Advance Review: 'The Shadow Hero': Promises, Power, and never quite escaping the Shadows…A comic review article by: Taylor Lilley, Jason Sacks, Keith Silva
Taylor Lilley: Alright, here are my admissions of inadequacy before we even get cracking on this here roundtable. I’ve only read Sonny Liew's My Faith in Frankie (excellence of the Vertigo mid-list order) and Gene Luen Yang's Animal Crackers (quirky good times). So yes, I confess, these two modern masters's signature works (Malinky Robot and American Born Chinese, respectively) have passed me by, and I approached Shadow Hero with the hunger of those who would compensate for their shortfalls! But Shadow Hero is far more than these storytellers collaborating on a comic. It is nothing less than an East Asian comics reclamation project, retroactive meta-narration in the Golden-Age mode. Oh, and its all-ages, too.
If that sounds ambitious, it is, and spoilers: they pull it off. We'll probably get into what this comic has to say about superheroes, and just how uniquely American they really are, later. I figure one of you smart dudes will talk Promises and the Spirits that make them, or the sacrifices that pioneers of any nationality make in forging the future for us all. Indeed, Shadow Hero opens many avenues of conversation, and the afterword’s explanation of where Liew and Yang began is invaluable for contextualising what you’ve read. The problem with Shadow Hero is the actual experience of reading the comic is less interesting or memorable than the backstory, the creator’s biographies, or the commentary it offers. There’s a tremendous amount of deft craftsmanship here, but Shadow Hero is so preoccupied with applying a light touch, ensuring nobody needs the safe word, that it can neither soar nor plunge.
Perhaps this is gwailo talk, and my pink-skinned heartlessness has betrayed me, but none of the characters achieve true depth, and therefore the story can never really draw you in. It's a variation of my literary diet to read a Chinese matriarchal stereotype instead of a snooty WASP, comedy Jewish grandma, or wise and smiling old black lady, but that doesn't make that character any more multi-dimensional. Similarly, Tongs are a nice change from Families or Clans, and a mother's one desire makes a refreshing impetus to heroism, a break from all the adolescent revenging and barely-sublimated OCD. But none of this is really new, so we fall back on the context within which this endeavour has been undertaken. And refresh my memory guys, who’s King, is it Context or Content?
Jason Sacks: You know, Taylor and Keith, this is a comic that should have been totally in my wheelhouse. The latest graphic novel written by Gene Luen Yang, writer of the consensus Top 10 of 2013 graphic novels Boxers and Saints (as well as a super nice dude – just ask our own Andrew Tan about that), all about racism, the immigrant experience and super-heroes in the 1930's and '40's; my god, it's like this book was created just for me.
And yet for me this was a noble failure. As you say, Taylor, it's full of deft craftsmanship and a charming, light hand, but the blows just didn't land for me. It's martial arts with nerf pads on.
But is that a product of my inflated expectations or of flaws in the book itself?
One thing you touch on lightly above, and something that I think is crucial to understanding this book, is that Yang and Liew create this comic like an archetypical Marvel of DC comic: each of the six chapters is around 20 pages, each builds upon the previous one in classic super-hero style; characters are broad and loose and deliberately stereotypical even while escaping racial stereotyping. Shadow Hero reads oddly in part because it is straddling two words: one world the artcomics world, in which First Second Books produces sumptuously-delivered work of comics Art; the other is the deliriously odd pulp and newsprint world of Blazing Comics, where the Green Turtle once crawled.
Based on what we read in the afterward and in accompanying material, Shadow Hero isn't meant to be new. In fact, it's meant to be old, as old as the Golden Age of comics. It's a revival of the most basic super-hero style and despite the aims that we have tried to pick out from the book, seems to set its sights much more modestly than Yang's ambitious Boxers books. Does it make this book more or less enjoyable to see it as just a kind of neo Jackie Chan summer flick?
Keith Silva: O.K. you two negative naiyouzhagaos, so Shadow Hero doesn't absolve Taylor from the gaps in his otherwise superlative library (or mine) and it's enough off the plate for Jason to keep the bat on his shoulder and wait for his pitch. Does this resurrection of a never-was hero from a forgotten get-rich-quick gwailo publisher have any merit for either of you? If what The Shadow Hero lacks is the ambition of the creators previous work than, ''the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars//But in ourselves.'' Granted, it's a different flavour of ambition, which, for me, enlightens more than it excites and that's, perhaps, a reason to find fault. Yang and Liew seem as content to curate as they are tell a story, more so, which, unfortunate as it is, casts the Green Turtle as a curio and keeps him in the … err, um, yeah, shadows, only less so.
99.9% of the readers of this comic -- I refuse to call it a graphic novel -- have no idea who the Green Turtle was/is and are likely going to buy The Shadow Hero because of the pedigree of the creators and not the character -- come for the prestige stay for the pulp. So, is it enough Yang and Liew's efforts succeed in the very baseline goal of educating an unknowing public? Is this an argument for 'the more you know?'
From a critical distance Shadow Hero reads as light and fun, but it's far more sincere and honest than a Hollywood vanity project. This isn't like Francis Ford Coppola working from George Lucas's script to direct Michael Jackson in Captain Eo. Nor is it like these two Eisner favourites are taking their B-S and M-R money -- Boxers and Saints and Malinky Robot, natch -- and 'having a go.' Yang and Liew love the idea of the Green Turtle, what he means, what he represents and the (albeit) minor place he and his creator, Chu Hing, occupies in the history of American comics and that's where they stop.
What makes a golden-age comic book hero a golden-age comic book hero is frenzy and verve; a nostalgic whiff of, as Yang says in his afterward, that moment in time when ''tiny fly-by-night publishers blinked into existence and pushed as many outlandish ideas as their cartoonists could dream up.'' For something with such a whackadoo history, there is not a lot of 'whack' or 'adoo' in The Shadow Hero. Yang admires how in Hing's comic: ''a strange, turtle-shaped shadow that looms over the Green Turtle's enemies … is never explained or commented upon. It's just there.'' I agree with Mssr. Yang, today's comics too often prize exposition and abhor the mysterious. So what does Yang do, he explains the unexplained, provides a backstory and some of the original's Golden-age charisma gets washed away. The creators swap the outlandish for the more pedestrian and what results is a heartfelt and charming story about honour, family and love. Is that so bad?
We've all been pummelled into submission with enough superhero origin stories (especially nowadays) to the point of exhaustion and indifference. Does our origin apathy make this reboot (shudder) of an otherwise unknown (and the first) Chinese superhero even more dull? I agree with Taylor in many ways this is an exercise in new lamps for old and the universality of origins nullifies cultural or social differences, in this case, to the subject's disadvantage. Is the difference enough? Genre-wise, there's little risk involved in The Shadow Hero, it is what it is, an origin story; however, its pluralism makes it different enough to merit attention and delight as it engenders all the pulpy bits that give movies like Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Superman their serial souls.
To be sure, The Shadow Hero is a passion project for both creators. Their joy for the source material translates in an entertaining comic rather than an intellectual exercise or plain pastiche. It's a good story; and sometimes no matter how clichéd ideas about stepping out from behind genuine, metaphorical or cultural shadows in order to become more human (and even super-human) is enough of an inspiration on its own.
Taylor: Did a Spirit make you a promise, Silva, that you would never let under-enthused collaborators dull your fire? Did he also convince you we wouldn't realise you'd called us ''fried flour balls?'' Because I did!
You make a great point, Silva, that of the importance of inspiration. I think Shadow Hero forced me to confront a strange prejudice of mine. Anyone who decries superhero comics for not representing them, or the group they identify with, kind of makes me jealous. There's a part of me that (ignorantly and without empathy) sees said lack of representation as a developmental short-cut for those readers, a gift of sorts. If their identity is not reflected in that work, then that will spur them onto the good stuff even sooner, goes my heretofore unarticulated thinking. Instead of spending years reading capes 'n tights capers, spiralling inward in concentric circles of suckerdom, they can hop right over superheroes and read Love and Rockets, Aya, Boxers and Saints, Elmer and Prophet. Think of the time that saves! The heartbreak spared! Obviously, I'm projecting/fantasizing (and many worse things, too). People like what they like, they want to be able to see themselves in the genres they enjoy, and they should be able to, whatever some privileged Limey bloke thinks.
From that perspective, Yang and Liew have found possibly the only legitimate reason (are you reading this, Snyder?) for explaining the unexplained, for the reboot, the definitive origin. They are elucidating something precious, lost until now in the churn of a less-than Golden Age. Keith, you identified The Green Turtle as possibly the first Chinese superhero, but Yang is clear he is ''perhaps even the first Asian American superhero.'' He belongs to no one nation, but is a bridge between them. From the neglected creation of a largely forgotten Chinese cartoonist of that ''golden'' age, and the ambiguity that creator built into his character, Yang and Liew leverage proof of the inclusive potential of an entire genre. My favourite moment in this entire comic is when the Anchor of Justice, San Inciendo's resident American superhero, reveals ''my parents aren't from round here, either.'' It's a light touch moment that lingers, reminding you that by the laws of superheroics, which really haven't evolved much beyond the wackiness of the Golden Age, anyone can find their place. They just have to be ready to choose it.
I do want to mention another positive about Shadow Hero, its depiction of racism within a historic context. The Chinese mock the gwailo, the gwailo are bought off by the Tongs, and the one stand-up cop who swears to do his duty by our hero's civilian identity is an exception to these rules of race… right up until he curses ''those sneaky slant-eyed bastards.'' He later apologises, saying of those words ''they're not who I want to be,'' both rings true of a less enlightened period, and crystallises the universality of the superheroic ideal. In trying to be a stand-up guy in a bent town, the cop is already a hero. However, superheroism lies beyond him, and beyond many of us, too. It lies at the point where we become who we want to be. With or without a Spirit's Promise.
Sacks: Three years ago Jaime Hernandez put out an original graphic novel called Gods and Science: the Return of the Ti-Girls that created a good amount of existential doubt in my life. At that time I said:
We like to believe we want our favourite creators to take chances, to follow their muse and go wherever their artistic vision takes them. That's the epitome of the independent minded creator who explores their view of the world in self-driven and self-managed creative works. But superheroes, man… superheroes are different. They feel strange, frustrating, oddly political these days. Superheroes represent The Man and the past and a certain corporate hegemony over the creator and the New 52 and Before Watchmen and The Avengers. After all, aren't creator-driven comics supposed to be indie and quirky and idiosyncratic and personal and uncompromising? How can a super-hero book be all that, even coming from the talented hands of Jaime Hernandez?
But ultimately that's a view that's self-limiting and even fascist, in the same way that view reflects the closed mind of a super-hero fan who only wants to read a certain character done in a certain way and any variation away from his very particular accepted norm is so absolutely wrong the fan will stomp his feet and hold his breath until he gets his way on this topic.
So, yeah, guys, I get your point about slumming and reading into creators' motives and following your muse and all that sort of stuff. I get it, and it's important and if this is the work Liew and Yang want to create, then more power to them. Hooray, our world needs more people who are happy doing what they want to do.
But can I also say that in the milieu they're playing in, that super-heroic world of reinvention and implanted origins, secret motivations and exciting revivals, this book fell flat to me, like a bit of a copy of a copy.
I dunno. I keep paging through The Shadow Hero and enjoying sections -- the mom in the beginning is quirky and interesting, and the scene where she's rescued by the Anchor of Justice is charming, and the battle scenes at the end are fun, and the way Liew draws the bullets flying around the Green Turtle are clever. Oh geez, my friends, you're doing it, aren't you? You're persuading me to let my hair down, give up my fascist mentality and embrace the fact that sometimes true diversity is embracing slightly different takes on the same things. This copy of a copy is fresher than I thought it was. My prejudices were defeating my mind and my head over my heart. I need to let the Spirit free and giggle at the authenticity and sincerity of Shadow Hero.
Three years ago I concluded my essay on Gods and Science by saying "Man, I really need to chill out and just enjoy comics, don't I?"
Silva: You two (as usual) are forcing me to write about myself rather than what (I think) readers really want which is: should I read (read: buy) this or not and why? Yes. The Shadow Hero is a damn sight better than the majority of superhero comics you'll find on the shelves of your local LCS; and for any school librarians reading this, buy in bulk.
My first attempt to crack The Shadow Hero failed. I wasn't up for an origin story and when the Anchor of Justice (groan) shows up to foil a car-jacking I thought, 'oh no, this again.' I let it sit for a few days, picked it up, skipped over what I read and (re)started at Chapter Two and the book opened up for me. The mother's attempts to super-size her son Hank -- she gives him a little push into some toxic waste, allows him to be bitten by a dog that had been used for scientific research and he has to endure regular beatings by a family friend -- are all things I would have done, and with the same gusto, the same Golden-Age spirit, when I was first bit by the superhero, the comics, bug. Maybe If the mom had overheard her employer talking about the mysterious 'Wolverine' and had access to an Erector set like I did, she would have figured out how to make claws and perhaps they would have looked like the ones I made. Yang and Liew go for the same universality/sentimentality of 'the hero' their colleagues Wilson and Alphona use in Ms. Marvel, imperfect yet effective.
If, Taylor, I had been able to leap over superheroes (in a single bound?) in my formative years and read Love and Rockets instead of The Uncanny X-Men maybe I would have started a band or moved to the American southwest. Do homespun Wolverine claws travel? If they do, I hope, like Hank I can talk my way aboard the 'Caniff' and set out for a secret hideaway, a 'Palace of Forbidden Fortunes,' which for me was the hammock in our backyard as I read to my five-year-old daughter about 'Anchor of Justice,' 'Red Center,' and 'Green Turtle.' Kids gotta' learn about superheroes sometime.