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The Shadow Hero

The Shadow Hero, story by Gene Luen Yang & art by Sonny Liew
First Second, July 2014
Reviewed from final copy

I don’t review graphic novels here that often, although I read most of them, because I always worry that I don’t know enough about art. But I know enough to know that this is fantastic as a novel and as a work of graphica.

And yet people keep telling me that this is light and fun, nothing like Gene Luen Yang’s other work. Is it Boxers & Saints? No. Is it American Born Chinese? No. Can we all get over it now? Because this is still great writing about big things, it’s just drawing on a more commercially appealing genre. So when we dismiss this on those grounds, we’re being unfair and maybe a little snobby about literature.

Yes, this is a superhero origin story, and yes, it works really really well as an origin story; Yang clearly knows the field and has a blast with the tropes. It’s easy to think that makes it a lightweight book — and also it’s thin compared to last year’s opus — but it’s actually doing something noteworthy, putting itself in conversation as a Chinese-American text with the most American of texts, the superhero tale. Hank’s story is about the same rich vein of identity tapped in ABC, and adds dimension by remaking (or at least taking back) an already existing superhero and by making heroism something that comes from within as much as from without.

(The final scene with the Anchor of Justice, implying that all heroes, and maybe all Americans, are actually from somewhere else, is absolutely perfect. This is a story about belonging, both within the text and metatextually with the original Green Turtle, and the idea that the one who seems to belong the most is also an outsider — so much here to unpack and marvel at, disguised as fun.)

Then there’s the humor: Hank’s overbearing mother with her dreams of America, who has been thwarted and has finally found, in heroic aspirations for Hank, that dream, is both a brilliant commentary on the American dream and a loving homage to overbearing mothers everywhere. Her arc complements the overall arcs of the book, in which the story on the surface is one thing but dig deeper and it’s something more.

The art, too, is excellent — expressive, vivid, with some great riffs on the original property, stylistically embedded both in the Chinese-American locale of the tale and the Chinese heritage of the characters and also in the long tradition of superhero comics.

I know the money is on This One Summer for THE graphic novel of the year, and I know there’s far too much energy being spent on how this isn’t Yang’s other books, but — like Hank himself — this should not be dismissed too lightly.

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About Karyn Silverman

Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.

Comments

  1. I don’t know much about superhero comics, but I had a blast reading this. It was smart and funny and fun, and I hope it gets some consideration. I actually liked it more than Boxers & Saints and American Born Chinese, and I think it was because I found it to have a defter touch – which is not to say that I found his previous works self-important, but that I thought Shadow Hero really put story at the forefront, and that treatment, for me, makes the themes work more.

  2. Just read this one and LOVED it. I agree completely with your review. Sonny Liew’s art is so good at keeping the fight scenes un-muddled, which is my biggest problem with other fight-based GNs.

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