Thursday, December 4, 2014

Comic Review: The Shadow Hero

I heard Gene Luen Yang talk about this book at Small Press Expo 2013 and it sounded like a pretty cool idea, take an older comic which had never gotten off the ground and indulge in some fan theories by redoing it as a Chinese-American superhero for sure and just making a good story out of it. I didn't expect my library to get it but over the past few months I've started seeing more newer manga titles out there and my theory that my branch suddenly has a very savvy librarian was confirmed when I saw a "Sad that Naruto is over? Try these!" display in the window. I was walking out and glanced back over only to see this book there, doubled back, checked that these books were actually available to check out, and then headed home with one more book in an already too-full book bag, hope some other people got something good out of that display as well!

The Shadow Hero written by Gene Luen Yang and illustrated by Sonny Liew

Chinatown, San Incendio the 1940s; the Tong Wars might be over but Chinatown is still a mess of conflicts and bullies, one that the white cops of the city don't care to deal with for many reasons. Hank has always had low ambitions for himself but when his mother is rescued by a superhero she gets other ideas for his destiny. He's not happy about it but these skills he's learning, super-powered and otherwise, may come in handy when things take a turn for the worse.

Yang's books are a real mix for me, some I've enjoyed and other's I haven't, it doesn't even matter if he's the sole creator or if it's a joint project like this one. But I liked this book with no reservations, it was a very solid work and I enjoyed it more than Yang's other recent work, Boxers & Saints. Sadly it's one of those books that's so solid it's actually a bit tricky to review but I will give it my best shot!

Funny enough, when I try to describe this book the first thing that comes to mind is how Yang has settled into a routine of sorts when it comes to the kinds of tropes and themes his stories have. Once again we have a reluctant but clever hero who relies more on wiles than muscle in action circumstances (but is ultimately a fair hand in a fight), a struggle against a more powerful group and oneself, and a connection of some kind to a vision of China in the past. Not that I can blame him on that last part, outside of his works I'm hard pressed to think of any comic I've read set or connected to China (print and online), and honestly those other details bothered me more in retrospect than when I was reading the comic which at the very least is a sign that the comic is engrossing. But I think that also explains why this is hard to talk about, while well-done there's very little that's new or different about this book outside of the starting idea. 

I should also be clear that none of those ideas are bad, I just get tired when an author uses them over and over. Hank is a pretty likable hero honestly and all of the side characters have their own personalities which makes them fun to read too (the good characters anyway, the villains feel a bit flatter). Not every character is fleshed out equally but everyone is fleshed out enough that it didn't bother me and hey, that just means there's room for a sequel with different characters having more prominent roles, although this story did wrap into a pretty tidy "and life goes on" ending. As for the plot, again it didn't do very many things worth talking about but I did like how it incorporated lots of little details from the original Green Turtle comics, even in the visuals where it takes quite a few pages to see Hank's face once he becomes a caped crusader.

Much like the story there isn't much for me to say about the art but I liked it quite a lot! The slightly sketchy lines and muted, but not drab, color scheme worked well with the rest of the setting and the fight scenes were very easy for me to follow. The characters were also wonderfully dynamic, not overblown and cartoony and you could see a lot of their personality and emotions just from the art which is something all comics should aspire to yet takes a lot of practice and skill to achieve. I'm not familiar with Liew at all but if they have made other comics I'd certainly be interested in trying them out which is one of the best things about collaborations, instead of having just one person's work to look into in the future you have two or more!

Much like Boxers & Saints I'm not sure if I would buy this book in the future and again I'm leaning towards not. For me, buying something after reading it has less to do with if I thought it was a good story and more about wanting to re-read it which tends to only happen if it's a particularly deep or engaging work. Looking over my list of comics to read over the next, oh four months, this is something that I'm going to keep bringing up, that everyone's reason for buying a work versus just consuming it is different and thank god for libraries with silly yet effective displays.  

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