The Green Turtle, the first Asian American superhero in comic book history, returns after nearly 70 years since its short-lived run in a new graphic novel, The Shadow Hero. Written by Gene Luen Yang and illustrated by Sonny Liew, the graphic novel explores the origin story of the Green Turtle as Hank Chu from the streets of Chinatown in the fictional city of San Incendio.
Kollaboration recently chatted with Yang, who is best known for his acclaimed graphic novels American Born Chinese and Boxers & Saints as well as his work on Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender comics. In the following interview, Yang talks about his motivations behind creating an origins story for the Green Turtle and his thoughts about bringing in an Asian American superhero to current times.
Can you briefly describe what The Shadow Hero is about, for those who don’t know?
Yang: The Shadow Hero is a revival of a 1940s character called the Green Turtle, who was created by a Chinese American cartoonist named Chu Hing. Supposedly, Chu wanted his hero to be of Chinese descent, but his publisher wouldn’t let him do it. Chu rebelled by drawing the Green Turtle so the reader never gets a good look at his face. He almost always has his back to us, and when he does turn around, something’s always blocking his face – another character, a prop, his own arm. Supposedly, Chu did this so that he and his reader could imagine The Green Turtle as he’d originally intended, as a Chinese American.
The Green Turtle was never very popular. He was cancelled after a mere five issues. Chu Hing never got around to telling us his secret identity or secret origin. That’s what illustrator Sonny Liew and I do in The Shadow Hero. We provide a secret origin for this obscure, possibly Asian character from the 1940s.
Do you remember how you first learned about the Green Turtle? What drew you to wanting to create a backstory for him?
My friend Derek Kirk Kim, the cartoonist behind Same Difference and Tune, first pointed him out to me. Pappy’s Golden Age Blogzine has a feature on him. I was immediately fascinated by the Green Turtle. You just don’t see pages drawn like that, especially in a superhero comic book. I wondered if the rumors were true. And I wondered about his origin. It just felt like there was a great story there.
In what ways is the Green Turtle different from other superheroes aside from his racial background?
There aren’t that many heroes who wear a cowl, a cape, and no shirt (laughs).
Superheroes are about immigrants. Most of the really popular superheroes were created by the children of immigrants, and the immigrant experience is embedded in the genre’s conventions. Many immigrants’ kids have two names. Many negotiate two identities and live under two sets of expectations. The lives of immigrants’ kids are reflected in that familiar secret identity dynamic.
In The Shadow Hero, Sonny and I try to take what’s always been in the subtext of superhero stories and move it to the forefront.
How was it collaborating with illustrator Sonny Liew on the project?
Sonny and I first collaborated on a short story for Secret Identities, an anthology of stories about Asian American superheroes by Asian American creators. It was a lot of fun to work with him. I feel that Sonny’s one of the best artists out there right now. He’s got a unique vision and an incredible sense of story. He did My Faith in Frankie and The Re-Gifters with Mike Carey for DC Comics. He also writes and draws his own stories. You should check out his Malinky Robot. It’s amazing.
When I started on The Shadow Hero with First Second Books, I asked Sonny to work with me again. He graciously agreed. Sonny’s perfect for the book. He’s got quite a range. He can do action, comedy, drama, romance. Anything the story asked for, he could do.
We currently live in a time where comic book superheroes are making a comeback. Did you have any concern about bringing in this “new” superhero when there are already so many superheroes in today’s market?
There have been a lot of superheroes since the early days of comic books. They go in and out of public consciousness. You’re right – right now, they’re definitely “in” and they are everywhere. But the superhero genre is a flexible one. It allows for all sorts of different stories. Sonny and I hope our book brings together the familiar and the new. We try to fulfill the expectations of the genre in interesting ways.
This is the second stint where you’re either continuing or adding onto pre-existing work, the first being Avatar: The Last Airbender. What were some of the struggles that came with creating the Green Turtle’s backstory, especially in regards to a work that’s so dated?
Continuing an existing work means you have a lot of homework. For the Airbender comics, I had to watch all the episodes critically, with a writer’s eye. I try my best to capture the storytelling voice of the original show.
For The Shadow Hero, since Sonny and I didn’t grow up in the 1930s and 40s, we had to do a lot of research. I read books about Chinatown at the time. Iris Chang’s The Chinese in America was the most helpful. Sonny gathered a bunch of visual reference. The buildings and background are all based on these black-and-white photo books that Sonny found.
When the comic book series was first published, it was at the time when the fear of “yellow peril” was at its peak and World War II was going on. How do you think audience today will respond to having an Asian American as a superhero?
There’s an outcry for more diverse superheroes. It makes sense to me. Because superheroes are so quintessentially American, we want to see that anybody can be a superhero. Anybody can be an American. The Green Turtle, both Chu Hing’s original incarnation and our new take, is a part of that.
Who would you recommend The Shadow Hero for?
Sonny and I hope that anyone who loves superheroes will love The Shadow Hero. Age-wise, I’d say middle school and up.
Where can people find you or your works?
-Interview conducted by Lauren Lola, July 18, 2014.
Special thanks to Gene for generously taking his time to answer our questions!