Welcome to the non-negative Year of the Knockoff on Women Write about Comics!
Long ago in the wilds of October 2016, I wrote a guest post for the American Studies blog that discussed how Gene Luen Yang’s 2014 graphic novel The Shadow Hero seems like a rhetorical successor to Superman, particularly because its hero, Hank, is a first generation American calling on his Chinese heritage as he becomes a superhero. That seems connected to Superman’s immigrant roots and source of power. Little did I know that Yang was already, in fact, writing New Super-Man! For DC! The first issue had been published in July 2016! And now that there is a lot more of it available, I can say that the first two volumes of New Super-Man act as a thematic coda to Yang’s earlier standalone graphic novel, The Shadow Hero, which I believe to be a stronger book all around.
The Shadow Hero, published in 2014 as a standalone graphic novel, tells “the story of Hank Chu, a mild-mannered Chinese American teenager growing up in a fictional 1930’s Chinatown,” according to Yang’s website. In the story, illustrated by Sonny Liew, Hank’s immigrant mother presses him to become a superhero, and it turns out that his immigrant father has brought with him from China a spirit that may enable this. Hank’s father, who owns and runs a store, is quiet and kind, his mother, who cleans for a white lady, overbearing and brash. A sepia-toned flashback tells the story of his mother’s voyage to the United States and her disappointment with her life here. One day Hank’s mother is rescued by a flying, caped superhero and decides her son should go into superheroing as well.
When his father dies, killed by gangsters, Hank inherits a connection to an ancient Chinese spirit who lives in his shadow. Freshly terrified by the shooting death of his father, Hank wishes to be impervious to bullets. The spirit grants this wish, which Hank almost instantly regrets the phrasing of, as he is still vulnerable to other painful and lethal weapons and effects, such as knives and gravity. He fights villains, notably the gangsters who killed his father, develops a morally ambiguous love interest, and grows into both superheroism and manhood. Hank’s superhero persona, “The Green Turtle” gains renown as Chinatown’s hero. As Gene Luen Yang explains in a fascinating essay at the end of the graphic novel, there was a brief-lived hero called Green Turtle in the golden age of superheroes. Drawn by a Chinese American artist, he never showed his face on the page, and the legend went that this was because the author had been denied permission to make the character explicitly Asian. Gene Luen Yang’s story of Hank’s interaction with a tortoise spirit is thus a kind of reviving of a hero that never got a fair shake in the golden age. As WWAC editor Claire Napier has pointed out to me, the shadowed aspect of the hero becomes a kind of bitter pun in Yang and Liew’s version.
In the final scene of Yang and Liew’s graphic novel, Hank meets the flying superhero who had rescued his mother at the beginning of the book. At the end of the story, when Hank is alone with him, that superhero removes his face, revealing that his apparent whiteness was merely a mask. Underneath the mask he has the face of a space alien. He tells Hank that his “parents aren’t from around here, either.”
This is a coming of age story with a teenage protagonist, and the trajectory of his mother’s encounter with a celebrated, powerful white-seeming American, her goal of having her son fill a similar role, his use of his Chinese heritage to shape that role, creating something hybrid and new, and then the revelation that the “white” American wasn’t always seen as white to begin with, all feels like it could come in any first generation American success story, superpowers or no.
Also, for those familiar with Spider-Man’s origin story, for instance, the story of a teenage boy who feels like an outcast and then mans up after the death of a paternal figure will also resonate. In fact, the book fits neatly into the category of the American coming of age story, making it doubly effective in indicating that Hank’s story is an American one. Thus, The Shadow Hero, while not forging a new genre and not about an adult immigrant born with superpowers, still fulfills the progressive rhetorical aim of the golden age immigrant hero stories by telling a coming of age story in the American tradition about a first generation American teen.
The white-appearing American hero who turns out to be a space alien seems to be an explicit reference to Superman, and to his creators’ ethnic identities as Jewish children of immigrants. Their own role in mainstream white American ethnicity was precarious, and their Jewish identity, as has been addressed extensively by Harry Brod, Jules Feiffer and others, shows up in the naming of Kal-El, which sometimes gets translated from Hebrew as Light or Voice of God, as well as the reverberations of kinder transport in his arrival as a refugee. The role of this alien as representing not only America, but established, white America, is one that can be fruitfully historicized in the telling of new stories of new heroes.
Considering this allusion at the end of The Shadow Hero, it seems fitting that Yang went on to write New Super-Man for D.C. as part of their Rebirth line of comics, starting in 2016. In its first two volumes, New Super-Man tells the story of wiseass teen bully Kong Kenan, still mourning his mother’s death years after her plane went down. After a brief and accidental brush with celebrity, Kenan is chosen by the Chinese government to be part of a new Justice League of China, with analogues of the American heroes that make up that team. Kenan, who hates doing homework and doesn’t think things through, joins the existing Wonder Woman of China and Batman of China as “New Super-Man.”
Together, they go on missions assigned and directed by a shadowy government body. Throughout the first two volumes, as Kenan goes through his own maturation process, various dichotomies of Chinese vs. American mores are introduced and interrogated. While in the first volume, the dichotomy seems to be presented as China creating knock offs of American successful designs, in the second volume this gets complicated when Lex Luthor (of America) presents Kenan with a “shortcut” to fully realizing his powers.
Ultimately, Kenan chooses to reject the American way, characterized by a desire for a shortcut, in favor of the Chinese way, characterized by absorbing knowledge over time, thoroughly. In both volumes, further contrasts are drawn between different parts of Chinese culture as well, with an existing Chinese superhero team, supported by a different branch of the Chinese government, resenting the incursion of the new Justice League of China, for instance.
New Super-Man is published by DC, and has the word Superman in its title. My guess is that more people will read it than will ever read The Shadow Hero. However, having read both in their publication order, New Super-Man feels to me like a thematic coda to Hank’s story, as it, too, introduces a teenage boy, dissatisfied with his life and parental situation, whose Chinese identity thrusts upon him powers and a social role that he did not really ask for, and must suddenly struggle to adapt. In fact, New Super-Man, like The Shadow Hero before it, even also expands an existing comics character. In 1978, Bob Rozakis had written “a story about Chinese versions of the American superheroes, who were given their powers using special technology. The whole idea was a simple gimmick” at the time.
If, as I suspect will happen, some fans of New Super-Man go on to seek out The Shadow Hero, they will be in for a treat. Richer and more complete feeling than the DC work, Yang and Liew’s graphic novel is steeped in superhero tradition, but still stands alone well. Both stories deal with the potential for a fruitful productivity in the tensions between Chinese and American culture, but I believe that The Shadow Hero’s fictionalized American setting and the casting of Hank Chu as a first generation American make it the superior book because that setting and Hank’s role allows the structure of the adolescent hero origin story as an American bildungsroman to have more rhetorical power.