After 70 years, Gene Luen Yang reveals the origin of the first Asian-American superhero

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From out of the past comes a singular hero both old and new—and the story of how he returned to the printed page may be as fascinating as any four-color adventure upon which he’s ever embarked.

ShadowHero-Cov-300rbgThe costumed crusader in question is the Green Turtle, star of The Shadow Hero, a graphic novel by writer Gene Luen Yang and artist Sonny Liew. The graphic novel is new, but it marks the return of the Green Turtle, who was last seen (albeit briefly) in Blazing Comics in 1944. The Turtle appeared in five issues, was cancelled by his publisher, and then vanished into oblivion.

Nearly 70 years later, Yang ran across those five issues of Blazing Comics online. Yang was drawn to the Green Turtle, a masked, caped man of mystery who defended China against invading Japanese forces. But Yang was perhaps even more fascinated by the story behind the character’s publication.

The Green Turtle was created, written and drawn by a comic book artist named Chu Hing. According to legend, Chu Hing wanted the character to be Chinese. His publishers, however, balked at the idea, believing a Chinese character would never sell. They decreed that the artist make the character Caucasian. In protest, Chu Hing saw to it that the Green Turtle’s face was never clearly seen in any comic panel—the hero always had his back to the reader, or his face was always obscured by an object. His origin was kept deliberately ambiguous. To this day, researchers suspect all this was done as Chu Hing’s subtle form of protest against his publishers’ orders.

ShadowHero-Interior-FULL_100-31Yang points out that Asian comic-book characters of the period were usually racially insensitive ethnic caricatures. One early example was Ching Lung, a so-called “Yellow Peril” villain, who appeared on the cover of Detective Comics Number One—the series after which DC Comics eventually named their entire company.

“On the heroic side,” said Yang, “the only one who was actually able to move issues was a guy named Chop-Chop, who was part of the Blackhawks, a team of superhero pilots. He’s a hero, he fights for the Allies, but he’s straight-up comic relief. He wears this yellow and green and red suit that’s sort of a caricature of traditional Chinese dress. He’s much shorter, he has giant buck teeth, and he has slanted eyes. Even in his dialogue, they switch he L’s and the R’s.”

Given this atmosphere, “I don’t know how popular the Green Turtle might have been” had he been Asian, Yang said. “The publishers are there to make money. I don’t feel like I can condemn them (for their ruling regarding the original Green Turtle).

“But if Chu Hing’s rumored motivations were true,” Yang said, “I feel like his reaction to the situation is pretty amazing.”

Years later, a continuing lack of Asian heroes was not lost on Yang as a youth. “I remember when my brother and I were kids, we would see an Asian on television, and we would call our parents into the living room to see it,” he said. “And I think, whether I was conscious of it or not, I was always looking for some kind of positive role model. I always wanted a straight-up Asian-American hero.”

When an adult Yang finally found the Green Turtle (whose publishing rights by that time had passed into the public domain), he was in a position to make Chu Hing’s wishes a reality. Yang wrote the story of the Green Turtle’s origin, and The Shadow Hero graphic novel was born.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn The Shadow Hero, Yang tells the story of a young man, the son of Chinese immigrants in the early 20th century. The boy, Hank, is befriended by an ancient Tortoise Spirit who, after the murder of the boy’s father, grants Hank one wish: that the boy will never be shot. Eventually, Hank dons a cape and mask and, as the Green Turtle, battles the local Chinese criminal underworld, whom he must defeat for the good of his city.

“I really hope that anyone can connect with that story,” Yang said. “I hope that The Shadow Hero can be a metaphor about how somebody becomes an American, how they come in from another culture and place themselves in America. All of us are immigrants on some level and I would hope that people would be able to connect with the story in that way.”

Now that the Green Turtle has been ushered from the past and into the present, is there a future for the character? “I’d love to do at least two more volumes of it,” Yang said, creating the possibility that the world won’t have to wait another 70 years to follow the adventures of a hero whose unique legend continues to survive.

Michael Ruscoe is a writer, teacher, and musician living in Southern Connecticut. He is the author of the novel, "From the Stray Cat Files: You’ll Do Anything," the anthology, "Baseball: A Treasury of Art and Literature," and numerous educational texts. An instructor at Southern Connecticut State University, Ruscoe is also lead singer and songwriter for the indie band Save the Androids! In his spare time he earns karma for his next life by ardently following the New York Mets. The proud father of two children, Ruscoe also cares for and supports a pair of goldfish, who, in all honesty, are not very good conversationalists.

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