Books & Media
The Shadow Hero, story by Gene Luen Yang & art by Sonny Liew
First Second, July 2014
Reviewed from final copy

I don’t review graphic novels here that often, although I read most of them, because I always worry that I don’t know enough about art. But I know enough to know that this is fantastic as a novel and as a work of graphica.

Shadow Hero 194x300 The Shadow HeroAnd yet people keep telling me that this is light and fun, nothing like Gene Luen Yang’s other work. Is it Boxers & Saints? No. Is it American Born Chinese? No. Can we all get over it now? Because this is still great writing about big things, it’s just drawing on a more commercially appealing genre. So when we dismiss this on those grounds, we’re being unfair and maybe a little snobby about literature.

Yes, this is a superhero origin story, and yes, it works really really well as an origin story; Yang clearly knows the field and has a blast with the tropes. It’s easy to think that makes it a lightweight book — and also it’s thin compared to last year’s opus — but it’s actually doing something noteworthy, putting itself in conversation as a Chinese-American text with the most American of texts, the superhero tale. Hank’s story is about the same rich vein of identity tapped in ABC, and adds dimension by remaking (or at least taking back) an already existing superhero and by making heroism something that comes from within as much as from without.

(The final scene with the Anchor of Justice, implying that all heroes, and maybe all Americans, are actually from somewhere else, is absolutely perfect. This is a story about belonging, both within the text and metatextually with the original Green Turtle, and the idea that the one who seems to belong the most is also an outsider — so much here to unpack and marvel at, disguised as fun.)

Then there’s the humor: Hank’s overbearing mother with her dreams of America, who has been thwarted and has finally found, in heroic aspirations for Hank, that dream, is both a brilliant commentary on the American dream and a loving homage to overbearing mothers everywhere. Her arc complements the overall arcs of the book, in which the story on the surface is one thing but dig deeper and it’s something more.

The art, too, is excellent — expressive, vivid, with some great riffs on the original property, stylistically embedded both in the Chinese-American locale of the tale and the Chinese heritage of the characters and also in the long tradition of superhero comics.

I know the money is on This One Summer for THE graphic novel of the year, and I know there’s far too much energy being spent on how this isn’t Yang’s other books, but — like Hank himself — this should not be dismissed too lightly.

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