In 1944— a time when the war lowered a lot of barriers— Chu Hing became one of the first Asian-Americans to work in comics. He created a superhero named the Green Turtle, who fought the Japanese who were attempting to conquer China. Rather strangely, the comic never shows Green Turtle’s face; the supposition is that the publisher refused to allow an Asian face, and in return Hing refused to draw a white one. Another oddity is that the Turtle’s shadow is drawn (without explanation) as a big black turtle, with yellow eyes and a red mouth.
Now Gene Luen Yang (Asian-American) and Sonny Liew (Malaysian-Singaporean) have teamed up to revive and explain the character.
His origin story: he’s Hank, a Chinese-American boy whose only goal is to help his father run a grocery store, and run it himself after him. But after his mother meets a superhero, she gets it into her head that Hank should be one too. She takes him for martial arts training, arranges accidents with industrial waste, and even knits him a costume… with a big 金 and the helpful legend GOLDEN MAN OF BRAVERY.
This part of the book is a lot of fun— Hank’s mom is both adorable and annoying, and Yang recognizes that the whole superhero thing is a little ridiculous.
It gets more serious later on, as Hank confronts the tongs that control Chinatown. As part of this, he meets the tortoise spirit, one of four ancient spirits that safeguard the Chinese Empire, and are a little lost when the Empire disappears. So now he has real superpowers— though he has to learn how to use them to do some good. Also he can finally choose a better superhero name, the Green Turtle. (Which happens to be close to the name of his father’s shop, 玉龜 ‘jade tortoise’.)
(Pedantic note: the book gives this as Yu Quai, but the family is Cantonese so the first character should really be Yuk. Possibly a little interference from Mandarin yù?)
The story is set in the 1940s, and deals realistically with the casual anti-Chinese racism of the time. The viewpoint however is always with Hank and his family, who have little interaction with whites; even the villains are other Asian-Americans.
I have to say that Sonny Liew’s art takes some getting used to. He’s great with cityscapes and shadow creatures and Hank and his father. Everyone else is caricatured in a weird ugly way… if a white guy drew Chinese people like that it would come off as racist. Still, I’d love to see a Volume 2.
As a bonus, the book provides one of the original Chu Hing Green Turtle comics from 1944. Even at the time, it was surely a bit odd that you never saw Green Turtle’s face. For a modern reader, there’s another peculiarity: the Chinese in the story are drawn nicely, but the Japanese are monstrous.
I also recently read a graphic novel of Liew’s: The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. It’s an odd meta thing: a mock retrospective of a not-very-successful imaginary cartoonist. This gives Liew the opportunity to parody all sorts of historical styles (e.g. there’s a nice tribute to Pogo), and also to recount the dramatic history of Singapore: British rule, the Japanese invasion, independence, Lee Kuan Yew’s authoritarian rule. The mockumentary format is well suited for wandering through history, and for pastiching cartoonists he admires; perhaps less so for maintaining narrative momentum.