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Comic book writer Gene Yang: “Superhero stories are really about immigrants”

Gene Yang
Gene Yang

Gene Luen Yang is one of the biggest names in comics today. His 2006 American Born Chinese was the first ever graphic novel to be nominated for a National Book Award, and the first to win the American Library Association's Printz Award. It also received superlatives from Publisher's Weekly, Booklist, NPR, and Time Magazine. His 2013 two-volume companion graphic novels Boxers & Saints was also embraced: it won the LA Times Book Prize in Young Adult Literature, and was a National Book Award Finalist.

Yang's latest project, The Shadow Hero, is a remake of a 1940's-era comic called The Green Turtle. The original comic was based on the adventures of a superhero called the Green Turtle, who, along with his sidekick Burma Boy, zipped around Asia protecting the innocent from the Imperial Japanese Army. The Green Turtle had no discernible super powers, but did at times appear to project a rather mysterious shadow behind him. The shadow, which had green eyes and a mouth, was never explained in the original series — the comic was discontinued after only 5 installments.

As to why the series was abruptly canceled, the rumor floating about among comic insiders is that the series' publisher didn't agree with the vision of its author. Chu Hing, the creator of The Green Turtle, was Chinese. So, too, was his superhero. Hing's publisher didn't think Americans would be too keen on buying a comic about an Asian superhero in the 1940s, and he told Hing to make the Green Turtle a white man. Rather than acquiesce, Hing got creative — he found ways of drawing his hero that hid part or all of his face. Fans of The Green Turtle were then free to imagine their shadow-projecting superhero's face however they wanted.

As it turned out, one fan — Yang — decided to tell the story of the Asian face he imagined. That face would belong to Hank Chu, a Chinese American teenager coming of age in 1930's Chinatown. Hank dreams of growing up and becoming a grocer, just like his father. His mother, though, has bigger, more exciting  — more American — dreams for her son. She wants him to become a superhero.

I recently caught up with Yang to talk with him about the origins of TSH and a few other things. The interview has been edited for clarity.


The cover for 'The Shadow Hero' published by First Second Books

In an essay at the end of the book, you talk about how the idea for The Shadow Hero (TSH) came about. Can you talk about that?

The main character is a superhero named the Green Turtle, and he is not my creation — or our creation, I should say. I worked with an artist named Sonny Liew to do this book. I only did the writing, and Sonny did all the amazing art. The Green Turtle dates back to the 1940s. It was created by this Chinese American cartoonist named Chu Hing. (I don't even know if Chu Hing would've actually called himself a Chinese American; he may have just referred to himself as Chinese.)

So the rumor is that Chu wanted his character to be Chinese American, to be ethnically Chinese. But publishers wouldn't let him to do it because they didn't think a character like that would sell in the marketplace at the time. So Chu reacted in a very passive-aggressive way. He ends up drawing these comics so you almost never get a clear view of the character's face. He almost always has his back toward you, or if he is turned around, there's something blocking his face, or there's another character in the way. Or a shadow has fallen across his face, or maybe he's punching and his arm's in the way. When you look at the original pages, it stands out that you never see this character's face. The rumor is, Chu did that because he wanted to be able imagine his character as he originally intended.

Did you know much about Chu Hing's history before you started working on the book?

I actually didn't know much about Chu when I did the book. I looked on the internet, and talked to some people who collect comic books from the golden age. A couple people heard rumors, but nobody knew much about him. It came out that he did a little for Marvel, before it was even Marvel — it was called Timely back then — but nobody knew anything about him.

When I wrote that essay for the book, I didn't know anything. After the book had gone to print, a guy named Alex Jay got in touch with me. He's been involved with the comic industry for a long time. He used to design logos for books in the '80s and '90s. He did a bunch for both Marvel and DC. He's an amazing researcher: he runs this blog called Chinese American Eyes where he talks about Chinese-American artists — not just comic book artists, but all sorts. He was able to find all this information about Chu Hing that I wish I'd had when I wrote that essay. Like, he found out Chu grew up in Hawaii, and he found a copy of his immigration interview, which was crazy! He found out he went to art school in Chicago, and married a Scandinavian immigrant. But they didn't have any heirs, so there's no way I could go find his grandson and ask if those rumors are true. But Jay did an entire blog entry all about this obscure cartoonist from the 1940s.


A page from Chu Hing's original comic The Green Turtle.

So you basically took the idea of the shadow, and imagined the work in a way that Chu wasn't able to.

The shadow itself was not our idea. It came from the original comics. But the idea was there'd be this shadow that would come out from the Green Turtle, and the shadow would have a face. It's never explained where it came from or why it's there. It's almost like a design element more than anything else. But thats another part of what makes those original comics so weird and so creepy and so amazing. So our version is basically just an origin story for the Green Turtle because he never got one. After five issues, he was canceled. You never find out his secret origin, or his secret identity, and we never find out if he actually is Chinese American. So thats what Sonny and I wanted to do: provide an origin story for this guy.

We decided we would make that shadow a character, and that he would actually have a speaking role. I really wanted to tie the shadow in with the main character's cultural heritage. We wanted to use superheroes as a way of talking about becoming American. The way that Hank becomes a superhero is the way a lot of immigrants' kids become American. I thought it'd be cool if what empowered him to become a superhero — to metaphorically become an American — was rooted in his cultural past. I did a little research into how turtles are used in traditional Chinese culture, what part they play. I found out that there are these four celestial animals: dragon, bird, tiger, and turtle. They represent the four directions, you know: north, south, east, west. I thought that'd be a good way of tying things together.


Hank's mother tries to convince him to become a superhero in The Shadow Hero.

There are many spiritual themes at play in some of your earlier work, especially Boxers & SaintsTSH, though, is less overtly spiritual than some of your other comics. Was that intentional?

That was just way it came out. I felt like the needs of that project were a little bit different than Boxers and Saints. For The Shadow Hero, what was on the forefront in my mind was what it means to be an American. I think superheroes are such an American genre. They were invented in America, and became popular as America grew into a superpower. I thought that book would be a good way of exploring what it means to be an American.

I have a theory that superhero stories are really about immigrants. Most of the creators of the major superheroes we know, almost all of them — I think there's only one I can think of that doesn't fit this — like BatmanSupermanThe HulkCaptain America, they were all created by children of immigrants. I think the immigrant experience is just deeply embedded within the genre, this idea of having to navigate between two identities, and to keep part of yourself hidden. I think the immigrant experience is just all over the subtext. So in TSH, one of the things I hope maybe makes it stand out is that we bring what's always been in the subtext into the forefront.

How does your faith influence your work?

This is something I struggled with a lot in college. As I embraced faith as an adult, as faith became more important to me and more central to my life, I struggled with how to write about it in an authentic way. I went to UC Berkley and minored in creative writing, and I actually went and visited one of my professors [Thaisa Frank] about this.

We had this long talk about religion, faith, and writing, and she talked to me about Flannery O'Connor, and how to write about faith. I think [Frank] was raised Catholic, but she was an atheistic Buddhist. She told me, basically, "Don't ever write about faith directly. You should write about your life. Pull your writing from your life, and if your faith is actually important to you, if it's something you actually live out, then it will show up in your writing." I've been trying to live by her advice ever since, because I think there's wisdom in that.


A strip from Yang's award-winning American Born Chinese.

At least for me, when I try to write about faith directly, it does come out kind of stale and plastic. But when I try to write about my own life and how I live my faith, it becomes more ... I mean, when you try to live your faith, it's never perfect, right? I mean, you've got all these warts and pimples, and it's full of cracks and holes. I think when you put the experience of faith on paper, as opposed to the ideals of faith, I think it comes out more natural and more authentic and more relatable.

One of the things that's great about TSH is how funny it is. How do you manage to strike a balance between jokes that provide comic relief, and jokes that distract from the plot?

Yeah, there are definitely times when I get rid of some of my jokes because I think they might distract from the primary emotion I'm trying to get across. For the most part, it's just a way of keeping me interested in writing: I want to put those jokes in. I wrote TSH in between Boxers and Saints, which are about the Boxer Rebellion. It's super sad. The historical incident just felt super sad. I think that's part of why I put a bunch of jokes in TSH: just to get over the sadness of the Boxer Rebellion. I think it was just a way to keep myself going.

In some ways, your work is revolutionary, but at the same time, you are clearly positioned within the classic comic book genre. Where do you see yourself?

I wanted to play with a lot of the tropes and conventions of the genre. Like, the tragedy that propels a person to become a superhero. I wanted to refer to other hero origins — like, in the sequence where Hank's mom is trying to get him to become a superhero. So in a lot of ways, I'm hoping TSH comes across sort of like an homage to this genre that I've loved since I was kid. I think narratively it's structured very much like a standard superhero origins story, like Spiderman or Batman. I think we hit those same highs and lows.


In many ways, The Shadow Hero is a classic origins story.

Who are some of your writing influences?

Oh, I can give you list as long as my arm! I grew up reading superhero comics. I didn't know this at the time, but pretty much everyone working on superheroes has been influenced by Jack Kirby, and probably Stan Lee as well. So I have to count them as influences. I really love Jeff Smith. He did a book called Bone, which is absolutely amazing. There's an alternative cartoonist named Linda Barry who does these stories that combine both autobiographical and fictional elements into these beautiful narratives.

I used to hang out with this group of cartoonists. We used to all live in the Bay Area, but nowadays, we're all over the place. There's this guy named Derek Kirk, who's one of my best friends. He did a book called Same Difference, and some other stories that won a bunch of awards about 10 years ago. Lark Pien, who colored my books, is also a cartoonist in her own right. She writes and draws her own stuff, as well. And there's Jason Shiga, who did this book called Meanwhile. These are all people I know, and they're all influential to me. Oh, and Osamu Tezuka is probably the most influential manga artist to have ever walked the earth. He's the creator of Astroboy, and he's an influence to me, as well.

The Catholic writer that blew me away, though, that I think about when I write my own stuff, is this guy named Shusaku Endo. He's a Japanese novelist. He did a number of books, but the one I feel like hit me the hardest was one called Silence. He originally wrote in Japanese. I don't know to read Japanese, so I've never read his actual work. But the translations they've done into English are pretty amazing. Silence is great. It's about a European missionary to Japan, in the 1700s, I believe, during the deep persecution of Japanese Catholics. He's there to look for his mentor. Rumors are, his mentor gave up the faith, and he can't believe that, so he wants to find out if its true. And he's also there to minister to these persecuted Japanese communities.

Some of your work has made it into high school and even college curriculums. How does that feel as a comic book artist?

It's kind of crazy. I started American Born Chinese as a mini comic. Which means I would actually Xerox it, and staple it myself, and then try to sell it by hand. So to go from there to it being a full graphic novel that's being used in classrooms — it's a nutty thing!

Any plans on experimenting with other genres?

I'm pretty much a comics guy. It'd be awesome to do a project in another medium related to my comics, like in TV or on web or in movies. But I'm happy to be primarily focused on comics. My next project is a middle-grade reader, and it's gonna be explicitly educational. This is something i've been wanting to do for a while. So in that way, I guess it's a switch in genre.


American Born Chinese deals with questions of identity.

The Shadow Hero is released from First Second Books on July 15.

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