Green Turtle: The First Asian-American Superhero?
May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month so Comic Years is highlighting some of our favorite actors, actresses, writers, and illustrators from the AAPI community. We recently wrote a blog post looking at who is Gene Luen Yang and today, we’re going to investigate the Green Turtle superhero, a character who may have actually been the first Asian-American crimefighter and one that Yang decided to bring back.
The Beginnings Of The Green Turtle Superhero
Green Turtle first appeared in Blazing Comics, which was published by Rural Home Publications in 1944. His creator, Chu F. Hing, was a Chinese American artist who worked on some of the early comics that were published during the Golden Age of Comics. Green Turtle aided the Chinese in guerrilla warfare against the Japanese invaders in World War II.
Image via Chu F. Hing/The Digital Comic Museum
According to research done by Alex Jay, it seems as if Chu wanted to make Green Turtle an Asian superhero, but his editors rejected that idea. They thought it wouldn’t sell (sound familiar?) and the USA was deep in the throes of World War II, with the fear of “yellow peril” alive and well throughout the country.
Possibly because of the friction between Chu and his editors (and maybe just poor publicity), the Green Turtle ended up being one of the lesser-known B-list superheroes of the era. He had no special powers, but he was a skilled fighter and had a high-tech Turtle Plane. His flowing green cape had a turtle emblem on it and curiously, Chu never drew the Green Turtle without his mask, so his secret identity remained a mystery. He had a sidekick named Burma Boy (a beggar who he rescued from the Japanese army) and a manservant named Wun Too. Green Turtle ended up appearing in only five issues of Blazing Comics and was eventually victim to the forgotten superhero ether.
Turtle Power In The 21st Century
Fast forward to the 21st century and Yang is browsing through a blog that features some of the stories from the Golden Age of Comics. He came across the Green Turtle character and was immediately drawn to the character’s history and the fact that his creator was a Chinese American.
Yang (along with illustrator Sonny Liew) ended up working with First Second Books to create a new series for Green Turtle called The Shadow Hero, the first of which came out in July 2014. In it, Yang and Liew created a backstory for the superhero and gave him an unmasked civilian identity: a Chinese American named Hank Chu (a possible homage to Chu F. Hing?).
Image via First Second Books
The original Green Turtle was a very 2D version of a superhero, but Yang wanted to bring a new depth and richness to the character, especially in terms of representation for the AAPI community. He said:
“He almost always has his back turned toward the audience, so all you see is his cape. When he is turned around, something is blocking his face. It’s either hidden by shadow, or he’s punching and his arm is in the way. Or there’s a piece of furniture in the way.”
From this, Yang decided that it was Chu’s way of leaving the Green Turtle’s identity open to interpretation. The character of Hank Chu is the son of an immigrant Chinese grocer in the fictional 1930s city of San Incendio. He works in his father’s shop, but after his mom has an encounter with San Incendio’s local superhero, the Anchor of Justice, she decides that Hank needs to become a superhero too. It’s great to see older characters rewritten to reflect more cultural sensitivity (we’d all like to forget Fu Manchu) and I applaud Yang and Liew’s work!
Yang hopes that this new version of Green Turtle resonates with readers from all backgrounds, but said that it will seem especially familiar to children of immigrants.
“Every superhero has this superhero identity and a civilian identity. A lot of their lives are about code switching. It’s about switching from one mode of expectations to another mode of expectations. And I really think that mirrors something in the immigrant’s kid’s life.”
What do you think of the forgotten superhero, Green Turtle? Let us know in the comments below!
Featured image via First Second Books
Keilin Huang is a freelance writer that likes the Oxford comma, reading from her neverending pile of books from the library, and Reeses peanut butter cups. She thanks her Dad for introducing her to his Superman comics and probably majored in Journalism because of Lois Lane.