Any hero can make a comeback. Case in point: The Green Turtle.
You probably never heard of the Green Turtle – but Gene Luen Yang, the acclaimed author of American Born Chinese, Boxers & Saints and writer of Dark Horse’s Avatar: The Last Airbender graphic novels, found something intriguing in this barely-published 1940s hero. His history suggests that he might have been one of the first Asian superheroes – and now, Yang and artist Sonny Liew are recreating him for a new generation in the graphic novel The Shadow Hero.
In the new graphic novel, the Green Turtle is a hero with a legacy – and the newest person to assume his identity has a big legacy to fill. We talked with Yang about his decision to revive this obscure character, the role superheroes have played for many immigrants to America, and much more.
Newsarama: Gene, tell us about the background of The Shadow Hero -- how you found out about the original Green Turtle and what inspired this work.
Gene Luen Yang: The Shadow Hero is a graphic novel written by me and drawn by Sonny Liew. The main character is a superhero called The Green Turtle. The Green Turtle isn't our character -- he was created in the 1940s by a Chinese American cartoonist named Chu Hing.
There's a rumor about the Green Turtle. Supposedly, Chu Hing wanted to make his hero a Chinese American, but his publisher wouldn't let him. Chu Hing reacted in a very passive aggressive way.
When you look at his original comics, the Green Turtle almost never shows his face. He usually has his back to the reader, and when he is turned around something is covering his face -- another character, his own arm, a shadow. Supposedly, Chu Hing did this so that he could imagine his hero as he originally intended, as a Chinese American.
I first found out about this character on a blog called “Pappy's Golden Age Blogzine.” I became fascinated with him as soon as I read about him.
Nrama: What was the main thing you wanted to achieve with this updated version?
Yang: The Green Turtle wasn't very popular. He was the lead feature of a series called Blazing Comics which lasted only five issues. His adventures ended before we ever find out his secret origin or secret identity.
So that's what Sonny and I are doing. We've created a secret origin and secret identity for this obscure hero from the 1940s. We're firmly establishing him as the first Asian American superhero.
Nrama: So tell us about the new Green Turtle.
Yang: Our Green Turtle is Hank Chu, a teenager living in 1930s Chinatown. Hank dreams of a quiet life. All he wants is to take over his family's grocery store. His mother, however, has other plans. One day she encounters The Anchor of Justice, the world's most well-known hero. After, she makes it her life's mission to turn her son into a superhero.
Nrama: You have some fun with the superhero origin elements for this story -- why did you want to go the route of the non-powered hero having some skill?
Yang: We wanted to stay (somewhat) true to the original. In Chu Hing's comics, the Green Turtle doesn't have any obvious superpowers. He does seem very good at dodging bullets though, so we turned that into a story element.
Nrama: What was it like working with Sonny on this, and what did he bring to the visual style?
Yang: Sonny is an amazing cartoonist. He's drawn for Marvel (Sense and Sensibility), Disney (Wonderland), and DC Comics (My Faith in Frankie). He's also written and drawn his own comics. My favorite work of his is probably Malinky Robot, a charming graphic novel about two street urchins living in a futuristic dystopia. You need to check it out if you haven't already.
Sonny's style is perfect for the book. He can handle drama, he can handle action, he can handle comedy. His art really sparkles on the page, and he's got the storytelling chops to keep you engaged all the way through.
Nrama: You've talked about how Superman represents the immigrant experience, an important recurring theme in your work,and something you wanted to capture with Hank.
What are some other ways that you feel superheroes are resonant to this experience? I've had other authors who immigrated to the US tell me characters like Spider-Man were important to them growing up, as they were already used to seeing the characters' comics and cartoons translated into their native languages in their countries of birth, and this was an important, familiar element to them growing up.
Yang: Yes, that's true. Because of the popularity of superheroes on the world stage, they can often be ambassadors of America.
I believe that the immigrant experience is embedded in the superhero genre. Most of our favorite superheroes were created by the children of immigrants. Joe Shuster, Jerry Siegel, Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Bill Finger, Bob Kane - they were all immigrant's kids.
The negotiation of identities, the hiding of one's true self, all of those dynamics are daily realities for immigrant's kids. Many of us grew up with two names, one foreign and the other American. The dual identities of superheroes feel familiar.
Nrama: What made this project unique and challenging for you?
Yang: Despite being a lifelong superhero fan, despite being in the American comics industry for a decade and a half, this is my first real stab at the superhero genre. I'm not sure why it took me so long to get to it.
I wanted to play with the established conventions of the genre, but I wanted to do it in a new, fresh way. Riding that border between the familiar and the new is always a challenge. Partnering with Sonny certainly helped. I feel that his take on superheroes is exactly that, both familiar and new.
Nrama: Do you see yourself doing more stories of the Green Turtle in the future?
Yang: I would love to, but it depends on a lot of factors – Sonny, First Second Books, how this first book does. I am still fascinated with Chu Hing's character, so I'd love to continue.
Nrama: If you were a superhero, what would you call yourself?
Yang: Need Sleep Man. I have little kids at home.
Nrama: What are some other creators/books you're currently enjoying?
Yang: I recently read the new She-Hulk. Great book. So is the new Hawkeye, but people have been raving about that for a while now.
I also got a glimpse of Jason Shiga's new series Demon. He's currently serializing it on his website www.shigabooks.com. Let me tell you, it is nuts. It's everything you love about Shiga's work and more. It may be his best work yet. Definitely not for the kids, though.
Nrama: What's next for you?
Yang: I'm currently working on a middle grade graphic novel series, in the style of the Holms siblings' popular Babymouse books. I'm working with another artist. Things aren't finalized yet, so I can't say much, but I'm very excited about it.
The Shadow Hero hits stores July 15.