RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
A long forgotten comic book icon is being resurrected today. For the first time since the 1940s, a new graphic novel is out featuring the character many think is the first Asian-American superhero. Hansi Lo Wang of our Code Switch team has the story.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Look - on the streets of Chinatown, a man with a cape and mask - it's the Green Turtle. Or, at least, it's cartoonist Gene Luen Yang's new version of this superhero who made his first brief appearance 70 years ago.
GENE LUEN YANG: He's like a classic American World War II hero.
WANG: A hero who defends America's allies in China against the invading Japanese army while wearing...
YANG: The little triangle pants that most superheroes wear.
YANG: Yes. Yes, he's bare-chested, and he has this giant green cape and a green mask.
WANG: Kind of like a lucha libre wrestler?
YANG: Yeah. Yeah, he totally looks like lucha libre wrestler - exactly like that.
WANG: But in terms of his fellow superheroes, Yang says the Green Turtle is more Bruce Wayne than Clark Kent.
YANG: He doesn't have any explicit superpowers in the original books, but he's very agile. He has a turtle plane. He has this cave that serves as his home base.
WANG: Plus he has a Robin-like sidekick called Burma Boy. Beyond that...
YANG: We don't know anything about his civilian life.
WANG: That's where you come in.
YANG: Yeah, that's the hole that we saw that we could fill.
WANG: So Gene Luen Yang wrote and illustrator, Sonny Liew, drew the new graphic novel titled "The Shadow Hero" to finally give the Green Turtle an origin story and an explanation for his - let's be honest - not-so-heroic-sounding name.
YANG: Turtle head is an insult in Chinese. You know, and even the color green - my parents would always tell me you are not allowed to wear green hats 'cause in Chinese there's a saying about wearing green hats which means that you're a cuckold.
WANG: So instead, Yang connected the Green Turtle to the celestial tortoise - one of four guardian animal spirits of Chinese mythology.
There was another decades-long mystery that loomed over Yang. Did the Green Turtle's creator, Chu Hing, want his character to be Chinese-American like himself?
YANG: When you look at these original pages, you kind of see this fight between Chu and his publisher.
WANG: They're fighting over this character's racial identity.
YANG: Yeah. Yeah, that's my reading of it.
WANG: Rumor has it that the publisher thought a series about a superhero of Asian descent wouldn't sell. Fear of this so-called yellow peril was alive and well as World War II raged on in the Pacific. So the Green Turtle's skin was colored a pinkish hue, unlike the light orangey skin tone of the Chinese and Japanese characters. Still readers never got a full look at the Green Turtle's face in the original series.
YANG: He almost always has his back turned towards the audience, so all you see is his cape. And then when he is a turned around, something is blocking his face. It's either hidden by shadow or, like, he's punching and his arm is in the way or there's piece of furniture in the way.
WANG: Gene Luen Yang saw these as hidden clues about the Green Turtle's true racial identity. And in Yang's new graphic novel, the superhero is finally unmasked as a teenager named Hank Chu, the son of Chinese immigrants living in 1930s America. Hank transforms from a scrawny neighborhood kid into one of his city's top crime fighters. But in the end, he's still caught between Chinatown and the world outside.
YANG: Every superhero has this superhero identity and a civilian identity. And 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.
WANG: A life that is quintessentially American. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: And you're listening to Hansi on NPR News.