Fresh off a year in which his historical graphic novel Boxers and Saints, an innovative two-book set, was nominated for a National Book Award, cartoonist Gene Yang, along with artist Sonny Liew, is back with The Shadow Hero, a new work of graphic fiction about arguably the first Asian American superhero. The book will first be released as a monthly six-issue digital serial—the first issue was out in February—before the trade paperback is published in July.
In an email interview with Yang, who lives the Bay Area and also teaches at Hamiline College in Oakland, California, he talked about the origin the Green Turtle, arguably the first Asian American Golden Age superhero, and the process of resurrecting the character for this new work. He also talks about teaming up with artist Sonny Liew, rather than drawing the work himself, and the decision to release The Shadow Hero initially as a digital serial, yet another example of Yang combining his literary imagination with an equally imaginative production/delivery platform.
Yang has also discussed the new book on his blog and at Tor.com, Macmillan’s science-fiction, fantasy and pop culture blogsite. The Shadow Hero is available in digital serials for the Amazon Kindle, B&N Nook, and Apple iBooks platforms. PW also interviewed Yang on video last year at BookExpo America.
Yang finds himself in a very privileged and historic position: not only is he the author of the first graphic novel to be nominated for a National Book Award—American Born Chinese in 2006—but after the nomination of Boxers and Saints last year, he’s managed to do it twice.
PW Comics World: Can you recap the plot of The Shadow Hero?
Gene Yang: Hank Chu is a Chinese American teenager living in a 1930s Chinatown. He wants nothing more than to run his family grocery store with his father. One afternoon, his mother encounters The Anchor of Justice, the most famous, most powerful superhero in town. She gets it in her head that Hank should become a superhero. She forces Hank into training, but ultimately it’s a family tragedy that leads Hank to his destiny.
In The Shadow Hero, Sonny and I use the superhero genre to talk about the immigrant experience. Many immigrant parents push their kids to become American the way Hank’s mom pushes him to become a superhero.
PWCW: Is the Green turtle an actual golden age super hero, or did you two make him up?
GY: The Green Turtle isn’t like the Sentry or any of the other fake Golden Age heroes who have popped up over the years. He’s the real deal. The Green Turtle was created in the 1940s by a cartoonist named Chu Hing, one of the first Asian Americans to work in the American comic book industry. The hero’s adventures were first published in a series called Blazing Comics. You can find originals on eBay from time to time.
Rumor has it, Chu Hing wanted to make his character a Chinese American, but his publisher didn’t think it was a good idea. Chu subverted his publisher by drawing the Green Turtle so that we almost never see his face. In those original comics, he usually has his back to us. When he is turned around, something – a piece of furniture, another character’s head, his own arm – blocks his face from our view. Supposedly, Chu did this so that we could imagine the Green Turtle as he originally intended, as a Chinese American.
PWCW: So is this his actual origin or did you and Liew reinvent his beginnings?
GY: The Green Turtle wasn’t all that popular. He lasted only five issues of Blazing Comics before disappearing into obscurity. In Chu’s original comics, we never find out his origin story or his secret identity. His ethnicity is never confirmed. When I read those stories from the 1940s, I saw a hole that Sonny and I could fill. We’ve created a secret identity for the Green Turtle. We’ve given him an origin and a supporting cast. We’ve firmly established him as the first Asian American superhero.
PWCW: You’ve worked as a comics writer with other illustrators, among them Derek Kirk Kim on The Eternal Smile and the artists of Studio Ghibli for the Avatar: The Last Airbender, so it’s not unusual for you to switch between writing and/or drawing your books. How do you choose which projects to draw and which to write?
GY: I have a fairly limited drawing style. I’m not like my friend Derek Kirk Kim, who can pretty much change his style at will. My drawing style can handle some of my stories, but not all of them. The Shadow Hero is a superhero book that rides that fine line between humor and drama. The story needs an artist that can handle humor and pathos and action. The artist had to be able to convey subtle emotion and broad, dynamic action. I am not that guy. Sonny Liew is.
PWCW: How did you and Sonny Liew hook up to do The Shadow Hero for First Second?
GY: Sonny and I first collaborated on a short story for Secret Identities, an anthology of comics about Asian American superheroes by Asian American artists and writers published by the New Press. We did a riff on the Green Hornet and Kato. I enjoyed working with him so much that I asked him to work on The Shadow Hero with me. Lucky for me, he accepted. Incidentally, the Secret Identities anthology has a second volume called Shattered. Sonny and I did a series of Shadow Hero newspaper-style comic strips for that.
PWCW: Why serialize the graphic novel digitally?
GY: Why digital? As an industry, we’re slowly figuring out the relationship between digital and print. Things are falling into place. For a while, folks were worried that digital comics were going to cannibalize print comics, but as the [comics writer] Mark Waid stated in his essay “How I Fumbled the Ball,” both digital comics and print comics have been growing at a steady clip in recent years. If anything, they seem to support each other.We’re hoping that’s true for the digital and print versions of The Shadow Hero.
Why serialize? Because I love monthly comics. I grew up on monthly comics. My closet is full of monthly comics. I’ve always wanted to do a monthly comic, and while I’ve had a couple of offers, the timing has never worked out. Most superhero comics come into the world as monthly series, so we wanted the same for The Shadow Hero.
My publisher First Second Books is primarily a graphic novel publisher. They’re very, very good at all sorts of things, including getting graphic novels into comic shops, libraries, bookstores, and schools. However, they’re not particularly well equipped to publish a monthly print comic, at least not at this time. Monthly digital issues seemed like a good way to go.