***Spoilers, as usual, but since this is a superhero origin story, you already know what happens, trust me.***
One-sentence review: A sensitive immigration story masquerading as a superhero origin story, but in the end I wish Gene Yang had invented his own character rather than reviving such a problematic one.
The origin of this origin story: Gene Yang became intrigued by a comic book character called The Green Turtle--a 1944 superhero from Blazing Comics--who is rumored to be the first Asian-American superhero. The thirties and forties were the Golden Age of comics, and every press was trying to invent the next Superman, so there are a lot of failed characters and series out there. The Green Turtle series was drawn by Chu F. Hing, and readers speculate that the reason we hardly ever see the hero's face is that Chu wanted him to have Asian features, while the editors wanted him to be white. The Green Turtle was also evasive about his origin, always promising side characters that he'd let them in on his secret later, but ultimately never revealing anything about himself. So Yang decided to fill in this back story (Yang is the author, and Sonny Liew is the artist)--inventing reasons even for some of the idiosyncratic pieces of the original comic. But more on pink skin later.
History. The original Green Turtle comics have to be taken in historical context when you read them. Chinese Americans were horrifically stigmatized throughout American history leading up to the war, but as American involvement in WWII began to ramp up, the Japanese became reviled, and Chinese Americans felt some tiny relief from their social misery. The 1944 Green Turtle adventures take place in China, where he is fighting the oppressive, murderous Japanese bad guys, basically on behalf of the American government and Chiang Kai-Shek (the leader of the Republic of China). The original comic is highly racist in its depiction of Japanese characters, and in its language. It's also practically unreadable as literature--mindless superhero schlock, and poorly drawn at that.
An immigrant story. The real heart of Yang and Liew's book--the reason it's worth reading--is the immigrant story, not the superhero underpinnings. Hank is the first-generation son of two immigrant parents. His father, a drunk street fighter, was tossed onto a ship bound for America, and his mother arrived as a child, full of hope for this new country, only to live in demoralizing squalor. Hank tells us "The disappointment broke mother's spirit," but almost immediately we see evidence that she's a spunky middle-aged woman. (There are a few disconnects like this in the writing, which could have been a bit tighter, much as I adore Gene Yang.) As a young woman she is married off to Hank's father, a "modestly successful grocer," and obligingly produces a son. But she's perpetually disgruntled, and escapes daily life in the grocery store via her job as a housekeeper for an American woman. Hank, meanwhile, loves working with his dad, does well in school, and looks forward to running the store (which is called "Yu Quai" or "Jade Tortoise") when he grows up. We see the separation between whites and Asians--this is Chinatown, and whites don't shop in Chinese stores--the poverty, and the prejudice even on the part of otherwise sympathetic characters. Gradually we learn that Hank's dad, like all the local shopkeepers, has to pay tithes to the Chinese mob that runs Chinatown, and that the police are bought off. Thus, the people struggling to live in this neighborhood are oppressed, unrepresented, and unprotected. The themes of Hank and his mother discovering their place in their community are wonderful. The mirroring of our society slowly understanding the humanity of Chinese immigrants through Detective Lawful is poignant. So what about Hank's discovery of his strength through the death of his dad, and his desire to bring the killers to justice and rid the neighborhood of its mob oppressors? Meh--that's a tired superhero trope.
Fantasy. This is a world in which superheros really exist. Or at least, one superhero is real: the "Anchor of Justice" fights crime, is impervious to bullets, and can fly. When Hank's mom is rescued by the Anchor, the quiet shopkeeping ambitions of her husband and son become annoying to her, and they are "cowards." (Later we see that part of her complaint is that Hank's father pays off the mobsters without resistance.) She tries to induce superhuman powers in Hank by exposing him to toxins--with the disappointing result that he turns pink when doused with water. Hank's real superpower comes after the death of his dad, when he inherits the spirit of a turtle god, who asks to live in his shadow. The turtle spirit (and his three brothers) are awesome. But again, they could have been included in a Chinese immigrant story that isn't about superheros.
Why revive a failed character? I'm just not sure whether Yang and Liew should have revived this character rather than create their own from scratch--while still exploring the immigrant story--either using the superhero medium or not.* There's an afterword by Yang giving the history of the original comic, pointing out the historical context for its racism, and including a sample issue. It somehow damages the strength of their own work, to include what is essentially a failed and offensive comic (and exceedingly conventionally drawn) alongside their own strong interpretation. As a historical piece, the original Green Turtle might have been a nice English B.A. thesis subject, but Yang isn't writing non-fiction here. It makes me feel like the "hook" of the project--the marketing angle the publishers hoped for--was that these extremely talented contemporary comic artists were "re-imagining the first-ever Asian superhero!" No one at First Second thought beyond that. I personally would have much preferred an original superhero, or even better: a slightly fantastical story of a non-superhero exploring some of the same personal and cultural issues. In trying to include all the pieces of the original Green Turtle puzzle, they introduce distracting, useless extras. For instance, they give Hank the side-effect of turning pink when he gets wet, as a way of explaining why the Blazing Comics art director chose to make the skin of the original Green Turtle a pinkish, more "Western" hue than the Asian characters. (Yang argues that this coloring choice was to thwart Chu F. Hing's sly attempts to make him Asian, but in my edition of the book, the reprint of the original comic at the back of The Shadow Hero doesn't show any more "R" in the RGB coloring of the Green Turtle's skin than the Asian skin.)
Art. Liew's style grew on me, although it's not particularly sophisticated or skilled. There's a kind of hairy, sketchy quality to his art, shaping angular corners. It's the way high-schoolers sketch, trying several lines and hoping the sum of them will add up to the curve or line they're looking for. There are also randomly occurring too-bold outlines of subjects and objects. It gives an amateurish quality that's either charming or lame, depending on your mood.
Writing. As I mentioned above, this is not as tight as Yang's regular work. And he needed to trust the art more. For instance, when we see the breath spiraling between Hank and Red Center, we don't need an explanation the first time, let alone the second. I got the impression that this project was not one that Yang had a lot of time for, and that after he turned in the text he didn't participate much in the clean-up stages, or collaborate deeply enough with the editor and Liew.
Trim size. This is a small complaint, but if you're going to reprint a comic at the back of a graphic novel, why not make the trim size the same as the comic?
*And there's an argument that the superhero origin story is so boring and predictable at this point, if you don't contribute something new to it, maybe you shouldn't do it at all? Neil Gaiman's Sandman revives a tired old superhero from the late 30s, but completely revamps it: Morpheus is a god, the Lord of Dreams, and one of the seven Endless. Gone is the superhero who puts criminals to sleep with gas. Only the name "Sandman" is the same as the original series.