Gene Yang & Sonny Liew Bring the Green Turtle Out of the Shadows

Captain America rakes in billions of dollars in box office. Computer graphics are required to bring Superman’s powers to life. An Oscar-winning celebrity is cast to play Batman and the internet breaks in half. We take for granted that these superhero characters are embedded in our modern cultural conscience. They are more than just household names, they’re indelible parts of our collective identity. They are also all really old.

After all, 2014 marks Batman’s 75th anniversary (Supes turned 75 last year). And Steve Rogers being a WWII relic isn’t just a plot gimmick for a series of movies, it’s because the character was actually conceived during WWII. The point is that these characters who are part of contemporary popular culture were actually born during the 1930s and ’40s (the “Golden Age” of comics, if you will) and have endured ever since. They weren’t the only ones who were created at the time, but they have had the most staying power.

There is actually another superhero that is also celebrating a milestone anniversary this year. Seventy years ago this July, a superhero called the Green Turtle debuted in the pages of Blazing Comics. You’ve probably never heard of him, but if Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew have anything to say about it, you will soon.

In July, First Second Books will be releasing an original graphic novel called The Shadow Hero that revives the Green Turtle for a new generation. If you can’t wait until July, First Second has been releasing each chapter of the book every month as a series of digital comics. I had the great fortune to read an advanced copy of the trade that collects these digital issues together, and I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s the best graphic novel of 2014. Who cares that there are still seven months left in the year? I can’t recommend this book enough.

Several months back, we featured a series of posts by Gene in which he revealed some behind-the-scenes details of the book’s creation1. We even talked to Gene on Hard N.O.C. Life about the origins of the Green Turtle and why he felt it was the right time to bring him back.

A quick primer: when Gene discovered the long-forgotten Golden Age hero — who had been invented by a Chinese American artist named Chu Hing — he also learned of rumors that suggested Chu had intended for his hero to be a Chinese American one. But since this was the 1940s, a non-white hero just wasn’t going to fly (yes, pun intended).

Though the Green Turtle’s brief run in the comics were all set in Asia — his heroics involved defending the Chinese from the invading (and horribly stereotypical) Japanese, after all — it was simply assumed the hero was white. But even that is up for debate because Chu never really showed his hero’s face in any of the issues. And it wasn’t because the Green Turtle wore a full cowl either. In almost every panel, the hero’s face is, weirdly, obscured.

Also, whenever he’s asked about his origins — usually by his sidekick Burma Boy — the scene is always interrupted before he can respond. It’s a running gag throughout the books. The printer even goes as far as coloring the Turtle an oddly bright and unnatural pink to, I guess, further prove that he most definitely isn’t Asian. Gene elaborates on this tension between the book’s creator (who wanted to prominently feature a Chinese American hero) and its publisher (who didn’t) in the appendix of The Shadow Hero, which also includes Blazing Comics #1 in its entirety.

All of this history — the facts of Green Turtle’s creation blended with the speculation — informs Gene and Sonny’s exploration into the Green Turtle’s superhero origin. It might have taken 70 years, but Burma Boy will finally get an answer to his questions. Gene even gives the Turtle the secret identity of Hank Chu, a not so subtle callback to  his creator Chu Hing. I especially love how they weave some of the oddities of the original comic — the pink hue of his skin, why he only wears a cowl and a cape,  that weird shadowy figure in the background of every panel — into the story and provide believable explanations for all of them.

I also loved that it is a period piece through and through. The scenes set in a fictionalized West Coast Chinatown of the late ’30s/early ’40s are reminiscent of classic Chinese immigrant stories. Imagine Louis Chu’s Eat a Bowl of Tea crossed with Action Comics #1. And though the story feels firmly grounded in the whiz bang wonder of the Golden Age of superheroes, it also retains a fairly modern sense of humor.

By the way, Hank’s mom is clearly the book’s breakout character for me.

It also goes without saying that Sonny Liew’s artwork is absolutely gorgeous. Sonny rarely draws superheroes (but when he does, OH MY GOD) so it’s just a treat to see him apply his dynamic style to the classic superhero tropes of The Shadow Hero, not to mention his detailed backgrounds and the fluid motion of his panels. There is a clear chemistry between Gene’s words (perfectly lettered by Janice Chiang2) and Sonny’s art that makes you wonder why these two don’t collaborate more often.

Full disclosure: as one of the co-editors of Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology, I will go ahead and take partial credit for teaming up Sonny and Gene since their first collaboration was on a story in that book called “The Blue Scorpion and Chung.” Check out a motion comic preview of the story (with voices provided by Parry Shen and Aaron Takahashi) down below.

Gene and Sonny re-teamed in 2012 when we published Shattered, the follow up to Secret Identities, and their first collaboration on the Green Turtle in a three-page story told in the style of classic newspaper strips. In anticipation of The Shadow Hero’s release, reprinted those original strips in full color for the first time.

I can’t speak for Jeff, Parry, or Jerry, but I think it’s pretty safe to say that we knew we were in for something special when we saw those initial pages come through. Fast forward three or four years and to finally see the character fully realized is beyond amazing. After all, part of the impetus behind creating the SIUniverse books was to have a place to showcase the potential for Asian American superheroes. You know how one of the go-to arguments against cross-racially casting traditionally white superheroes is always “why don’t you just create your own?” Well, we did.

That was five years ago. The thing about superheroes, though, is that these characters also have decades of history behind them as well. There’s a reason why superhero stories are seen as uniquely American myths. And in order for characters to take their place among the pop culture icons I mentioned in the intro to this post, you must build those years of history and nostalgia. Sure the Green Turtle might have been lost or forgotten for a time, but to know that he existed, that he was a contemporary of those other icons, and that he was an Asian American hero, at that — despite what the publisher might have wanted — is powerful stuff.

But maybe the Green Turtle wasn’t lost, after all. Maybe for all these decades, he was just waiting in the shadows for Gene Yang, Sonny Liew, and Janice Chiang to bring him back into the light.

  1. If you missed Gene’s posts, please go back and check them out. You’ll get to see how the book’s first five pages evolved from script to thumbnail sketches to final art. Those posts are a unique look into the creative process for two of the comic medium’s best talents. 
  2. I think the SIUniverse will also take credit for Janice’s involvement since, I believe, she first met Sonny and Gene when they were signing at our booth during San Diego Comic-Con in 2009. 

5 thoughts on “Gene Yang & Sonny Liew Bring the Green Turtle Out of the Shadows

  1. I’m actually reading this right now — found it on our library shelves before I ever saw this post. It’s really good so far, and as mentioned feels both period and at the same time modern. Great job.

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