The Green Turtle Rises

Studio 360

Who was the Green Turtle? He’s been all but forgotten, even by die-hard fans of Golden Age comics. But in the 1940s, during his brief and glorious career in Blazing Comics #1-5, the Green Turtle was the first Asian-American superhero. He fought in World War II against the Japanese Army alongside American troops, dodging bullets and flying a rocket plane. But he never answered his sidekick’s question: “Green Turtle—who are you? I mean, really?”

The graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang revives the Green Turtle in his new book, The Shadow Hero, beginning with an origin story set in 1930s Chinatown. Hank, a Chinese American teenager, dreams of one day running the family grocery store. “It would be a happy life, a fortunate life, filled with friends and mahjong and maybe even a little whiskey,” he says, “a life where I’d wake up every morning knowing exactly where I belonged.” But his mother, Hua, believes he’s destined for something greater.

(Read part of the story below.)

When Yang discovered the original comic, he was struck by signs of a passive-aggressive battle playing out across its pages. The writer and the publisher seemed locked in a tug-of-war over the Green Turtle’s identity. (Yang presents pages of Blazing Comic #1 at the end of his book, so readers can see the fight for themselves.) Though the writer, Chu Hing, couldn’t create a Chinese superhero outright,Yang told Kurt Andersen that the artist found a way to keep his superhero’s ethnicity tantalizingly open to interpretation: “He would always draw the character so that you couldn’t see his face. He usually had his back facing you, so all you could see was his cape. And then when he was turned around, he would put something in the way of his face. He would either put another character’s head there, or a piece of furniture, or if the Green Turtle was punching, he would use his own arm.” In response, Yang suspects, the publishers colored his skin a rather insistent pink. Yang has fun with both elements in his retelling.

The Shadow Hero comes out July 15.Gene Luen Yang's 'The Shadow Hero'

Gene Luen Yang's 'The Shadow Hero'

Gene Luen Yang's 'The Shadow Hero'

Gene Luen Yang's 'The Shadow Hero'

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