired and admires her rescuer. She becomes obsessed with Hank becoming a superhero by making him a costume, setting him up for fighting lessons with uncle, and putting him through experiments so he'll gain superpowers. She is a hilarious caricature of a Tiger Mom and her illustrations are some of my favorite ones in the whole novel.

Gangs run the streets and when Hank's father doesn't pay the street Lord, things start to fall apart. When a relative is killed, Hank seeks revenge. He discovers another gang and falls for the Ten Grand's daughter. She's a strong female that rescues Hank on his first disastrous outing as a superhero. Ironically, Hank was trying to save the daughter from thugs but she is perfectly capable of protecting herself. Later, she deliberately doesn't kill Hank when her father asks her to.

I live in Asia. I recognize the goofy kung fu fighting uncle, the dedicated son that obeys his parents, and the ambitious pushy mother. And while these stock characters are going to be familiar to Asians, I'm not sure Americans will recognize them which makes this novel a good way to introduce others to an unfamiliar culture.

The snappy dialogue is fun. The mother's character, Hua, is one of the main forces that drives the plot and she embodies so much of Eastern culture making her an important person to the story as a whole, but her verbal criticism of how Western women dressed and looked from being drab to fat made me wonder if she was going to be a stereotyped unhappy, gossipy, older woman who has lost her looks and criticizes those around her. Fortunately, she doesn't take that one-dimensional route and shows that she really wants what is best for her son even if she is misguided.

The authors capture Eastern culture and humor loaded in action-packed illustrations and text. Hua is sitting in the car eating a pork bun or boazi. In Taiwan, they sell these buns everywhere. The students want them as a snack after playing sports or for meals. The old men are playing Mahjong, a fun board game that people play in the multiple parks around the city of Taipei. When Hua makes Hank his first costume it is with the Chinese character for gold. The money god or god of prosperity is worshiped or invoked during Chinese New Year. Common Chinese traditions and beliefs are what make this novel special for the reader is absorbed in the culture; it isn't explained. Eastern culture has roots in Confuscius teachings who championed strong family loyalty, respect for elders by children and husbands by their wives. This book gives the reader a bite of a different culture and it is delicious.

Derogatory words are used in the story. When I first came across them it was jarring, but then it became apparent that they were intentional and are an effort to make the characters authentic. By drawing attention to racial slurs, the authors are showing how they were used at that time in history. Slurs are still used today and people are victims of prejudice all over the world.

The character arcs show Hua changing from wanting her son to be a superhero at all costs, to worrying that she went too far and he will kill himself. At the end, he shows he's capable and no longer a child in need of a parent's protection. She's proud of him. Hank embraces his new powers, suffers many setbacks, but learns to believe in himself. He gains respect from the community while championing the common Asian person. Ultimately, the superhero is successful at avenging his relative's death and bringing peace to the neighborhood.

I plan on using this for book club and get my students opinions. Most grew up in Taiwan and their take on the story would be enlightening and rich. This graphic novel is corny, fun, and introduces a culture I have fallen in love with. Check it out. Better yet, check out Taiwan.

5 Smileys

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