Last week, with Ms. Marvel and America, we began to shift our attention to comics with more commentary on race. Whereas every comic we’ve read before last weeks has dealt with fantastical or cosmic powers, this recent change in our course represents something more grounded and relatable for readers. It’s all really about how the vast majority of notable or popular superheroes have been white—and the process of someone non-white entering that world. On top of all these tonal changes, the Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew is a comic that is about the immigrant experience.
The article, “Who Needs a Chinese American Superhero?” by Monica Chiu claims that the Shadow Hero paints an illustrated depiction of the Chinese American immigrant experience in the 20th century–and also asks if The Shadow Hero can also have a foothold in our popular culture as a mainstream superhero. However, she argues that the Shadow Hero character himself is not very interesting and is actually a limited character. Instead, the novels greatest achievement was demonstrating the racist imagery ascribed to Chinese Americans in the 20th century.
Chiu argues that the Shadow Hero is not a very forward thinking comic book and that’s in large part because of how it’s an origin story. Supposedly, the original character was supposed to be Chinese by desire of the creator, but it wasn’t allowed by the publisher because they doubted it would sell. The creator got around this by never showing the protagonists face and almost always having his back turned toward the reader. So this origin story inserted as much Chinese imagery and mythology as possible to cast light on the assumed background of the original character. Chiu states, “Liew visualizes, playfully and charmingly, Asian American visual inscriptions to reanimate and retell the already hyper visible.”(96) However, it seems like nothing is really done with this imagery except for plastering it everywhere. It’s great that this culture is given such respect with the visuals, but it probably doesn’t do enough with them to be a landmark work. Do the authors have much to say about the Chinese American experience besides saying that it exists? The authors are responding to the static representation of this group over the years that has hidden those experiences from the American mental landscape—but as Chiu says, this seems to be a historical retrospective rather than an attempt to place this character forward into the mainstream.
Finally, one point that I want to zero in on from Chui is, “Similar to Superman’s circulation in Metropolis and Batman’s in Gotham City, Yang limits the novelty and cultural power of a Chinese American superhero to a Chinese American location. Progress and regress go hand in hand in The Shadow Hero: one step forward through a Chinese American superhero, one step back in twenty-first-century self-confinement to a limited arena.” (95) I do think that such a low key, low stakes story was harmful to the character. It seems to reject the superhero world at large and choose to stay within the confines of a section of a city. It would have been better to see him try to maneuver in a world that was unlike his own—to act like he did belong, not to be treated as a novelty act.
- Do you feel that the goals of this comic are different than that of Ms. Marvel’s and America’s? All three comics deal with race and feeling out of place in a world of white superheroes. However, what makes these stories different for you?
- Does the Shadow Hero go far enough in challenging the racial stereotypes against Chinese Americans? What did you think of that moment when Detective Lawful openly regrets his own racist attitude towards Chinese Americans? Was this a bit of a cop out considering the reality of attitudes against Chinese immigrants in that time period?
- Chiu states, “The persistence of Asian American types is commensurate with the rigid trajectory of the publishing industry in which mainstream superheroes are never Asian American, and those artists who create them do so as flimsy counters to their absence in popular culture (98). Can you imagine the Shadow Hero as a major superhero character in modern times? Does he at least pave the way for future Asian American superheroes to reach the mainstream?
- Does Hank go through too much emasculation in this story? Considering that movie portrayals of Asian men often depict them as weak or effeminate (if they’re not a martial artist), is his characterization helpful or hurtful towards Asian male characters? Essentially, what do you think of the humor at his expense in the story?
- This is the first comic book that we’ve read this semester that wasn’t under the Marvel or DC umbrella. Most of us in the class are not comic book experts and often it’s daunting to read a comic that is a part of an ongoing story that’s stretched decades. Did its independence from the two big publishers have any impact on your enjoyment of the comic book?