A few summers ago, Janet Maslin at the New York Times Book Review released her annual reading list, which (half-shockingly) included books from exactly zero non-white authors. A friend of my sister was incensed by this, and decided to launch An Initiative: she would read (and would encourage others to read) try to spread the practice of reading only non-white authors between Memorial Day and Labor Day, as a way to support diversity in literature and to expose herself and others to perspectives that are habitually ignored by many in pop culture. Thus, the hashtag, #nowhitebeforelaborday, was born.
In addition, a friend recently informed me that his employer was organizing a symposium on diversity. The invited speaker is Marvel Comics editor Sana Amanat, slated to speak about how she and her colleagues at Marvel have been bringing about greater diversity in the Marvel Universe. Of course, whether there can ever be meaningful diversity in the superhero genre is something of an open question, discussed at Noah Berlatsky’s sadly defunct collaborative blog Hooded Utilitarian and elsewhere.
So when I finally got around to reading The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang, I was thinking a lot about diversity and assimilation fantasies. Kamala Khan, Kal-El, and the Korean Spider-Man Peter Park were all squatting in the foreground of memory. Okay, that last one is fan canon, courtesy the folks at Nerds of Color, but the point is I was concerned with how the Green Turtle fared when it came to combatting the racism inherent in the superhero genre. If you believe J. Lamb, then Yang must have failed. If you believe Noah Berlatsky, then Yang clearly failed, in the face of overwhelming resistance from the very genre itself. In the end, I think it’s clear that Yang couldn’t have the Golden Age story he craved and have it not be racist too. But he struggled valiantly and intelligently against that foregone conclusion, and it may be worthwhile to examine in depth why Yang failed despite the brains and heart he and the artist, Sonny Liew, put into the work.
One argument for Yang and Liew’s success might hinge on their exploitation of stereotypes for humorous effect. When Hank Chu, the Green Turtle himself, drags a criminal into the San Incendio PD for the first time, his cop contact spouts a racist remark about Chinese people, only to immediately retract, embarrassed, when the Green Turtle gives him an offended look. More dramatically, Hank himself, a Chinese-American born in San Incendio, identifies a buck-toothed, yellow-skinned caricature of a man as the Chinese syndicate lord Ten Grand, only to discover that the man is a white actor with a fake mustache and yellowface makeup. Hank himself, and the audience through him, falls for a literal minstrel performance.
Yang and Liew do much the same thing with Golden Age assimilation tropes. Hank himself wants nothing more than to succeed his father as the owner of a small Chinatown grocery, but his mother, Hua, wants a glamorous, assimilated lifestyle, distanced from Chinese culture. To this end, Hua tries to turn Hank into a superhero, like the in-universe Superman analogue the Anchor of Justice, by subjecting him to contact with toxic waste, radioactive lab animals, and eventually forcing him to undergo dangerous training as a brawler under an old lover of hers. Hank acquiesces largely to appease her, and is dragged into vigilantism. For all his trouble, the first superpower he gains is that his skin turns pink in the rain, or as Berlatsky puts it, “to turn Caucasian (-ish)”. Yang sees the equation between superheroics and whiteness, and he points and chuckles at it.
But more importantly, he has his titular hero reject, or at least obviate, the notion that being a superhero means totally assimilating to whiteness. He might be working with a white police officer, but he works to protect other Chinese-Americans, specifically, from violence in their neighborhoods. When his origin story reaches its eventual conclusion, he returns to his family’s grocery, maintaining his new role as a superhero while staying grounded in his own conception of his ethno-national identity. And when Hank himself narrates the ending of the story, he says, “Maybe being a superhero would make me a part of them,” that is, make him white. “Maybe it wouldn’t. Either way it didn’t matter, because the Green Turtle had already become a part of me.” Yang ends his origin story with Hank emphatically claiming that being a superhero doesn’t mean assimilating at all. Rather, Hank appropriates vigilantism as a part of his own, hybridized national identity. He has Americanity on his own terms.
But unfortunately, as always, saying it doesn’t quite make it so. Hank’s journey to full-fledged hero status pits him against the real Ten Grand, an avatar of a version of Chinese culture that is atavistic, inextricably linked with Chinese dynastic power. Where the Green Turtle is aided by the ancient Turtle Spirit, Ten Grand is aided by the Turtle’s older brother, the Dragon Spirit. The Dragon is uniquely obsessed with reestablishing a Chinese dynasty to ensure the future of China. Against this foil, the Turtle is depicted as forward-thinking and open-minded. Moreover, the Dragon makes his way to America with the help of an imperial eunuch, who eventually passes the Dragon Spirit’s help off to Ten Grand. When the Green Turtle and Ten Grand, with their respective spirit partners, finally meet, the Turtle and the Dragon have a side conversation in which the Turtle rebukes Dragon’s backward thinking. He even explicitly says that the “future” lies with “something new”, by which he means Hank, the Green Turtle.
It is, as you might have gathered, heavily implied that the future to which the Turtle refers is the future of China in particular. That is, after all, the concern that drove the Dragon and Turtle Spirits down the narrative paths that began in the very first pages of the graphic novel. Hank, as the Green Turtle, eventually outwits Ten Grand, as if to prove the wisdom of Turtle’s endorsement.
This, ultimately, is the fatal flaw in Yang’s effort. Yang tears down the barrier that prevents a Chinese-American from being a superhero, but he does so by propping up a bizarre, atavistic avatar of Chinese history and culture for that Chinese-American superhero to knock down. Hank only gets to be a superhero because he implicitly condemns a (racist) caricature of Chinese history and culture. And besides, shouldn’t the future of China reside… in China?
This fatal irony is expressed perfectly in the concluding dialogue between the Green Turtle and the Anchor of Justice, the superhero that inspired Hank’s mother to force him into vigilante do-gooding. After expressing genuine respect for Green Turtle, the Anchor of Justice requests on behalf of the US government that Green Turtle join the Anchor and the nation’s other superheroes in fighting for America in the First World War. Only after Hank acquiesces does Anchor say, “I’ve never told anybody this… but my parents aren’t from around here either.” The Anchor pulls off his face to reveal an alien visage underneath.
It’s an obvious reference to the immigrant origins and assimilation fantasy of Superman, but it also illuminates one facet of the Anchor’s inchoate personal identity. The Anchor does, after all, hide his true face on a daily basis, and that doesn’t sound much like being American on his own terms. If Hank is to model himself on the Anchor of Justice, doesn’t that grate against his assertion that he is appropriating the superhero tradition as a part of his own burgeoning national identity, rather than assimilating into an existing culture?
Ultimately, Hank (and, through him, Yang) makes his way into superheroics only by facing down an atavistic caricature of his own ethnic heritage, his partner claiming that Hank is the “future” of a country that he has never set foot in. That ends up being a pretty imperialistic statement. Just as Hank joins the American military for a campaign abroad, he, or at least his sagacious mentor and advisor, internalizes and embodies an imperialist ideology that is clearly, if not peculiarly, American.
That sounds pretty disappointing, but I’ll end on an uplifting note, namely why I’m looking forward to hearing Sana Amanat’s talking points, and why I decided to follow along with the whole #nowhitebeforelaborday thing in the first place. It is true that the mere optics of diversity are largely useless. The Shadow Hero is no more revolutionary than your average Marvel comic because it happens to feature a Chinese American. But the fantasy was written by a 1st generation Chinese-American and drawn by a Malaysian artist, and so, in a way, Hank, as Yang’s fantasy, really does get to have Americanity on his own terms. Yang, after all, chose the character and the Golden Age framework, much like Amanat chose the superhero genre for her own creative and publishing work.
But the bigger point is that Yang, Liew, and Amanat get to make and publish their stories because, well, people will buy them, and so any effort to promote diversity on the page must necessarily be based on diversity behind the pen. That can only be achieved when audiences insist, so unlike Janet Maslin, on seeking out narratives crafted by people of color, as well as by women and queer creators. Maybe then can heroes like Hank Chu have Americanness on their own terms, by redefining the term itself.