I recently finished reading and re-reading a superhero comic (really, a graphic novel, because it was nice and long). When I was done, I can’t tell you how excited I was.
I grew up reading comics, especially because I was told not to. Comics, in the olden days, were considered unacceptable reading material. They were written in all CAPS, had half sentences (gasp!), and contained unacceptable language (I don’t remember any). So, of course, whenever I went over to my cousins’ houses, I would raid their enormous collection and read, and read, and read. When I had my own kids, I encouraged them to read comics. So guess what they did? They didn’t read comics. Sigh. This was one time I wish I had gone the ‘reverse psychology’ way. What mom was enthusiastic about couldn’t ever be cool enough for my three girls.
But I’m going to be sending each of them a copy of The Shadow Hero by Gene Yang and Sonny Liew.
Why, mom? We’re all adults now.
Well, girls, because this is the first time I’ve read a superhero comic where the hero is Chinese, and he isn’t living in China, or anywhere in Asia. He’s American, and he’s Chinese. I want to squeal in excitement. Think of how that will change the way Asian American kids see themselves, see the possibilities. If you don’t read it, keep it for your kids. This is a momentous occasion. This may sprout more Asian American heroes. And you can then say you own one of the very first books that paved the way.
When I was growing up, there was a TV show called The Greatest American Hero. He wore a red suit with a giant symbol on his chest. We used to call him the ‘hong zhong’ man, because the symbol looked like the Chinese word for ‘middle’. (Funny that I think of that now, because it’s also the first word for ‘China’ – the Middle Kingdom). The ‘hong zhong’ man was the closest I had, growing up, to a superhero with a albeit fake connection to who I was. Of course, he was as white as could be. Still, it was an amusing series.
Reading The Shadow Hero, I laughed at the overenthusiastic mom who literally pushes her son into situations, to try to turn him into a superhero. I felt her frustration with her lot in life, with having to serve a white family that barely saw her, with the feeling that her life might amount to nothing. That’s why she wanted this greatness for her son. Her ambition for her son was impossible, but oh so typical of what we seem to call the ‘tiger mom’, (maybe every mom?) Her non-existent relationship with her husband who loved her anyway, tugged at my heartstrings. I appreciated the main character, Hank’s loyalty to his family. He was a good son, and a good man. He worked hard, looked up to his dad, and funnily enough, obeyed his mom, even when she made him wear a ridiculous looking superhero suit. Their plight as a struggling family in the 1940’s reflected the same path many families walked, and gave me a glimpse of the Chinese family’s life in our country in those days.
And the story is good too! As with all superheroes who are starting out, there are the failures, the funny mishaps, the mentor/trainer, and of course, the girl. As Hank grows through the story to eventually become the Green Turtle, there are lots of insights into the world of the 40’s in Chinatown. Also, Hank doesn’t really have supernatural powers (hope that’s not a spoiler). He is granted a wish (okay, so maybe there’s a little bit of the supernatural here) but the rest of his adventures are based on his determination, his good heart and his training. And can I say, it’s great to see that even a young Chinese man can be portrayed as muscular and buff. And attractive! How sad is it that these characteristics are rarely bestowed on the Asian character or actor today?
At the end of the novel, there’s a wonderful piece of history added on. The creators explain the origin of The Green Turtle, how as a comic book published back in the day, readers never actually saw this superhero completely. In order to get more readers to accept this hero, he never showed his face. He never showed the reading world back then that he was Asian.
So, girls, I hope you can see why I’m sending you your own copy of this graphic novel. First and foremost, it’s a fun read. Then, I hope you’ll appreciate its significance. Even dad is reading it, and that’s a miracle!