When Gene Luen Yang discovered the Green Turtle, an obscure character created during the 1940s, he realized he had possibly unearthed the first Asian American superhero. In The Shadow Hero (First Second, July 2014), Yang and illustrator Sonny Liew bring the Green Turtle to vivid life as Hank Chu, the son of Chinese immigrants who own a grocery store in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1930s. Through this action-packed, nostalgia-tinged graphic novel, Yang and Liew examine history, race, and culture, presenting a new and intriguing conception of an American institution: the superhero.
What are the origins of the Green Turtle?
The Green Turtle dates back to the 1940s. His creator, Chu Hing, was one of the first Asian Americans in the industry. Rumor is, Chu wanted to make his character Chinese American but his publisher wouldn’t let him. Chu reacted like a typical cartoonist—passive aggressively. He drew those original Green Turtle comics so that the reader almost never gets a good look at the hero’s face. The Green Turtle usually has his back to us. When he does turn around, his face is obscured. Supposedly, Chu did this so that he, and we, could imagine his hero as he’d originally intended, as Chinese American.
Because the Green Turtle wasn’t all that popular, his adventures end before we find out his secret identity. I saw a gap that could be filled.
How did you develop your protagonist, Hank Chu?
Hank’s story begins with his mom. Before she emigrates, she falls in love with the idea of America. When she arrives, however, the real America disappoints her. After she encounters a superhero—a colorful, flying embodiment of American idealism—her dreams are renewed and she turns into a comic book version of a Tiger Mom. Sonny and I move her beyond the Tiger Mom stereotype as the story progresses, but that’s where I wanted her to start.
Hank’s process of becoming a superhero mirrors the process many immigrants’ kids go through to become American. It begins with their parents, often before they’re even born. Immigrant parents choose for their kids to be American. The kids usually undergo a struggle. They’re torn between a culture they’ve only experienced through their parents’ stories and a mainstream culture that is both alluring and hostile. Eventually they find their way, but not without suffering some loss.
Did you set out to play with stereotypes or clichés?
As I said earlier, Hank’s mom begins as a stereotype. I hope she becomes more than that by the end of the story. I don’t consciously try to dialogue with stereotypes; it just happens when I write. I’m interested in humanizing characters and behaviors that are considered stereotypical. That’s one way to undermine them, right?
Do you think that diverse superheroes like the Green Turtle are resonating with readers?
I hope so. As a superhero fan, I find myself reading more diverse superheroes, maybe because more of them exist now.
The superhero comics industry is still largely driven by nostalgia. I understand that. It’s one of the reasons I’m so drawn to the Green Turtle. His existence shows that when superheroes began, Asian Americans were there. But nostalgia will only get you so far. You’re not going to attract young readers, readers who haven’t lived long enough to experience nostalgia. You’re not going to grow your audience. That’s why characters like the new [Muslim American] Ms. Marvel are so important.
Who were some of your favorite superheroes growing up?
I’ve always loved Spider-Man. I love his everyman struggles. He doesn’t have a mansion like Batman. He’s not a world-famous scientist like the Hulk. He’s just this angsty teenage kid, but he still sacrifices himself for the sake of others. “With great power comes great responsibility.”