The Shadow Hero
By Gene Luen Yang & Sonny Liew
First Second (July 2014)
176 Pages, $17.99 (Paperback)
Reviewed by Kathryn Gwun-Yeen Lennon
On October 27, the day before the Toronto municipal elections, the Toronto Sun ran an editorial cartoon of Mayoral Candidate Olivia Chow. She is depicted with slanted eyes and big glasses, in a Mao suit, standing on Jack Layton’s coattails, on a skateboard. Dating back to the late 1800s, political cartoons have been used to stir up racist, anti-Chinese and Orientalist sentiments in Canadian and American newspapers. Seeing contemporary representations of this makes me feel angry and powerless. It is a reminder that some of us will always be “others”, and makes me wish I had a little more heroism in my life…
Cue The Shadow Hero to the rescue! The award-winning Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew team up to give us the origin story of a shamelessly Chinese American superhero.
The Shadow Hero is a fun, fast-paced, and colourful graphic novel, with humour that resonates, and illustrations that empower. Like any good origin myth, it’s about transformation. It’s about the universal awkwardness of being different and just wanting to fit in, layered over the complexities that come with migration and systemic racism, and moving between languages and cultures.
Yang and Liew are masters of subtext. The storytelling is in the details. They deftly evoke the sense of navigating between worlds that comes with the immigrant experience. Literally. Each chapter opens with a portion of a map. They make the story accessible to both those with “inside” cultural knowledge, and those without, by balancing Chinese/Chinatown/Chinese American cultural references with universal themes. Yang and Liew draw on the world of Chinese mythology and spirits—beginning with a council of a dragon, phoenix, tiger and tortoise—all shadowy figures. These spirits come to represent ties to heritage and cultural values that lie across the ocean. The homage Liew pays to the streetscapes, signage, store fronts, and shop interiors of Chinatown is lovely. He even illustrates a floor plan of a typical Chinatown mixed use home and store unit. If you can read Chinese, you’ll enjoy deciphering some of the signage throughout.
Given that some of the most hurtful mythology created around Asian Americans was done through caricature and political cartoons, it is fitting that Yang and Liew turn this medium around, in an American context, to “fight for justice”. They beautifully illustrate the code switching, and the living between two worlds that comes from the immigrant experience. They deftly weave in references to the racist stereotypes of the time, without having them steal the show. And they don’t have to, because in The Shadow Hero, the show is stolen by a hero that gives us a reflection of ourselves.
By equating immigrant identity with a superhero identity, and giving that superhero a character that we can relate to, The Shadow Hero issues a call to all the shadow heroes among you, all you non-white children of immigrants: You too can grow up to be superheroes!