The Shadow Hero is an interesting property for many reasons. The comic itself is inspired by a forties comic book character called The Green Turtle which could possibly be the first Asian-American superhero. The Shadow Hero is from creators Gene Luen Yang & Sonny Liew and they’ve revived the Green Turtle which has fallen into irrelevance since its debut in the forties. Now some people would say, “well that’s not a new idea” and yeah they’re a fraction of a sliver right, but then when you look at the bulk of comics being printed more of them are old superheroes. Also take in the fact that the story is all Yang & Liew. The full version of The Shadow Hero is shipping in July, but in the meantime First Second Books and the creators are releasing the entire story in digital chapters. It’s an interesting idea that seems to have worked for them in the past making me wonder why more publishers haven’t tried it.
The first issue kicks off in China, 1911 as the Ching Dynasty is collapsing and four spirits of China are meeting to decide how to restore the country. There’s the Dragon, Tiger, Phoenix and Tortoise spirits and they all have their feelings on what has worked, but more so what won’t work. Except Tortoise. He remains silent and eventually boards a boat to America, the other spirits watch and calls him a coward as he seemingly abandons them. Eventually the Tortoise finds a man so drunk that he can’t remember how he got on board the ship, they make a deal and the Tortoise takes up residence in the man’s shadow. That man becomes the father of our main character Hank.
Afterwards we’re introduced to Hank’s mother as it’s explained how her family came to America. The young girl dreamed of America with its ivory skinned women, motion pictures and automobiles. Of course she was disappointed when she arrived and found it to be louder, ruder versions of all those things. She basically gives up on dreams and just going with the flow of life. Eventually she marries our drunk from before as he’s cleaned up his life and has a successful grocery store. Everything is “meh” to her and her only excitement or joy comes from working for rich white people; so much so that she stays away from her own husband and son just to work more.
The first issue really is a great introduction to our main characters. We do eventually get to Hank, but he really shines in the second issue. An encounter with a superhero changes Hank’s mom’s life and she suddenly wants her son to be a superhero.
In the second issue our superhero crazed mom begins spending more and more time with her family, but specifically Hank. She has this wonderful way of singing his name which lets him know to expect the worst. After doing some “research” Hank’s mom begins exposing him to all kinds of dangerous situations to develop some freak powers. It’s a great tip of the hat to other superhero comics and a strangely touching moment between a son and his mother that’s never really noticed him most of his life.
When it becomes clear that Hank is not going to develop random super powers, his mom sends him to learn “kung-fu” from one of his uncles or at least a man he calls his uncle. Uncle Wun is not teaching him kung-fu though, instead he’s just teaching him how to fight and win.
My one and only gripe with the story has nothing to do with the story. It’s actually with the lettering. Since the story primarily follows and stars Chinese-Americans, I would have preferred the English be bracketed rather than the Cantonese. I know that goes against the norm of comic books, but English isn’t the primary language of the characters. By having the English appear un-bracketed it gives the impression that it’s the dominate language. Now granted this doesn’t take away from the story, but it would have made more sense and amplified the perspective of the tale.
When it comes to books published by First Second I’m a bit of a mark for them. I’ve yet to read a single title that I didn’t enjoy and so going in to The Shadow Hero I had high expectations. The same is true of Gene Luen Yang’s work; granted I haven’t read everything he’s done, but what I have I’ve enjoyed every page. All bias aside, each chapter really is a complete and standalone section of the story. It’s strange because I read two series just this week that were essentially full stories broken up into single issues, but unlike The Shadow Hero they absolutely relied on you having read everything from the previous issues. Sure to a degree you need to read the first issue to get everything in the second which is the base of monthly storytelling, but each issue should contain its own story whether it’s told in a three-part act or not.
The Shadow Hero is very immersive and I know that comes from Yang. His writing sucks you in and shuts out the rest of the world. Even though the first two issues are used to establish the world and really to introduce the characters, you’re still left with an impression of them. I wouldn’t say I know any of the characters, but I understand them and can relate to them to a degree. We’re still getting to know Hank and his family and that’s not something you want rushed.
Another strong reason you can get sucked into this book is Sonny Liew’s artwork. Liew transports you back to this golden age, early days of the American Dream. Even when the superheroes arrive it still somehow feels real. Marvel gets a lot of credit for having a “real” universe, but I would say that the creative team has managed to make one of their own and it comes across far more grounded too.
Part of what makes this story alive is the characters and Liew’s wonderful rendering of them. Each person has a distinct design and it’s so distinct that you can spot them at different times of their life. We see Hank’s mom grow up before our eyes, but when I jumped back to see her as a child I could see the similarities in the face that we all carry with us through life. It was this moment that I could see just how talented Liew really is.
Liew excels in another area as well. The first issue is all about our characters, but the second issue has physical comedy and action. There’s a quick battle at the end of the second issue and it flowed like watching a well-choreographed movie filmed by cinematographer that understands fighting. It was magic on the page and made me very excited to see what happens in the rest of the series.
Some people might wait until July and gobble up this entire story at once and I can’t really blame them, but then some might not be able to wait that long and I get that as well. However you want to read the story; be it in well-crafted chapters that manage to tell a complete portion of the story or in a complete graphic novel form… do so. There’s no wrong way and even without reading the entire story I know there’s not going to be a recommended reading style either.
Lastly here’s something to think about. Superheroes started off representing the repressed, the little guy that dreamed of the power to stand up for themselves. They represented the people they were defending. I can’t say that’s true anymore with modern superheroes, but with The Shadow Hero I see it… and it’s really good.
Creators: Gene Luen Yang & Sonny Liew Publisher: First Second Books Price: $0.99 – First Issue, $1.99 – Second Issue Digital Only